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Paul Simon and Colonialism?

Posted in: Politics,Race by Michael Iafrate on August 30, 2011

On the heels of Tom Beaudoin’s post on Paul Simon and God, I decided to finish a draft of a brief post that I started a while ago on Simon’s 1986 album Graceland.

When that album was released (25 years ago!), I was too young to be aware of the politics and controversy surrounding it. But it’s one of those albums that was a prominent part of my life soundtrack for many years and it remains one of my favorite albums of all time. Over the years, though, I have become aware of the multiple issues surrounding the phenomenon of that album. In fact, Graceland came to mind when I read a quote from Randall Dunn of the band Master Musicians Of Bukkake that a friend passed along on Facebook:

What can happen with a lot of these ‘world music’ bands is that they think they’re above looking at themselves as colonial appropriators, vultures, you know? So I always jest and call our music ‘post-colonialcore’, and I’ve always wanted that to stick. Or ‘No-Age’. So we always try to keep ourselves in check on that, and the name always helps every time we feel like we’re doing something beyond our actual cultural background. It keeps us grounded – ‘Oh yeah, that’s right, we’re from Seattle…’

I recently came across a lengthy blog post from activist and researcher Ethan Zuckerman that narrates the fascinating history of Graceland, touching on everything from its release within the context of 1980s superstar benefit projects (“We Are The World,” Farm Aid, Artists United Against Apartheid, etc.), charges of musical colonialism and the exploitation of particular musicians (e.g. Los Lobos), the politics of international live tours, and the possibility of authentic cross cultural musical experience.

Zuckerman’s view of Graceland is ultimately a positive one, an example of “xenophilia” in which Simon simply used connections that he had to forge musical friendships with African musicians to produce a document of cross cultural musical encounter. I tend to read Graceland along those lines as well, but recognize the complexity of the issues involved, particularly when we move beyond questions of the artist’s intentions and into the realm of audience reception and use of musical “texts.”

How do Rock and Theology readers understand Simon’s Graceland? And what might these debates in the world of popular music have to say to those of us engaged in various forms of intercultural theology? (Can any of us anymore dare suggest that we do not do intercultural theology?)

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Michael Iafrate
Parkersburg, West Virginia

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