(editor’s note) Challenged for its ethnocentrism and the legacy of colonialism and global capitalism, the term “world music” raises questions. Should we update our words, that carry, summon and shape our imaginations and our sensibilities ? Words that have consequences for the material conditions of creation, distribution and reception of the works produced.
Four articles open this reflection:
- a sociolinguistic point of view, with an investigation by researcher Philippe Blanchet
- a journalistic point of view with the analysis of Shiba Melissa Mazaza
- a musicological point of view, with a study by ethnomusicologist Marta Amico
- an artistic point of view, with a collection of testimonies from artists of different generations by Anne-Laure Lemancel.
In the years before music streaming and social media became what we understand them to be today (and before my career as a music writer was fully formed) I made a modest living as a casual worker at a local record store. I’d spend hours patrolling the floor, donning the “Look and Listen” t-shirt and name badge, sometimes manning the tills and other times going in to rearrange the CDs that had been mixed around by browsing customers. Other times, I’d be tasked with looking after a particular genre – more often than not the “World Music” section – as one of the only people of colour on staff who might identify with some of the artists featured there.
What’s odd about that time is that the assumption that I would know more than anyone else about the World Music section was inherently false, but I accepted the role as part of my duties. For a long time since then, non-Western countries have accepted many roles and benchmarks the West has set for us where music was concerned. It seemed unquestionable then, that non-Western music, just like Western music, also has its separate genres. One cannot logically classify Mbalax and Afrobeat in one genre, just the same as RnB is noticeably different from Punk Rock. “World music” also extends to sounds such as Latin Pop, J-Pop, Mariachi, Mbaqanga and Spanish Folk. How does one classify Nigerian music with music from Brazil in one genre? How could this have been effective? Despite this question, whenever a fresh batch of rock or pop music CDs came in, we’d showcase them in the storefront as must-haves, everything ranging from English alternative rock band Keane, to American folk-rock band Bon Iver, which would fly off the shelves week in and out – South Africa being a place that has accepted American standards for as long as anyone can remember. Back then, pop music was predominantly white and male, and anything we couldn’t classify in the store would be stashed into the back section brimming with various editions of Putumayo CDs, showcasing music from “Congo to Cuba, Rome to Rio.”
That young me would come to accept this as a norm along with anyone else facing such standards – as with many other labels and practices that find their way into our lives due to cultural imperialism of the west.
Putamayo - Congo to Cuba
Since then, travelling the world as a music writer, I’ve tried to make my way to as many music stores as I can find, even as the streaming economy has changed the way we listen and what we listen to.
Nowhere in Cape Verde, Accra, Cote D’Ivoire or Addis Ababa have I seen the category “World Music” being used to house the various sounds available both locally and internationally. It’s no surprise – the idea of World Music is a purely western one, born in the 80s as a marketing exercise to encourage folks to engage with cultures outside of the US and UK in order to increase sales. One would hardly have been able to foresee that artists who would be corralled into the “World Music” bin would one day stand shoulder to shoulder with pop music’s biggest artists.
Today, these award-winning pop artists have looked to those deemed “world musicians” for their sonic evolutions. Tems, Wizkid, DJ Lag, BTS, Camilla Cabello, J Balvin and more have teamed up with artists in the West to jointly bring them new audiences. Genres considered World Music such as Afrobeats, gqom and amapiano are quickly seeping into every imaginable dancefloor with its own iterations, while artists like Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber continue to adopt artists from world music categories to further their grasp on the numerous populations that are now accessible due to the advent of the internet and social media. In February 2019, Nigerian superstar Davido’s “Fall” became the longest charting Nigerian song in Billboard’s history, making him the first ever African act to be certified gold as a lead artist in U.S. Korean boyband BTS broke more records at the American Music Awards last November when they became the first K-pop band to perform on U.S. television.
Davido - Fall
It seems that separating these genres into “uses” and “thems” no longer makes sense. Even as the term ‘World Music’ has been further modified to ‘Global Music’ by the highest honour in music, the GRAMMYs, it’s clear that the west is coming to “the world” to further their reach, using the sounds that used to be considered too “exotic” to contend with the western world of pop. The ideas that kept the west siloed from the rest are no longer working for the music industry at large, especially considering how much more diverse immigrant communities in the states and the UK have become since the world music term was coined. Perhaps it’s time to admit that the capitalist mindset that began this separation now needs world music to sustain itself.