Well, somebody has to point this out and I guess it's going to have to be me. When One Direction debuted their "Steal My Girl" music video on Friday, I fell in love. I fell in love the way I haven't fallen in love with one of their music videos since "Best Song Ever". There was a little bit of everything in the video, as if they started pulling ideas out of a hat and just decided not to reject any of them. However, there was one small problem. We should have seen this coming from the problematic elements of the "Steal My Girl" lyrics, but I wasn't quite expecting this. At one point during the video, Niall Horan dances with a group of African tribesmen while dressed in their traditional garb. Should that be considered cultural appropriation?
Maybe. When it comes to the incorporation of people of color in music videos, pop stars often make the same mistake. Having backup dancers that are all of one single minority race reeks of a strange kind of exoticism. The focus is drawn to you immediately because you are now the minority in the shot, relegating the backup dancers to moving background, while simultaneously charming people with the unfamiliar because your row of dancers are all of a single, silent minority race. (See Avril Lavigne's "Hello Kitty" video for a good example.) One Direction makes that mistake in "Steal My Girl", depicting Niall Horan dancing in front of a group of African tribesman. It would have been more culturally sensitive to show the tribesmen dancing alone or to show Horan dancing blended into the group rather than in front of it.
The other issue is that Horan is dressed in the same traditional garb as the dancing tribesmen. Cultural appropriation in its most common form comes via clothing — i.e. a dominant culture wearing traditional dress of a minority or oppressed culture outside of its traditional meaning. However, it's that crime that I'm not entirely sure that One Direction should receive criticism for. The dress that the tribesmen are wearing might not have any sort of culturally significance except, perhaps, being what is traditionally worn when performing the kind of dancing we see in the music video. I can't say one way or the other for sure, but it's unlikely that Horan would have donned the outfit without knowing its significance.
After all, Zayn Malik appears in the music video in the company of two Sumo wrestlers, but he isn't dressed like them. That seems significant when judging the band for including this scene with the African tribesmen. The mawashi or keshō-mawashi that Sumo wrestlers wear is of great traditional and cultural meaning, the significance of which changes based on which you're wearing, what color you're wearing, and how many sagari are inserted in the front. I don't know if that's why Malik neglected to dress like a Sumo wrestler for the video, but if the band was culturally sensitive here then it seems strange that they would be purposefully culturally insensitive within the same shoot.
Then there's the fact that One Direction has traveled and done charity work in Africa before, so the inclusion of the African tribesmen isn't a random decision to throw in something new culturally (that would be the Sumo wrestlers). In 2013, the band traveled to Ghana as part of their efforts to raise money for a UK Charity known as Comic Relief, specifically for Red Nose Day. Not only did they spend the weekend there filming a charity cover of Blondie's "One Way or Another", but Comic Relief also released a series of "One Direction: Africa Diaries" to further raise money for the charity. All of them spoke extensively about how much their trip and the charity had opened their eyes and changed their lives, encouraging their fans to donate and do what they could to help out.
They haven't had a chance to return to Africa since that trip, so the scene with the African tribesmen seems like it could be their way of making the time between tours to bring attention back to a culture they celebrate. Of course, that might be a bit of a stretch considering the "Steal My Girl" music video was really more about throwing as many cool things into a single shoot as humanly possible, but whatever they were trying to do with this particular scene then there can be no doubt that they handled it awkwardly. Next time they want to incorporate African tribesmen into one of their videos, it would be better if they didn't stand in front of them and/or dress like them.
Watch the video below.
Image: YouTube; m-a-crazy-mofo/Tumblr