Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Did Toyota Appropriate Black Culture?

Chauncey Devega, at Salon says they certainly did...
Capitalism and race intersected at Super Bowl 50 as well. The dream merchants are adept at manipulating the forces of “racial capitalism” and “neoliberal multiculturalism” to advance the bottom line of corporate profit by manipulating the desires of consumers.
To wit. Toyota’s Super Bowl 50 commercial for its line of Prius automobiles managed to appropriate black music and culture while erasing black people from its main narrative frame.
Hip-hop culture “crossed over” from a black and brown subculture birthed in the dystopian deindustrialized neighborhoods of New York in the 1970s to become one of the world’s most dominant types of music and aesthetic. One can debate if this is a positive or negative outcome. The reality of hip-hop as a dominant global culture and commercial product is indisputable.
As further proof of hip-hop music’s global dominance, Toyota’s Prius commercial featured the classic hip-hop “b-boy” anthem “Apache” by the Incredible Bongo Band as one its featured songs. Apache is an example of the obscure music that hip-hop DJs in New York repurposed and remixed in (what was then) a dynamic and organic subculture during the 1970s and early 1980s. “Apache,” along with songs such as “Hihache,” “Funky Drummer,” “Scorpio,” “The Champ,” “The Mexican,” “Seven Minutes of Funk,” “Mardi Gras Drummer” and others were the basis of a music and cultural tradition in which young people in New York’s ghetto communities sought pleasure and hope in the face of State-sponsored neglect and violence.
Ultimately, “black culture” is a commodity. It is used to sell products even while actual black people are often either not present or are depicted in stereotypical ways by advertising and commercials.
Once again, here's the commercial...
And here's the track by itself...
If we're going to talk about cultural appropriation, we have to start at the source. While Devega cites "Apache" as...
an example of the obscure music that hip-hop DJs in New York repurposed and remixed in (what was then) a dynamic and organic subculture during the 1970s and early 1980s. “Apache,”
were the basis of a music and cultural tradition in which young people in New York’s ghetto communities sought pleasure and hope in the face of State-sponsored neglect and violence. 
In order to put all this in the right context we have to discuss Michael Viner. The band that played "Apache" is credited, often, as Michael Viner's Incredible Bongo Band. This "band", as such, was a vanity/opportunity project for a music manager/producer at MGM Records, Michael Viner. As was the case with most of the music in that time, the artists who actually played the music were studio musicians grabbed from all over the place. The Incredible Bongo Band, or even Michael Viner's Incredible Bongo Band were never a band as such. Viner's opportunity, the reason he assembled the musicians he did to record what he did was to provide background music for one of the all-time worst films even made, "The Thing With Two Heads", the movie itself, arguably, one of the early black exploitation films.

Back to Viner and The Incredible Bongo Band. So, the Incredible Band isn't really a band. It's a collection of musicians Viner organized to play this music quickly and cheaply for the film and later, for a second album. It's all about exploitation, like most pop music of the day was. The people who posed for photos portrayed as the band had nothing to do with the actual production of the music. And in many cases, the artists hidden were people of color. In explaining this I'm not making excuses, I'm merely pointing out that there are times when exploitation is complicated and often goes much deeper than most people think.

Back to Mr. Devega's Salon article...
Toyota’s Super Bowl 50 Prius commercial is an ironic (and unintended) reminder of how black and brown people are still treated unfairly by American’s police. In the ad, four white men who have robbed a bank successfully flee the police using their near silent electric Prius. These white men were not shot and killed by a fusillade of bullets. This outcome is predictable: they are the protagonists/heroes of the advertisement. Moreover, the success of these white thieves is intended as wish fulfillment for an audience that Toyota hopes will then buy a Prius.
 However, advertisements (like film, TV shows, and other types of cultural objects) are not politically or ideologically “neutral.” As a type of popular culture, they reflect the cultural norms and values of a given society. In turn, members of those societies interpret, process, and “read” those images and narratives based on their own personal experiences, as well as understandings of the social and political world.
As such, the Prius commercial is immense brew of appropriation going back several levels. An example of this confusion might be the actors, none of which were people of color but who were featured in the popular show, "The Wire", a widely praised show depicting the city of Baltimore through several lenses. Back to Devega's article.
On social media such as Twitter and elsewhere, Toyota’s “fun” Prius Super Bowl 50 commercial was seen by many people as a reminder of white privilege and how the video recorded murders of black people by police are a type of lynching photography for the digital age.
 Speaking to this point, some of the responses on Twitter included:
 I may be being too serious but I find that ad to be way, way out of touch. Or maybe that's just that Prius life. https://t.co/VDeqcdoeB7— Joy Reid (@JoyAnnReid) February 8, 2016
Yeah I hate to be a downer but would the Cleveland PD have shot that car 137 times if it'd been a Prius? https://t.co/TCW5RRwwVj
— Arthur Chu (@arthur_affect) February 8, 2016
That Prius commercial, but with a Black driver and passengers. #ThingsThatWouldGoVERYDIFFERENTLY— Jean Genie (@JeanGreasy) February 8, 2016

It's impossible to discount the feelings of these viewers. They are some of the people Toyota is looking for, I would guess. So if people of color see something different than what Toyota intended, is this blindness on Toyota's part, willful or otherwise, or another example of the broader indifference to the life experience of people of color our society often shows?

Toyota wanted to appropriate hip-hop culture to sell electric cars to the millions of people watching Super Bowl 50. Instead, Toyota’s Prius ad reminded black folks–those of us who are 21 times more likely to be killed by America’s police than are whites; terrorized by a racist and classist carceral society; harassed and killed by white vigilantes empowered under “stand your ground laws”; and live in a United States where 12-year-old black children are de facto executed by cops who suffer no negative consequences for committing “legal” murder–of our vulnerability.
 This story is wonderful. And I'm not praising the appropriation I am reveling in the layers that we have to dissect to get to a place where we can, with proper knowledge, discuss what's going on today, with this commercial. And it starts, some forty-three years ago, from a white producer using non-white musicians to make music for what was basically a black exploitation film to today, Toyota using that music in a cultural context that gives people of color genuine reason to feel much differently than most white viewers would.

I know people at Toyota. They're good people and they promote tolerance and work against racism. But they're also mostly white and mostly male. The ad agency that produced the commercials? I don't know but I'm going to guess it's much the same and that, right there, is why problems like this occur. Without people of color, without a workplace that is truly inclusive, where everyone participates and has a voice, this situation will happen over and over again. Because even well intentioned people can create things that are insensitive at times. I would say that the people I know at Toyota would never do this consciously but, they have, arguably, done a fine job here of continuing a chain of cultural appropriation started a very long time ago.

There's so much to say here. Should I add in the NFL itself? The college football system that uses unpaid, mostly, people of color students to earn millions while the only people who make any money are the, overwhelmingly white sports admins and coaches? Should we talk more about the history of music where, for decades, white labels owners stole from artists of color (and, to be fair, lots of white artists)? There is so much to go through here that I think the very best I can do is hope to further the conversation.