By Kristian Fanene Schmidt
Our generation of Polynesian people love Black culture. We indulge in it everyday of our lives – from literature to fashion to politics. It’s evident that some of our excellence has been influenced by Black excellence.
Culture is dynamic. It’s complex, it’s fluid and it’s changing. I’ve always been interested in how we, as Polynesian people, are drawn to and engage in Black culture. But does our admiration ever cross the line and become appropriation? Why? Or why not?
As far as art goes, it’s to be expected that artists will look to the greats for inspiration.
We love some R&B, Soul, Hip Hop and Reggae – all created by brilliant Black minds along with Country, Rock, Gospel, Jazz and Blues.
From the beautiful songstress Aaradhna…
… to Nesian Mystik …
… to Katchafire ...
None of these recording artists have been on the receiving end of criticism like Iggy Azalea or Eminem. I believe it’s cuz they go about their craft respectfully. But that also begs the question – is it because we’re people of colour? Does sharing an experience of being marginalised in our respective countries make a difference?
Bboying, Pop Locking, Dancehall, Voguing, Krumping – the list goes on. We love to dance. I grew up jamming in front of the tv in love with Michael Jackson so I was buzzing out when I discovered that two Samoan Creative Directors/Choreographers, Rich and Tone Talauega, were the masterminds behind some of The King of Pop’s videos and performances. They’ve worked with Chris Brown, Usher and every other recording artist up in the stratosphere who can 1, 2 Step.
Another Samoan Creative Director/Choreographer, Parris Goebel, has been dominating the scene, working with the likes of Janet Jackson, Robyn Rihanna Fenty and Justin Bieber. Her Dancehall filled video for “Sorry” sent fans crazy with the music clip clocking up over 3 billion views.
Criticism for appropriation came swiftly around how Dancehall, rooted in Jamaican culture, is often looked down upon and ridiculed yet it’s now being hailed and praised when put on display by Justin Bieber and a dance crew of light skinned Pacific girls.
What made this appropriation? Because it was for Justin Bieber? Cuz the girls were deemed white passing? Parris defended herself and acknowledged the choreography’s Dancehall roots. Did this set things straight?
Language, sports, memes, movements. We piggyback.
During the 1970’s, the Polynesian Panthers were an activist group in Auckland who fought for civil rights within the Polynesian community, clearly inspired by the Black Panthers.
Straight from the streets of New York, New Zealand now has a Ballroom culture where our young Polynesian LGBTQ community have a safe outlet to express our talents, creativity and just Be.
Yas . Queen . Slay
Then there’s the countless catch phrases that gain traction in the mainstream cuz of white gay men but they actually came from Black gay men who are also often influenced by the Black women in their lives.
So what distinguishes appreciation from appropriation?
When the Kim Kardashian/Kylie Jenner “Boxer Braids” trend took off, white girls everywhere started rocking them cuz they were in fashion. In reality Black people been braided up with cornrows for centuries. Something seen as “ghetto” on Black people was now “edgy” on white people.
This is what appropriation is to me – being in awe of something outstanding, something exceptional [usually belonging to a marginalised group], repackaging it and tryna sell it off as original. There’s no acknowledgment of the creators or their journey or their essence – it’s a straight hijacking that solely benefits the offender. So in short, [mis]appropriation is disrespect.
Laying out these examples of how Polynesian people engage in Black culture, I look to respect as my gauge of whether something crosses the line of appreciation and becomes appropriation.
Invited To The Cookout
Y’all know about the Cookout right? When you’re invited to the Cookout, you’re accepted and, in some respects, claimed by the Black community. Whether or not we are appropriating/respecting Black culture, I think one of the reasons our people haven’t come under fire is because quite often the community willingly offer it to us.
In just the last week I’ve had Black people say to me “y’all melanated – Samoans are basically Black” and “if the police describe you as Black on a radio call, you Black”. You have the likes of Black DJ Ebro on Hot 97 saying “if you grow up around Samoans, Black people look at Samoans as Black people. They’re just Black people from an island and they’re Samoan”.
We are being invited to the Cookout.
But is this invitation warranted? Even though we experience discrimination based on our heritage, we have never lived the Black experience. I’ve lost count of the number of times Black people have claimed me as Black but on the other hand, I have never heard an islander claim a Black person as an islander. “Black people are basically islanders” said no one.
Would Black people still invite us to the Cookout knowing that colourism exists in the islands and isn’t kind to people of darker skin tones? Although we’re not white, we have an affinity to whiteness which doubles as anti-Blackness – this permeates Polynesia and it stems from colonisation.
If you were to describe a Black person in Samoan, the term we’d use is ‘meauli’ which means ‘black thing’. Samoa was a German colony and ‘meauli’ was coined to describe the “indentured labourers” from the Solomon Islands who were brought to Samoa to work the land – so basically the slaves. To this day, Samoans still use it to describe anyone with dark skin including Black Americans.
We call Chinese/Asians ‘saina’ which is a transliteration for China – same with Indians with ‘inkia’ and aboriginals with ‘apoliki’ and so on. We call white people ‘palagi’ because they ‘burst from the sky’ although academics dispute this theory. No other ethnic group is described as ‘thing’ or by the colour of their skin in the Samoan vocabulary. These are just facts.
When I made a post about it on social media, I had several people defending its use to the DEF.
Focus has been placed on my agenda and bringing my people down rather than encouraging others to stop using a derogatory word. I’m ashamed to say that this rhetoric is reminiscent of conservative hate groups out there.
This sort of attitude and disrespect isn’t uncommon. It takes shape in other ways too – Black people are seen as inferior when it comes to intelligence. A prominent Pacific drummer from New Zealand who tours the world in Jazz and Rock bands commented to me that Jazz couldn’t possibly have been created by Blacks because “to write and play it is just so complex, there’s no way they coulda pulled that off”. The world does not dispute that Jazz was created by Black people yet here is an islander who is making a livelihood from Black culture, questioning their intellectual capacity.
The N Bomb
Then we got mad people who feel entitled to use The N Word. In checking my mates, they’ll openly admit noone else calls them out for it and that they never check their other friends cuz it’s “n spelt with an a and not e-r”. In their minds that makes a difference. I see Poly Twitter [adopted from Black Twitter] use it very casually online, even in their screen names, and we all know it’s used in real life too.
With this lack of understanding and compassion around the use and history of this word [even by our ‘leading authorities/experts’ as evidenced by this poor article by the Spin Off], why is it we’re being invited to the Cookout again?
My Challenge To You
There’s mad evidence to show how people love Black culture but not Blackness. Unfortunately, there are many Polynesians whose complacency is aligned with this.
My purpose is not to start a “race war” as suggested by some. My purpose is to raise awareness, incite discussion and encourage us to create change. I think it’s important to shed light on this issue because:
- We are capable of showing compassion and empathy to people other than ourselves. Culture is not static – in every nation there are terms and behaviours we don’t put up with that were once perfectly acceptable. We are bigger than this and I believe we can acknowledge that and hold each other accountable to do better.
- It’s a form of self-hate when our people are feeling ashamed for having dark skin. This allergy to Blackness. Finding beauty in all skin tones and even hair textures and facial features that aren’t associated with whiteness can help heal wounds for many.
I challenge all my Samoan brothers and sisters out there to sit down with a Black person and have a conversation [if you don’t have any Black people in your personal lives, reach out to someone on social media]. Do NOT try to persuade them with your “agenda”. Just state the neutral facts:
We call Chinese ‘saina’ which is a transliteration of China. We call Indians ‘inkia’ which is a transliteration of India. We call white people ‘palagi’ which is most commonly translated as ‘sky bursters’ as they were seen to have come from the sky. And then we call Black people ‘meauli’ and its literal translation is ‘black thing’ – first used to describe the indentured labourers aka slave workers with dark skin that the Germans brought to Samoa to work the plantations. Open up a conversation with this and see where it goes. Listen and dialogue.
And then I got a couple of questions for everyone.
Given how complacent many of us are with anti-Blackness, what seperates Polynesian people from white people who appropriate Black culture? If we lack respect, what makes us any different from the other culture vultures out there?
Then looking at the bigger picture, how is Blackness and anti-Blackness experienced and perpetuated throughout the wider Pacific?
Keen to hear your thoughts and updates about your experiences!
Cover photo credit - Cherelle Latafale Fruean.