We went through some of this three months ago, after Miley Cyrus twerked onstage at the VMAs. That performance was lambasted as racist: Cyrus, a white woman born into riches, propagating pernicious myths about black women’s sexuality while stealing from bounce music to lend herself a commercially advantageous “danger.” If Arcade Fire’s appropriation is less egregious, it’s still analogous. In both cases, a mainstream artist gains by drawing from the margins of popular culture, while the initial producers of that tradition remain on the periphery. In doing so, white artists have often contributed to what Cornel West calls the modern Black diaspora’s problem of “invisibility and namelessness.”
The racial politics of Cyrus’s performance drew criticism from outlets from The Guardian to The Atlantic, but despite the similarities between that performance and Reflektor, my searches of major publications reveal Darville to be the only writer to substantively question the album’s thorny relation to race. There are a few possible explanations for this.
First, issues of identity: Cyrus is more famous and was already controversial. Arcade Fire’s audience is smaller and famously white—certainly less diverse than the crowd watching the VMAs.
Second, the music itself: Cyrus’s performance was terrible, but Reflektor is a hit with critics. There’s a tradition of racism hiding under the veil of spectacular art, an uneasy truth typified when Stereogum writes, “[Arcade Fire’s] decision to incorporate bits of Haitian music leaves them very open to … cultural-appropriation charges. … But what a beautiful, revelatory song [‘Here Comes the Night Time’] is.”
Moreover, Arcade Fire is only the most recent rock band to borrow from Afro-Caribbean musics (“D’yer Ma’ker,” Sandinista!). This goes to a larger point: The importance of cross-pollination to cultural innovation cannot be overstated. American music has a beautiful and complicated history, and it’s hard to imagine many of our greatest musical treasures without lots of similar borrowing.
Which brings us to a defense to be taken seriously: Arcade Fire may see themselves as using their position of privilege to promote Haitian art to masses of people who would not otherwise be exposed to new cultures. Nevertheless, there’s a troubling dynamic in play when Arcade Fire alone—rather than the people of Haiti together—is the sole arbiter of what is worth passing on in Haitian culture, and when the way it’s passed on will only perpetuate stereotypes about the country. Regardless of the band’s motives, that is a problematic cycle.
West articulates an antidote when he appeals to artists to “reveal, as an integral component of their productions, the very operations of power.” For example, the Clash made Sandinista! while publicizing Third World oppositional politics. Arcade Fire might start by updating their website to feature diverse Haitian explanations of what Carnival means, making a rara mixtape, or choosing a Haitian band to open for them on tour.
Reflektor may say something about its creators, but it probably says even more about the world around it. In the end, I’m not sure what’s more telling: that the system of cultural production and consumption is so messed-up that even something this well-intentioned could come off this badly, or that few seem to have noticed how poorly it did come off.