If you’ve read my blog before or know me personally, you know that one of my biggest passions is Africa. In fact, my interest in the continent shaped the trajectory of my adult life. I studied Africa and African languages at university, and following graduation, I went onto have a fulfilling career analyzing African politics. Earlier this year, I moved on to a different line of work, and I would be lying if I said a day had gone by when I didn’t miss my previous job. I often find myself daydreaming of my past travels to East Africa, wondering when—not if—I’ll make it there again.
If you are a reader of my blog, you probably also know that I am a HUGE Taylor Swift fan. I’ve seen her in concert on her last three tours. I blogged about taking my stepdaughters to see her Red Tour. My stepkids even wrote her letters asking her to sing at our wedding. (They were bummed when she didn’t respond, but we forgive you, Tay Tay.) Imagine my surprise when I learned that Taylor Swift’s latest music video for her song Wildest Dreams was set in Africa! Two of my favorite things in one place—fantastic!
Unfortunately, that wasn’t my initial reaction. I first learned of the video when a friend of mine posted this NPR article on Facebook. Admittedly, I sighed and thought, Oh no, Taylor. I hope this isn’t as atrocious as it sounds. I like you so much. How could you have offended something I hold so near and dear to my heart?
I watched the video, and I didn’t have a problem with it. I actually (dare I say?) enjoyed it. The video, shot in a very “Old Hollywood,” style, portrays two 1950s actors having a relationship while filming a movie in Africa. The video has been criticized for romanticizing colonial Africa and not representing a full picture of the continent. While I certainly want to be sensitive to the authors’ backgrounds and perspectives, I think they are taking away from the good intentions Swift had and making the video into something it’s not. Swift happens to be white, and she is portraying an actress in a love story with a white man on the set of a period film. Sure, it would have been nice to see some scenes with Africans, but considering the era in which it is set, they probably wouldn’t have been portrayed in the best light, if they wanted to be historically accurate.
In their NPR article, Rutabingwa and Arinaitwe criticize Swift for focusing on the waterfalls, mountains, and majestic animals rather than the technological and leadership renaissance currently taking place in Africa. Somehow I think a song whose lyrics are about a love story doesn’t really lend itself to a music video depicting the technology boom in Africa, but what do I know? Swift’s use of Africa’s beautiful landscape and wildlife for her background does not take away from all of the other wonderful, positive developments occurring in Africa today.
When topics like this start trending, I start to think that we as a society are so busy looking for ways to be offended that we fail to appreciate, or even recognize, the good when it happens. Swift’s video brings attention to the continent and may even attract more tourism—or it could have at least, before it was twisted into something ugly and racist. According to the World Bank, the number of tourists arriving in Sub-Saharan Africa has grown over 300 percent since 1990, and tourism remains one of the largest and fastest growing sectors of the world economy. That tourism often includes safaris as well as various cultural events.
During a time when issues like Cecil the Lion are trending (whether you deem this an issue worth trending or not), a video that shows some of Africa’s beauty with proceeds going to African parks should be welcomed. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t other causes that you may feel are more important. This was Swift’s call, and she chose a cause in which she believes. She didn’t need to choose one at all.
I also realize that animals represent only SOME of the beauty on the continent. However, it’s the amazing, diverse, and loving people with whom I’ve connected that kept me going back to Africa. I hope that Swift was able to meet some of those amazing people while she was there filming.
Toward the end of their article, Rutabingwa and Arinaitwe say Swift “packages our continent as the backdrop for her romantic songs devoid of any African person or storyline, and she sets the video in a time when the people depicted by Swift and her co-stars killed, dehumanized and traumatized millions of Africans. That is beyond problematic.”
Yes, because every white person who went to Africa in the 1950s—especially movie stars that were shooting a film—killed, dehumanized, and traumatized millions of Africans. Way to generalize.
The purpose of Swift’s video was not to give a present day look at the most important issues on the continent nor was it to glamorize the brutal treatment of Africans during colonial rule. It is a period piece about a love story with a beautiful backdrop. Plain and simple.