Beyoncé’s Appropriation of Um Kalthoum is an Orientalist Nightmare

Beyoncé’s Appropriation of Um Kalthoum is an Orientalist Nightmare

 Beyoncé’s use of an Um Kalthoum song during her “On the Run” tour has once again garnered attention after writer Tamara Wong Azaiez of Arab America criticized the performance as appropriation of Arab culture.

Beyoncé samples Um Kalthoum’s “Enta Omri” (You Are My Life) in the opening of her performance of “Naughty Girl,” and if you’re familiar with both songs, this might lead to some head scratching.

If you’re not familiar with Um Kalthoum—in a sentence, she’s the voice of the Arab world. Most people will say Egypt, but I’m going to extend that all across the Middle East, because she really is that big of a legend. To give you some background, she had a long music career, starting in the ‘30s all the way into the ‘60s, and collaborated with all the biggest composers throughout that time. “Enta Omri” was recorded towards the final stage of her career, composed by Mohammed Abd Al-Wahab, one of the most well known composers in Egypt. To this day, the song is celebrated in the Arab world, and beyond, as one of Umm Kulthum’s greatest masterpieces.

Aside from her immense talent as a singer, Um Kalthoum was revered as a symbol of Arab nationalism. She was a political figure; a symbol of freedom. She also took pride in her conservative values, a fact most Arabs know and respect her for. Her voice reached millions, and made an imprint on Egyptian history. She was an icon of hope and pride for the Arab community. Her legacy was such that on the day of her funeral, 4 million people filled the streets just to bid a final farewell to their idol.

Aside from her immense talent as a singer, Um Kalthoum was revered as a symbol of Arab nationalism. tweet

So why is Beyoncé’s collaboration with Umm Kulthum so troubling?

Azaiez first talks about the meaning of “Enta Omri,” the tale of a woman’s regret of not meeting her lover sooner, looking back at the wasted years spent without her soulmate. The meaning is entirely different from Beyoncé’s “Naughty Girl,” in which a woman seeks a night of lust, surrendering her body to another man. I find this analysis of the lyrics unnecessary, as the meaning of “Enta Omri,” though emotional and profound, doesn’t make Beyoncé’s sampling of the song any more or less problematic. All it does is enforce the idea that “Enta Omri” is somehow a classier song because it’s not blatantly about sex, and therefore shouldn’t be mixed with “Naughty Girl.” This is not the argument I want to resort to.

I find this analysis of the lyrics unnecessary, as the meaning of “Enta Omri,” though emotional and profound, doesn’t make Beyoncé’s sampling of the song any more or less problematic. tweet

Azaiez then writes the problem is that Beyoncé “extocizes ‘Enta Omri’ with her choreography.” She calls it appropriation, and writes about how the West constantly tries to sexualize Arab women. She states, “exoticization was a tool used by Western imperialists to rationalize their abuses on the people of the Middle East, or those in need of ‘rescuing’ by the smarter, white colonizers.” To me, this sounds a lot like what Edward Said called Orientalism.

Azaiez then writes the problem is that Beyoncé “extocizes ‘Enta Omri’ with her choreography.” She calls it appropriation, and writes about how the West constantly tries to sexualize Arab women. She states, “exoticization was a tool used by Western imperialists to rationalize their abuses on the people of the Middle East, or those in need of ‘rescuing’ by the smarter, white colonizers.” To me, this sounds a lot like what Edward Said called Orientalism. tweet

I thought about this for a while. Is this Orientalist?

I’ll be honest, I can’t tell you how uncomfortable it made me to see Beyoncé twerk to the beat of “Enta Omri.” And I love everything about Beyoncé’s dancing. I sat and watched the video over and over, trying to understand what made me so uncomfortable as an Arab woman, watching this. I showed the video to friends and family, who all reacted the same way. I read reactions online to see what people found wrong about the use of this song. Most comments in reply to the video were some form of “This is disgusting,” which made me more uncomfortable because they were tinged with slut-shaming misogyny. Some comments were even more blatant, resorting to sexist insults. People seemed to be upset at the sheer sexuality of the performance, appalled at Beyonce’s exposed body and booty-popping. I thought they were missing the deeper problem. And yet, it was the sexuality that was the problem. However, this is only because of the song choice, a classical Arabic song. Had I been watching a performance of “Naughty Girl” solely, neither the graphicness of the dancing nor the lyrics would make me uncomfortable (though I can’t say the same for the other critics).

I’ll be honest, I can’t tell you how uncomfortable it made me to see Beyoncé twerk to the beat of “Enta Omri.” And I love everything about Beyoncé’s dancing. I sat and watched the video over and over, trying to understand what made me so uncomfortable as an Arab woman, watching this. tweet

The problem isn’t Beyoncé’s sexualized dancing or explicit lyrics, but the use of “Enta Omri” in conjunction with that. Why? Because Middle Eastern culture has always been sexualized and exoticized by the West. It’s not anything new. From the Romantic poets over 200 years ago, to European art, to Disney’s “Aladdin,” the West’s representation of the Middle East and Asia is that of a foreign, mysterious land waiting to be claimed. Women are either portrayed in a sexual manner, with concubines and harems galore. This is the Jasmine-from-Aladdin depiction. Or, the other extreme, that women are completely oppressed, burka-wearing, voiceless individuals. Both depictions lead to a Western eagerness to explore and understand the East, either for its exoticness, or to fix its oppressive regime (see: colonialism and every war in the Middle East). This is what Edward Said wrote about. He said Orientalism was how the West, the “dominant” culture, defined the East. White Westerners, specifically Europeans, have always controlled the literary canon, so it’s not surprising that the only lens with which we view the “Eastern world” is through the colonizer’s perspective.

The problem isn’t Beyoncé’s sexualized dancing or explicit lyrics, but the use of “Enta Omri” in conjunction with that. Why? Because Middle Eastern culture has always been sexualized and exoticized by the West. It’s not anything new. From the Romantic poets over 200 years ago, to European art, to Disney’s “Aladdin,” the West’s representation of the Middle East and Asia is that of a foreign, mysterious land waiting to be claimed. Women are either portrayed in a sexual manner, with concubines and harems galore. This is the Jasmine-from-Aladdin depiction. Or, the other extreme, that women are completely oppressed, burka-wearing, voiceless individuals. Both depictions lead to a Western eagerness to explore and understand the East, either for its exoticness, or to fix its oppressive regime (see: colonialism and every war in the Middle East). tweet

Although Beyoncé’s use of the song abides by this Western perspective of the Arab world, I am reluctant to call it Orientalist because as a black woman, Beyoncé does not control how the East is defined, even if she is a prominent American figure. What I will call it is appropriation, which in turn reinforces Orientalism. Her use of classical Arabic music to fit the sensual atmosphere (red smoke and all) further enforces the idea that the Arab world is a mystical, erotic, and foreign land. This plays right into the already defined Orientalist perspective created by white Westerners.

Beyoncé’s performance is a sensual display of the body. Her dancers are all women, all there to exemplify the lyrics of the song, “feeling sexy,” “tonight I’ll be your naughty girl,” “I’m calling all my girls.” It’s ultimately a performance of seduction, and what better to seduce men with than good old-fashioned belly dancing music? It’s been established in the Western world, erotic means exotic. And exotic means foreign women and foreign instruments like the oud, qanoun, and tabla, or in other words, classical Arabic music. The use of “Enta Omri” to fulfill these intentions is appropriative because it reinforces that one-sided Westernized narrative of the Middle East.

It’s been established in the Western world, erotic means exotic. And exotic means foreign women and foreign instruments like the oud, qanoun, and tabla, or in other words, classical Arabic music. The use of “Enta Omri” to fulfill these intentions is appropriative because it reinforces that one-sided Westernized narrative of the Middle East. tweet

Western appropriation of MENA and Asian culture is offensive because of the long history of imperialism and colonization inflicted on that region. The same West which constantly marginalizes and discriminates against Arabs and Asians for their cultural and religious practices, is the same West that finds it “trendy” to rock a bindi, participate in color runs, or use classical Arabic music in a exotic performance. To have control over how an entire region is depicted and understood by the rest of the world speaks to the nature of the White imperialism. The constant othering and marginalization of Arabs highlights the West’s dominance over the region. Appropriating what suits their commercial or political needs, while leaving behind the entire essence of the culture, just furthers the Western fantasy that the Middle East is a foreign land waiting to be claimed.

The same West which constantly marginalizes and discriminates against Arabs and Asians for their cultural and religious practices, is the same West that finds it “trendy” to rock a bindi, participate in color runs, or use classical Arabic music in a exotic performance. To have control over how an entire region is depicted and understood by the rest of the world speaks to the nature of the White imperialism.  tweet

If Beyoncé, or rather her team, chose “Enta Omri” to fulfill their need for an exotic sound, that’s a problem. At the same time, if they were uninformed about Umm Kulthum and what she meant for her fans, that’s also a problem. I already wrote about her legacy and reverence in the Arab world. While I’m a firm believer that artists can interpret other art any way they please, I don’t think this is a free pass to reduce an entire celebrated history into a one minute video of a sensual performance. It’s culturally insensitive to utilize “Enta Omri” this way. And that’s because of what Umm Kulthum represents for the entire Arab culture. To sexualize an Um Kalthoum song kind of negates everything she represented as an icon of the Arab world. She was, first and foremost, a conservative Muslim woman.

To sexualize an Um Kalthoum song kind of negates everything she represented as an icon of the Arab world. She was, first and foremost, a conservative Muslim woman. This makes it even more problematic that Umm Kulthum is represented in a way she herself would have not approved of due to her values.  tweet

We live in a time where Muslim women are not respected for their religious practices, and Islamophobia is rampant. This makes it even more problematic that Um Kalthoum is represented in a way she herself would have not approved of due to her values. What she stood for, politically and socially, made a mark on Egyptian history forever. Her songs were more like operas, running hours long, and sung in a way that even a non-Arabic speaker could feel the emotion from her voice. By reducing that legacy into a short opening performance for “Naughty Girl,” Beyoncé displays ignorance about the culture she’s borrowing from. She’s essentially taking a small piece of an entire history and commercializing it for her own musical gain, without regard to the original artist’s meaning and intent. This is appropriation; it is when a renowned and highly respected artist like Um Kalthoum is diminished to a backdrop for Western sexual fantasies.

[Editor’s note:  This isn’t the first time Western urban music has done this–Beyonce’s hubby Jay Z, along with producer Timbaland, recently came under fire for their use of Abdel Halim Hafez’s song “Khosara” in Jay Z’s 1999 hit “Big Pimpin’.” ]

Written by Nour Saudi

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