Can someone get Taylor Swift a textbook on cultural sensitivity? When Twitter and culture critics across the country recently schooled the superstar on the meaning of intersectional feminism, Taylor rightly apologized. But less than a month later, Taylor yet again finds herself in hot water. This time, she has drawn the ire of the Twitter-verse for her ill-advised, bizarre new video “Wildest Dreams.”
“Wildest Dreams” appears like a strange white settler fantasy with echoes of Out of Africa, Karen Blixen’s 1937 memoir that was made into a 1985 film starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford.
The video recalls the sharp satire of Binyavanga Wainaina’s famous Granta essay, “How to Write About Africa”:
“In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions…. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.”
As a Kenyan, I find myself particularly uncomfortable with this peculiar brand of colonial-era nostalgia. Images of white settlement in colonial Kenya are full of safaris and picturesque rolling green fields, but this cocoon of privilege and wealth came at the expense of native Kenyans who were robbed of their land. James Fox’s true crime story, White Mischief, which I am currently reading, details this culture of exploitative excess well:
“The British aristocracy in Kenya, subjected to a tropical climate and a high altitude, suspended between English traditions and African customs, [was] answerable, more or less, only to themselves. These British colonials remained aloof, always on guard, determined that Africa conform to their needs, and accept without question an imported, heightened ideal of privilege, with all its rules and etiquette and yearning for service and luxury…. The Africans responded to this invasion with infinite patience, often to the fury of the memsahibs, who mistook their attitude for sullenness and even stupidity.”
White settlement in Kenya not only restricted the nomadic movement of Kenya’s Maasai, but also deprived the Kikuyu of their ancestral homeland at the base of Mount Kenya and that of the Nandi and Lumbwa. The land disputes created during white settlement are the root of many of the economic and social problems that plague Kenya to the present day.
Taylor Swift’s portrayal of Africa as an idyllic playground devoid of its native black inhabitants obscures the brutality of colonial settlement. She has the right to use any location as a background for a music video, but by enmeshing the African savannah and old Hollywood glamour, she harkens back to a time when the characters of “Wildest Dreams” were brutally exploited. Times weren’t so glamorous for those folks.
The ending message of the video seems to indicate that Taylor’s team anticipated this backlash. The video concludes with the following: “All of Taylor’s proceeds from this video will be donated to wild animal conservation efforts through the African Parks Foundation of America.”
But really, Taylor… what’s good? Even I could have seen this one coming.