Diplo & India, a Love Story

Diplo recently announced an Indian tour in February 2016, but if you saw March’s “Lean On” music video, that might not surprise you.

By Kara Roberts, University of Texas at Austin


The music video for the chart-topping single featuring DJ Snake and MØ off Major Lazer’s third studio album, Peace Is the Mission, was shot in Mumbai and gave off a distinctly “meanwhile, white people in Bollywood” feeling.

Dripping in luxurious ethnic stereotypes, the video immediately received shade for what looked like a caricature of Indian culture, complete with bindi-wearing temple dwellers twirling barefoot on burgundy prayer rugs and hitching rides on elephants.

A poster child for potential cultural appropriation no doubt, Diplo has kept conversations regarding the video pretty surface-level. Focusing on its artistic inspiration, Diplo said “India feels like some kind of special creature with one foot in history and one firmly in the future.”

The self proclaimed “counterculture kid” dismissed any notion that the video was at all intended to insult a culture that he has openly praised, and to be honest, apart from some angry YouTube comments and Reddit threads, no one really cared. Still, his announcement of an Indian tour came at a good time, as it’s helped assuage critics who sniped that the group was only using India for its good looks.

Benign or not, Diplo is about to leave his mark on the country one strobe-lit night at a time, which means that if you’re a live music fan, you know the euphoria Diplo-fans are experiencing right now. First, the dust has to settle from the purchasing stampede that follows the release of a big name ticket online. Then the countdown begins.

From the headphones of early morning commuters to the windows of your friendly neighborhood night-owl, the city will begin to pulsate with Diplo’s biggest hits, preparing for the sing-a-long marathon to come. Memorizing words, discovering new favorite songs and still believing the night will be everything you imagine and more: Preconcert bliss I like to call it.

After hitting all the chart toppers, you reach a full sprint. You swan dive off the Top 40 summit and plunge fearlessly into the throwback utopia where it all began. It’s an exciting time to be an Indian EDM fan.

And in his defense, if there’s one DJ who could justifiably pull off the saffron belt, it’s Diplo: The lanky Californian has his hands in a lot of jam jars, as it were. The White Dude (who) Be Everywhere boasts an extremely diverse resume of collaborative works.

If you don’t believe me, check him out on Diplo & Friends on BBC Radio1 and 1Xtra every Saturday, where he hosts new mixes featuring DJs from around the world. His music is an international success and his message resonates with a wide fanbase.

And with album titles like Free the Universe and Peace Is the Mission, songs names like “Revolution,” and a professed openness to fans sharing his music online for free, it’s not entirely naïve to think that Diplo might be making music for something besides the money.

It’s also not entirely far-fetched that he understands the power of his message, and wants to broadcast it to the people who might actually benefit from hearing it.

So if we start with the premise that most Diplo fans are a good forty-five years from retirement, and quite possibly constitute a category of people whose impressionability has been highly documented, then it’s not unreasonable to think that singing, “Fallen people, listen up. It’s never to late to change to change your luck,” might carry a little emotional charge.

Even in first world countries, anarchy-lite lyrics like these can dredge up the angst of almost any adolescent, from bona fide slumlords all the way up to the poorest Rich Kids of Instagram. So imagine, then, the sort of impact these lyrics and rebel-rousing bass lines could have on people who experience actual oppression.

And surprise surprise, a whopping 96 percent of Indians believe their country is being held back by corruption. The Indian government has a pretty poor track record when it comes to protecting its people, where issues like poverty, inadequate access to health care, a threadbare education infrastructure and gender inequality are all very real problems.

diplo

From Dylan and Vietnam to Public Enemy and the crack epidemic, every revolution has its own soundtrack. More recently, the rise of Tunisian rap during the 2011 Arab Spring and Pussy Riot’s music of protest against Putin in 2012 show the power of music, especially broadcast worldwide via the Internet. The film Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer begins with the quote: “Art is not a mirror to reflect the world, but a hammer with which to shape it.”

So imagine, for a second, that’s it February 2016 and Diplo’s performing in Mumbai. It’s a full house and the crowd’s energy has reached the level where strangers become old friends and old friends become new lovers. The finale, and I’m talking the real finale (the one after the encore), is a vision of rave draped in endless possibilities. There are fireworks, maybe Funfetti if Steve Aoki tags along, and spirits are flying high.

Diplo thanks everyone and says, “You guys have been unreal! I love you India!” And the crowd goes wild. Diplo leaves the stage and the music fades out, but one-by-one the crowd starts to chant. “So, don’t let them steal your light (Eh eh eh eh)! Don’t let them break your stride (Eh eh eh eh)!” Crowds unite around a charismatic young leader and storm into the streets, singing “Express Yourself” as Bombay burns.

Is it likely? I don’t feel comfortable answering that question, thank you. But is it possible? Absolutely. Is Diplo the next Woody Guthrie? I’d like to think not. (If that happens, you heard it here first.) But if nothing else, I think we can safely put to bed the claims of Diplo-as-cultural-appropriator, and who knows—maybe Diplo the Social Revolutionary isn’t that far-fetched after all.