Refugees & White Imagination: Response vs. Responsibility (MUSIC)

#RefugeesWelcome. So what?! As a white European male member of the inter-national creative industry, I seek to articulate and manifest my personal and professional response and responsibility re: the refugee crisis. While this inquiry focuses on few notable efforts, the premise stands: White Imagination is simultaneously fueling and failing the refugee crisis. Previously, we looked at artists and art institutions with the power to mediate certain visual narrative(s). Factoring in the varying degrees of success, refugee-dom still largely remains a mere spectacle for the White Imagination. The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “an unusual or unexpected event or situation that attracts attention, interest, or disapproval.” Yep, that checks out. Let’s Wiki-splain it further. “Derived in Middle English from c. 1340 as ‘specially prepared or arranged display’ it was borrowed from Old French spectacle, itself a reflection of the Latin spectaculum ‘a show’ from the frequentative form of specere ‘to look at.’” Given the violent persistence of for-profit-only colonial, neocolonial and corporate agendas, Europe and USA had been specially preparing this crisis for centuries, indeed. Spectatorship grants each viewer agency to self-regulate emotional distance and cognitive disconnect. White Imagination thrives on suspension of disbelief… and any belief except white supremacy. Check out the first part of the series here. Now, let’s turn to MUSIC. Who doesn’t love music?

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Relax, this post is not about Madonna. As per Our Virgin Lady of Appropriation, “music makes the bourgeoisie and the rebel”. To my ear, a song that has captured the zeitgeist of White Imagination on refugees this year comes from the French duo Madame Monsieur. Their track Mercy was inspired by a news story of a girl born on board the Aquarius rescue ship. Yes, that very Aquarius from earlier this month. In March 2017, Nigerian refugee Taiwo Yussif was nine months pregnant when she was pulled from the Mediterranean alongside 944 (!) other people. She went into labor shortly after and named her daughter Mercy in gratitude for divine intervention. The song won the French public television vote to become the nation’s official entry at the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest. Before I get into it, and I am about to get into it, I would like to share the lyrics in English as well as the picture of Mercy as the world first met her… on Twitter.

Here is where I was born with the name Mercy / Somewhere out in between, on the open sea, Mercy / Mama traveled so far over every tide / And for nearly nine months I was safe inside / Oh I, I was safe inside / But she couldn’t ignore what she had to do / Ran away from the war, nothing left to lose / Oh no, nothing but our lives / Here is where I was born with the name Mercy / Someone held out a hand, giving life to me / For all the children lost to the cold, cold sea / I’ll live ten thousand years, my name is Mercy / I had to take a breath, she had to be free / To start again with nothing left, start a life with me, Mercy / But surrounded by blue, nothing else in sight / If the water won, we would pay the price / Oh we, we’d pay it with our lives / Rising over a wave came another boat / A chance at a survival, a sign of hope / Oh my, they sang when they heard me cry / Does it mean we’re safe and sound, when we’re on solid ground? / When tomorrow comes, will we all face it together?

… the track then goes into up-tempo outro with a play on words Mercy and merci which is “thank you” in French. Mercy, Mercy, je vais bien merci / Mercy, Mercy, I made it, thank you! … Please, view  the official music video and proceed.

[Breathe]. Let’s unpack. PROS. Are “positive” songs about the refugees, the dispossessed, the oppressed necessary? Yes! Except white people covers of Bob Marley’s Redemption Song. That has got to stop. So, kudos to Émilie Satt and Jean-Karl Lucas for responding to a story of our times and raising the flag of creative responsibility! The video debut included a statement: “Because one day we all are likely to saved or be a savior. Because showing the sea, a ship and terrified faces would have brought nothing to the drama we see every day in the media. Because we unfortunately get used to everything. The idea of ​​this clip was to include strong elements related to rescues into a landscape that is usually untouched.” Still a Eurocentric spectacle, a refugee-for-a-day proposition, but an out-of-the-box effort. Reluctantly, I was warming up to the whole idea. Until… CONS. Crowned winner of Destination Eurovision, the duo wanted to make something clear at the press conference: “This song is not political. It’s just the story of a birth, a happy moment amid misfortune. We do not intend to give lessons.” Oh. Ok. No lessons here. Like a serial maniac revisiting sites of its crimes, White Imagination is pathologically incapable of owning any practical challenge to its supremacy. This song is not political. Fuck me!

It hit number 2 on the charts in France. In addition to the original track, the song was recorded in English and Spanish. Then came the final live performance in front of 186+ million viewers. Holy Shit. That’s when it really hit me. The staggering mind-bending ingenuity of White Imagination to re-center any non-white narrative back onto itself. The first-person account delivered with utmost aplomb. This is where I was born. My mama. I made it. Émilie Satt = Mercy. Black turtleneck ‘n all. The performance culminates in a sea of waving national flags from around Europe with Israeli and rainbow ones thrown in for good measure. Cue collective White Imagi-Orgasm. Merci.

I wonder what the reception would be had the French public nominated an actual Nigerian refugee singer to perform the same song. Where is the version in Yoruba?! I wonder, but I won’t hold my breath for it. Nigeria is one of top three African countries in terms of migrant exodus. The situation is particularly grim for women and girls. Following the latest Boko Haram kidnapping raid, President Buhari called it “a national disaster.” Nigerians were the largest group on board the contentious Aquarius mission that ended last week in Valencia, Spain. However, Nigerian asylum requests are denied throughout the EU on a massive scale ranging from over 70% percent denial rate in France and Italy to 99% in Germany. French President Emmanuel Macron (and I will sing-rap-freestyle about Monsieur Macron shortly) has recently requested 60 million euros in send-them-back funding for African migrants. But thanks for the song, France!

Shortly before the spectacular finale, journalists Eric Valmir and Alessandro Puglia conducted an independent investigation to locate the mother and daughter. They “found” them inside Europe’s largest refugee camp in Sicily where they had been “lost” during the thirteen months since their arrival. In a broadcast segment, Taiwo Yussif is shown the Madame Monsieur performance on a smartphone. Cameras capture her first reactions. Wait-what-now?! First reactions?! Artists produced work explicitly capitalizing on this family’s trauma, a nation embraced said cultural product as means of collective absolution, and no one along the way sought contact with or consent from the actual family?! White Imagination pushes Abstraction as an Anesthetic. It really likes a real story, but it doesn’t need the real story, really. This makes “Mercy” peak White Imagination.

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Scene from “Partir (Leave)” by Madame Monsieur

Again, for all their commendable intention, Madame Monsieur simply operates within the white pop music canon that predates both of them. In 1980, before Emilie and Jean-Karl were born, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released a hit single titled Refugee. In 2005, their fellow Hollywood Walk of Fame inductee, rocker Melissa Etheridge covered it to wide acclaim. Here is the thunderous chorus line: “Everybody has to fight to be free, you see. Oh, baby, you don’t have to live like a refugee!” Indeed. You won’t. Would you?! White Imagination gets off on its own exceptionalism. The evocative cover image for this post is a screenshot from another Madame Monsieur video. Partir (Leave) is an excellent audio-visual example of White Imagination at work. “Partir et désobéir. Partir et s’appartenir / Leave and disobey. Leave and rely on yourself!” I suppose, the refugees relate to that, too. Music is universal, ain’t it?!

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Émilie & Jean-Karl on the Mercy cover and Mercy Yussif at 13 months old in a refugee camp

It’s just a song… let’s not make macro generalizations off micro samples. That brings me to Emmanuel Macron. (Get it?! The micro and then macro and bam, Macron … Ok. I should probably quit writing. Sorry.) This month, the President of France has “scolded” Italy for its “cynicism and irresponsibility” in handling the Aquarius ship fiasco. France made a generous and widely publicized gesture of dispatching a convoy to Spain to see if any among these particular refugees qualify for asylum in France. Just weeks prior, Macron had awarded French citizenship to Mamoudou Gassama, a Malawi refugee who had saved a child in a video gone viral. #Spectacle. These geopolitical stunts overwhelmingly benefit the French state and the office of the President. A President who has boldly called out Africa’s “civilizational problems” and vowed to “in no case allow” another Calais Jungle, an infamous refugee encampment on the English Channel coast. Solutions are hard. Playing the refugee bingo is easy. The following three headlines were side-by-side at press kiosks in Paris on December 17, 2017. I took receipts: Le Journal de Dimanche wondered “Immigration: what Macron is preparing,” while Le Monde declared “Migrants: Macrons chooses the hard line” as La Croix special report revealed “Minorites in Danger”. Again, no lessons here. (Dis)connect the dots. White Imagination concern for minorities in danger elsewhere in the world coexists with hard-line disregard for minorities seeking refuge from said dangers within spaces claimed as own by White Imagination. La-di-da.

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Satt and Lucas have donated part of the performance proceeds to SOS Mediterranee, the non-profit operator of Aquarius. Following the “re-discovery” of Mercy the Person, they’ve also announced their intention to set up a fund benefiting the family. Well done! Despite our entrapment in the toxic universe of White Imagination, sometimes white people… we manage to do the right thing. That said… Why haven’t Mercy and Taiwo Yussif been granted French citizenship yet?! Someone get Macron on the line. Haven’t they already provided a lifetime share of cultural and economic benefit for the Republic?! Madame Monsieur is on tour this summer & fall. If you see them, ask how is it going with all that! After all, it was Mercy who put them on that proverbial map.

Up next, I will look at the refugee crisis, White Imagination and… FASHION.

Check out the first installment of the series “ART” here.

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