Lilly Singh Is At It (That Is: Appropriating My Culture) Again 🙃

Singh recently posted several TiKToks about Caribbean culture, and they're just the latest examples of a long (and problematic) pattern of behaviour

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Stacy Lee Kong

Sep 09 2022

13 mins read

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<p>Image: instagram.com/lilly</p>

‎Like clockwork, Lilly Singh is appropriating Caribbean culture and also like clockwork, I—like many other Caribbean people—am tired.

Over the past couple of weeks, the YouTuber-turned-multihyphenate-entertainer formerly known as Superwoman posted a series of TikToks praising Caribbean music, and while her comment section was full of Caribbean people thanking her for drawing attention to our culture, an equally vocal group of people were rolling their eyes, because once again, Singh was claiming something that didn’t belong to her.

Just so we’re all on the same page, it’s totally okay to enjoy music (or food, or art, or literature, or whatever) from another culture! What’s not okay—and what makes Singh’s posts appropriation versus appreciation—is exploiting and commodifying that culture. According to a 2006 paper by Richard A. Rogers, professor of communication at Northern Arizona University, cultural sharing is a “mutually acknowledged exchange of symbols, artifacts, rituals, genres and/or technologies” between cultures who have approximately the same amount of power, but appropriation happens when individuals from a dominant culture exploit elements of a marginalized culture, usually because the dominant culture is looking at the marginalized one as a resource to be harvested (without compensation, naturally).

‎While it’s true that in North America, whiteness is the dominant culture, if we use population size as a proxy for power, South Asians (who are one of the two largest visible minority groups in Canada and make up 5.6% of the population) are more dominant than Indo-Caribbeans (it’s hard to find exact numbers, but considering all Caribbean people make up only 2% of the Canadian population, it’s obvious that Indo-Caribbeans are a smaller, and therefore less powerful, group). As for the commodification bit, while Singh’s defenders might want to pretend that she’s just their brown friend from Scarborough who loves Trinidad, in real life, everything she publishes on social media serves a business purpose, with the end goal always being a bigger brand and more revenue for her. So... what might look like just another funny post is actually professionally created content that directly or indirectly makes her money. Ergo: commodification.

Being acknowledged isn't the same as being represented

That being said, I do get how it might feel like a celebrity talking about how much she loves our music is a good thing. I was born in Trinidad, but we moved to Canada when I was four, and, unlike a lot of my Caribbean friends, we settled in a mostly white suburb of Toronto. It wasn’t like Scarborough, Brampton or even Mississauga, where you could easily find decent roti shops and grocery stores or hear Caribbean accents as you walked down the street. So a lot of the time, my only real access to Trini and wider Caribbean culture was through my family and what little media representation I could find.

Of course, this was Canada in the 90s and early 2000s, so it’s not like there was really any meaningful mainstream representation. Instead, I experienced that feeling of connection in discrete bursts: when my dad brought home copies of Caribbean Camera and Share from roti shops in Brampton or Mississauga, or when we listened to Soca Therapy with Doctor Jay on what was then Flow 93.5 FM, or when my uncle pulled out a copy of Cote ci Cote la: A Trinidad and Tobago Dictionary at a holiday dinner and we all laughed at the sayings my older relatives and their parents used to use, or the rare occasion when I’d see us shown in a celebratory light on the news—usually just once a year, during Caribana, and only until there was some incidence of crime reporters could cover instead.  

This wasn’t enough, obviously—and not just because these collective moments of cultural connection were few and far between. It was also because they were sometimes a bit general. Caribbean Camera covers the news from all over the Caribbean, and all Trinis knew those sayings from Cote ci Cote la. I wanted to feel seen, not just as a person of colour or a Caribbean person, but specifically as a mixed, Indo-Caribbean, Trinidadian person.

And honestly, things are not so different now. As with all things, the internet has made it easier to access our culture. There are tons of soca playlists on Spotify, and social media apps like Instagram and TikTok offer Caribbean people a platform for our comedy, fashion and music. But it’s not like most non-Caribbean people really know about this region or about its ethnic diversity. So yeah, a huge star with millions of followers posting chutney music? I can see how that could be exciting if you don’t think too much about it.

But you know, thinking too much about it is my whole jam, so… let’s talk about exactly what’s going on here.

Let's pause for a brief history lesson

And I mean history in two ways, btw.

This is far from the first time Singh has appropriated another community’s culture. As writer McKensie Mack pointed out in a 2017 essay, she unapologetically performed a stereotypical version of Blackness in many of her early YouTube videos, dressing in oversized clothing, rocking cornrows, braids and chains. She released music videos that mimicked the aesthetic and iconography of rap videos. And in 2017, when she was promoting her memoir/self-help book, How to Be a Bawse: A Guide to Conquering Life, she claimed she’d changed the spelling of the word ‘boss’ to ‘bawse’—but actually, she was pulling from African American Vernacular English (AAVE). She regularly performed caricatures of Blackness and Caribbean-ness in skits on her talk show, which premiered in September 2019, and in February and March 2020, she used Trinidad and Tobago carnival as a content opportunity, devoting a segment of her talk show to the festival and creating (monetizable) YouTube videos where she explained “carnaval” to her audience. (Infuriatingly, that’s how you pronounce the Brazilian festival, not the Trini one.) In May 2020, she released what was meant to be a body-positive remix of the classic dancehall song “Badman Forward, Badman Pull Up” by Ding Dong… which she performed in a fake, pseudo-Jamaican accent.

‎Unsurprisingly then, much of the discussion of Singh’s appropriation has focused on her general appropriation of Caribbean culture and her blatant anti-Blackness. But now, I think it’s worth zooming in a little bit on how she’s specifically appropriating Indo-Caribbean culture, because of the five TikToks Singh posted, the ones that got the most views were specifically about chutney music—one was a round-up of her favourite chutney songs, the other was a skit where she juxtaposed “other girls growing up” (dancing sexily to Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle”) with “herself growing up” (holding a glass of rum and wining to “Bring It (Rum in De Morning)” by chutney soca artist Hunter featuring Bunji Garlin).

Which brings us to history lesson #2: chutney music developed among indentured labourers from the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and what was then known as Bengal—who were literally imported into the Caribbean by British colonizers to work on sugarcane and banana plantations after the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, because they could no longer use enslaved Black people. These poor workers brought with them folk songs in their native Bhojpuri, and over the decades, these songs evolved into more upbeat festival music. Then, in the late 1960s, a Trini musician named Sundar Popo released a song called “Nani Nana,” which included lyrics in both Trinidadian Hindi and Trinidadian English and combined that Indian folk music tradition with calypso rhythms. The song revolutionized Indian music in Trinidad, and a new genre—chutney—emerged.

No one’s trying to gatekeep Caribbean culture; we just understand the wider context at play here

‎So, when Singh talks about loving songs like “Rum Till I Die” and “Soca Bhangra” and “Come Beta” (which is actually a chutney/soca fusion song, for the record), she’s talking about music that is deeply rooted in Indo-Trinidadian culture… and that’s kind of ironic because she’s not Indo-Caribbean, she’s Punjabi Indo-Canadian, and many South Asians look down on Indo-Caribbean people.

I quoted Ryan Persadie, Darrell G. Baksh and Aruna Boodram’s 2019 paper, The Politics of Brown Mutuality: Reflections on Lilly Singh, Cultural Appropriation and Queer Amnesia, the last time I wrote about Singh, but I’m going to do it again because it’s the best explanation of this dynamic that I’ve read: “Indo-Caribbean brownness is not the same as Desi/South Asian brownness. This conflation is dangerous and feeds into a larger ‘multiculturalism’ narrative that conflates communities into large groups of sameness and mutuality and does not address the very real and complicated nuances that occur between South Asian and Indo-Caribbean peoples in diaspora,” they wrote, going on to explain that South Asians often characterize Indo-Caribbean people as ‘not Indian enough’ or ‘not really Indian’ at best—and immodest, vulgar, primitive and uncivilized at worst.

That certainly puts a different spin on her TikTok about not being like the (white-coded) girls who loved Christina Aguilera, right? Suddenly, the glass of liquor in her hand isn’t just about having a good time; it instead perpetuates those same problematic ideas about Indo-Caribbean people, namely that we’re lazy and only want to drink and party.

I think this is the major reason for the current frustration with Singh. It’s not that anyone’s mad that she likes these songs. We like them too! It’s that she’s claiming them as an integral part of her upbringing without mentioning that she’s not actually Indo-Caribbean, or acknowledging that her actual community doesn’t always embrace us. As I said in 2020,  this “makes Singh’s comments about feeling comfortable enough to wine up on Machel Montano, embrace her body and ‘free up herself’ feel less empowering and more appropriative. She’s not actually countering a problematic narrative; she’s having fun by behaving in a way that is deemed unacceptable by her own community before putting aside Caribbean language, mannerisms and dance moves when those things no longer benefit her.”

How come some Indo-Caribbean people don’t see this as a problem?

That being said, it’s not surprising that some Indo-Caribbean people would prefer to focus on positivity. (Certainly, Singh would like us to do exactly that.) So many non-Caribbean people assume being Caribbean means being Black, which means we often aren’t recognized within our own culture. Even as they profess to love roti and doubles, they don't see us; we’re erased. So yes, it feels good to be acknowledged by an outsider.

But there are other cultural reasons why we might not want to acknowledge what Singh is doing as appropriation or even just as problematic. In general, Caribbean culture is welcoming; we like to invite people into our homes and share what we have, even if we don’t have a lot. We also have a tendency to emphasize similarity, or at least that’s something I’ve seen among Trinis. We tell ourselves a really beautiful story about cosmopolitanism and cultural sharing—that we all celebrate Diwali and Eid, we all celebrate Emancipation Day, we all eat callaloo and roti, we all jump up during Carnival. All of which is true, and part of what makes our culture so amazing! But I think we sometimes do this as a way to combat the very real intra-racial tensions between Afro- and Indo-Trinidadians (yet another legacy of British colonialism), and I wonder if glossing over Singh’s behaviour comes from a similar place.‎

Singh’s defenders will often point to her childhood in Scarborough, an ethnically diverse neighbourhood of Toronto with a large Caribbean population, as an explanation for her familiarity with and love of Caribbean culture. But as writer and cultural critic Katherine Singh argued in Flare back in 2020, that’s a cop-out. She cites Toronto writer, director and producer Sharine Taylor, who points out that using where (Lilly) Singh grew up as an explanation for her behaviour now is just an excuse. It’s “another example of people using their geography to legitimize or excuse their use of cultural products that aren’t their own. This is something that non-Black or Caribbean artists often do, attributing their ability to appropriate and take from these cultures–either in style or vernacular—because they grew up around the language, culture and people. We all have a white acquaintance named Ben who wears baggy clothes and ‘speaks’ Patois because he grew up in an area with Jamaican people. (Cc: Chet Hanks!).”

But honestly, trying to decipher whether her connection to Caribbean culture is ‘genuine’ based on where she grew up and how much she knows or likes is kind of a red herring. It doesn’t matter whether she feels a real connection to Caribbean culture; the question is, is she entitled to claim it as her own, to profit off it, to translate and explain it to non-Caribbean people? And the answer to that is no. Anyone can—and actually should—go to Caribana, eat our food, listen to our songs, embrace and appreciate our culture. But it’s not okay to use our cultural products to market yourself or to make money, especially not at the expense of the people who actually do belong, and extra especially not when your platform is so much bigger than everyone else’s.

So no, we’re not being seen by Singh’s celebratory TikToks—we’re being stolen from.


And Did You Hear About…

Delia Cai on “quiet quitting.”

Indie Wire’s round-up of best 90s movies.

The definitive explanation of alllll the Don’t Worry Darling drama.

This Twitter thread of cover songs that are better than the original. (And, poet Hanif Abdurraqib’s Spotify playlist of cover songs people love.)

This very detailed breakdown of ‘London Bridge is down,’ the palace’s long-developed plan for the days following Queen Elizabeth II’s death.


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Lilly Singh
Caribbean Culture
Appropriation