(Project Ahimsa; 2009)
By Conrad Amenta | 24 August 2009
The elephant in the room during any review of an album whose primary purpose and reason for existence is charity is that, unless you’re completely heartless, the already thin presupposition of objectivity with which one approaches music criticism goes right out the window. So I’ll be open about this from the start: you should buy this album, regardless of its quality, regardless of its considerable contradictions and problematic methods. You should buy this album because it’s for the good cause of raising money to buy instruments for poor kids. Or, give some money if you don’t already, somewhere, sometime, to something worthwhile. There; now if you don’t buy it it’s because you’re selfish, not because I didn’t participate in the critical delusion that the music one finds on charitable projects such as these is ever very good.
Insofar as Global Lingo employs a charitable model, it’s neither exclusively that of guilt (e.g. Sarah McLachlan implores you to witness the drooping eyes of a beaten former house pet while her “Angel” plays in the background; the original cover of Concert for Bangladesh ) nor consumerist self-interest (e.g. tote bags; the Tibetan Freedom Concert; tax deductibility; feelings of superiority and magnanimousness), but some paradoxical and explicit amalgamation of the two. The album potentially glamorizes poverty and exploits racial stereotypes for the purposes of appeasing its white audience, even if in doing so it raises money for members of exactly those impoverished communities being glamorized and stereotyped. It’s the sort of dance with the devil that all charitable projects must sometimes endure, but is no less digestible for that fact. From the bio:
“Imagine the farthest reaching global talent show ever, but one where all the contestants are kids who grew up scavenging and struggling in some of the planet’s poorest communities. Instead of picking through rags, they’re picking out ragas at ashrams following the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi. Instead of scrounging for their next meal in the streets of Granada, Nicaragua, they’re scouring their imaginations for the perfect lyrics.”
Depending on your level of liberal guilt and recoil accorded the white consumer impulse—and mine are both extremely high—this paragraph, and its suggestion that what lies at the center of Global Lingo is a Disney-eque worldwide talent show that allows you, through the conduit of these kids, to temporarily escape rather than become more fully aware of poverty, should rightly make you cringe. Accusations that this is poverty porn, another Slumdog Millionaire, are, it turns out, both expected and not a problem. You see, helpfully, it says as much in the bio:
“But this isn’t some fanciful remake of Slumdog Millionaire; it’s for real and its spirit resounds […] in this talent show called life the kids are not competing for prizes, they are going against all odds for their very survival.”
That Project Ahimsa, a nonprofit group who use benefit performances and recordings such as the Global Lingo album to raise money to subsidize music teaching and instruments in impoverished communities both simultaneously anticipates, attempts to deflect, and yet still makes use of the Western impulse to narrativize and glamorize poverty is mind-warpingly difficult to absorb. That quote above in turn holds at arms length and embraces the life-or-death game show theme of Slumdog Millionaire in a bid for the attention of the Western buyer who loved Slumdog Millionaire enough to give it a Best Picture Oscar despite Bollywood having produced hundreds of movies in the same year. Will these kids or won’t they survive the talent show called life? Buy into the experience of Global Lingo, give them the gift of music, and they, in turn, will provide an album worth of songs that say: yes, we will survive. It is the indelible truth of charity salesmanship that the crushing reality of it all doesn’t sell as well as a photo of a smiling kid and some words about hope. You trade cluing in an audience to what you care about for profiting from them which, for a cash-strapped charity, sometimes makes sense.
The logic is a bit of a rabbit hole: consider for a moment that Project Ahimsa was founded as a nonviolent response to hate crimes against Sikh and South Asian communities in the United States in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks. So, as a response to hate crimes against minorities in America, Global Lingo potentially capitalizes on skewed Western perceptions of minorities to sell a product to Americans, the profits from which are used to buy instruments and pay instructors in countries that have been systematically impoverished by years of economic injustice and mismanagement perpetrated, in part, by Western nations such as America. Which, some argue, led to the September 11th attacks which then resulted in hate crimes against minorities…the story is so circular, enmeshed with guilt and uniformly heartbreaking that it’s almost impossible not to consider Global Lingo an opportunity for the guilty white consumer to atone for their country’s actions the only way they know how: Buy. More. Shit.
It’s a shame, then, that the album itself is so disinterested in looking at these complexities and paradoxes, in elucidating for its predominantly white audience some of the harder to face truths, that it’s so invested in its charitable milieu that it offers only the blandest of platitudes and lukewarm admonitions. It states, as anyone interested in buying the album will probably already understand, that poverty sucks and, as anyone interested in buying the album will probably want to hear, that against all odds hope prevails. Except that hope doesn’t always prevail. As a musical project its responsibility might have been to draw in the poverty porn audience—those with vaguely ethnic products from Trader Joes hanging in their suburban living rooms and their herbal teas with promises of having been hand-picked by exactly the denizens whose impoverished lifestyles one simultaneously romanticizes and rejects—and then subject that audience to a hard slap in the face. Inevitably, as a charity project Global Lingo conflicts with what should be its artistic goal. This is an album that will, necessarily and by definition, do anything to sell itself, exactly the opposite of what one seeks in an artist.
The album often pushes the boundaries of taste and ethics in the extent to which it is willing to use appropriated voices to sell its product, even if it is a product with a spotless sales goal. Take, again from the bio, the following anecdote:
“The kids so inspired Sukhadia (a tabla-player himself known as Tablapusher) and musical colleague JBoogie that they sampled the children’s voices to power tracks like ‘Speak it.’ ‘Artists use samples all the time,’ muses Chattha, ‘but how often to they go to the slums of India to get them?’”
That last line is the slight and half-interested debate about whether Girl Talk and other mash-up artists are legitimate rendered a trillion times more contentious. Artists do use samples all the time, and even when they do so on a meaningless party record they cause something of a stir for the questions of authenticity, property, agency and intention that the gesture raises. That the sampling in question is here featured on a song called “Speak It,” about the power of speech and the telling of truths, is doubly ironic, in that Sukhadia seems blissfully unaware that he is framing speech, angling its meaning, appropriating the speaker’s voice. The discussion around sampling taps into a century-long debate about the extent to which representations of impoverished culture can be appropriated for the purposes of turning a white buck—Southern folk and Dylan, blues music, the Beats and jazz culture, hip-hop’s white audience, etc. And that appropriation has long been defended by a rhetoric that insists that a supposedly authentic representation of an impoverished lifestyle is in itself a worthwhile political contribution. For the purposes of our scenario in which Global Lingo finds its way onto the shelves of a Western audience, I would concede that it’s absolutely an issue to make exotic a trip to an Indian slum, to sample it and present it as spoken truth, regardless of how often Girl Talk does the same with Biggie or 2Pac.
These concerns may, of course, all be completely beside the point. The charitable gesture is, and perhaps should be, enough to validate the existence of Global Lingo. Buy the album and chuck it. Buy the album and love it. Go to the website and get inspired to learn about charities, other charities, any charities, charities to which you feel good donating, charities to which you don’t. Decide for yourself. But to concede that an album, by virtue of a virtuous goal, is in itself innocent of either unknowing ignorance or manipulative marketing, is naïve.