Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Prince Zimboo is no African Borat



Slate magazine (predictably) thinks this is cute; I'm giving it the side eye:

He has 999 wives. He hails from an unnamed region of central Africa ("a thin layer of impenetrable rainforest," he tells interviewers) known only as d'bush. His name is Prince Zimboo Abakunamabooba, and if he sounds fishy to you, he should. Outlandish back stories are common in hip-hop—a genre perched on the fault line between tell-it-like-it-is verité and winking artifice—but Zimboo's mythology is patently unbelievable, 100 percent wink. Is he a loon? A comedian? A walking 419 scam, claiming African royalty as part of some elaborate performance-art hoax?

It's worth caring about Zimboo's knotty identity play not just for the novelty of his persona but because of his deliriously funny music. Zimboo has been performing since at least 2007, and his renown has grown of late, thanks to his association with Diplo, the DJ and producer best known for his work with MIA. Diplo is preparing a reggae project called Major Lazer, and Zimboo, based in Jamaica, has been announced as one of the album's featured guests. This week, Zimboo released a daffy video in which he freestyles over Major Lazer's first single, "Hold the Line." The video showcases Zimboo's idiosyncratic charm—he wears a permanent grin and
inexplicably holds a small plastic alligator as he raps—and it captures several of his central, if contradictory, leitmotifs: the virtues of clean living, the pleasures of polygamy, the piteousness of those who masturbate. Read more...

Now it could be that the creator of the character Prince Zimboo is taking a shot at some performance art satirizing stereotypes about continent-perpetually-downgraded-to-country Africa. Problem is, satire only works when it is clear that what you are communicating is not truth. Satire depends on a majority understanding that, for instance, being a black, American, female descendant of slaves does not automatically make one angry, dangerously volatile and radical. The New Yorker, with its Michelle Obama as terrorist cover, failed in its white, liberal and priviledged assumption that the "angry, black woman" stereotype only exists among a handful of Palinites south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Prince Zimboo fails, in my estimation, because stereotypes about Africa and African people are so pervasive that I reckon too few people will spot the humor. African men live in the jungle surrounded by exotic flora and fauna, wear dashikis, are hyper-sexual and have hundreds of wives? This is different from the popular understanding of the African continent how? Zimboo need only tote an AK-47 and rap about starvation to complete the picture.

Jonah Weiner likens Zimboo to Borat. I disagree that these characters occupy the same space in pop culture. The African stereotype and people's perceptions of the Central Asian country of Kazhakstan are unequal and not comparable.

Of course, Sacha Baron Cohen's agenda is more pointed. Borat needs rubes whose
ignorance he exposes and exploits; with Prince Zimboo, the ruse is much gentler.

Yes, so gentle as to be invisible.

Zimboo is a strange player in the genre you might call hipster world music. In this cosmopolitan dance scene, Zimboo's U.S. booster, Diplo, is a Cousteau-like figure, scouring the nonwhite world in search of thumping, exotic sounds (he's released several mixes of Brazilian baile funk, a slum-born hybrid of booty bass and '80s pop, and has also praised Angolan-Portuguese kuduro and South African kwaito), and then hauling back his findings for stateside cognoscenti to enjoy. The end-user encounter doesn't have to take on a condescending dimension, but it often does, as the social and cultural specificities behind a certain music are flattened into a general aura of impoverished authenticity, or ignored altogether—who cares what they're talking about, the beat is hot! With Zimboo, the alien object of scrutiny gazes back at
us; he knows something we don't, and he's grinning widely about it.

Sigh...should I have known that hipsters were behind this? I am glad that Slate is aware enough to know that the hipster embrace of world cultures most often comes with a heavy dose of condescension, but I think Weiner is wrong that Prince Zimboo rises above this trap. The owner of this character may be winking, but if no one notices, does it matter?

9 comments:

eccentricyoruba said...

thanks for this Tami. i feel this Prince Zimboo character is just ridiculous and whatever he is doing is not satire. have you heard of Naija Boyz? i think they do a reasonably good job 'remixing' popular songs. Prince Zimboo to me seems to be worsening the stereotype of Africans for laughs.

Mira said...

Well, I think your argument (re: how most Americans won't get Zimboo is just a parody of stereotypes about Africans) is valid, but I also believe that Zimboo can create some discussion about these stereotypes. 'Hipsters' and other regular Americans already believe untrue things about African people... I don't think that could get any worse. So what should happen? Should we pretend Americans are not wholly ignorant of what African peoples lives are really like?



The owner of this character may be winking, but if no one notices, does it matter?This is the crucial part, of course.

Good post. :)

Chris said...

'African men live in the jungle surrounded by exotic flora and fauna, wear dashikis, are hyper-sexual and have hundreds of wives? This is different from the popular understanding of the African continent how?' Are you serious?

Perhaps the satire lies in the highlighting of the absurdity of such a popular understanding, if indeed this is the pervasive stereotype?

To paraphrase: US Americans entertain absurd notions of other cultures that make it difficult for them to appreciate satire, however heavy-handed and blatant (as opposed to spoon-fed, straight humour that follows a formula and lets you know well in advance when a punchline is approaching)? This is different from the popular understanding of US Americans how?

Prince Zimboo's satire is obvious, and not particularly incisive, clever or subtle. I could leave it. But his series of dumb one-liners are childishly funny.

Anonymous said...

um. well I'm a 52 yr old white male and I laughed pretty hard at this guy and his satirical lyrics. I got it just fine. Perhaps you need to lighten up with the political correctness and just enjoy it for the humor it's meant to be

jiggyjam said...

I like that last comment from Mr. 52 YO, seriously just run wid it an no try tear it fa something,

Bless Sani and all the best, str8 from Mr. Shorty the man 1001 wives!!!

represent Prince Zimboo

jiggyjam said...

Prince Zimboo MAD!!!! respect Mr. 52, Zimboo blessing mi bredrin no watch nutten...Weh Tami seh, more like no seh...lighten people and just run wid it...so wah if a man have 1000 wife is 1001 di I have an truly bless.


Sani all di best bloods...

Mr. Shorty from Cayman

Anonymous said...

"The New Yorker, with its Michelle Obama as terrorist cover, failed in its white, liberal and priviledged assumption that the 'angry, black woman' stereotype only exists among a handful of Palinites south of the Mason-Dixon Line." well put...living a whole life in New England you need reminders that racists arent just some strange group in a land far far away south, its a problem in every person of every color (to some degree, whether great or microscopic) Still cant tell what to think of Zimboo yet, jury is out.

DJ Raven said...

Interesting viewpoint Tami. However... I feel that Zimboo is simply an 'entertainer' perhaps along the lines of the character Eddie Murphy once played? I have had a great response to his music (and to be honest I was a little dubious at first - I really thought that the ladies could be a little upset by the 'lightswitch' song lol) but my concerns were unjustified. The listeners absolutely loved the track.

I've spent time out in West Africa - I know that Zimboo does not reflect the 'real african man'. He does make us smile though and in my opinion smiles above worries anyday!!

Not all of Zimboo's tracks are 'hits' but then neither are those of other artists.

I have more concerns about gunslinging, slackness and foulmouthed songs to be honest and welcome Zimboo's lighthearted satirical humour

DJ Raven

dan said...

okay.
i'm a white german male.
even i laughed about this stereotype- boosting guy and was able to easily detect the parody in his work. and my english is not very good.
the "baby"-skit on the major lazer album is hilarious.
i think you are way too much concerned about the politically correctness.

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