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?


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