The term ‘world music’ is outdated and offensive

Published in The Guardian (March 23, 2012)

Life’s a mashup these days, isn’t it? Not just online but in the real world too. From arts to science, from finance to food, from work to play, we live in a time of fantastic fusion, with ideas taken from anywhere and influences found everywhere. Nowhere is this more prevalent than among the magpies of the music world, with artists on a ceaseless search for new frontiers to explore and sounds to steal. Which is as it should be, given their role on the cutting edge of culture. The most intoxicating musicians are those who are the most open, with the confidence to test their own ideas to create something new.

Few symbolise this better than Spoek Mathambo. If you haven’t come across his astonishing gothic take on Joy Division’s Control, head straight to YouTube now. Then listen to his new album, Father Creeper. It is one of the most original I’ve heard in years, throwing everything from gritty electro to glam rock to highlife guitars into the blender. Sometimes retro, sometimes reaching into the future, sometimes even a bit baffling, but always exhilarating and of the moment.

Such a rich stew is unsurprising. Spoek grew up in South Africa. His wife is Swedish. His mum sang in a church choir, his dad listened to jazz and his sisters liked Bob Marley and Shabba Ranks while he preferred American rap. In recent years, Spoek has toured the world, working with some of the coolest dance producers. His music is released on Sub Pop, home to grunge. Little wonder it reflects so many people and places, all given his unique and often-dark township techno twist.

So is this world music? Of course not. Nor is the fine new album by Nneka, whose righteous soul music is so much more genuine and uplifting than all those old-school wannabes whose CDs sell by the million. Nneka lives in Berlin and sings in English – but she hails from Warri, Nigeria, so gets categorised as a world music performer and thus finds it that much harder to get on playlists, get gigs and get attention. Just like the rapper Baloji, whose highly original album was my pick of last year but gets pigeonholed for coming from Kinshasa via Belgium.

It is 25 years since the concept of world music was created by enthusiasts in a north London pub. Perhaps it made sense then, as a marketing device to promote the sounds of the world that were lost in record shops and on the radio. But not now. Not in this mixed-up, messy and shrunken world. It feels like an outdated and increasingly offensive term.

For a start, it implies cultural superiority. Artists from America and Europe tend not to get stuck in the world section, just those that don’t speak English or come from “exotic” parts of the world. They can be consigned safely to the world music ghetto, ignored by the mainstream and drooled over by those who approach music as an offshoot of anthropology.

Of course, even Fela Kuti made music that owed as much to America as to his native Nigeria. But how does this label make any sense now, when you have western bands such as Tuneyards relying on African grooves while artists such as D’Banj and Buraka Som Sistema destroy the concept with each track they release? Or when you hear samples from all over the world in clubs?

Or indeed, when a very British singer and a bassist from one of America’s biggest rock bands join forces with Fela’s drummer and singers from Mali and Ghana, as on Damon Albarn’s latest project Rocketjuice and the Moon? This band emerged from Africa Express, an organisation I helped to found seven years ago to break down the ghetto walls. Among those joining Albarn, Flea and Tony Allen on the album is M.anifest, a Ghanaian rapper who lives in Minnesota and often performs with M3nsa, a fellow countryman who lives in north London, with a British teacher as their DJ.

Should this be filed under world music?

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