David Byrne Creates a Playlist of Creative Music From Africa & the Caribbean—or What One Nameless President Has Called “Shithole Countries”

Image by LivePict, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

How­ev­er many shades of dis­gust that may have run through me when a cer­tain world leader referred to Haiti and coun­tries in Africa as “shit­holes,” with­in hours, my head was turned in every direc­tion by defi­ant, cre­ative respons­es to the moral­ly bank­rupt com­ment that exposed the think­ing behind it as com­plete­ly void of knowl­edge and respect for the vibran­cy of the coun­tries in ques­tion. How­ev­er weary­ing this dis­play of igno­rance, it only threw into high­er relief the vital­i­ty and resilien­cy of African and Caribbean coun­tries.

Few Amer­i­can artists have been as tuned into, and influ­enced by, that vital­i­ty as deeply and for as long as David Byrne. His decades-span­ning engage­ment with African, Caribbean, and Latin Amer­i­can music and his found­ing of world music label Lua­ka Bop give him as much cred­i­bil­i­ty on the sub­ject as any “col­o­niz­er” (as a cer­tain Black Pan­ther char­ac­ter might teas­ing­ly say). Byrne wrote on his web­site in sad­ness and anger in response to the infa­mous com­ment. In an attempt to co-opt the word, he shared a playlist of African and Caribbean music that he called “The Beau­ti­ful Shit­holes.” The ref­er­ence may seem triv­i­al­iz­ing, but his pur­pose was seri­ous, as he out­lined in his full com­ments.

The ques­tion Byrne asks is whether music can “help us empathize with its mak­ers?” Many cul­tur­al crit­ics might look around and shake their heads. Byrne leaves the ques­tion open. His angry note is direct and direc­tive, but even he admits that it’s a moment to vent, not to resolve a moral cri­sis. “Got that off my chest,” he con­cludes, “now maybe I can lis­ten to some music.” What­ev­er degree of pow­er we may or may not have to change cru­el, big­ot­ed poli­cies, we always have the choice to turn our backs to xeno­phobes and racists and our faces to the rest of the world. Byrne invites us to do just that.

The playlist starts with four tracks from Lua­ka Bop com­pi­la­tion albums of Cuban music, whose “Afro-Cuban musi­cal iden­ti­ty remained rec­og­niz­able,” the label’s descrip­tion notes, for “almost 500 years.” Then we’re off into 32 tracks of clas­sic and con­tem­po­rary African and Caribbean music from well-known leg­ends like Fela Kuti and Amadou & Miri­am, young upstarts like Niger­ian Afrobeat prodi­gy Wiz­Kid, and the relent­less­ly funky Tuareg rock stars Tinari­wen. Byrne has always seemed to believe in music as a site of uni­ver­sal cul­tur­al exchange. His curat­ed playlist and its unspar­ing title remind us that, while out­rage, and action, over injus­tice is war­rant­ed, we can also find solu­tions in cel­e­bra­tion.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

David Byrne Launch­es the “Rea­sons to Be Cheer­ful” Web Site: A Com­pendi­um of News Meant to Remind Us That the World Isn’t Actu­al­ly Falling Apart

Stream 8,000 Vin­tage Afropop Record­ings Dig­i­tized & Made Avail­able by The British Library

New Doc­u­men­tary Brings You Inside Africa’s Lit­tle-Known Punk Rock Scene

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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