The broadly-labeled “world music” or “world beat” musical genre was enormously popular from the late ‘80s through the late ‘90s and, for me as a musician, exciting and inspirational. Musicians from Mali to Croatia to Brazil found themselves collaborating with the biggest First World pop stars of the day to produce uniquely multicultural sounds. Peter Gabriel powered whole albums with African drumming and duets with singer Youssou N’Dour, a superstar in Africa and Europe. Paul Simon recorded a South African-influenced album with musicians from that country, and he and Michael Jackson also recorded separately with the Brazilian samba-reggae group Olodum (which I drummed with myself in Carnaval in the mid-90s). Sting, having soared to fame with a group that fused rock and reggae, toured with percussionists of African and Caribbean roots and scored a hit with Algerian singer Cheb Mami in “Desert Rose.” Audiences ate it up.
None of that would be possible today, or at least popular, because an ugly current of racial totalitarianism has taken hold among many young people who would condemn the Western artists for cultural appropriation. The opportunities for such musical blends to knit disparate audiences together are disappearing, replaced by a militant tribal defensiveness.
When musical artists mix genres and collaborate in a way that promotes unity rather than division, there is no faster way to break down barriers of race, nationality, and gender and move people beyond the barricades of politics. The exciting energy such a creative partnership can generate brings people together more quickly, harmoniously, and organically than any other artistic or activist endeavor.
Conversely, nothing is more certain to wedge people further apart than using a musical performance to sow division and perpetuate resentment in an audience that otherwise is primed to seek common ground.