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The top ten most listened-to artists on Spotify as of November 2023 feature a wide array of well-known names: Taylor Swift, The Weeknd, Drake, Bad Bunny, Rihanna, Ed Sheeran, Justin Bieber, Doja Cat, Billie Eilish, and SZA. Yet only one of these artists produces music in a language other than English. If you slide down to the top 20, you will find one other non-English artist, Shakira. As it appears, only 10% of the music listened to in America is in a foreign language, that one other language being Spanish. No French, no German, no Italian, Chinese, Korean, or Japanese, let alone any Zulu, Hausa, or Arabic, make their way to the top spots.
The film industry follows a similar trend: Between 2003 and 2017, non-English language movies accounted for only 18.8% of releases in North America and aggregated to just 1.1% of domestic box offices. The United States is a geopolitical power, heavily involved in international affairs and thriving with cultural and ethnic diversity. Yet the media seems to be flowing from only one direction, missing out on the wondrous places that the world has to offer.
Failing to consume diverse media creates a one-sided perspective, allowing for stereotypes to emerge and perpetuating cultural appropriation. If all one can see about other countries is what appears on the TV or cinema screen, carelessly picked out by Hollywood in order to raise profits, no wonder that the Middle East has been reduced to sand dunes and camel riders with sheets wrapped around their heads; that Mexico, and the rest of Latin and South America with it, is abridged to cacti, sombreros, and drug dealers; that the whole continent of Africa is morphed into a single country bearing that same name, lacking industrialized cities and where lions, elephants, and humans coexist in a daily basis. Take, for example, the character Long Duk Dong from “Sixteen Candles,” whose East Asian identity is ridiculed from his very name to the fact that a gong sound plays every time he appears on screen, or the heavy-drinking, manly, hard-fighting Russian antagonist, such as boxer Ivan Drago in “Rocky IV.”
What if this did not have to be the case? Allowing international media to share the stage can be one step forward toward eradicating many of these cultural misrepresentations. There is no better way to learn about a foreign culture than through those to whom said culture belongs.
Art — let it be music, film, TV, or literature — is a form of self-expression, a pure, transparent, and honest depiction of identity, and a window into the life of those who for decades have only been seen through broken glasses that warp the image on the other side. Books such as “Midnight’s Children,” which narrates India’s transition into independence after British colonialism, or “Snow Falling in Spring,” a memoir set during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, have received awards precisely because they showcase reality, dissipating fallacies and promoting empathy. Shining a light on art expressions from around the world can have an equivalent impact. Instead of learning about Parisians by watching the American TV show “Emily in Paris,” why not watch actual French shows? If a romantic-comedy series is what you are looking for, “Plan Coeur,” co-created by French film director and screenwriter Noémie Salgio, might do the job. The narrow image of Mexican life as shown in films like “Nacho Libre,” which takes place in a barren desert and features a white actor, Jack Black, as the protagonist, can be combated by regarding films produced by Mexican directors, such as Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma,” that portrays the life of an indigenous housekeeper in an upper-middle class Mexican household.
Expanding the landscape of international media consumption can be another way to avoid diminishing foreign cultures by viewing them from a restricted perspective: Limited attention can create the impression that all art coming from a certain region follows a singular pattern. Chilean author Alberto Fuguet, for example, shared in his essay “I Am Not a Magical Realist” the struggle he encountered when trying to get published in the United States: Since his books lacked magical realism, a genre of literature born in Latin America that mixes the natural with the fantastical, they were deemed to be not Latino enough. This notion undermines not only the socio-cultural relevance that the books that gave rise to this genre had — such as “100 Years of Solitude” or “Pedro Páramo” — but also the identity of Latin Americans, reducing them to be only interesting enough in print when exotic or magical.
Remember the statistics of Spotify’s most listened-to artists in the U.S. The fact that Bad Bunny’s music, the only non-English singer in the top ten, originates from the popular reggaeton style can make it seem as though this is the only genre that Latin American musicians produce. Reggaeton currently is a significant part of Latin American culture, but so is pop rock, and folk music, as is noticeable in Mexican singer and songwriter Natalia Lafourcade’s style.
There is so much that art can reveal, and its capacity to create empathy and shed light on cultural sentiments is so powerful, that neglecting foreign media means missing out on an astonishing variety of valuable art. Streaming platforms have made it easier than ever to access content from around the world, so the next time you are endlessly browsing Netflix or scrolling through Spotify, try clicking on something in a foreign language or produced internationally. You will surely be surprised with what you may find.
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