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Lost in Translation: The Disappearing Drummer Boy

January 2, 2015

Lost in Translation

When I first watched this lovely a capella arrangement of The Little Drummer Boy by the Pentatonix, I was especially struck by the diversity of the group. I teared up when I saw that — at least to my eye, which is particularly poor at this sort of thing — some of the singers would not have looked horribly out of place in Bethlehem when Jesus was born. “It’s just too bad,” I thought as I watched, given what’s going on in the country right now, “that there isn’t a black singer, too.”

Oh wait – there is, he shows up about a minute in. That’s funny, why would they wait so long to show another singer? Or did I just miss him?

I watched it again. Oh, there he is at the beginning, I did just miss him. Huh.

But something seemed a bit off about the video. Was it just me, or was he really getting less screen time than the others? I’m lamentably new to paying close attention to issues of racism, so I wasn’t really sure. I watched it a few more times.[1]

And it wasn’t just that. Look at the arrangement of the singers: all the others are standing in a semi-circle, with him at the center, slightly in front of them. Look at the choreography, at about 2:00, when the lyrics get to “Shall I play for you?”, and again at about 3:00. Doesn’t it look like they are all centered on him, and that those moments are leading into segments that were really intended for him to shine?

This gentleman’s name is Kevin Olusola. In addition to beatboxing, he plays piano, cello, and saxophone. He combined two of those skills and won second place in the international competition “Celebrate and Collaborate with Yo-Yo Ma” for his “cello-boxing” arrangement of “Dona Nobis Pacem.”

He sings vocal percussion for the Pentatonix. He is the percussion section. They’re singing “The Little Drummer Boy.” He is the little drummer boy. He is the Little Drummer Boy!! He is the star of this song!

The arrangement shows it. The choreography shows it. They were clearly designed to put his talents front and center. Literally!!

But in the translation from performance to music video, he was somehow demoted from star to sound effects guy.

Which is terribly sad, because the video is the final product. It’s the only thing we get to see. We can imagine; we can try to fill in with our mind’s eye the camera angles that were edited out, the shots that would have kept him centered in the frame during those segments that were intended to feature him. But we’ll never see them.

Now. We have to talk about the fact that it is the black guy that this happened to. Are we looking at racism in action, here?

Remember that racist actions are not exclusively determined by malice or even by intent. Just as with sexism, systemic biases and unconscious individual bias can produce outcomes and actions that are racist. Not long before I saw this video, I had recently read an excellent analysis of the street harassment video that was going around about a month ago, by a sociologist who looked at three hypotheses that could be compatible with the video’s presentation of a white woman being harassed only by men of color, “almost all black men.” So I was primed to think about similar effects in this music video.

I don’t think there was any kind of racist intent here, even though the camera has to work pretty hard to avoid Mr. Olusola, seeing as how he’s standing front and center.[2] I think that several independent judgments about the normative aesthetic for music videos, and about marketing, were affected by systemic racism to produce this video.

Let’s take marketing first. It seems quite likely to me that the person in charge of PR for Pentatonix didn’t think the video would be as popular if it starred the black guy. Is that a racist decision, or a practical decision?[3]

Maybe it wasn’t even that conscious. Maybe they were just looking at the popularity of all the singers, trying to make sure that the most popular singers got the most screen time.

That leads into the normative aesthetics for music videos. (Now, I don’t have any expertise in this at all, and I rarely watch music videos, so this is a novice’s view.) First of all, it was clear that the camera always focused on the singer who had the lyrics and/or the melody, which I believe is a usual convention. Secondly, all the harmonies are very legato, sung almost entirely on vowels. It’s an almost ethereal aesthetic. This is reflected in the eyes, the faces, the gentle swaying of the four singers that the camera lingers on. The setting, too, is very light and airy; the dominant background is the white, cloudy sky, with a hazy skyline in the distance.

Beatboxing is not ethereal. It emerged in hiphop, which is an African-American artform, and incorporates techniques that are used in forms of African traditional music.[4] It’s almost entirely consonants: the opposite of legato. It is a thoroughly and visibly embodied technique: all lips and tongue and teeth and cheeks. It cannot be made to look ethereal. If the video editor was aiming for an ethereal aesthetic, is that racism, or is that artistic judgment?

Just as with feminist work, part of anti-racist work is becoming aware of how all these little decisions, none of which were made with race consciously in mind, nevertheless have been influenced by race. In America, the default person is white, and the default culture is white. But, as Kurk is so fond of pointing out with regard to gender, the default is not marked: only the “other” is marked. So white people say things like “American culture” and “black culture,” when what we actually mean is “American white culture” and “American black culture.” The “white” part gets lost in translation.

Marketing considerations are driven by the target demographic and target genre (as defined by record labels or whatever the equivalent is these days); if you want mainstream success, you target white audiences, with an aesthetic that appeals to white culture.

Let me be very clear: I am not ragging on Pentatonix here. I love their music, and I wish them success. I am not saying that they are a racist group, or that their marketing people are racist, or that their video editors are racist. People aren’t racist nearly as often as words and actions and outcomes are.

I’m just really sad that, after making all the decisions that went into making this video, they didn’t notice that the result had lost something important in translation, and throw it out, and try again. Because I really wanted to see Kevin Olusola as the little drummer boy.

And if they released another, differently-edited video that did star Mr. Olusola? I would totally buy that.

[1] Thanks to @h00die_R and @tapji for watching the video and validating my impressions that something was not right here.

[2] And thanks again to @h00die_R for this observation.

[3] This issue was brought up by David Chen and quoted by Zeynep Tufekci in her article about the street harassment video.

[4] According to Wikipedia.

Finally, thanks to Regina Heater who reminds us those of us who celebrate it that it’s still Christmas with a lovely commented list of Christmas music over at A Nun’s Life, which is how I came across this video in the first place.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. January 2, 2015 10:53 pm

    I think you are overreacting to the visuals. I found the singers quite fairly treated all round. I am glad I listened even though this is not exactly my style of music. I was impressed with the background sound and with the centrality of Kevin’s verse – dead centre in the video sound track.

  2. January 3, 2015 12:29 am

    Thanks for pointing out the centrality of his verse, Bob – a nice structural detail. 🙂

    Perhaps I should clarify that my critique applies specifically to the visual track, which is an integral element of a music video. I agree that the audio track is very balanced, treats the singers fairly, and I love that Kevin gets the “Shall I play for you?” line.

    I’m glad you liked the piece!

  3. January 5, 2015 8:46 pm

    If you think that not being on screen is racism you are going to find it in every little second that a person of color is NOT on the screen. However, consider that this works in all sorts of ways…for every second that Avi isn’t on the screen you can see antisemitism, and for every second that you don’t see Kirstie you can cry sexism and every second you don’t see Mitch, homophobia.
    It is probably just my opinion, but I don’t think being ‘not racist/antisemitic/sexist/homophobic’ means that a person of that persuasion has to be up front more than the others. I think that it means s/he has to be EQUALLY represented. And frankly, I think he is pretty fairly represented.

  4. January 7, 2015 6:43 am

    Thanks for saying, “I’m lamentably new to paying close attention to issues of racism.” Even more than that, thank you very much for helping more of us pay closer attention to racism.

    Let me say, as a non-marked male (not a FE-male) and as a white person (not a person marked by “color”), that the tokenism in the group Pentatonix (a group that coincidentally formed in a high school just down the highway from where I live) is subtle stuff.

    After so many, including African American men such as Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5, and the Temptations, covered this Christmas carol, Alicia Keys released her own version, “Little Drummer Girl.” So doesn’t that also pay attention to systemic markings of gender too?

    And that “K. O.” of the Penatotonix is marked by the color of his and has to deal with that, Jae Ha Kim reveals here:

    I did an interview with African-American musician Kevin Olusola of Pentatonix. I mention his race to lend context. He remembered visiting a remote village in China where some of the younger children thought he was made of chocolate.

  5. January 7, 2015 6:51 am

    “wanted to see Kevin Olusola as the little drummer boy.”

    He’s just heard more only as the drum. 😦

  6. January 7, 2015 11:26 am

    I should perhaps mention that I also checked out a bunch of other Pentatonix videos (highly recommended – they are a great group!), and none of them struck me as problematic.

    What makes this video different, in my opinion, is that the selection of the song, the arrangement of the music, and the choreography of the singers all appear intended to showcase Kevin’s talents; and twice, the camera cuts away from Kevin just at the point where I would expect it to center and linger on him.

    For that reason, in this video, I think it is reasonable to expect somewhat more than equal screen time for the person who was apparently intended to be the featured performer. And I do think it likely that the subtle, systemic racism that values traditionally white aesthetics over traditionally black artforms influenced the process of video editing to produce this result, without any conscious intent on anyone’s part.

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