Reasons to be glad to not be in cultural studies: “Feast of the Mau Mau” by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins

I was listening to my local college radio station today and they played on their blues show “Feast of the Mau Mau” by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. I suppose playing it now was intended, given Screamin’ Jay Hawkins career, as a kind of Halloween song.  For anyone who has any notion of what Mau Mau was, the song seems designed, on purpose, to play into  stereotypes of “Africa.” Because “play into” is one of those phrases that people under 30 probably never encounter, let me be more explicit.  In my opinion, the song was constructed at a time when many people in the United States (Hawkins’ audience) shared stereotypes about “primitive Africa”  (basically equal to stereotypes about voodoo) and was intended to convey a message.  Here’s the message:

“I am exaggerating how people in Africa behave to make clear to my audience that we (me and you) do not behave that way, but as a performer who is black, I am a little bit crazy like the Africans I am stereotyping and so coming to see me perform is an “experience” of being close to that stereotype, with an aura of danger in a setting (the concert hall) of safety. So please give me money if you want to experience a reinforcement of your stereotype.”

In cultural studies, everything is inverted and meta, and because Screamin’ Jay Hawkins was African-American, the song would be turned into (of course) a sly denunciation of imperialism.  He is not “playing into” stereotypes, he is “playing with” stereotypes.  (In the only published interpretation I could find on Google that is indeed the “take”.)  In the spirit of replication studies, you can judge for yourself. (It is helpful to read the lyrics while listening.)  Is he “playing into” or “playing with”?

About mkevane

Economist at Santa Clara University and Director of Friends of African Village Libraries.
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