Dominion of New York

Art & Entertainment

June 6, 2012

New Rihanna & Coldplay Video Serves Up Asian Stereotypes

More articles by »
Written by: Michael Starkey
Tags: , ,

Rihanna in the video for Princess of China.


acism is not ok. Sounds simple, right? Well, this week Rihanna and Coldplay prove that some people just don’t get it.  And by some people, I mean Rihanna and Coldplay whose new video for their song “Princess of China,” is packed full of racist imagery.

Or perhaps I’m overreacting? There is another way of looking at this video: that it’s paying homage to Asian cultures. The video’s use of a wide variety of Asian cultural motifs could be a sign that Asians are no longer considered forever foreign, forever different. Perhaps it’s part of a larger process of cultural assimilation. But that’s a hard argument to make. Consider, for example, that of the two directors and two stars, none are in any way Asian.

Let’s look at these two viewpoints.

Imagine if the roles were reversed and an Asian or Asian-American music star was wearing an afro and doing a bunch of disconnected stereotypically black things

First, here’s some background on the song and video. Earlier this year, Coldplay and Rihanna released “Princess of China” as a single from Coldplay’s latest album. The title is a bit odd, since the song contains no lyrical references to China. It has some Asian musical touches, which is the best explanation that I have for the name. The lyrics are about a couple who could’ve been great together but have fallen apart: “Once upon a time we’re burning bright. Now all we ever do is fight.” I don’t see anything offensive in the song itself. Compared to some Rihanna songs, these lyrics are refreshingly thoughtful. And the music, while not fantastic, is at least interesting. And adding a variety of cultural elements to music is often a positive move, in my book.

But then came the video. A short version was released in April, featuring only Rihanna. She has chopsticks in her hair Her hair is made up like a Japanese geisha and multiple arms like a Hindu goddess or the “Dance of the Thousand-Hand Bodhisattva.” The video features seemingly random bits of Asian-ness, and Rihanna described her look as “gangsta goth geisha.”  It wasn’t a good sign, and the video received some criticism for being racist. Coldplay has used it on their current concert tour.

Now, in this first week of June, a full version of the video came out. It’s a fake movie trailer for a martial arts action and love drama starring Chris Martin (lead singer of Coldplay) and Rihanna. Martin fights off ninjas, and Rihanna has a geisha hairstyle chopsticks in her hair again, with long fingernails, and multiple arms. There are elements strongly reminiscent of the Chinese film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Other than the lead singer, nobody from Coldplay appears.

Why do I say this is racist? First, it’s clearly a case of cultural appropriation with little involvement or credit given to anybody of that background. Of the song writers, two stars of the video, directors of the video, and producers of the song, none are Asian. That’s a bad sign and suggests money and exposure grabbing with no little to no benefits for the cultural group. Furthermore, the video is a mishmash of Japanese, Chinese, and Hindu imagery without any reason that I can find for why they would all be in the video, other than to give it more Asian-ness and with most having nothing to do with the meaning of the song.  There is also no apparent acknowledgment of the differences in these cultures–chopsticks, a little geisha, and the arms of a Hindu goddess, huh?  The video also features racist and sexist tropes, with Rihanna presented similarly to the dragon lady stereotype and one of the few Asian actors playing an evil ninja. And Rihanna’s eyes are accentuated with makeup to make them look more Asian.

Imagine if the roles were reversed and an Asian or Asian-American music star was wearing an afro and doing a bunch of disconnected stereotypically black things — maybe playing basketball,  singing gospel in a church choir, and playing reggae in a dance club. It doesn’t sound good.

Another bad sign is the tweet that Rihanna sent a couple of months ago, apparently mocking Karrueche Tran, Chris Brown’s part-Vietnamese girlfriend.  Rihanna tweeted a photo of a pack of rice cakes with sunglasses and hoop earrings on it and the text “Ima make u my bitch” — one word, ridiculous.

But maybe I’m looking at this in the wrong way. The allusions to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and overall plot of the video do match the lyrics. It’s a song about love and fighting, both if which are featured heavily in the video. According to members of Coldplay, the album as a whole is a saga of love between two characters, which could possibly explain the movie trailer format. And the song and video could be seen as a positive, multicultural move.  Including elements from diverse cultures in music, when done tastefully and with innovation, can be exciting, not demeaning or discriminatory. Timbaland is a prime example of someone who combines diverse cultural elements into an innovative whole, although he could give more credit where it is due as well.

I really like Rihanna’s voice, and although her lyrics and public antics lead a lot to be desired, I enjoy some of her music.  And Coldplay is a decent enough group, with songs that are sometimes decent, sometimes boring.

But in the end, I find the video more offensive than it is a respectful homage. The lack of significant involvement from an Asians, the mishmash of different cultures with no apparent explanation or relevance to the story, the broad tropes such as the dragon lady, and Rihanna’s recent tweet all lead me to believe that this is a step backward, not a path forward.

About the Author

Michael Starkey
Michael Starkey
Michael Starkey is an engineer 9-5, but in his spare time he writes about music and cultural history. His work includes "'Mercy, Mercy Me, The Ecology': Environmental Themes in Black Music" and "Hidden from Sight: African Americans and the Wilderness", presented at the annual conference of American Society of Environmental History, in 2006 and 2007 respectively. He is currently working on a book based on his master's thesis, "Wilderness, Race, and African Americans: An Environmental History from Slavery to Jim Crow." Michael lives and work in New York, NY. He currently resides in East Harlem with his wife and splits his work time between offices in Queens and Manhattan. He enjoys bicycling, listening to music, and playing soccer.


Official portrait from his tenure as US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.