Orientalism in Music: An Audiovisual Guide

[2:20] “When I was a geisha he was a samurai
Somehow I understood him when he spoke Thai”

This music video by Nicki Minaj is full of Orientalist themes that portray Asian, and specifically Japanese culture, in a very gimmicky fashion. The video shows different kinds of cultural appropriation from the traditional outfits to the to the addition of traditional Asian martial arts for aesthetic purposes. One important thing that this song lyric brings to light is the conflation of all Asian cultures as one giant and concrete thing when there are significant differences between them. Samurais and geishas hail from Japan, but this song lyric, solely for the purpose of rhyming, has fused together Thai and Japanese ideas.

What makes this intersection of Western with a perceived idea of Japanese culture important is that Japanese popular culture, specifically things like anime, manga, costume-play and more have come to influence Western pop culture. Ken Mcleod states that the rise of what he calls “techno-Orientalism” in Western pop culture has given rise to “hybrid cultural appropriations and re-appropriations” which have come to influence the Western music. This then begs the question of where is the fine line between appreciation and stereotypical appropriation. There is a danger in old, stereotypical ideas being used as the basis for music because it sets a precedent for how people, specially women in these areas are depicted. Minaj’s sexualization of Japanese traditional garb has thus sexualized Japanese women as a whole, making something sacred sexual.

Asian women are often stereotyped as being submissive, passive, and quiet with images of the silent but sexually suggestive geisha contributing to this. This portrayal persists today, along with the idea of Asian women being seen as “exotic” commodities. These stereotypical depictions in mainstream music may have contributed to the fetishization of Asian women as well.

But how else does music affect our perceptions of “Oriental” cultures? One way is through hearing certain sounds and instruments that we associate with those cultures that tend to be stereotypical. A great example of this is known as the Oriental Riff which many people may have heard maybe in films about Asia or in songs that mention anything Asian.

An interesting fact about the Oriental Riff is that many people hear this and immediately think of Asia, but this would be completely misleading considering that this is a Western production. This in itself is an Orientalist trope that has persisted for years and still continues in music. Even old, classic songs that many people can recognize use this riff when making what we may call Asian-centric type music. An example of this riff being used would be in Carl Douglas’ 1974 hit “Kung Fu Fighting”. This idea of generalizing places within what we consider the Orient as “exotic” reduces the people there to simply an art form rather than as actual people.

[0:47] “There were funky China men from funky Chinatown, they were chopping them up, they were chopping them down, it’s an ancient Chinese art”

Douglas in this hit song portrays Chinese people, or as he says “China men from funky Chinatown” with stereotypical names like “Billie Chin” or “Sammy Chong” as people who spend all their time in Chinatown practicing kung-fu all day long. Songs like this even contribute to the public conscious of assuming everyone in China knowing kung-fu, with questions such as “Is it true that everyone in China knows Kung Fu?” being asked on popular question boards.

The idea of orientalism in the West affecting our perception of the Orient does harm to the people who live there, but this got me wondering if people in these regions also work to Orientalize themselves and each other through popular music. Are there ways in which one Asian country may depict another Asian country based off of stereotyping and proceed to appropriate as well?

In the above video, popular Japanese girl group, ANGERME, does a take on a sort of Bollywood-infused concept, with the group appropriating and giving their own take on traditional Indian garb. While this may not be an example of the girls self-Orientalizing themselves, they are also appropriating from another Oriental culture by taking maybe words or clothes from that culture to sell music. The song in called “Koi wa Accha Accha” which translates to “Love is Good Good” with the “Accha” sound coming from the Hindi word अच्छा (Accha) which means good. On one hand, one could say that this is a form of appreciation for another culture, but according to lyricist Kodama Ameko and composer Hoshibe Sho, the song is meant to be fun and “nonsensical” which again sees another culture as purely an art form to sell music, which has me wondering why this is so prevalent.


  1. LOCKE, RALPH P. “On Exoticism, Western Art Music, and the Words We Use.” Archiv Für Musikwissenschaft, vol. 69, no. 4, 2012, pp. 318–328. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23375158

2. MCLEOD, KEN. “Afro-Samurai: Techno-Orientalism and Contemporary Hip Hop.” Popular Music, vol. 32, no. 2, 2013, pp. 259–275., www.jstor.org/stable/24736760

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