Polache makes a scandal

So the internet chatter over the past few days (which I mostly miss because I got off the Facebook) has been about Honduran singer Polache. It appears he was competing in an international singing contest in Viña del Mar, Chile. He performed in the "folklore" category, singing his song "I Speak Spanish" (in Spanish). Young Polache (née Paul Hughes) had his shirt off, his tattoos exposed, and an array of similarly shirtless, tattooed backup dancers. The screen in the back showed images of stereotypical "gang members" as he performed. The most scandalous thing I noticed in the video—or at least the most noteworthy thing—was that his nipples seemed to dance independently, without taking orders from his chest.

As an anthropologist I welcome a very broad definition of the category "folklore" (an outdated tool of nationalism to be sure) which reifies certain aspects of that other broad category "culture" as positive and representative while excluding others. I don't want to make light of the horror with which many Hondurans received Polache's assertion that gang culture is, in fact, Honduran folklore—at least in its not-inherently-violent embodied style, fashion, musical, linguistic and other symbolic representations. Honduras has turned the idea of the gang member into a monster; Honduras has made a certain form of masculine embodiment synonymous with unthinkable violence. And yet gang embodiment (and/or the way people imagine it) is so central to so many aspects of contemporary Honduran life in ways that are not just negative, and are sometimes profoundly creative. I'm not a big fan of Polache's—not of his music or his politics—but I actually think his performance was a little bit brilliant.

Here's Polache talking about the reaction to the video, with clips of the video showing:

The critique, of course, is that Polache's glamorizing "gang" culture as symbolic of Honduras is glamorizing violence, and is an international insult to Hondurans, who would prefer to be associated with not-gangs. But it could also be read as valorizing the creativity and art of such a rich and richly embodied local culture and humanizing the people identified (rightly or wrongly) with it, people who are criminalized as a result of that identification. And wouldn't it be nice if gang members could be recognizable as human beings? [Well at least from the perspective of my bourgeois liberal habitus, yes!]

Again, I don't want to downplay the truth of the subjectivating processes that have structured Honduran dispositions in such a way that everything associated with gangs is experienced (bodily) as an affront. Especially for those who have directly suffered violence at the hands of gang members. But given the pervasiveness of "gang" symbolism in all areas of Honduran culture, might it be possible to begin to disarticulate the violence perpetrated by some people, from symbols and forms of embodiment shared by so many? Anyway, the way that tattoos and other "gang"-identified signifiers are generally imagined/portrayed in the press and in Polache's dance are pretty out of date compared with the bodily performances of actual self-identified Honduran gang members today.

Of course there's that other possibility that his performance was just regular old cultural appropriation for commercial ends. Either way, congratulations Polache- you've done something interesting!