What Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty fashion show did wrong — and how we can learn from it

Shea Couleé walks the runway of the Savage X Fenty virtual show amidst dancers in a multi-colored stage
Shea Couleé walks the runway of the Savage X Fenty virtual show amidst dancers in a multi-colored stage
Image Credit: Getty Images

On October 9th, singer and business owner Rihanna launched her much anticipated virtual Savage X Fenty fashion show on Amazon Prime. The show stood out for its array of guest performances, such as Lizzo and Miguel, along with its size-inclusive, trans-inclusive, and racially diverse cast of dancers, performers and models. While this was a show that celebrated inclusivity unlike any other lingerie brand has done before, it also highlighted a glaring misstep in the appropriation of Muslim culture, in which one of the songs played during the performance incorporated sacred Islamic verses.

The 2017 song “Doom” by London-based producer Coucou Chloe featured a narration called the Hadith, a record of the traditions, sayings and actions from the Prophet Mohammed, which after the holy book, the Quran, is considered the most important and sacred of texts for Muslim people. In response to the criticism of this song over social media, both Rihanna and Coucou Chloe issued public apologies. Each stated how they missed the mark to properly research the verses, and although unintentional, they acknowledged the impact of their mistake and the ways in which it harmed Muslim community by excluding their views and appropriating their faith. Rihanna and the Savage X Fenty team have since removed the song from the recorded show, and Coucou Chloe is in the process of removing the song from all streaming platforms — both actions as part of their commitment to ensure an error like this doesn’t happen again.

In the pursuit of inclusion and equity, mistakes are bound to happen — acknowledging its impact and taking steps to prevent further harm is part of the process. While most folks’ definition of harm defaults to physical and deliberate injury, in the transformative justice arena, harm is also “when the actions of a person or system has a negative impact that creates unmet needs and obligations.” In the case of the Hadith verses being used in the song above, this is a form of cultural appropriation that is ultimately an extension of colonialism and simultaneously Islamophobic, echoing historical events experienced by Muslim communities worldwide. Historically, Muslim people have been deemed “backwards” and dispossessed of their land, religion and culture in favor of a “civilized” power. When we think of sacred texts, one must ask, whose sacred texts do we value prioritize as worthy of respect and why? Knowing more about the historic and contemporary ways colonialism operates can shed light on the outcomes that succeed it.

The aftermath of the Savage X Fenty show is an example of how to take accountability for harm and take action. While reducing harm and building equity is part of the inclusion journey to achieving justice, it is important to understand what harm is and how it manifests at both the interpersonal and institutional level. Furthermore, it is important that we step out of the limiting binary of good vs. bad people and realize how all of us have the potential to cause harm, even the most conscientious of us, like Rihanna. Systems of oppression, Islamophobia in this instance, are in the air we breathe, by design. Therefore, if we want to make sure instances of Islamophobia no longer exist in the world, we have to wrestle with the ways in which it is enabled and permeates life daily and structurally.

Whether a virtual fashion show like Savage X Fenty is being produced, or advertisements for brands are being developed behind the scenes, or an organization is building out their services — all require a degree of creativity and imagination. No matter how diverse the team or cast, or how original the approach, no part of the creative, logistical, or structural process is exempt from nuanced intersectional and inclusion-based thinking.

US Corporate Programs Coordinator @ Fearless Futures

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