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Why Are People So Angry About the New Holi-Inspired Pharrell x Adidas Collab?

Cue the 'cultural appropriation' debates

Pharrell touched down in India earlier this month to celebrate Holi, the festival of colour, in honour of his new Holi-inspired collection of sneakers and clothing for adidas. The ‘Hu Holi NMD’ line drops worldwide later this week—March 16—but people are getting pretty mad about it even before it hits stores.

Why the outrage?

Rajan Zed, a Nevada-based man self-described as a “distinguished Hindu statesman,” may have provided the spark that set off some of the ire, releasing a statement on his website saying that the collection is a “trivialization of traditions-concepts-symbols-beliefs of Hinduism.”

Okay, Holi may technically be a Hindu festival, but it is celebrated all across India by people of every religion and faith—Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, you name it—to herald the arrival of spring. And trust me when I say there are no religious overtones in the modern-day execution of this festival. I’ve celebrated it my entire life growing up in India—and even in countries far away—and it’s one giant hedonistic affair. Think of it as an all-day party with booze, music and edibles (in the form of a drink known as bhang) that spills out from homes and bars right onto the street. So to paint it as some sort of sacred event that’s been corrupted by adidas and Pharrell is highly misleading.

Meanwhile, some mainstream media outlets are wondering whether this collection counts as cultural appropriation, with some Twitter users voicing the same concern. But I view it as a global celebration of the spirit and joy of this Indian festival, and a chance for cultural traditions from various corners of the world to enter the global discourse.

Adidas responded to the Independent with this statement:
“Adidas Originals and Pharrell Williams created Hu as a global platform to inspire positive change. Hu was founded upon the principles of unity, equality, humanity and colour with an intention to explore humanity and celebrate diversity around the world. Together, Adidas Originals and Pharrell Williams use this platform to help tell stories from around the globe.”

And I think they did it thoughtfully, for the following reasons: a) By celebrating the launch of the collection in India, with a massive party in Mumbai, and by releasing the line in India first—ahead of the worldwide release. b) By bringing in Bollywood actor Ranveer Singh, one of adidas’s India ambassadors, to host the Holi party. c) By featuring only Indian models in the Hu Holi campaign, such as Radhika Nair, who has also walked the runway for brands like Chloe and Balenciaga. d) With a video on their website explaining the cultural significance of Holi, and the harmony and unity the festival brings about across all communities in India.

In an interview with GQ India, Pharrell said, “We’re always trying to use our platform to give volume and visibility to different voices from different cultures and their aesthetic. You know? I thought if I’m the face of a brand, why not make humanity the face. Exploring different people from different places, from different diasporas.”

At the end of the day, isn’t inclusivity, representation and diversity what we want to see more of? With the launch of this collection, millions of people around the world who might never even have heard of Holi are going to walk away with a little bit of knowledge about a culture thousands of miles away that they might otherwise never have come across. The sneakers feature words in the Devanagari script of the Hindi language—words like rang, which means colour; insaan, which means human; and sansaar, which means world. I, for one, think it would be pretty cool to see someone in say, Johannesburg, walking down the street wearing pastel powder-dyed shoes emblazoned with the word insaan. Regardless of whatever separates or divides us, we’re all humans at the end of the day, right?

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