White Middle Class Panic: Kanye West, Race and Awards Ceremonies

by - Monday, March 02, 2015

Although my mode of social consciousness on this blog normally revolves around feminism, recently I've been thinking a lot about race. As a girl of mixed heritage, it's an issue I've often struggled to articulate my thoughts about, perhaps for fear of being seen as over-sensitive, dramatic or playing the victim. It's so easy in 2015 to live in a happy bubble that insists that racism and racial intolerance is no longer an issue, but just last week alone, we've been exposed to enough television to show us that that is not the case -  'Meet The Ukippers', Guliana Rancic's comments about Zendaya Coleman's hair on Fashion Police and now, The Brit Awards. 

Now, The Brits has never been known for it's racial, class or gender diversity. Instead, it's a pat-on-the-back exercise for those who've sold the most records, smoozed with the right execs and ultimately, dominated the world with relative blandness. One Direction. Take That. Ed Sheeran. All talented in their own right, but all ultimately very safe, very obvious, very mum and dad friendly. Top it all off with the feeble school-disco humour of Ant & Dec (who just last week hit headlines for shedding their working class vote), and you have a recipe for a middle class dinner party of people who wear hunter wellies and pay to glamp at Glastonbury every year so they can 'really soak up the vibes.' 

Britain is, and always has been, a great cultural melting pot, of numerous ethnicities and backgrounds, making exciting strides in the worlds of pop, rnb, hip-hop and indeed, grime. Ah yes, grime - remember that? With the removal of genre categories at the brits way back in 2007, it seems the panel took this as the perfect opportunity to complete write off British urban music, rarely offering it's stars look-ins to the 'Best Male', 'Best Female' or 'Best Album Categories'. Whether this is down to institutionalised racism or the mere perception that 'true british' people don't care for urban music I don't know, but it's greatly contributed to the lack of excitement at the ceremony. Until now.

Called in at the last minute to replace Rihanna, Kanye West was never going to come quietly. But from the snide 'who's he not going to let finish now?' tired jokes and the evident lack of understanding of his unique brand of artistry from the show's presenters Ant & Dec, it felt like he was hauled in more as a curiosity, a 'black circus freak' for the whites to laugh at, than from a nod of true creative expression. To invite an artist such as him on, only to censor half the performance because of it's use of the N-word felt like setting someone up for a fall on purpose. Allowing the perfect environment in which to 'other' Kanye for his naughty language, rather than admit that the performance was bold, intimidating, and reminiscent of the middle-class's worst fears - rebellion on the streets.One of my favourite Guardian writers, Tshepo Mokena, summed it up pretty accurately in her part of a Brits rundown: 
"Drake has been bigging up Brit crime drama Top Boy and grime MC clash series Lord of the Mics on his Instagram, so not to be outdone, Kanye brought out tens of grime dons from Krept and Konan to Novelist, and shouted out Skepta at the end of his astonishing All Day. Nothing says “black lives matter” more than putting the creators of Britain’s most daring music into the spotlight, and taunting racists with a cartoonish and chic version of their nightmares: hoods, flames, mobs."
That it took Kanye west, an American, to force some of Britain's most exciting black talents down the throats of the record-buying nation, says quite a lot about oblivious the british music industry is happy to be towards it's lack of racial diversity. While I do not wish to besmirch the obvious talent of the likes of Sam Smith and Ed Sheeran, you'd be hard pressed to call either of these stars controversial, edgy or smashing boundaries. And that's fine. I wouldn't want to live in a world where everyone was provocative as Kanye. But when someone like Kanye, or indeed Skepta, Konan etc does come along, we should have the good grace to respect them for their artistry, not mock or censor them because we feel uncomfortable with what they have to say, or how they wish to say it. 

While the N-word is not something I would use myself and I can't understand the desire to censor it, do not invite Kanye on in the first place. Ask him to sing a censored version. Warn the viewers in advance. Heck, ask him to sing a different song. All of these decisions could have been made, but to my knowledge, none of them were. It's indicative of a lack of understanding, or even an attempt to understand, that if we are every to combat racism, we need to be more celebratory of diversity at the entertainment level. Thank god Taylor Swift gets it. 

AMEND: After I wrote this piece, I spotted this on Facebook. Just goes to show doesn't it? 

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