FATIMA: What was your first reaction when you saw the performance? Were any of you onTwitter at the time? If so, what did your TL look like in terms of reactions?
SELINA THOMPSON: So, I didn’t watch the Brits – a) because the Brits is trash b) because I was at work at the time and c) because the only person of note, as far as I was aware that was performing was Kanye, who is also trash, and really pissed me off last week, so we’re not talking (you know what I mean). And I was only aware of the fact that he was performing at the Brits, because of a tweet from id magazine – there was no buzz about it, online or anything.
So, for me, my primary experience of it was via my Twitter and my Facebook feed, ages before I saw the performance. Because I work in theatre, my timeline has a fairly obvious split – white, middle class theatre makers (often shouty men) and the girls I went to school with/ other black creatives and writers – key responses were:
· Why is it muted/that is annoying, censorship
· YEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSSS YESSSSSSSSSS YESSSSSSSSSSSSS
· The tune is fiyah
· I don’t care about Kanye is that _____? I think I see _______ ! Look it’s _______
· Is it blazing squad?
· Flamethrowers are good
Then, from the alternative, whiter half of my timeline
· Kanye West is an idiot/preposterous/pretentious/a pompous ass
· You can’t just put a gang on stage and call it art
· We shouldn’t glamourize riots
· We shouldn’t try to conflate American rioting with gang culture in the UK
· Who is this gang?
· Who are these people?
· Why can’t we show our young men as more than this? (EUUURRRGHGHGHGHGHGHHH)
I was pissed off and intrigued.
I enjoyed the performance, in spite of myself. Kanye is terrible, but I think he has an eye for spectacle, and that he is able to create potently political images in spite of himself, and I think that that’s what he did in this case. I loved the energy of it, I loved the fire, and it made me angry. I was angry he was there, angry he had to be there for those individuals to be there – and was angry about the snobbery on my theatre timeline, and angry about the fact that no one in the Brit audience could deal with what they were seeing. They didn’t know how to respond. Energetic, unapologetic Black men? The British Establishment cannot deal with that.
RIANNA JADE PARKER: I was travelling back home from the airport and with limited battery, so I could only give my timeline a quick scan: Kanye, Skepta + #AllDay was all I could pick up before my phone switched off. And honestly those buzz words were not enough to pique a substantial interest in me let alone excitement. But once I was plugged back in I watched the performance and smiled. Not because I love the song or Kanye at this point in time but I’m always tickled by blackness - in whatever form - infiltrating spaces where irrational white fear and grandeur usually dominates.
F: I saw so many conflicting tweets from people in the US vs people in the UK on the performance; with US people focused on how great this was for Kanye/hip hop and mostly not even knowing who the guys up there with him were and UK folks talking about what it meant for the grime scene/Black British visibility and identity specifically; I want to know what the performance as a whole meant to you as Black British folks.
ST: So – I don’t really listen to Grime – I like sad girls playing guitars, Kate Bush, and the stuff that everybody likes. And I often tailor what I’m listening to to what I’m working on. So I feel like I cheated a bit, because I only recognized those artists because at the moment I’m making a conscious effort to seek out Black British Artistry – cus I’m making a piece of work about black British visibility! So I don’t know if it meant something to me emotionally cus my attachment to that music isn’t so deep.
That being said, it meant so much to me politically, because rarely, if ever, do we see in this country, big, highly visible displays of what I would call unapologetic blackness. So often young black men, dressed a certain way, behaving in a certain way are told that they must be ‘more’ they must prove to the society around them that they are worthy of basic respect, basic courtesy, basic care – so much political rhetoric here is about proving your ‘worth’ by behaving respectably. So it was nice to see that imagery uplifted.
And watching that performance I had a real sense that it was for me – that the majority of the (white) people watching it would be affronted, and dismiss it, but that it was there for me, performed for the ‘Black Gaze’ – and a reminder that we are here, we are politicised too, we are artists too, we are present too, and we have a culture that is all ours.
I really zoned Kanye out. Hah!
RJP: The performance was bittersweet. It happened at a whiter than mayonnaise award ceremony where only two Black British artists were nominated but neither one rewarded. The only Black ‘winner’ was American (Pharrell ‘New Black’ Williams). So essentially the only representation we had was via a Black American, that’s crazy! As if Black British is not at its peak right now. It’s of my personal understanding the Kanye + Skepta link-up was organic and genuine on both parts so whilst I don’t feel the need to thank Kanye, I can acknowledge this act of good (unfortunately overshadowed by his many more acts of fuckery especially in the past few months).
F: Did this speak to you at all in terms of solidarity in a larger diaspora sense?
ST: Hmm. Kind of, but not really. My boyfriend thought it did – and Wiley clearly thought it did, he wrote some beautiful tweets the next day about it being the only way to get the foot in the door. But… it doesn’t feel right to me, because solidarity, to me speaks about standing shoulder to shoulder, on an even footing, as equals. If there’s one of you, and there’s 100 of me, and it is billed as your performance, is that solidarity? If the presence of the 100 of us is what defines your performance, but you get paid significantly more than me, is that solidarity? If we perform your sort of version of our music, is that solidarity? But if, when the spotlight is on me, I diffuse the light, so it’s on more of us, surely that’s solidarity? I’m not sure. I’m not definitely no, but nor am I definitely yes.
But also, I have to be fair. Kanye has 4 minutes up there or whatever. What else can he do? Maybe, in that allotted time, in that allotted space that was the closest to solidarity he could come? Hmm.
RJP: Grime is a Black British musical subculture, it was founded here and derived from our very particular communities it is not a further extension of hip hop or America. (To claim otherwise is a disservice to the fluidity and limitless functionality that is the African diaspora.) Yes, Kanye is a far more established artist but I don’t believe he or anyone else is going to be Grime’s saviour. I don’t think they need one. But I wonder how much of a bigger impact and relevance the performance could have had if Kanye passed the microphone to Skepta so he could have got a few bars in.
To try and figure out what Kanye’s intentions were/are would bring about an unnecessary headache, so I’ll just leave this one alone. If this performance speaks to anything it’s that there are many sides to the Atlantic and they’re all black and legitimate. For one night a few of them were brought together, it was fun to watch and JME is still bae.
F: I was tweeting back and forth with some people about this and several people said that they weren’t upset at Kanye for any reasons of appropriation, but were sad that it took an American artist leading the way for grime artists to get any recognition on that Brit stage - why do you think that kind of visibility had to come from outside the UK?
ST: Because racism here is really polite. They tell you over and over and over again that it (racism and erasure) doesn’t exist – ‘if you can’t see black artists, there aren’t any, that’s why!’ – BOLLOCKS. Lies. There’s this thing in this country where discussions about diversity often centre on America – as though racism is only a problem in the states, or only a problem to do with immigration. When there is any kind of Black British issue, the idea that there might legitimately be a problem is not even considered.
So if they’re looking to ‘add some colour’ to their programme – they’ll look to America, before they look here – FKA twigs has toured internationally in the past year, she has an A-list boyfriend, her shows sold out in seconds – but she can only perform the Brits warm up party, not the main stage. The establishment in this country ignores its Black British Talent, never retains it – only notices it when it gains recognition in America. It makes you feel crazy. There were arts collectives in the UK in the 80s and 90s that completely revolutionized the global understanding of art about blackness. Ask a British curator for recommendations for Black British mentors, they have nothing. Ask an American? 6, 7, 8 come to mind instantly. You will get that recognition abroad, but not here. So you’re erased. And the artists that come after you can’t find you.
People become so used to seeing blackness through an African American lens that they start to doubt they even exist here. And this problem is exemplified even further if you don’t live in London (don’t get me started).
There’s this myth that I really used to buy into, that nothing was happening for the black art community here – BOLLOCKS BOLLOCKS BOLLOCKS I want to grab past me by both shoulders and shake her until she wakes up – there’s loads. But the mainstream will not support it, will not fund it, will not increase its visibility. They reiterate again and again that there is no audience for it until it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
RJP: These facts are just a further illustration that my Black British existence is still largely marginalised and ignored in favour of something else, a Blackness more accepted because it comes within the imperialist hegemony that is America. This obviously is not the fault of Black Americans but comments from @stopbeingfamous during the ceremony serves as a sharp reminder that not many are doing much to help fill these gaps. I don’t really care about the Brit Awards but I care that some of my skinfolk don’t recognise me. Something as simple as having other voices on your timeline/dashboard is a start and this is worthy work, work that I’ve been doing for a long time because I’m aware of my own privilege where within a European context my narrative in favoured in contrast to other Afropeans. We should be more conscious and connected with each other, deeply rooted in but not restricted by our geographical/cultural black borders.
F: What are your thoughts on the performance from the perspective of it physically and visually disrupting a traditionally white space?
ST: From that point of view, I think it was great, really strong. And I have to give Kanye credit – he is still, really good at doing that. Prick.
F: How do you think this figures into a larger discussion around US-centric understandings of blackness?
ST: Kanye’s performance, IMO doesn’t figure into that larger conversation – well it does, but even with its good intentions (arguably) it exacerbates the problem - because it’s impossible to communicate the complexity of those differences whilst centering an African American man – which it necessarily did, because it was his performance. So if you want to dismiss the men behind him as a faceless mob, you can. And that’s a problem.
One of the reasons why Cecile Emeke’s work, for example, is so strong, and creates such an instinctive, gut response (even though in many ways what she’s doing is mind bendingly simple, which is how you know it’s genius) – is because she creates a space occupied only by a specific voice of the diaspora, talking on its own terms, with nuance and with complexity – and I feel like that’s the only way you can combat the focus on the African American experience. It’s a long slow process of accumulating new knowledge, and at times unlearning, which is always painful. And needs to be done by all three of the groups I outlined – and that’s a tiny corner of the world, and of the diaspora!
There’s also something else in there for me about… about not comparing what it is to be Black and British to what it is to be African American and finding yourself lacking all the time. Got enough to deal with with white supremacy, without placing that extra head fuck upon myself. There’s a little of that in the VV Brown article – ‘it’s like this in America, we should try and replicate that’ – I think that’s really unhelpful, feeds the problem, rather than solving it – because it still means you are looking far into the distance, and not noticing what is in front of you, and not tailoring specific problems to specific solutions.
Rianna Jade Parker (xaymacans) is a reader before anything else and a writer who writes for other readers. Her curatorial, artistic and social practices are as informed by Stuart Hall, bell hooks, James Baldwin as they are by Biggie and Lil Kim.
Selina Thompson is a performance artist (read: professional show off) who lives and works in Leeds, making shows about fat, hair, unemployment and whatever else she’s pissed off about that day. She lives on the internet at www.selinathompson.co.uk and @selinanthompson