Last night, South London rapper Dave picked up the most prestigious award of the BRIT Awards 2020 ceremony, winning the coveted Mastercard Album Of The Year for Psychodrama, and being credited in part with helping to make the awards cool again. But it is the freestyle performance of his song “Black” at the event which is currently dominating the national conversation in the U.K.
It has been called one of the most impactful BRITs performances in years, in particular his lyrics describing the U.K. Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, as racist: “It is racist, whether or not it feels racist, the truth is our prime minister’s a real racist / They say – ‘you should be grateful, we’re the least racist’/ I say the least racist is still racist.” The government was compelled to rebuff the performance immediately, with no less than the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, dismissing the lyrics as “utter nonsense.”
To understand the impact of the Dave’s performance, and just how courageous it was, it is important to consider the political zeitgeist of the island, which voted overwhelmingly for the right-wing Conservative party in the general election last year. A steady stream of provocative and racially divisive announcements appears to be a signature of the government. This week Andrew Sabisky, an adviser to the prime minister, resigned amidst a furore over his comments suggesting that black people had lower IQs than white people. Johnson himself has been under pressure to publicly distance himself from Sabisky’s comments, which also promoted eugenics, but in a telling non-move, he has chosen not to.
Johnson, of course, has much in a way of prior form when it comes to making insensitive, divisive and provocative comments on the subjects of race, religion and nationality. Johnson infamously referred to Muslim women as “letterboxes,” called Africans “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles” and dismissed the American president Barack Obama as “part-Kenyan.” More recently he is said to have asked why the Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar isn’t “called Murphy like all the rest of them,” and referred to French president Emmanuel Macron as a “jumped-up Napoleon.”
Naomi Smith FCMA, the CEO of cross-party campaign Best for Britain, is concerned by the accelerating momentum and insensitivity of the government’s commentary and policies. “If you want to know what sort of country we are becoming, consider the following: this week, we have had a government adviser kicked out because of his views on race; we have had Downing Street repeatedly refusing to deny claims that the prime minister considers black people to be less intelligent than white people; we have had an electrifying performance from Dave, attacking race issues head-on, which has led to him being accused of being a racist. And that only took us up until Tuesday evening. Within hours, Priti Patel had launched her war on free movement, at a stroke alienating huge numbers of people who consider Britain to be their home, though their roots may be overseas.”
Smith is referring to the recently announced points system for immigration which will prohibit “low-skilled” workers from entering the U.K., including those earning less than £25,600 per year in most circumstances. In a demonstration of the “raised drawbridge” approach of the government, Patel later admitted that her parents might have been unable to enter the country under the rules that she had just announced.
Smith is understandably concerned by some measurable shifts in the nation’s mood. “My organization, Best for Britain, bases its work on hard data, and there is plenty of data out there that points to a serious and growing problem with intolerance in this country. An in-depth investigation by Nicolò Cavalli last June concluded that the 2016 EU referendum led to a 19.2% jump in racially and religiously aggravated hate crime, over and above other factors. Brexit, then, has been bad news for those who seek a tolerant society.”
Smith continues, sharing some alarming recent figures, “Research by our strategic partners Hope Not Hate has flagged up concerns over terrorism, a rise in far-right activity, and left-wing antisemitism, as well as polling suggesting 55% of people think our political system is broken. Those findings are backed up by figures from Prevent, the government’s controversial program to divert people from terrorism before they offend. In December it was revealed that, for the first time, Prevent dealt with more cases of suspected far-right radicalization than suspected Islamist radicalization (254 and 210 cases, respectively). And, just this week, figures from Deltapoll showed that 14% of Britons believe white people should receive priority status under new immigration rules.”
Smith cautions against blaming these developments on the result of the Brexit referendum. “It has got worse since Brexit arrived on the scene in 2016, but don’t be fooled: this isn’t about Brexit. Because, damaging as Brexit will be, it is still possible to decouple from the EU without Britain stumbling neck-deep into the gutter. What this is about is the environment that Brexit has permitted and encouraged to flourish. It’s an environment in which intolerance is not just normalized but highly visible in the corridors of power, and that, in turn, gives others license to put their own bigotry on display. So, Dave’s message, wrapped up in a phenomenal performance, was an important piece of politics as well as a jaw-dropping bit of BRITs history. And yet here we are, discussing bigoted Britain instead of shouting from the rooftops about Dave, and that his album Psychodrama has won both BRIT and Mercury glory. That tells you all you need to know about where this country is at, and it’s not good.”
Many connected with the music industry are also hailing the performance as a much-needed turning point in the national conversation. Stephen Jenkins, the founder of brand and marketing agency Too Many Dreams, observes, “It is a shame that speaking truth to power is something that seems remarkable. With this government behaving the way it is, I hope Dave inspires more musicians and artists to be brave, and to communicate these injustices in a way that resonates as powerfully.” Nick Watt, who worked with the iconic music publication NME for over ten years, remarks, “It’s the bravest thing I’ve heard in decades. Music has, at last, got a political voice that’s being heard. This is the first time I’ve ever regretted missing the BRITs.”
Alison Hussey, the owner of A-list music concierge company Rockstar Services, adds, “It’s a shame that it takes our creatives to lead the way, but it’s nothing new, look at the brilliant Akala and Emmanuel Jal.” Grammy-nominated musician Ashley Slater agrees, “I think it’s great when artists with a public platform speak the truth. I think it’s a bit sad when that is considered remarkable.”
Music producer Julian Kindred believes that Dave’s performance could herald a sea change in the willingness of artists to speak about political issues. “At the end of Dave’s performance, my wife and I were in amazed silence for a second till our daughter said, ‘Is it normal for artists to speak up against the Prime Minister like that, so directly?’ I answered, ‘It used to be!'”
Cometh the hour, cometh the man.
Originally published in Forbes.
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