Writing by Neil Kulkarni

Friday, 24 July 2015

Guess Who's Coming To Dinner? The White Rock Defence League And Some Thoughts About Kanye

15:48 Posted by neil kulkarni , , , 11 comments


We’re all racists. We’re not getting anywhere until we admit this.
Oh this isn’t directed at you. You’re white, but you’re alright. I’m colour-blind see.
  I sometimes think this country is becoming divided along very basic lines. Those who will survive, flourish, the big society, the broom-brandishers, those who will keep calm and carry on whether left or right, those who no matter what they say and who they fulminate against will never ever knowingly touch a nerve or threaten the Aspergers-like holistic coherence of their own smugness. And those of us who are a bit more scared, a bit more resigned and consequently more full of idiot hope, because we are those who will be shut out, left to die and silenced in the name of common sense. This is a piece built out of deletions. Arguments I had that I had to abandon and remove. I mean - I’m an old man and a stuck record and it gets tiring. You want, because your skull creaks with the sense of your own repetition, to move on, reach the peace of the playout groove,  slip into a silence more suitable for your age and rest back in your cradle. Difficult to just watch mute though, as so much bullshit is palmed around, hardened into consensus, swallowed. Race and pop have been thick in my mind of late, perhaps primarily because embarking on any discussion of them is such a minefield of hurt feelings, a process whereby your head starts aching with all the people patting it, calming you down, telling you to get over it, refuting your lingering anger with the inarguable logic of their own contentment and satisfaction.
   Gets very tiring to be repeatedly told by white folk that racism isn’t a problem anymore, at least in the music they hold so dear, in the culture they seem to think is so immune to the outside world, the culture they want to remain inured from reality. With the further implication that you’re being paranoid, seeking problems where there are none, that the seemingly blatant unfairness of the way we treat and talk about pop from different sides of the racial tracks is somehow purely an issue of black people’s sensitivity. Gets you doubting yourself, viewing that chip on your shoulder with suspicion, another querulous mindgame to add to the endless mindfuck shitpile that it can mentally be, being not-white in the West. Started and abandoned this piece a dozen times but Taylor Swift has dragged me back to it. Inevitably as a middle class priveliged white female in the industry she would loathe any suggestion that anything other than a meritocracy is operating here and that the only battle is the undeniable one she's faced as a woman in a male-dominated industry. Anyone even remotely interested in black pop knows that isn't the whole case, and never has been. The industry, controlled by white male puppeteers, has a real problem with women, with queers, with black people. It’s folly to proceed as if this isn’t happening, or isn’t getting worse. The industry may pretend those lines don’t exist, it may pretend that music blurs those barriers, is the place in which worldly divisions like race and sex get erased and ‘surpassed’. These are the delusions a neo-liberal culture anoints itself with, the sugar it dissolves its greed and hides its ever-more rapacious cultural imperialism with, as well as its older colonialist moves on art from the old pink bits on the map. Swift, like many who've been pissing me off this month finds herself unable to read principles from specifics or follow abstractions from events - has to egotistically return every wider point to a tight empirically verifiable sphere of self-reference. Must be a white thing. No, not you. You're alright.
   A fundamentally racist musical culture should be an elementary, fairly basic thesis to promulgate but my god, even suggesting as such in recent weeks has lost me friends, angered confederates. It’s funny how many of the most avowedly socialist, left-leaning friends I have are perfectly able in all kinds of areas to cope with the drawing of wider generalities from seemingly isolated incidents but absolutely refute any such collective notions when it comes to interpretation of their own taste. Their taste cannot be questioned apart from in a specific piece-by-piece sense, it’s sacrosanct, free from any taint of jaundice, a pure almost holy communion between the staggering self-avowed equanimity of their outlook and the art they come into contact with. Both the process they come into contact with art, and their response to that art, is a fiercely individual thing. If you talk about taste in any other way than this pure isolated transaction they will get angry. They’ll get angry if you try and suggest there might be elements to their taste that are revealing of something deeper, historical arguments and hierarchies that are older than them. Though they might not be crass enough to ask why there isn’t a white history month, they’re guileless enough to bitterly resent any insinuation that their ‘free’ decisions about what art they like and consume might be at least partly tethered to their background, their class, their race. It remains always a difficult argument to proceed with cos so many people get so offended by any suggestion that personal taste (this sanctified individual choice) can't also be an expression of cultural prejudice. I know my taste certainly is, I'm prejudiced against alot of music for reasons racial (mine) historical and purely sensory, and I think most people are. Part of the fun of pop is getting over some of those prejudices, hardening others. Better to admit it and try interrogating & teasing out the roots of all that prejudice I reck, rather than denying it exists. I know it's tiring to think of taste as more than just 'what I like' but it is. Enabled by the growing wider destruction of solidarity and emphasis on self-actualisation, this clinging to taste as being as personal and unique and an expression of your all-round wonderfulness as your choice of Facebook cover-photo, endures. And so suggesting an underlying extraneous reason why a taste-choice might be made, a reason that goes beyond the individual, is tantamount to identity theft, ad hominem character assassination, slander.




  Like any truly important star, Kanye annoys all the right people but truth be told, it’s not just him who’s made me pause and reflect of late. A few moments have bought that double-standard to the fore in recent weeks, reminded you how often the blatant racial snobbery and patrician bigotry of mainstream pop has nagged at you growing up. Watching TOTP episodes from 1980 reminds me of how early you pick up its scent as a black kid in this country. In 1980, music played by people who look like you isn’t really played on the radio but when black disco is played on TOTP, rock/pop figureheads like Roger Daltrey and Elton John take the piss, make it plain that they consider it less than music, snarky asides, standing up for standards, all the distaste for black-commandeered synthetics and uppity-nigger showiness that has percolated through rock fans attitudes to black music ever since. BBC4 edited out Daltrey's 'watch your backs' (HAHAHALEGEND) warning from his intro to Village People on TOTP t’other night, and his thoughts about immigration were also not part of BBC’s Glastonbury coverage, although unfortunately his band’s bog-awful music was. The fact that the announcement of Kanye’s headline-slot was enough to provoke outrage and dudgeon from the British rock audience should be of no surprise, that the British rock audience is now claiming Glastonbury as their own is perhaps indicative of what happens to diverse environments the more that corporations can become embedded, the deeper that brand identities can be allowed to enter and calcify and ossify the previously more free-wheeling space that Glastonbury was (and in places still is). Whatever Glastonbury was, Glastonbury is now, on your TV, a place of bucolic escape from Britain as is to a Britain as it should be, free of the problems of multiculturalism that threaten everywhere beyond its gates, a safe enclave of middle-class white privelege where people can question whether a black superstar is 'the right type' to perform. The rest of the country is a place where that question wouldn't even get asked cos he'd be by miles the main draw. And this fissure between those who 'know' about musical 'standards', and the masses who don't, this ground of expert insight as maintained and overseen by Facebook and Twitter, BBC radio and TV, the broadsheets etc is precisely why I've felt nigh-on entirely estranged from the music media for so long. The White Rock Defence League. The United Kingdom Indie Party. Blinkered bullshitters. Radio kept the giggles up about Kanye’s show all weekend, a tone of amusement that couldn’t mask the deep distaste that the music beloved by people carefully priced out of Glastonbury had made it onto a main stage. The sound of the 'Now Show' Radio 4 audience applauding some comedian's borrowed phraseology about Kanye's 'egotistical mysogyny' made my skin crawl the following day. The same old nagging wince. They should've played it on Radio 6, that artisan cupcake of a radio station, that place where white music goes on, where black music magically has the pause button imposed on it, at some point in decades past. Some safe point, before it got so uneasy on the ear and soul.




   So much displacement going on from those who would disbar Kanye for his illiberality - of course, THEY, the intelligent rock audience,  can listen to misogynist artists, racist artists, so long as those artists keep their real opinions out of their art. Or if they do leave traces of homophobia, racism or sexism in their art it's ok because as white liberals they have the intellectual ability to 'interpret'. Hip hop audiences aren't afforded that intelligence ever - will only absorb those attitudes like a sponge into their malleable consciences, and then replay those attitudes for the rest of their lives. The power of displacement means that all my life never heard a word against Shakespeare or opera (rape, disembowellment, incest, misogyny etc etc) but only working class art. I'd expect that from a ruling class but what's happening now is that those old lines of race and age and class are getting replayed within pop, between a class of people who can interpret art and a perceived underclass of punters who can only swallow and regurgitate. I've listened to hip hop all my life and have always seen it as a diagnosis, of what it is to be male, to be black etc - as one of the only voices touching on political life as lived. The attitudes I've read this month smack of a fundamentally conservative view of what art can achieve, and the audiences ability to use and interpret that art. A total underestimation and denigration of the audience. Especially if that audience is one that ‘real music fans’ wouldn’t feel comfortable in.
  What hip hop, as ever, seems to be getting it in the neck for is actually saying something. "What a piece of work is a man" - Hip hop turns that into a question and answers it with a ruthless honesty. All the squalidness, wretchedness, and wonder.If you listen to Kanye and can reduce him to 'misogyny' then you haven't listened. The man has some incredible lines, deep lines, heavy lines, about race, about sex, about politics, about all sorts of things. In comparison, the music that most of the people I heard/read/saw dissing Kanye listen to can be characterised primarily by its unerring ability to say fuck all about fuck all, talk in vague corporate/self-help spiel about nothing. You'd almost think their definition of 'real music' is 'that music that enables us to entirely avoid any reality bar our own'. Escape, a firming up of their identity, and a lubrication of their own relationships are the only uses these people can see for art. The suggestion that pop can do something more for people, make them dream, make them question their own identity, transform the everyday to the point where the status quo becomes as fragile and destructible as a moth’s hide - this is anathema, and the idea that Kanye promotes - the essential truth that hip-hop is doing what rock and roll SHOULD be doing, angers the white rock mainstream to the point whereby it must permanently cop the attitude of setting that uppity nigger straight. Cue members of Slipknot releasing virally popular videos about how Kanye needs to shut up, a howled chorus of protest from ‘real music fans’ when Kanye even dared to utter the words ‘rock and roll’ from his lips. It’s not yours to claim Kanye. Yes, you’re making some of the most exciting stadium-sized outre works of art of your generation but keep your feet off our turf nigger, know your place.  Arrogance, like a degree of misogyny, see, is fine when coming from a white rock star, in fact it’s part of the make-up, an essential constituent of being a rock star. Arrogance from Noel Gallagher = ok, 'ledge'. Arrogance from Kanye = angrymaking, 'upstart'. From black people, who should remain dignified and humble and who are such an errant disapointment when they don’t - it’s a stain on white historical perceptions. It’s our problem. Black response to white subjugation, its retaliatory and compensatory traits of self-aggrandizement make it deeply difficult for well-meaning white folk to be well disposed towards modern black art.  For alot of people the most frustrating thing about Black music is that it has endured. If only soul had stopped in 75, reggae in 82, hip hop in 95. Back when those musics could be safely turned into a cannon with the right amount of 'conscious' stuff, instead of all that problematic bastardisation of form and illiberality of content that's happened since. If only black music remained purely a source, a contained set of white-appointed 'classics' for white interpretation and elaboration. And if only more black artists sounded just like older black artists. Why those black people gotta persist in moving on? You can almost smell the frustration.


  Part of folks’ problem with Kanye’s Glastonbury appearance was his refusal to soften his modernism. Witness the different treatment of Jay and Beyonce compared to Kanye. In 2008 Jay had his doubters, those like Noel Gallagher (an endlessly-tappable living fount of white-rock prejudice and ‘decent standards’) who insisted he shouldn’t even have been allowed on-site, at least not to perform. Jay, like his wife, did things properly, bought out the big band, conformed to the diktats of proper performance, real music made by real people. History will note him as earning entry to Glasto’s hall of fame in a honking, somewhat overlong and dull blare of musicianship, Kanye as ruling himself out in a blaze of lights and artificial sound. He didn’t ‘respect’ Glastonbury, didn’t doff his cap to its legacy or history or on bended knee (and perhaps with a ukelele) beseech music fans to take him seriously. This isn't just about race, it's about class as well. The real wrinkled-noses come from people for whom Glastonbury is an escape from the diversity they find so uncomfortable when forced upon them back in their home cities. And yet in their attacks on Kanye and their annoyance with his dominance over the weekend's discourse, the predominant impulse was to make sure that everyone knew their distaste had nothing to do with class or race and everything to do with the fact he was ‘just shit/boring/rubbish’. Not an argument worthy of engaging with I reckon (clean the shit out of your ears dumbkopfs) but the utter refusal to have any self-awareness, to in anyway link these tired motifs to the racial backdrop to 'taste', to ideas about 'proper' music, was stunning, and repeated with an urgency and insistence revealing of a real fear, a dim presentiment that if these people’s ‘tastes’ were really held up to the light, the blanched bleached nature of them would become dangerously apparent.  And yet, they couldn’t help repeatedly unpacking themselves in the hysteria & dudgeon once he was announced, and afterwards the fathomless froth about the fact he didn't put on a 'proper' show. Don’t you dare suggest race had anything to do with it. You can’t talk about race and pop, can’t even embark on any such discussion because first you have to wait for everyone to get in their denials, their pre-emptive wafting away of any possibility of accusation. Racism cannot be conceived of in structural or cultural terms because for everyone it’s a thing for individual people to deny, a game in which it's important not to get tripped up, a persistent relic from the past to avow their distance from even if a cursory look at their cultural inputs reveals how often they position themselves to avoid black art, only seek The New from white people and pray that their fondness for vintage black pop will suffice to waft away their deliberate shutting out of what black people are making these days. ‘I just don’t like it’ - yes but WHY? Don’t ask that question. Touches a nerve.


  
(Partly down to just what voices we were allowed to hear talking about it - sounds pat but I am sick to death of reading only/mainly what white boys think about pop. I want to read what a black girl thinks about Kanye. What eds are commissioning such pieces? What eds are hiring such writers? What eds are hiring writers that aren't their mates? What eds are going out and finding writers who aren't just another fucking white man? Does it ALL have to fucking be this way? Why? I don't need to insert the caveat that 'good writers no matter who they are' is who should be being hired. Yes. True. But is that what's fucking happening? And if that's the criteria why do they all seem to come from the same fucking class/race base? Because only middle-class white people are any good at writing about pop? Because black/asian people don't care about critical culture? For all its faults, Melody Maker took a punt and hired me on my strengths. I like to think I offered a different perspective. Why are those different perspectives so fucking marginalised in the music press now? To save the readers? Or because the eds simply don't care about interesting writing anymore?  The variance between how much good stuff is being made and how oblivious to it the media seems has never been greater as far as I'm concerned - front covers of music press last month: Muse, Fleetwood Mac, Beatles, Beatles, Stones, The Who. Hip-hop has been getting it in the neck all its life about not being 'proper music'. This hasn't happened to other electronic forms because though initially doubted, they're now anchored sufficiently in mainstream memory. Because hip hop fans have never really been part of the mainstream media, this hasn't happened. Hip hop always has to be approached with the air of 'well, lets see if they've learned how to play yet)


  Yeah, but he just sucked didn’t he. He was boring. Race has nothing to do with it. Because racism, to alot of people, needs to announce itself, is found in the far-right, can only be explicit, never implicit or subtextual, at least not in the cultural habits and artefacts the mainstream audience holds dear. But prod even an iota of the distaste towards Kanye and the racism comes rushing out at you like the stench from a kicked dogturd. Just because someone doesn't say 'I don't want Kanye to play because he's black' doesn't mean there can't be massive racist undercurrents to what they're saying, esp when you start asking those people what black music they do like and listen to. It tends to be fifty years old/ by Bob Marley- why is that? Petitions don't really get raised about mere matters of taste. They tend to get raised and signed because people feel there's something fundamentally wrong about something. Why did this happen with Kanye? If the reason is he's arrogant/an idiot/sexist etc then go backstage at any music festival and throw a rock and you'll hit a dozen offenders. The reason is a deeper cultural distaste than mere dislike for someone's persona.I’m not into forbidding anyone from saying anything, or saying that critically there should be some kind of suspension of faculties for Kanye. If you think he's dire/shit, say so, don't worry, you're not alone. I'm just wondering - what is the state of a culture when the biggest complaints it has are not about the govt that's destroying a generation, or the state of its own avowed musical culture (never seen a petition against an indie band playing Glastonbury, or 'ledge' stars coming out complaining) but about a popular black superstar playing its favourite beanfest? That ‘Kanye sux’ shorthand enables taste to remain protected, cut off from anything bar a consumer’s freedom of choice. Nothing to do with race is it? He just ‘sucked’. CAN WE NOT SAY THAT? But ask yourself - what becomes the ‘other’ in Glastonbury coverage, what causes discomfort? What gets serious treatment, what gets laughed at? What class? What races? What types of music forced to the peripheries to the point that their appearance on a main stage gets complaints? What kinds of artists have to 'prove themselves worthy'? Just the way it is? No point fighting it? It's a white festival? Cobblers - It's just fucking snobbery and smuggery. And the fact it’s a sustaining narrative, a snobbery that forms a spine throughout the entire history of popular music in the UK should be a matter of shame, a spur to intellectual action, not a prompt for an endless denial, a digging in of the wellie-heels. 
It’s a big problem for the UK in particular which seems to be bathing in a balm of self-assurance as our cousins over the pond encounter more flashpoints and killings and riots. The smuggery in our reportage about Charleston has revealed just how much the UK is currently coasting along under the impression that we don't have racism in this country do we? We, unlike our less sophisticated American cousins, have 'got over it'. Our record is blemish-free. Remember how we helped out all those old blues fellers in the 60s? How we kept soul shrunk to its proper tin-shack roots on the Northern Soul dancefloor? How we sustained ska and reggae and other music from the ex-colonies? See, we like black music. We like black pop. So long as it’s made by dead people (the prevailing narrative even among those who like hip hop but don't like Kanye is that it'd be better if they'd booked someone much older and wasn’t George Clinton great). Thus, distaste for an artists persona becomes a way of avoiding confronting a harsh truth - that your taste, so worthy of defending, is feeding back to the industry clear data about what needs investigating and boosting, what needs ignoring and marginalising. If you don't think it's infinitely more difficult for new black British music to be heard, playlisted, featured, written-about, than other types of music you’re deluded, and if in your ‘taste’ (no matter how much you might want to claim its purity and untaintedness) you prop up that ongoing dereliction of duty among our cultural industries and arbiters then you are partly and personally responsible for withering notions of what British music is and can, and could, be. Who could object to joke stories about Kanye being wanted for murdering Bohemian rhapsody? No-one. But if I'm expected to chuckle at the comments sections underneath articles across the broadsheet, tabloid and music press board from 'real music fans' about how it was a disgrace Kanye was booked (and these comments were incessant, nigh-on unanimous and unfailingly perilously close to outright racism) then sorry, that joke's not funny any more. I'm sick of British music becoming synonymous with a shutdown of black and working class taste and expression, becoming purely a playground for the white and bourgouise. Which is exactly what it's fucking becoming. If you're happy with that, you're fucking welcome to it.




 Like anyone and everyone, I’m prejudiced about music.  If it wasn’t for mainly retrograde hip hop and doom metal and the further reaches of the avant-garde I probably wouldn’t listen to much new white music at all, an accusation I can't deny and won't attempt to. School me - I won’t listen to bands who look like I won’t like them, I think most of us accept this. I only ask white rock fans this. If you were watching a TV station and noticed that no black people were allowed on, and that the only black people who did appear were dead/filmed 40 years ago, would you have a problem with that? Now take a look at what you listen to, at what you’ve got, and what you plan to get, and where you’re going to hear it. Notice anything? Like I said, not a problem for me, I’m colourblind see. Strange that a disability should become such a badge of pride but I’ve been hearing that alot of late when getting embroiled in arguments about racism and about pop. People hate conflict, like issues that at least on a personal level, can be resolved. Lots of white people have been telling me they’re colourblind about music, sounding like the UKIP MPs they despise. Seems to infer that if they could see colour, then they'd be racist (and be justified in being so) but beyond that it indicates only that whoever's saying it is trying to avoid trouble, is keen on pushing this idea that a pure meritocracy is what's going on in pop when it's blatantly not. As someone who's not white I don't want my race looked through, 'overlooked' with distaste as an irrelevance to my art. It's massively relevant in all kinds of ways to my life and my possibilities. You're defeated as an Asian or black person if you let your race limit your ambitions but I don't want people to pretend that I am anything but what I am. 'Colour blindness' implies getting people to overcome their senses and somehow pretend that different races don't exist, that we're all the same. It's a desperate kind of mental trick that private racists throw out publically to show how they're 'getting over' other peoples uncomfortable insistence on not being white. If you ever hear anyone use that phrase - 'I'm colourblind' - what they're doing isn't embracing difference, rather they're pretending that in some way their mind isn't prone to entirely instinctive & sensory human habits, that as far as they're concerned 'we're all the same'. We're all not the same thank fuck. That's what needs celebrating. In the wake of a month wherein race and it’s crucial place in pop has never been more apparent, the ‘colourblindness’ of music fans, and by extension the music industry, needs interrogation. I’m a gentler soul than I was but some conflicts need starting, not avoiding. I still believe, as I always have,  only honesty, including honesty about our dishonesty, will gain us liberation.