When did you first realise the world wasn't solely assembled from sugar and spice and all things nice? Perhaps it was the first experience of physical pain, a minor fall resulting in the knowledge that everything was sharp and out for blood. Maybe it was the first time you were denied something, a normally indulgent mother refusing to give into demands for a Happy Meal as you wailed in the backseat. Or if you were a really woke kid, it could have been watching the news and slowly comprehending that somewhere out there, far from this comfortable existence with the dog and people carrier, there were humans who were undergoing daily suffering on an unimaginable scale.
For Sam Smith – who only discovered who Thom Yorke was last week – the unsavoury revelation seems to have arrived rather late in life, judging by his most recent series of shocked tweets detailing an incident of racist abuse he witnessed towards his friend whilst in London last night. His anguish is evident and easy to empathise with, and I can speak from experience that when something like this happens in person, it's absolutely horrifying. But so bizarre is the wording and the nature of his reaction, that it can't really go unaddressed.
"I never ever ever ever thought that would happen here. Absolutely speechless and hurt" he writes, as if racial discrimination is not only something that is very new to him, but something that isn't present on a daily basis in the British capital, snaking its way into government schemes that target minorities as terrorist threats, inserting itself into our clubbing culture, visibly evident in the under-representation on our TV screens, and prevalent at our national music awards shows. Where do you think all the racism happens, Sam? Just the Oscars?
He not only appears unaware of racism in the UK, but he also seems oblivious to the often indifferent response from the authorities. "The police were so unhelpful in the situation and its deeply shocked me" he tweeted, even though anyone who has looked at the news in the last twelve months would know that institutional racism is widespread enough in our police for the Met commissioner to publicly admit that young black men were way more likely to be stopped and searched than white men.
But the kicker, and the one which has many feeling angry on Twitter, is when Sam concludes that he needs to "shine some sort of light on it", a tone that is clearly unaware of the constant battle against racism in the UK, and all the work, activism and writing that goes into tackling it. Did he really think it was all confined to some small corner of this rainy island that's treated in the same manner as a nuclear leak? "Don't go there, that's where all the racism is." Anyway, it's all good, Nina Simone is on the radio.
I do want to say though, that Smith doesn't deserve to be dragged too much for this blissful ignorance. At the end of the day, he's publicly recognised a problem he clearly didn't see before; sometimes you need first hand experience of an issue before truly understanding how pervasive it is. Plus, we all know that the traditional bubble of celebrity still encloses many of our biggest stars in a state of superior obliviousness, even in this hyperconnected world (see Nicki Minaj schooling Taylor Swift about systemic racism in 2015). But it still makes you wonder how Smith has gotten this far without ever becoming aware of prejudice of this sort.
He has followed in the footsteps of Amy Winehouse, Duffy and Joss Stone, in gaining global success and earning millions from harnessing and commercialising a genre of British soul music that has an unignorable black heritage. From that success, he scooped up countless prizes at the 2014 MOBO Awards, plaudits that you could argue that would have otherwise gone to black British artists. Can someone truly reach this level of fame with this genre of music yet be so lacking in rudimentary knowledge about the real issues that face the people whose culture he appropriates so hard?
His pledge to "shine a light" upon the problem was certainly made with the best intentions. But the the year is 2016. Idris Elba is addressing parliament about the lack of opportunities for black actors in the UK, Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith are boycotting awards ceremonies that don't recognise black performers enough, and Rihanna uses her cover story interviews to speak out about racial profiling.
Pop culture has become a prism through which conversations about the vital issues of today are now accelerated. Whether it's artists like Benga, Professor Green and Alanna McArdle (formerly of Joanna Gruesome) offering their own incredibly personal stories to destroy the stigma around mental health; Shamir, Jaden Smith and Angel Haze pushing the envelope on topics concerning gender identity; the countless popstars who have spoken against music industry sexism; and numerous others, like Lauren of Chvrches or Sky Ferreira who have honed that discussion to focus on the rampant online abuse they face.
There is clearly no maliciousness to Smith's revelation, and the fact he even tweeted about it is, yes, better than the odd safe-playing star who steers entirely away from these issues, but it's hard not to be worried by someone of his stature only just waking up to something as prevalent as racism in 2016. These days, we trust our mega musicians to be self-aware of their vast influence, and to be educated and nuanced in their approach. Sam may just have achieved 'woke' status, but he's got a long way to go before he becomes anything more than just part of the problem – celebrated for his music, which is indebted to black culture, yet failing to recognise the privilege of protection from discrimination that his whiteness affords him.
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