Expressing Blackness Isn’t a Trend, It’s a Lifesaver
That Rainbow's End

Expressing Blackness Isn’t a Trend, It’s a Lifesaver

Recent Kelela and Kamille videos show how to celebrate being black in ways that feel totally genuine.
11 October 2017, 9:46am

This is a regular column where I'll mostly be writing about new music – not all the time – and feelings and how they both scrape an extra layer of enjoyment onto this whole existing thing. See you for the next one.

In an instant, a recent news discussion about the Las Vegas shooter became so exhausting that it was almost funny. Horribly, painfully, darkly funny. Broadcaster and writer Afua Hirsch had just been interrupted by three of four sputtering, incredulous fellow panelists on Sky News' "everyone talking over each other" show The Pledge while she tried to make a point about how white mass murderers are treated as individuals, rather than made representative of their entire ethnic group or labeled as terrorists. Hirsch is of mixed heritage – Ghanaian, English and Jewish – while everyone else on the panel is white.

"Whenever somebody commits a horrific act," Hirsch began, "when it's a white person we have this conversation where we humanise them, we enquire into their psychology." Cross talk erupted, with fellow panelist Carole Malone shouting over Hirsch while LBC radio host Nick Ferrari looked as though Hirsch had just compared his mother to something she'd scraped off her trainers after a jog through the park. Eventually, Michelle Dewsberry just said Hirsch was wrong. In trying to have an "honest conversation" about racial stereotyping in the media and the blurred line between terrorism and mass murder, their chat exploded then fizzed into an unresolved puddle of nothing. They were all talking, in a room together, but you can tell they were hardly listening to one another – they were hardly listening to Hirsch.

It's weird how you can feel like you're having two conversations at once. You could be sitting next to someone at the pub, the office, in bed surrounded by crumpled clothes and cushions, and yet be practically speaking on parallel planes. They're not hearing you; you're not really listening to each other. I've been thinking about this, watching and rewatching videos by Kelela and London songwriter-turned-lead-artist Kamille (she's written for Little Mix, Fleur East and others as Camille Purcell). Their recent visuals centre black and queer people in a way that makes me feel warm and worth something.

But at the same time, blackness has become something trendy and "diversity" has taken on the mantle of a buzzword. There's a disconnect between undoing centuries of racial prejudice – dismantling the remnants of discriminatory policies, letting black people tell their own stories – and thinking society is "doing better" when only the most obvious forms of shouty, red-faced racism are stamped out. While the conversation falters, industries and brands swoop in so they can turn black or queer visibility into profit, without really unpacking the root causes of racialised thought. None of us win.

Kamile's "Body" is a crystalline version of that first, positive side to grappling with identity. The Crack Stevens-directed video released last week has an aesthetic that probably already has marketing teams at various cosmetics companies furiously scribbling notes. The idea is simple: love yourself. It relies on close-up shots of hair of different afro textures and colours, curls wrapped tight around each other, and skin cast over by a reflecting light that almost makes a rippling back muscle shimmer. The gloss of Kamille's candy floss voice over sparse pop production doesn't detract from the video's weight, either. As the camera zooms out while spinning around each scene's subject, you realise you're looking at various people – one who uses a wheelchair, one with vitiligo, another with albinism, several others – while Kamille sings about what it feels like when someone "only wants me for my body".

Then activist, model and DJ Munroe Bergdorf appears. She may be now known to your uncle as 'that one who said all white people were racist' but she's a trans figurehead who's become vocal about how systemic racism works. When the Mail Online took her words in response to the grim Charlottesville "unite the right" protests out of context, she was then dropped by L'Oreal as their recently signed (and first trans) face of a makeup range. In the flurry of interviews that followed, she spoke about race and power in a way that could have lit the spark to inspire a wider discussion. But that thing happened again, where two conversations ran simultaneously, but not in harmony.

First came the cognitive dissonance from L'Oreal firing someone who spoke out about structural racial inequality in a campaign hinged on diversity. Then came the knee-jerk response to any open discussion of race: one where white people think a discussion of structural racism – the real sort that isn't about people saying the n-word or whatever, but about the ways housing, education, employment and the justice and health systems penalise non-white people in ways they can't control – is about them as individuals. Nick Ferrari and Carole Malone's faces when Hirsch said the words "white person" illustrate that perfectly. This sentiment is expressed at the same time people say things like "bigotry has no place in 2017!!" when faced with examples of the very blatant, entry-level racism steeped in name-calling and violence. That white people don't understand how absurd it is to point this out – ie: to condemn the tiki torch-carrying white nationalists who marched in Charlottesville – while not being willing to have uncomfortable conversations about how being white gives them more subtle advantages baffles me.

So at a time when Bergdorf has been faced with an onslaught of online racist, transphobic and violent abuse, "Body" coats like a salve. Of the shoot she's said: "So many amazing stories were shared from the cast and crew and I think that translates into the video – that ALL black is beautiful." Including Bergdorf in this video is clearly a political statement, and one that rings true. It feels, for lack of a less lame word, genuine.

You can say the same of Kelela's "LMK", directed by Andrew Thomas Huang. Again, here darker skin is sumptuously lit. Kelela's choice to cast the grafting, beautiful people behind queer/non-binary parties BBZ London and PDA also stakes out her political stance. It sounds like buzzword nonsense but something as throwaway as going to a club night designed for non-straight, non-white people (open to everyone as long as they're respectful) can feel like an act of resistance. More than that, it's a fuck-you thrown at going to clubs full of awful people who do things like speak to you in ebonics when they're from Kent, stroke your hair without asking, or slur "mmm I've never kissed a black girl before" while you're waiting to get served at the bar.

"Body" and "LMK" cut through that mess. They provide comfort when it seems as though we talk ourselves in circles about race and identity without letting people live – and more than that, giving them the tools to thrive. Wanting to break out of the restraints of racism isn't some ploy to "pull the race card" or "not get over it". It's about more than hoping people don't use racial slurs (or just get caught doing so). It's about the racial disparities in US home ownership; about how black African and Bangladeshi uni graduates in the UK are twice as likely to have low-paying jobs; about how black people in the UK are paid on average 14 percent less than white workers with the same A-Level qualifications. These are the sorts of things that Bergdorf meant by "structural racism". And these are the things – some of them often overwhelming – from which music can at least temporarily provide solace. Otherwise, it just feels as though we're talking in the same room and not listening to each other.

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