Racism or just commercial sense?

The other week, I prepared a post about the controversy caused by the singer Estelle, whose song was top of the UK singles charts a couple of weeks ago, alleging that the singers being pushed as soul in the UK (which I don’t think they are) not being real soul artists (which they are not), and it being all too easy for white singers to get noticed by the media making black music in the UK, but black artists have to go to America. In her case, going to America got her the services of John Legend and Kanye West, so I do not know what she was complaining about, but the comments by Noel Gallagher that Jay-Z was the wrong person to be the headliner at Glastonbury this summer has reignited the controversy about racism in music.

Gallagher, whose band Oasis headlined at Glasto in 1995 and 2004, reckons:

“Well, you know, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

“If you start to break it then people aren’t going to go. I’m sorry, but Jay-Z? (Bleep) No chance.

“Glastonbury has a tradition of kinda guitar music, you know what I mean, and even when they throw the odd curve ball in on a Sunday night you go ‘Kylie Minogue?’

“I don’t know about it. But I’m not having hip-hop at Glastonbury. No way, no, it’s wrong.”

The choice of Jay-Z as the “headliner”, which actually means the last act on the bill, has been blamed for the failure of tickets to the festival to sell out in a matter of seconds after they have been put on sale. I personally doubt this. Apart from the fact that what makes a sell-out a sell-out is that the tickets are all gone by the time the event opens, not less than an hour after they go on sale, there could be other reasons for there being no instant sell-out - possibly being, among them, the economic down-turn and the fact that perhaps people can’t justify the cost, or the fact that we are forecast a wet summer. However, surely the most important reason must be that those who were buying them straight away were bulk-buyers who intended not to attend the festival but to resell the tickets at extortionate prices on eBay?

To return to Oasis and racism, Oasis are hardly representative of the ethos of Glastonbury, which I always thought was about peace and love and all that. Oasis were never about that; they produced loud, bombastic rock music which, at the supposed height of their powers in the mid-1990s, mixed slick production and what sounded like session musicians (that drummer on Wonderwall might not have been Jerry Marrotta, but he certainly wasn’t Ringo Starr either) with lyrics which insulted the listeners’ intelligence with brazen, and obviously not rhetorical, oxymorons (“Slowly walking down the hall, faster than a cannonball” for instance), delivered in a snarly sneer by the author’s little brother Liam (AKA, for a while, Mr Patsy Kensit) in a manner that suggested, “yeah these lyrics are crap, what you gonna do about it?”.

Do I think he’s a racist? No. My impression, though, is that his “type” would have an attitude to the effect of “I don’t give a f**k about all that racism sh**”. But whether Jay-Z suits Glastonbury is about more than his race - it’s about his music, and Noel is half right that the music doesn’t really fit, especially as a headliner. One of the responses to Estelle’s comments was by Barbara Ellen in the Observer, who claimed that when she wrote for the NME, any time they put a black artist on the cover, sales plummeted despite pressure on them to do so. However, the NME, at least when I read it in the 1990s, focussed on indie artists, who were mostly white. It’s not that the readers were not interested in black artists, but people who wanted R&B or rap or reggae (and that is another angle on the Estelle story: soul is by no means the only show in town where black music in the UK is concerned) had other magazines they could buy.

The same is true of Glastonbury, which has a core audience, and it does not really make sense to have a headline artist who is seriously outside its normal range - it could easily lead to a situation where a large proportion of the audience just goes home before the headline act starts, because a lot of people who like guitar-based music simply will not sit through two hours or more of hip-hop. It is not racism, but just plain commercial sense. Then again, I am sure many will not be impressed with Emily Eavis’s quote (she is the daughter of the festival’s founder) in the Guardian today that, before Jay-Z and Mary J Blige sorted it out, “[Black music] really was bling” (I wonder what she said that was substituted with “black music” in square quote). Making vast, negative generalisations about the music of an entire people is what some would call racism and isn’t good sense, if you want those people to attend your festival.

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