Back in June, I reflected on the global BLM protests. I discussed the performative optics that permeate the Eurovision Song Contest: the messaging and microaggressions towards acts and/or BIPOC fans. The toxic behaviours exhibited by the fandom. It’s now March. The news cycle is ‘back to normal’ and Instagram ‘black tiles’ are now a thing of the past. However, protests are still very much alive and kicking. How do I know this? Because they never started and stopped in June 2020. The plight for equality, equity and a voice spans beyond living memory.
The intersection between this movement and the ESC is rich, complex and under researched. Some circles in the fandom have attempted to have these conversations and tease out what can and often should be done to make our beloved contest something to be proud of – in all senses of the word. However, without this essential follow-up, the articles typed out in June by many sites (though I’m sure written in good faith) have increasingly become tokenistic pieces. Strategies to protect a brand from faux-pas’ of the past. In lieu of this crucial work, microaggressions have once again seeped into the vocabulary of the contest and its fans. Perhaps, this is unintentional, a lapse of judgement. But maybe perhaps this is more of a deep-rooted issue than some of us believed…
Simply put: a solitary article or post in June 2020 does not absolve any of us from the continual work we all need to collectively do to dismantle racism and other forms of prejudice in all its toxic permeations.
Querying a Contest
The last year has raised the following questions:
- Which voices are given a platform at ESC and who has been silenced or marginalised?
- Is the ESC a truly safe space for all voices?
- Does the ESC practice ‘celebrating diversity‘? If so, how?
- Whose cultures and/or experiences are considered ‘acceptable’ to showcase on the ESC stage? Whose are considered ‘unacceptable’?
These questions are so much more complex and nuanced than any single article or think piece can achieve. However, this might be a helpful launchpad to tackle or negotiate some of these issues.
2021 – The Birth of a New Age? Responding to Jeangu Macrooy
Last week, Jeangu Macrooy released his song to represent The Netherlands in this years contest. I encourage everyone to pay attention to the lyrical content of the song:
It’s a clear response not only to the events of last year, but an act of musical resistance against centuries of marginalisation. This is exactly the type of song this contest needs – thank you for your voice, Jeangu.
The song features two lines of Sranan Tongo, an English-based Creole language native to Suriname spoken by approx. 500,000 people:
Yu no man broko mi
Mi na afu sensiJeangu Macrooy – Birth of a New Age
These lines roughly translate to ‘You can’t break me, I am not a halved cent’. However, a quick scroll through the comments of the live performance, Jeangu’s socials or the stunning music video raises a recurring theme. A number of comments have tried to compare the song to Disney’s The Lion King, with some trying to make a wordplay about the phonetic likeness between the words ‘broko mi’ and ‘broccoli’. Though maybe meant as light-hearted jest, these comparisons are really not okay and do more harm than good.
Lots of words in one language has a different meaning or audible likeness in a different language. Yet the apparent license by many to make a joke out of creole reinforces a white supremacist mentality.
Given the historical nature of creole languages – a stable language resulting from the simplifying and/or mixing of languages in a relatively short period of time often as a result of European colonisation – to repeat this historical violence is grim. Woeful. Abhorrent.
Cultural appreciation and problematic profiling
Others, who frankly should know better, have indicated Jeangu ‘s song was written with ‘a lot of marijuana’, because it has a, ‘hippy-dippy’ vibe reminiscent of ‘woodstock’. Needless to say, this comparison leans into an ill-conceived and harmful stereotype regarding black men and drug use. In the UK, for example, black people are statistically nine (yes, nine!) times more likely to be stopped and searched by police than white people. I’m know similar stats can be extracted across the continent and beyond. You should not need to clarify your remarks or meaning if there wasn’t a potential problematic interpretation to be made.
It seems that as a fandom we struggle to negotiate the ways in which we approach, appreciate and describe cultures beyond our dubious borders. Reaching for low-hanging fruit and easy comparisons we do not consider the implications or harmful tropes we are perpetuating and reinforcing. How can we ‘celebrate diversity’ when we resist any authentic representation?
Jeangu ‘s music video is saturated with cultural references which I would love to learn more about. Jeangu Macrooy’s Birth of a New Age will be one of the most radical host entries in recent memory, if not the contests history. In three minutes, 180 seconds, the singer responds and resists centuries of European colonisation, the immeasurable violence of the slave trade and the racism which centres and fuels white supremacy. We should listen, we should learn.
The Devil’s music?
Elena Tsagrinou will represent Cyprus in this years contest with the song ‘El Diablo’. It’s fast become a favourite in the fandom and has led to quite the religious controversy that has been picked up worldwide. Quite the free promo. However, very little mention has been given to the music video – particularly from about 2:07 in which a number of dancers join Elena. These dancers, presumably as demonic figures to represent satanic head honcho are in blackface – something of a controversial ‘hot topic’ within Eurovision fan sites over the summer. The music video quite quickly becomes loaded with metaphors and imagery that echoes centuries of racist tropes.
Yet scrolling reactions on Youtube, few people note these optics. Instead, some lean into these tropes:
Here comes some demons… covered in soot!Review on Youtube
Oh we’ve got some demons – stay away from her!Review on Youtube
The first quote by a popular fan site seems to trivialise blackface. The second plays into tropes about black people – particularly black men – being sexual aggressors to white women (a trope that dominated the American South and still permeates society today!). Other fans recognise the blackface in the music video and have dismissed the legitimate concerns and discomfort dismissing them because it’s a ‘great song’. This recognition yet freedom to quash concern is an act of white privilege in practice. It perpetuates the very violence Jeangu uses his voice to call out and resist.
Cleaning up or a coincidental mess?
This violence is doubly compounded by the choice of product placement – namely shampoo…
Jean Michel Massing’s 1995 article ‘From Greek Proverb to Soap Advert: Washing the Ethiopian‘ is an incredibly accessible and relatively quick read. It traces and explains the historical connections between images of blackness as a bodily ‘defect’ and the mythic fantasy of correcting this ‘defect’ via cleaning products. These tropes span back to at least the 1500s if not before and are historical markers to skin whitening/bleaching products today. Examples of this trope are provided below (CW: Disturbing, racist imagery!)
To be clear, I’m not suggesting or accusing Elena or her team as racist. However, the optics of this imagery in light of the last 12 months is… more than clumsy to say the least.
The separation of art and artist is one we as a collective society are grabbling and negotiation with. However, just because a song is classified a ‘banger’ or ‘bop’ by some quarters of a fandom does not, or rather should not give a song/act/team a free pass to do and act as they please irrespective of the harm it may cause.
Archival riches, academic glitches?
Oftentimes, especially during the ‘on’ season, we are so fixed on the latest release or revamp we forget to look back at contests beyond the last few years.
In 2007, ‘A Song for Europe: Popular Music and Politics in the Eurovision Song Contest’. The book, edited by Ivan Raykoff and Robert Deam Tobin, features 15 essays from an international group of interdisciplinary scholars considering components of the contest we know and love. Chapter Six, titled ‘Fernando, Filippo, and Milly: Bringing Blackness to the Eurovision Stage’ by the editors introduction aims to address ‘western Europe’s post-colonial situation’ (emphasis added) that ‘relates how non-white singers represented the Netherlands in the contest’. Note the word ‘situation’. Does that word, and its wider implications, hold up to scrutiny today or back in 2007? Centuries of colonisation reduced to the almost neutral term ‘situation’. Hm.
The essay starts by referencing the first BIPOC performer in the contest, all the way back in 1964… However, the essay seems to awkwardly conflate Anneke Grönloh and her ‘roots’ in the ‘former colony of the Dutch East Indies (renamed Indonesia)’ with blackness?
The above quote is loaded and almost every word could be interrogated further. I say this not to be picky or pedantic. Instead, I’m pointing this out because it unintentionally seems to conflate the first BIPOC performer with ‘blackness’. This isn’t unusual in academia. However, the conflation with any non-white identity lumped into the umbrella term ‘blackness’ not only serves as a violent act of cultural erasure, but reinforces a damaging and reductive binary. Words matter and terminology holds power. They must be examined and clearly defined before anything else. With any luck, scholarship and work like this can extend beyond the singer, but consider songwriters, conductors, performers to reflect the changing face(s) of Europe.
The claim that racial politics has nothing to do with Eurovision cannot be sustained, but most ESC history resources have so far ignored this issue. An exception can be found in the Dutch Eurovision history Dinge-Dong (2000), which bluntly states “Singers with dark skin have a problem; there has never been a winner in that category so far. The explanation is easy: there simply have not been many black competitors. […] There are no signals that there is racial discrimination at play in the national selection rounds, but it remains strange. The regular charts are dominated by black artists” (emphasis my own).
There are some grand claims that deserve attention and scrutiny. However, can we just take a moment to process how… steeped in YIKES the above statement is? Possibly more than this editorial allows.
- Why is it that singers with ‘dark skin’ that have a problem, as opposed to a society steeped in prejudice?
- How do we actually know that there was no instance of gatekeeping by any broadcaster up to the 2000 contest?
- By its very nature, the act of selection is an act of exclusion. Be it national final or an internal selection, every broadcaster participates in gatekeeping. However, how can any of us prove, without substantial research, that racial (or any other form of!) discrimination was not in operation?
Barring a time machine or massive archival work, I don’t know if we could ever truly establish that somewhat privileged presumption as fact. But Mutsaers speculative assertion gives the implication that there isn’t really a need to investigate this. It closes down the conversation that was barely open. It resists interrogating the status quo, it keeps marginalised figures marginal.
Why am I reviewing academic scholarship from 2000 and 2007 respectively? Well, by adding my voice I am responding to a conversation, tapping into a discourse. To not reply is to leave some of these views unchallenged: an act of tacit complicity.
However, you do not need a specific qualification to try to build or develop this work. Indeed, there are only two or three ‘qualifications’ needed:
- active listening and the capability to learn from other cultures, voices and contexts
- Grasping the tools of any and all privileges to make these seemingly invisible narratives visible
- Being a fan of the Eurovision Song Contest.
It’s easy to make snide jokes at the expense of an individuals culture. It’s easy for acts who have been (rightly) called out for blackface performance or statements steeped in ignorance, xenophobic or outright racist comments to ignore the calls for an apology. However, for the recipient of these jibes or microaggressions, it isn’t funny. It’s an assault against a lived experience. I don’t think Jeangu laughed at the so called ‘jokes’ made at his expense. Without a clearly boundary of (im)permissible behaviour, the contest is tainted. Insidious views/behaviours give license to even more intolerance, discrimination and toxicity. A slippery slope.
Though certainly not a magic salve, I encourage fan sites to compile a multi-dimensional, working framework to embody the promise of inclusivity and ‘celebrating diversity’. We must engender a paradigm shift to provide meaningful dignity to set an example for readers and actually enact the change we claimed to desire back in the summer.
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