View From The Side: Kanye Haters At Glastonbury
Cheers to Ashley Clark for letting us republish this article, which first appeared over here on Medium. Follow him on twitter for more genius thoughts on music and film.
A few weeks back, Emily Eavis — co-organizer of Glastonbury, Britain’s largest music festival — announced that Chicago rapper, producer and singer Kanye West would headline the Pyramid Stage on the Saturday evening of this year’s event. Many fans, pundits and social media commenters rejoiced at the news, with good reason.
West is one of the most prolific, culturally influential, and biggest-selling recording artists of our time, not to mention a superb live performer with a proven pedigree in stagecraft. His blistering, flamethrower-assisted rendition of new song “All Day” at the recent BRITs ceremony, for example, rendered audience members including Taylor Swift and Lionel Richie gape-mouthed in wonderment. Furthermore, West’s performance is likely to be one of the first opportunities for a sizable U.K. audience to experience live renditions of cuts from his forthcoming seventh studio album, So Help Me God, the follow-up to 2013’s critically-acclaimed Yeezus.
Yet surveying social media in the aftermath of the announcement revealed that the festival’s choice wasn’t to everyone’s liking. For every positive response, there seemed to be countless dissenting voices bemoaning the booking. The announcement status on the official Glastonbury Facebook page remains a hotbed of seething fury, with over 12,000 comments posted.
The overwhelming majority are negative, ranging from the hostile (“That worthless piece of crap? Anyone would be better then [sic] that pile of crap”) to the illiterate and openly racist (“To [sic] bad you all dont [sic] have a local KKK branch. Would love to see this guy swinging from a branch,” “What a greasy ape”), with the occasional helpful suggestion (“Throw poo”) or ominous warning (“Remember to FILL YOURE [sic] BOTTLES Glastonbury warm rain this fool”) thrown in for good measure. Others take a perceived moral high ground, disapprovingly citing West’s recent tweeting of nude pictures of his wife, Kim Kardashian, as a reason for his unsuitability.
A sample of the kinds of responses posted on the “white people angry about kanye” Tumblr site
A Tumblr account, bluntly and accurately entitled “white people angry about kanye,” continues to cherry-pick some of the most frothing fulminations. The last one I read before closing the tab in despair was an anatomically-detailed prayer that West be maimed onstage (“I hope to god some lunatic spears a flag at him and it goes straight into his midriff”). While unchecked public vitriol in the age of social media is nothing new — and must necessarily be swallowed with a spoonful of bitter salt — it affords a valuable, transparent read on the public mood. This fount of mini-jeremiads, collated in one ever-expanding hub, makes for deeply unsettling reading. In fact, attempting to digest it all in research for this piece made me feel physically ill.
So what’s really behind all the outrage? One of the more cogent sources of disquiet comes straight outta King’s Lynn, Norfolk, where 31-year-old Neil Lonsdale launched a petition on change.org — a website which self-describes as “the world’s largest petition platform, empowering people everywhere to create the change they want to see.” Lonsdale’s petition, which he admits was initially set up as a joke response to West’s booking, is named “Cancel Kanye West’s headline slot and get a rock band.”
Screenshot of the anti-Kanye / Glastonbury petition
Its spirited description, also penned by Lonsdale, reads like a mini-manifesto of outsize cultural entitlement: “Kanye West is an insult to music fans all over the world. We spend hundreds of pounds to attend glasto, and by doing so, expect a certain level of entertainment. Kanye has been very outspoken on his views on music… he should listen to his own advice and pass his headline slot on to someone deserving! Lets prevent this musical injustice now!”
Ignoring the obvious irony that West is a genre-blurring artist (and self-appointed “rockstar”) whose music has long been heavily influenced by rock acts like Led Zeppelin and U2, Lonsdale conflates West’s more outré public pronouncements — like his controversial recent suggestion at the Grammys that Beck should “respect Beyoncé’s artistry” — with his supposed lack of value for money, and somehow concludes that he doesn’t have the aptitude to headline a concert. It’s all rather bizarre. Shouldn’t our cultural firmament be studded with erratic, outspoken eccentrics precisely in the vein of Kanye?
Yet at the time of writing, Lonsdale’s petition has accrued an extraordinary 133,246 signatures, making him an accidental figurehead for an amorphous, burbling groundswell of staunch cultural conservatism. It’s inconceivable that the petition will achieve its desired goal. But it can’t be dismissed as a mere storm in a teacup — it, and the accompanying vitriol, clearly speak to something deeply felt, festering under the surface.
[Photo by Andrew H. Walker/WireImage/Getty]
Is it a British thing? “It’s hard to imagine an American rock-fest audience having the same existential panic over the prospect of having to watch a rapper one evening, but apparently things are different for the Glastonbury faithful,” chuckled Joe Lynch at Billboard. He has a point. As a national institution Glastonbury seems to provoke a curiously proprietary fervour in some circles, including those — like Lonsdale — who’ve never actually attended the event.
The most obvious precursor to the Kanye fury is the case of New York rapper Jay Z, whose booking as a Pyramid Stage headliner in 2008 prompted a comparable kerfuffle. “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” complained Oasis’s Noel Gallagher, that venerable bulwark of white, British, establishment rock, in riposte to the booking. “If you start to break it then people aren’t going to go. I’m sorry, but Jay Z? No chance. Glastonbury has a tradition of guitar music… I’m not having hip-hop at Glastonbury. It’s wrong.”
Gallagher’s words whiffed of arrogance, but Jay Z had the perfect response. He famously opened his set with a cheeky cover of Oasis hit “Wonderwall” and — with characteristic panache — blew his critics out of the water with a ferocious performance. Commenting on the furore, Jay Z remained remarkably perspicacious: “We don’t play guitars, Noel, but hip-hop has put in its work like any other form of music.”
“Some rock fans — erroneously — see Glastonbury as a ‘rock’ festival and feel that having a hip-hop act headlining is somehow allowing the wrong type of music to take over ‘their’ festival,” says Chris Catchpole, an associate editor at music magazine Q. “But this view is patently nonsense. Take [dance act] Orbital — their set in 1994 is widely regarded as one of the most brain-meltingly brilliant things to ever take place there.” Indeed, a cursory at look at Glastonbury line-ups down the years — from its hippy, CND roots in the early 1970s, to its historic raft of invigoratingly diverse main stage acts (Gorillaz, Beastie Boys, Beyoncé, Black Uhuru, Weather Report, The Chemical Brothers, Youssou N’Dour, The Prodigy) helps one to debunk the concept that the festival is some one-dimensional rock paradise.
Jay Z pokes fun at Noel Gallagher in 2008 by gracing the Glastonbury stage brandishing an axe [Photo by Tabatha Fireman/Redferns/Getty]
It also seems absurd that such a stink could be kicked up around one artist when there are many others booked to play. On this note, Catchpole has some practical advice for the naysayers: “Focusing on Pyramid Stage headliners completely misses the point of Glastonbury and what makes it special. If you go to plonk yourself in front of the main stage all weekend waving a scaffolding pole with a Shaun The Sheep stuck on the end, then you might as well save your money and watch it on telly. If you don’t want to watch Kanye West on Saturday night there are literally hundreds of other things to do and see.” Emily Eavis herself wrote an impassioned op-ed in The Guardian defending the decision.
Catchpole and Eavis are right, but the strength of negative feeling directed toward West indicates that there’s something more sinister going on. The obviously racist Facebook posts are, well, obviously racist, but what about the more insidious stuff, the prejudice that swims under the surface and can’t be stymied because it can’t be objectively proved?
In an interview with the BBC, Lonsdale denied the accusation that his petition was racist in nature. “Obviously Kanye is a black artist,” he observed, “but it’s nothing to do with race. It’s to do with the music which he produces and the way that he presents himself.” And online commenters, when faced with similar suggestions, are quick to leap to positions of defensive entrenchment. Twitter user @ShardsOfReason peddles a familiar line: “Here come’s [sic] the race card after backlash at Kanye playing Glastonbury. Did you hear the same thing when Stevie Wonder headlined? No? Talent!” — as though refraining from racially abusing a blind, elderly, black musical legend is deserving of special credit.
In England, people have a tough time talking about issues surrounding racial discrimination. Nobody wants to admit to being racist, which prevents us from getting close to unpacking its various layers and manifestations. This goes for supporters of BBC presenter Jeremy Clarkson, who was caught on camera using the terms “nigger,” “slope,” and insulting Mexican culture. It goes for former England soccer captain John Terry, who in 2013 was found not guilty of racially abusing a teammate despite admitting to using vicious slurs. Right-wing politician Nigel Farage wants to allow businesses to discriminate on grounds of race, but continues to claim that his party, UKIP, “isn’t racist.” Meanwhile his former party colleague Rozanne Duncan also recently claimed she “isn’t racist,” despite admitting “I really do have a problem with people with negroid features.”
For the record, I also had a hard time confronting racism’s presence in England, as a scared, 18-year-old, mixed-race kid at the 2004 Reading festival, watching with horror as plastic chairs and bottles of urine were being hurled in the direction of rapper Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, who had the gall to appear at a “rock” festival. It felt like the prelude to a lynching. If I didn’t have the guts to articulate my deep discomfort then, I do now.
With specific regard to how we treat non-white musical figures, London-based producer and recording artist Adam Bainbridge — aka Kindness — thinks these issues are woven deeply into the country’s cultural fabric: “In the U.K. those who work in culture, those making the choice of how to frame these issues, are less polarized and more centrist in their attitudes [than in the U.S.]. There’s no real affirmative action for minorities in the U.K., or true belief in the need to help elevate non-white culture — that’s why we hear these negative voices, and feel this tension towards black artists more.”
I asked Bainbridge if he felt the Kanye outrage to be a manifestation of a festering “rockism,” a critical term referring to the belief that rock is more authentic than, and culturally superior to, other forms of music. “I’d say it’s less ‘rockism’ and more straight up racism,” he said. “[The] same people who start petitions about Kanye are also likely to be uncomfortable at a show by [legendary D.C. Rasta-punks] Bad Brains too. They don’t feel right when they see a person of color on top!”
Bainbridge, I think, gets to the heart of what provokes such ire toward Kanye West: he is a powerful black man with bulletproof confidence, plus evident wealth and status. There’s also, of course, the strong sense that he lives in his own impenetrable world, emerging unpredictably and intermittently to make interventions — sometimes clumsy, sometimes brilliant — into public conversations intersecting along lines of gender, race, and class.
Some have never forgiven him for his off-script, televised assertion that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a statement for which he later apologized. He’s recently also raised hackles in black American circles by suggesting on French television that “racism is a dated concept;” ironic given what people are saying about him on Facebook, Twitter and, yes, change.org.
I think that when other white musicians threaten or berate Kanye, as Noel Gallagher (“Kanye West is a fucking dumbass. Imagine if he’d got up at the Brits in the 90s, I’d have knocked him out”); David Crosby (“He’s an idiot and a poser….has no talent at all”); and Garbage’s Shirley Manson (“You disrespect your own remarkable talents when you go so rudely and savagely [my italics] after such an accomplished and humble artist like BECK”) have recently done, they’re all, perhaps subconsciously, playing into a historical narrative which positions confident black people as “uppity,” a term once used by whites in the south for black people who didn’t know their place. We’ve seen this kind of thing play out before with brilliant, vocal men and women like Muhammad Ali and Nina Simone, who were widely criticised for speaking out on complex issues like race and class.
So upon which note to end? It’s hard to draw any positive conclusions about humanity in the face of the dulling, vicious online screeds. But I hope that he pulls off his headline slot with just as much style as Jay Z did in 2008. It would be absurd if an artist of Kanye’s caliber was hindered in any way from taking his rightful place on the main stage of the country’s most prestigious music festival — and a crushing indictment of England in 2015.
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