Waking up on Monday to a feed full of tweets about a black Hermione Granger, my first thoughts were that maybe some Potter fan boys and girls had taken over Twitter. On second glance, I realized it was all true: There is a black women in a prominent role in a fantasy drama that was previously portrayed by a white actor.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a new play that focuses on Harry and the gang years after Hogwarts. When the play opens at London’s Palace Theatre in July 2016, Hermione will be played by the astounding Noma Dumezweni, a 45-year-old Swaziland-born actress.
The announcement of Dumezweni as Hermione is, of course, a double-edged sword. The movement to widen the film and drama industry’s concept of diversity and represent the world as we see it has taken one step forward—but the fact that we’re celebrating shows how far we have to go.
Leeds-based artist Selina Thompson opened the London leg of her new interactive performance piece Dark & Lovely with this stark revelation. Dark & Lovely examines what it means to be a Black British woman and how the politics of hair have a part to play in our identity.
Standing outside a giant ‘tumbleweave’ home, built from abandoned weaves and leftover hair extensions, Thompson beams and smiles in a shoulder length weave and a silk dressing gown. She welcomes the audience to come closer to her as she hands out rum punch and repeats, “Hair is just hair”; that dismissive phrase black women hear so often from others. You see hair is never just hair for black women, and Thompson knows this all too well. She details the times in her life when friends joked about her hair, made her feel lesser, cheapened or not worthy. Black women’s hair is never just hair.
I was interviewed on several BBC local radio stations on Sunday 27 September to discuss Viola Davis’ Emmy win, lack of roles for black women in TV and my Media Diversified article arguing why Empire’s Cookie Lyon is one of the greatest black characters on TV.
Imagine if Cookie Lyon actually ran the music industry. Just imagine. Everything would be at least 50% more fabulous, leopard print fedoras would become the standard industry uniform and there would be no more Andy Coppings spouting their uneducated views on women in the music industry. Yes if there were more Cookies the world would be a more straight talking but never the less more efficiently run place.
In fact, alongside its diverse writing room, Cookie has been named as one of the reasons that the new FOX soap opera series, Empire, has become such a big hit and also why Cookie is everyone’s new favourite character.
The human voice has always been an enthralling and powerful instrument to me. The sound that escapes through parted lips can tell the deepest truths in a world where honesty is sorely needed. It can also open up the singer to a world of criticism when the truth becomes too much for the listener.
The insidious trope of a band of average white dudes fronted by a prop-like, traditionally pretty, female singer pervades the music industry. Despite the many calls for the music industry to take female musicians seriously, old-fashioned ideas about female performers, such as them lacking in technical skill, still persist in every crack and crease of this business.
So many female artists have experienced this demoralising treatment that it has almost become a grotesque routine. Former Joanna Gruesome vocalist, Alanna McArdle, wrote a brilliant article on the perils of being “just” a female vocalist in a world that lessens the validity of your role. Vocalists rarely get the full praise they deserve. The power and pressure that comes with being “the singer” is something Raphaelle Standell, from Montreal-based band Braids, knows all too well.
Despite what many a cantankerous punk will tell you it really doesn’t take too much to start a DIY band. It’s easy enough to find like minded, rough and ready members with a similar disliking for authority; it’s easy to put a middle finger up to the concept of the music business and scrawl ‘DIY or Die’ all over your organic, fair trade shirt before heading out to devour vegan hotdogs at the local punk show. It’s easy enough to do all of that but what about when the music industry comes to your doorstep, when the national press start to sniff fresh meat and the big guys want a piece of the DIY pie. So DIY or die; what do you do?
After the success of their debut album Weird Sister, Cardiff’s finest, Joanna Gruesome, surely must have been contemplating the very same thing. Well I assume, I’m not in their heads. What I do know is that they have had a whirlwind brush with the music industry that must have had an effect on their outlook as a band.
Whenever I walk into a newsagent’s in search for a music magazine that appeals to my wide ranging tastes, the wall of white male rock faces always leaves an overwhelming taste of disappointment in my mouth. Is it a long running joke or a seething hatred of all that is different that has resulted in the music industry’s refusal to represent the true diversity of talent in the music scene? That taste of disappointment quickly changes to proactive, forceful questioning of why isn’t there more on offer.
The usual defence thrown back at us is that music magazines that showcase more people of colour, women and trans people do not sell. Of course this is not true, as we have seen through the success of independent magazines that reflect the truly diverse nature of the artists creating our culture.
One such magazine is the free arts and culture magazine, BEAT, founded by DJ, writer and editor extraordinaire, Hanna Hanra. Since its inception in late 2010,BEAT has gone on to feature artists such as Grimes, The xx, Sky Ferreira and Dev Hynes, with Hanra behind the wheel. In an era where it is hard to decipher what music magazines truly stand for, an independent, exciting magazine driven by new artists is most welcome, so I was pleased to take the opportunity to have a chat with Hanna about BEAT‘s longevity and also touch on topics such as her experiences as a DJ and her thoughts on the 1990s grrrl revival…
This article has been adapted from a talk given at the event, Off the Shelf in Sheffield, October 2014
I am lucky and I know that. I am lucky that I found a semi-comfortable place to be. I play in feminist punk bands as part of the London punk scene that encompasses everything from riot grrrl to hardcore, post punk to noise pop. Growing up in Wolverhampton, there was a music scene of sorts it was nothing like the one I am currently involved in. As a shy teenager I never had the confidence to start a scene by myself and I’m not sure how other teenagers could either. It was too much and I thought it was easier to leave.
So that is just to say that I know that both the time we’re living in and the London and UK punk scene in general has improved. Nevertheless as inclusive as the London punk scene aims to be it is safe to say that it can fail in numerous ways. Not in an actively aggressive way but more in a passively ignorant way that is almost worse. We live in an age of UKIP, regressive politics, Islamaphobia and class snobbery so it would be a miracle if these attitudes did not seep their way into every aspect of our culture including the people within our music scene.
I have told people examples of things that have happened to me before but it’s so hard to express the insidious nature of, to quote bell hooks, the “Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy” that sometimes my friends could not understand it or perhaps I could not understand fully. When the weapons of the enemy are all around us it’s hard to recognise them as anything but normal.
We all know the obvious ways women musicians are treated within the industry. We probably should be pretty but not too pretty, talented but with the knowledge that you’ll never be fully recognised for it and white men with half the talent, who sometimes stole your creative ideas (cough* Led Zeppelin,Rolling Stones) will make the magazine covers, line bedroom walls and be crowned the kings of rock n roll. What’s missing from that list is to be crowned the perfect indie songstress, and that’s an indie songstress that appeals to male music journalists as well, you had to be white.
This was integral and it’s something that even as a teenager I noticed immediately but no one talks about the racial element in the music industry. The most popular women in music that I admired when I was younger were PJ Harvey, Brody Dalle, Kathleen Hanna and Karen O. They were all talented, brave and if they were men would have been made into Gods. If Alex Turner can get into NME every other week for accomplishing seemingly creative endeavours in-between tax evading than surely Peej deserves more than a quick look in every few years.
They also embodied a girl next door beauty that was welcoming, alluring and most importantly non threatening. This was because it was a beauty based on conventional beauty standards that value whiteness and Caucasian features. While I admire these women no one ever discussed the fact that whiteness, sexuality and gender were so heavily intertwined when I was younger. I would look at these talented white women and look at the men and I could not see a place for myself in that world.
I did not grow up in a household that was openly creative. I was not popular, confident, I had no innate talent for anything. I needed validation or a visual cue to give me the go ahead and say “yes you could be in a band, here’s your spot, make your mark,” but that did not happen. I decided that since I could not look as beautiful as my idols, and I did not know whether I could play like them either, that I probably could not be a musician.
I changed my mind later, but it is important to note how these images and codes can affect our way of thinking. I eventually joined a band and began to play music in places other than in my room with the door closed and my headphones on but it was hard. Having the confidence to believe in myself, my music or even turn the volume up too high took a long time to come and in certain situations it still fails me completely. I have realised that still at the back of my mind those early images are holding me back and telling me I don’t have authority here.
So when we think about how hard it is for white women in the music industry when their role models are sidelined by white men, think how hard it must be for black women when our role models rarely get a mention. If black women do make it into the spotlight they are unfortunately white washed by history likePoly Styrene, vocalist in X-Ray Spex. What I saw as my first ray of hope, a slightly kooky mixed race girl, many white people saw as another white woman. Seeing a black and white image of a woman in a punk band the assumption is made that she must have been white so just like that an entire aspect of her life is erased.
It took me years to learn the true history of rock music and fill in the blanks that had been rubbed out and replaced with a conventional white man. The canon of music history that we are taught is flawed and incomplete. For example Led Zeppelin’s classic ‘When the Levee Breaks’ was actually written by the black female guitarist Memphis Minnie and her husband Kansas Joe in 1935. This story is well known, mainly because Led Zeppelin are well known for stealing songs, but nevertheless Memphis Minnie is rarely as celebrated as Led Zeppelin.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe was one of the most popular blues and gospel singers in the 30s and 40s. Her guitar style was incredibly unique and she was a huge influence on stars such as Chuck Berry and Elvis who would have seen Tharpe was a hero. Chuck Berry and Elvis went on to influence bands such as The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. Nevertheless Tharpe’s name is rarely mentioned in everyday circles. When we discuss the mainstream history of rock it is important to remember the styles and influences have been garnered from a confrontational black femininity that has been put into a white male space to make it more conventional.
Sometimes I lie awake at night and think about all of the amazing black women who formed bands and wrote amazing music that we’ll never know about because they were written about of history before they could even get properly started. I refuse to believe that they did not exist. I know they did because I exist and I am not an anomaly.
I think we need to consider ways to make the music industry a better space for black women. To start we need to take more time to consider the black women who paved the way. Being able to fill in the canon of rock history with women such as Nina Simone, Betty Davis,Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Marlena Shaw, has given me more confidence to continue in music and knowing that other women have done it before me gives me hope for the road ahead.
In James Spooner’s now legendary 2003 documentary Afro Punk, which looks at race and identity within the punk movement, punk musician Tamar Kali stated: “Being caught in a system that you can’t identify with, that you can’t support and just being contrary, that’s the true energy of what punk is. I think one of the punk-ist people i can think of in history is Nina Simone.”
I have to agree with her that Nina Simone is probably more punk than everyone. If you don’t think so, know that at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969 she asked the majority black crowd if they were ready to kill for the revolution.
If being punk mean being “caught in a system that you can’t identify with, that you can’t support” that I believe that the main group of people that experience this from birth are black women. Black women, by our very nature, by getting up every day, having confidence in ourselves, wearing what we want, smiling when we want or not, being loud, gregarious or shy and retiring; by being ourselves black women are the definition of punk.
We need to reclaim our space and title in a world that, as the great jazz musician Charles Mingus succinctly put, is constantly “singing your praises while stealing your phrases”.
I don’t always get paid for my work, so if you’ve liked my pieces and want me to write more you can donate a couple pennies to keep me going in between paid work.
It happens every year; the same time every year. We know it so well; the lead up, the commotion and the eventual indifference. Awards season is upon us and with that star-filled month in our calendar comes the annual moment members of the white arts industry shake themselves out of the blinkered daze that envelopes them for most of the year, look around, and realise there are few Black faces around them.
This is also the time of year that a small number of other white members of the arts industry decide that there are no issues with diversity in the industry and, if anything, there needs to be more opportunities for straight white men, as they need all the help they can get, poor mites. Oh yes, those kinds of white people exist (cough, cough Blunty), but we’ll save another article for their kind.
White people are waking up, only for a few weeks, mind, but it is happening. A few weeks ago, rent-a-posh actor Benedict Cumberbatch found out that there are rarely any Black people on his film sets. A fact that is certainly true, and needs to be said, but whilst making that statement he managed to refer to Black people with a word so archaic that it actually adds another piece of evidence to my theory that Benedict Cumberbatch is actually from the past, and has been brought here to our timeline to trick the world into liking the upper-class! In response to the Baftas overwhelmingly white cast of nominees, MP Chris Bryant wrote what I can only assume as an intentionally ironic comment piece about the lack of diversity in the arts.
I took part in a panel discussion called Women Make Noise as part of the Off the Shelf festival in Sheffield. The discussion focused on women’s experiences of music culture and the industry and featured myself, Julia Downes, Alanna McArdle and Sarita Karr.
Here is the audio of the whole event which covered many interesting topics including the exclusion of black women in music, the experiences of being a woman in a male dominated band and the experiences of being a female house and techno DJ.
I don’t always get paid for my work, so if you’ve liked my pieces and want me to write more you can donate a couple pennies to keep me going in between paid work.
Sway to the right, sway to the left. Uniform in motion and occasionally in style, the gentle dance that occurs in the pit can be a mesmerising experience, that is until a hurricane of hyper aggression cuts through the room; displacing the good time and good people.
Stage front at the Shacklewell Arms all dayer, despite a great atmosphere, signs promoting ‘Girls to the Front’ and a host of brilliant but un-mosh-inducing bands, by the time US hardcore band Perfect Pussy and noise pop favourites Joanna Gruesome came on, the crowd was in full throbbing mode. JG’s lead singer, Alanna McArdle, made several attempts to calm the crowd but to no avail. Left with the only option to monitor the crowd, McArdle kept a close eye on the pit; her voice filled with emotion and determination, her face steely and focused. The signs seemed like a mere joke afterwards but the good intention was certainly there.