Thousands of rock fans will be converging on Somerset next week for the Glastonbury Festival, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary, but Lenny Henry has put a dampener on the summer fun by complaining about the lack of diversity in the Glastonbury audience – in other words, that there are too many whites. According to Henry, in conversation with Clive Myrie for the Radio Times, this is ‘a dominant culture thing’ – which, translated, means that the dominant culture is white and excludes blacks.
Lenny Henry’s remarks are as insulting to the intelligence as they are gratuitously offensive to whites. Yet the poison of identity politics has seeped into our society so deeply, the diversity fetish paranoia of our times is so pervasive, it is Glastonbury organisers who have been ‘contacted for comment’. It is as if by facilitating an event in which large numbers of people (who happen to be mostly white, as is the wider population) gather to enjoy music, they have perpetrated a hate crime of the first order.
Would anyone complain that the largely black audience of a rap or hip-hop (rap to a backing track) concert lacked diversity? Is it likely that the modern-day New Age hippies who converge on Glastonbury are closet fascists and racists? Does the dominant popular musical culture, to which blacks have contributed so much, through blues, gospel, soul etc, really exclude blacks?
The source of the trouble seems to be that Glastonbury, which is primarily a festival of rock music – its founder Michael Eavis, on whose farmland the festival takes place, happens to like rock music – has never featured much in the way of rap. Indeed, Eavis is on record as saying that he does not much like rap. He has even confessed to the Guardian that, ‘My own tastes are not diverse, not really’ (my italics). These are, of course, shocking revelations in a diverse multicultural society, but there is a more fundamental question here: What does the phenomenon of ‘rap’ tell us about black youth culture and identity politics cum critical race theory?
Let us take Jeffery Lamar Williams (alias ‘Young Thug’) as our example of a leading, award-winning, rapper – who would be unlikely to feature at Glastonbury. According to Wikipedia, Young Thug is noted for ‘his fast working method’, his tendency to ‘freestyle’ tracks live in the studio and ‘quickly develop lyrics on the spot’. He has claimed the ability ‘to write a hit song in ten minutes’, saying, ‘I’m in the studio so much, I’ll just try stuff. I just think and try, think and try. I don’t really know how to sing, but I’ve been trying for years.’ Young Thug has six children by four women.
Here is a sample of the lyrics to ‘In Dis Bitch’:
Snake ass niggas got me ridin’ with my garden tool
I’m a Martian dude, little monkey dude
Even if you were a couple million, they wouldn’t sponsor you
If a thug number two, they’re pro’ly under you
Young Thug in this bitch
So, go get over here and show some love in this bitch
And I’m so about this, go ahead and rub on this bitch
And we might just end up making love in this bitch
Switching to YouTube, we hear these lyrics mouthed in monotone to an electronic techno-disco backing track of surpassing banality. By contrast, the demo tunes off my son’s Yamaha have a melodic and rhythmic complexity that puts them in a parallel musical universe.
Rap may well have some consoling value to members of the black community, but its mix of aggression, resentment and self-pity lends it little interest to anyone outside the subgroup, and confers zero musical appeal. Those who present rap as the authentic voice of black youth, a cultural form on a par with those that constitute ‘the dominant culture’ (white, hegemonic, oppressive etc), or who pander to rap in the name of ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’, merely condemn black youth to permanent exclusion from the superior resources of the dominant culture. Black youth remains firmly confined to the ghetto, to perpetual anti-social adolescence.
Is rebellious rock any better? True, the lyrics tend to the adolescent and the banal (I love, you love, me love etc) and the harmonies are rudimentary. Nevertheless, the melodies and rhythms have universal appeal, and unless we are classical or jazz purists, we will all have our favourites, which we danced or swayed to in our teenage years. They gave voice to the natural rebelliousness of youth, the juvenile desire for easy enlightenment, for satisfaction, for peace and for love.
Paradoxically, blacks, most notably African-Americans, have contributed enormously to the dominant popular cultural tradition, that is, to ‘white music’ – often via such genres as gospel, blues, rhythm and blues, and soul, which originated in the African-American community. But unlike rap, these genres had genuine musical qualities and universal appeal, which is precisely why they were integrated into the dominant cultural tradition.
The sad truth is that rap has as much cultural and musical value, as much consciousness-raising potential, as the junkie’s fix of heroin. It is a social and cultural dead end. Musically, it was never even alive.
Rock on, Glastonbury!
Listen to George Steiner on music and consider what we have lost . Editor