I apologise for covering another British matter, but believe this is of relevance and, I hope, interest to all.
A white, middle-aged and very middle-class historian called David Starkey appeared on a television programme last week to give his thoughts on the week’s anarchic scenes. Whether he intended to or not, and he probably did just a little because he has previous when it comes to being provocative (he was labelled “the rudest man in Britain” by the Daily Mail, serial offenders indeed, and memorably called Scotland “a feeble little country”), he kicked a hornets’ nest several times with remarks that were instantly met with accusations of racism. It was a hornets’ nest that nobody is allowed to upset.
The poor hornets’ nest (and before you say it, I’m not insinuating anything whatsoever about the wealth of, or associated morals held by, the hornets residing in this nest; and I use the analogy because I like it, it’s not chosen because said hornets bear any type of resemblance to anyone or anything, nor does their behaviour remind me of anyone or anything or anywhere) had received a good weltering by the time the credits rolled, but it would continue for days. I couldn’t help but feel that the most frantic kicks came from outraged liberals and self-appointed upholders of political correctness who didn’t want to aggravate the hornets’ nest at all but just couldn’t help themselves. You could say that it was reminiscent of the feral youth trying to boot their way into Foot Locker to steal as many pairs of trainers as they could carry away without needing to adjust their hood-and-scarf combo. Wait, I didn’t say that last part. What I meant was…
Now, I’m white, but I’m neither middle-aged nor middle-class and possess but the tiniest fraction of Starkey’s knowledge, life experience, observational nous and temerity for winding people up, with even less of his unabashed vanity, yet stone me (don’t take that literally, I’m not advocating violence here), I happened to agree with him just a little. I winced at the way he said what he did and gritted my teeth expecting the wholly inevitable backlash, because he didn’t select his words as carefully as he might have done and it was, ultimately, the hornets’ nest of all hornets’ nest which he chose to kick. Yet I thought he made some valid points and they deserve consideration, not denunciation.
Aren’t some people over-reacting? I don’t mean those who are most entitled to take offence, rather those sharing more in common with Starkey who are going out of their way, it seems to me, and appear rather desperate to be seen to be attacking the bigoted views of a silly old fool as though that will restore calm and stop further unrest on the streets. If we’re trying to understand the reasons for rioting, why is it not acceptable to consider every possible explanation, however innocuous, including the role of language and rap music in popular and gang culture and its influence far beyond its expected target audience? Like it or not, a key aspect of this black culture – and it’s OK to say this because black people admit it too – is an utter disregard for the police and the rule of law. That’s not to say that aspects of white culture do not share this same disregard; just glance through the nearest newspaper if you think anyone would be that silly to try and say that white culture is, well, whiter than white. It is simply a part of black, gangster culture. Not even a tiny part, unfortunately.
Why not ask ourselves why white youths are looking to black music, specifically to gangsta rap, for answers and role models, believing it to contain more relevance to them and to offer more much-needed encouragement than other types of music? This in a country where, just like the USA where most hip-hop originates, the vast majority of not only authority figures such as politicians, police and teachers are white, but also most successful individuals as reported by a predominantly white media. Why not seek to address these issues?
I know something about racial stereotypes, being Celtic and not Anglo Saxon. As I’m Welsh and have at numerous times been subject to the oh-so tedious assumptions so favoured by my English neighbours, as have my Scottish and Irish friends (only a bit of fun, naturally, don’t take it to heart, Taffy/Jock/Paddy), I’ll resist the temptation to build on the theory that England has never successfully repressed its dirty, imperialist desires and still has one hell of a superiority complex which has carried over from The Days of Empire, not wishing to upset English friends with far more enlightened views of the world of which they are but a tiny part. I’ll save that for another time and place. Dr Starkey, though, in part because of his age and political views, is a product of this very ugly, supercilious Englishness. He probably doesn’t mean anything by it, he just can’t help himself. Cambridge-educated, precociously clever, unashamedly Conservative with a great big ‘C’ whose 1950s BBC accent betrays his Cumbrian, Quaker upbringing. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. (Better not, just in case.)
I tire of it, the stereotyping, and don’t accuse every boorish joker of being racist; I simply note first, that they’re arseholes and second, that this type of racial abuse isn’t nearly as serious as that which has been experienced for centuries by black or Jewish people. Those are the real hornets’ nests.
Starkey’s most offensive comments were that David Lammy, a respected black member of parliament, sounds white because he’s educated and well-spoken, unlike so many of the youths – or yoofs – we have all heard demonstrating a peculiar and much-mocked street language recently. It does raise the question: does an inability or reluctance to pronounce words correctly, and to form intelligible sentences that those beyond your peer group can comprehend, help make you employable? Hardly. (Half of all black youths in England are unemployed, apparently.) To prove the point, Starkey read out something which had been written by one of the looters, aged 18, to give an example of just how poor the standards are. If his aim had been to criticise the education system, it would have been an ideal source. Point duly noted, anyway. As it happened, there was another point made: it revealed the girl’s utter contempt for the police and blamed the riots on them (for killing a black man whose criminal record we have yet to fully discover).
Regardless of these two helpful points, Starkey was actually attempting to highlight the quality of speech demonstrated by black youths. Forgetting for a moment the lazy assumption that he must have been equating black with bad, white with good, he did just that and it spawned an amusing YouTube video. It is obviously unfair to compare someone of 18 with a professional more than twice her age and used to public speaking. Their skin colour is irrelevant, age and profession much more so. Still, I don’t think that makes Starkey a racist, rather guilty of a thoughtless comparison between a rioter who uses lazy language and a professional who speaks very well, both of whom happen to be black. I don’t believe he was saying black is bad, just that the way the 18-year old chooses to speak isn’t ideal. Don’t forget that, embarrassingly, she was chosen to be an Olympic ambassador. Don’t forget either that her parents shopped her to the police after seeing her on TV, which I think takes great courage and should be applauded.
By the same token, of course, we can assume that Starkey thinks regional accents are as bad as adopted ones. But I doubt he was saying that, in spite of his betrayal of his own regional accent. All he said was that “this Jamaican patois that’s been intruded in England” is not very becoming. Listen to Starkey speak. No doubt, in his view, we should all speak properly, with correct enunciation, as he does. The evolution of language is all well and good, but it should be understandable. An academic would say such a thing.
Can we not say the same for Estuary English or Mockney, the imitation of working class Londoners’ speech for so long cherished as Cockney? (Go to London and try and find an authentic Cockney. Good luck, you’ll need it. Was that racist? People like David Starkey have priced them out.) Indeed, the middle class has been pretending to be working class for years. Mick Jagger started it. Damon Albarn and Lily Allen do it, to give but two examples of middle class kids trying not to be in an attempt to fit in, to gain some sort of authenticity and credibility, ultimately to ingratiate themselves with the folk who will buy their albums and make them even more middle class. Most amusingly of all, Mike Skinner from The Streets is from Birmingham. Brummies don’t sound anything like Londoners. I’m sure Starkey would have an opinion on this, too.
Starkey’s is the snobbery that kept regional accents off television and radio for so long, preferring instead the plummy and equally artificial tones of Received Pronunciation, the standard or Queen’s English spoken in the Home Counties, as favoured by those with power and influence. This is how it’s been for generations and someone like Starkey, who has gained a lucrative television career out of it and worked his way into it, would be understandably sad to see it replaced with something less cultured. That’s not so outrageous, surely. We all moan about ‘dumbing down’ often enough.
Don’t we all speak a hybrid of American and Australian dialects these days anyway, thanks to the likes of Neighbours, Dallas and Dynasty. The American influence, regardless of its colour, on British culture in particular is immense. Ask the French how they feel about it. It won’t have escaped your attention that if the films and television series from the USA are not set against a bright backdrop of huge houses, sports cars and all the latest mod-cons, where everyone is beautiful and gets an easy ride and an even easier moral message to digest at the end, it’s a gritty underworld to be feared. There is no in-between. In the latter, the music is loud and the language is threatening; in the former, the riches are taken for granted yet, in reality, are unattainable to most viewers. Police are shown in a negative light, women are objects to be used. Everywhere are images of violence, drugs and sex. We’ve had that for 60 years now, ever since the television entered our homes in the 1950s.
Is American culture as much as, maybe more than, black culture not the real problem here? I think analysis of this would be much more helpful, believing, as I do, that the riots were about greed and believed need and America has given the world the impossible dream to chase, encouraging everybody to worship material wealth, leaving most people thoroughly depressed and disillusioned by their failure to accumulate it.
Consider MTV’s Cribs, to give just one example, which is one of the most vile programmes ever seen. It serves as a platform for celebrities, many of them black as you would hope, showing off their wealth. What can motivate you more than to see someone from a similar background becoming successful when you have very little? It’s such a shame that they – we all – are impressed most by fickle possessions.
Most tactlessly of all, Starkey declared that “whites have become black.” Cue unrestrained eruptions of rage and much grinding of teeth. Be honest, there were probably also many nervous nods in agreement, particularly from the middle-aged who have little idea what their children are saying much of the time and privately curse the many influences on youth culture just as their parents would have cursed their influences and had their own cursed before them. Few famous names will come to Starkey’s defence for fear of being similarly labelled, but some whites as well as Asians have embraced black culture to the point where, as Starkey said, if you were listening on the radio you would no longer be able to guess the creed of the speaker – as if that matters. We can all acknowledge this and it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. I fail to see what is so wrong with a simple cultural observation, although, again, I accept that ‘the black way is the wrong way, the white way is the right way’ is too tempting not to pick up and run with. I just feel we should resist that temptation for the sake of better understanding. David Lammy, I would assume, was only mentioned as an example of someone a generation closer to the majority of rioters than Starkey, crucially, who black youth should look up to and be inspired by instead of other less favourable influences.
Try as we might, we cannot forget Sacha Baron Cohen’s Ali G comedy creation – a white kid, Jewish if memory serves me well, trying to be black. From the way he talked to the way he dressed, he wanted to be black. The character was amusing to most people, other than British rabbis, but soon came controversy over the exact subject of our laughter. My take was that the joke was on Ali G and the embarrassing lengths to which he’d go in order to keep up his pretence. Was it racist to laugh? I hope not, because I did a couple of times.
Take Eminem, the exemplary ‘Wigger’ (because I’m white I guess I can say that in the same way that it’s OK for black people to use the disgusting N-word?), who has done very well for himself by embracing black music. An obvious role model for white youths who are desensitised to violence, not in the least offended by the misogyny and homophobia found in his lyrics, accepting of drugs and crime as by-products of street life even if many of them would not entertain the idea of experimenting with them. (Surely we should be more concerned about this than what David Starkey thinks.) He has become rich and famous and has given something back to society, in the form of the charity he founded to help disadvantaged youth, for example, as well as the acclaimed protest song, ‘Mosh’, which encouraged young people of all creeds to register to vote in protest against the Iraq war.
In this sense, some whites have become black. Presumably Starkey thinks that’s a bad thing, as is his right to an opinion however controversial, because he already gave an example of a solitary black person’s attitude towards the police, society and criminal behaviour which few would ever consider positive. That makes sense, even if one opinion does not speak for the entire black community.
I doubt that anyone sensible would attack positive prejudice or allophilia, possessing a highly favourable attitude for a group that is not your own. Those that do show empathy for another group are least likely to be prejudiced against them. Yet the blurring of lines of distinction may well unsettle certain people, people like Starkey we now assume. For them (if I can use ‘them’, I think I should be able to seeing as I’m using it against a white group), it was easier when things were strictly black or white, and white has always ruled, in which case I would most certainly consider somebody racist for advocating the continued suppression of a minority group. But Starkey didn’t indicate that this was his view or say anything of the sort. Speaking about the attitude of rioters to the police and shops looted, I don’t think he was claiming anything more than white kids followed the message most commonly found in a very small part of black culture, i.e. resist the rule of law and do what you want. As a good historian, he had a source to support his claim.
I would hope that none of this was a slur on the millions of immigrants who have made England their home, or of multiculturalism per se. One aspect of black culture that is not to Starkey’s liking does not account for the many others which he may wholeheartedly embrace. And how do we know that there aren’t any? We suppose, by making assumptions based on his appearance, age and voice, that he’s a bigot who is out-of-touch with modern society. Is that not also a small-minded and prejudiced view? An openly gay (no, I’m not homophobic, just stating a fact) man living a comfortable existence in a considerably richer part of London than those who rioted, Starkey doesn’t understand black culture but neither does he have to. He’s detached from the poverty and lack of opportunities. That doesn’t make him a sad, misanthropic racist, merely someone who is entitled to mourn the passing of more traditional values which, in our blinkered view of the world, we often assume to be white. What he mourns, as we all should, is intelligence and respect – qualities we need in society. Through his hard work and by traversing the albeit clearer pathway to education, he bettered himself. He’s entitled to point out that youngsters can aspire to do more with their lives than behave with appalling disregard for their communities and criminal actions. He did not get the chance to clarify his points, so keen were the other guests on the programme to say the right thing and perhaps prevent him from saying something even more inflammatory. We’ll never know.
I won’t waste time or space listing all the good things about black culture which Starkey may or may not champion. For one thing, that would be redundant on a musician’s blog (having talked lovingly so many times about Soul, Blues and Motown), as well as highly patronising. Neither will I list all the bad things about white culture, which would take far, far too long. But at no point did Starkey imply that every facet of black culture is bad, just the existence of criminal gangs and a suspicion of the evolved language that these disaffected youths choose to communicate their angry thoughts.
Those who took part in the riots came from a range of ethnic backgrounds and, as a mass of snarling thugs, they did not target shops based on the colour of the proprietors’ skin; they went looking for the goods they sought after. It wasn’t what Enoch Powell warned of: race riots. In cities with multi-ethnic communities living and trading side-by-side, the properties and possessions of no single group were targeted by another; all were fair game for robbing and the looters ransacked as one, many of them admittedly orchestrated by gang leaders and, as I mentioned previously, television reports showed more black faces than white or Asian. I don’t know why; I fear we’re not allowed to question why. Race remains a factor because, as I also wrote previously, black males are more likely to be stopped and searched by police; indeed a black man was killed by the police sparking an initial protest. The controversial death of reggae musician Smiley Culture in the presence of the police was mentioned in one of last week’s many debates, I noticed. Suspicion abounds.
To rap music and gangsta rap in particular, widely condemned for as long as I can recall for its violent reflections of inner-city hardship. To make a sweeping generalisation about it, it clearly does purport values which are misogynistic, materialistic and anti-authoritarian. Listen to any song from SPIN’s ‘Best Rap Songs of the Year… So Far’ list, for example (how beautiful the violins on ‘Came Up’ by G-Side featuring S.L.A.S.H., by the way), and you’ll notice themes which are very much anti-society. Not even small society, David Cameron; there’s a long, long way to go before your Big Society catches on here because this is real me-against-the-world stuff. There is no society in these songs, Margaret Thatcher would love it.
The first track on the list, Killer Mike’s ‘Burn’, discusses the fatal shooting of an unarmed black male by police in 2009, which led to riots in Oakland, California.
“It seems a nigga can’t get a job, but I can get arrested”
Police harassment of black youths, borne out of racism, it is argued, is something that the pioneering N.W.A., who popularised the genre of gangsta rap, were commenting on in the late Eighties. Tracks such as ‘Fuck Tha Police’, for example, which advocates violence against police officers, further generated the belief that the police, as a distinctly racist force, cannot be trusted and should not be respected.
“Fuckin’ with me ’cause I’m a teenager
With a little bit of gold and a pager
Searchin’ my car, lookin’ for the product
Thinkin’ every nigga is sellin’ narcotics”
Sticking two fingers up – or just the one on each hand, which is less British (I hope that wasn’t racist) – to authority and its doubters is another common and not particularly tasteful example of how rappers command their respect through proving others wrong, thus creating figures of resentment for others to distrust – in this case, teachers and law-abiding people who didn’t welcome crime on their doorsteps. Here’s Biggie Smalls, the Notorious B.I.G., and ‘Juicy’:
“This album is dedicated
to all the teachers that told me I’d never amount to nothin’
To all the people that lived
above the buildings that I was hustlin’ in front of
That called the police on me
when I was just tryin’ to make some money to feed my daughters”
Very few of these rappers, it seems, are cheery Lily Allen-types, although they may well also be pretending to be something that they’re not. Life isn’t cheery for them. Hustling is a common theme and, as with the above example, is always entirely justifiable and respectable in the eyes of hip-hop rather than acknowledged for in some part being morally reprehensible. Says Rick Ross on ‘Mafia Music II’:
“You know we hustle to the key of life
Moving weed and white before we learn to read and write
So fuck a tutor, pay attention to my shooter”
These aren’t the messages you want young people, least of all children, to absorb. The values found in these songs were demonstrated in the looting and attacks on police. People were not afraid of the law and they wanted to steal. Nobody disputes this. Nobody can dispute that society breaks down when a section of it believes that the only worthwhile education is the one taught on the streets and that respect is demanded through violence and fear, machismo and pack status rather than earned through traditional achievements.
In the rare cases where artists have made a successful living from their tales of crime and managing to evade the law, whether those tales are truthful or fantastical, they do like to brag about them. Rappers are fond of materialistic boasting. Take Stalley’s ‘Slapp’, for example:
“Remember when I didn’t have a pot to piss in
Now I got windows to throw it out of
And 12 door speakers to blare it out of”
None of this can ever be positive. If youth listen to this long enough and believe in it strongly enough, although it doesn’t programme them to steal, of course, just as the video gamers aren’t compelled to go on a gun-toting rampage after adopting the role of hitman via games console, it does provide the rationalisation that crime is only to be expected and should be excused so hard is life and so easy the rewards for those brave enough to challenge the powers that uphold such an unfair, corrupted society.
Neither should we forget, though, the staggering rivalry between hip-hop artists of East and West Coasts throughout the Nineties which culminated in the murders of the Notorious B.I.G. (his record label, Bad Boy Records) and 2Pac (his label, Death Row Records). It seems that even the names of the labels have to shock.
These are all generalisations, I know. To suggest that all black kids listen to hip-hop, let alone find themselves inspired by it to commit violence, is of equivalent ignorance to saying that all white kids listen to Mozart and enjoy nothing more than a spot of grouse shooting, which is as disgusting a notion to my mind as it is to the many black people who share a distaste for this dishonourable music scene.
Oh how we whinge about the politicians’ aversion to straight-talking bluntness. When somebody gives it to us straight, as Starkey has, we’re horrified. We have to be horrified because if we’re not, we’re no better than the social transgressor who said something to make us uncomfortable and paranoid in the first place.
What a way to shut the debate down with just one nasty word: racist. It spares us from having to look at a dozen relevant and connected issues, I suppose.