Posts Tagged ‘Motown’

Two Images of Blacks from the Age of the Victorian Music Hall

March 14, 2022

I found these two pictures in Edward Lee’s Folksong and Music Hall (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul 1982). This is part of a history of popular music for schools. Other books in the series are, or were, on contemporary folksong, Jazz and Blues, Reggae and Caribbean music, Rock, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Soul and Motown, and Tin Pan Alley. The picture below, of a Black man holding the hand of a little White girl as they go paddling on the beach in the chapter on the Minstrel shows. The caption for it says ‘The minstrel as a family entertainer. Another stereotype – the black man as simple friendly soul’.

I’ve mixed feelings about this. I can see that some people would find it patronising and offensive, but at the same time it also shows how Black American popular music was gaining an audience in this country. And that people were enjoying it and celebrating its performers, rather than treating them as some terrible threat.

Less controversial, I hope, is this picture of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, one of the first genuine Black American musicians to become popular and tour over here.

Discussing the impact of Black American music in Britain, the book states

‘Linked with the popularity of minstrel shows there was an increasing interest in black artists and in genuine black music. Early in the nineteenth century the actress Fanny Kemble, travelling in the southern states of America, had been struck by the ‘strange and wild songs’ of the black boatmen. These were probably an early form of shanty with a strong blues influence.

‘As the century passed, black artists began to make a name for themselves. Among the most famous was James Bland (1854-1911), composer of ‘Carry Me Back to Old Virginny’ (his first big hit), and ‘Oh Dem Golden Slippers’. In England a sensational reception had been given, in 1848, to Juba, an outstandingly talented black dancer, and later, in 1871, to the Fisk University Jubilee Singers. It was they who made popular ‘Deep River’, ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’, and ‘Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen’. It was through them that the genuine ‘spiritual’ became known and loved by white people.

‘But this was not all. The tumultuous receptions they had (ten thousand people at an open-air concert in Hull, for instance) was in part due to the powerful rhythmic effect of their music; it must have had what Jazz lovers later came to call ‘swing’. The gripping excitement of authentic black music had begun to be felt, and within twenty years, ragtime, the first internationally popular Afro-American musical style, was sweeping the world.’ (Pp. 79-82).

Brits have been listening to Black music for a very long time. The Fisk Jubilee Singers are also included in a collection of essays on Black and Asian British history, Under the Imperial Carpet, which is itself well worth a read.

As for the minstrel shows, I’m not nostalgic for their return. The music’s good, but Whites performing in blackface is racist and offensive, however much the Heil and Depress may defend it and get themselves furious about the cancellation of the Black and White Minstrel Show. What I also find sad is that when people have tried to perform the old minstrel songs without the racist makeup, they’ve flopped. I don’t think there should be anything problematic about the music. But it is skewed and wrong that people only apparently want to hear it when it’s in blackface.

History Debunked on Diversity Working for Black Representation Against Asians

December 17, 2021

I’ve put up a number of videos from Simon Webb’s History Debunked channel on YouTube. Webb’s an author of a string of history books and a Torygraph-reading right-winger. He specialises in tackling the gross historical distortions and myths that are now being promoted as trustworthy Black history. He’s also, you won’t be surprised to read, an opponent of immigration and affirmative action. I think his videos criticising Black history are largely accurate, though as with anything else on the net you should also check it, and your well advised to take some of his other views with more than a little scepticism. But in the video below he seems to make a good point regarding the over-emphasis on promoting Black film and talent at the expense of other ethnic minorities. It’s shown in the forthcoming Beeb adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days.

Webb argues that Blacks are actually overrepresented in the media compared to their numbers as a percentage of the British population. The total BAME population of Britain is 15 per cent, with Blacks accounting for 3 per cent. But if you look on television or film, you find a much larger proportion of Black actors, performers and presenters and relatively fewer Asian faces. It seems that when it comes to ‘diversity’ and the promotion of non-White talent, in practice this means Blacks. This is shown in the way the Beeb has swapped the races of the leading characters in their version of Jules Verne’s classic yarn. Phileas Fogg remains White, but his servant, Passepartout has been made Black. The love interest is a White woman. But in the book she’s Indian, as apparently having two non-White lead characters would be too much.

It’s a very long time since I read the book, and I can’t remember very much about it, though I’ve got the film version on DVD. Assuming that what he says is right, and the leading lady in the book is Indian, I would have thought that made the story diverse enough without messing around with the other characters. Not so, apparently. Webb speculates that this emphasis on Black talent possibly comes from the TV companies’ need to sell to America, where Blacks constitute a much higher proportion of the population at 13 per cent. I think he has a point. A few months ago a Black actor or director appeared in the I calling for more parts for Black actors otherwise they would leave Britain and go to America. And it certainly seems to me that there are more opportunities for Black actors over the pond. It might also come from Blacks being rather more integrated into the western entertainment business. In America, people were listening to Black music, like Scott Joplin’s Rags since before the Jazz age. Over here, I think the pioneers were the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Americans who made a tour of Britain before the Second World War. And White Brits also listened to Caribbean calypsos before the emergence of Rock and Roll and such great performers as Little Richard, James Brown, Motown and so on. Despite the claims of racism in the music industry, which led to the establishment of the MOBOs as a set of separate music awards for Black artists, it really isn’t at all remarkable to see Black singers and musicians in the charts. In fact, I’d say it would be more remarkable if there weren’t any.

The same with drama. There are a number of Black Shakespearian thesps – Josette Simon, who played Dayna in the classic SF series Blake’s 7, had that theatrical background. I think a year or so ago Lenny Henry, who is very active promoted Black talent, appeared on stage as Hamlet. And this is apart from other plays from the classical repertoire, including those from Ancient Greece. There have also been a number of contemporary plays examining the position of Blacks in western society. I also wonder if part of the relative underrepresentation of Asians – and I am very well aware that there are Asian actors and presenters, like Anita Rani, Meera Syal, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Adil Ray – may come from that community’s general preference to choose careers other than the entertainment industry. Or at least, not the western canon. I am aware of the casting of an Asian actor, whose name I’ve forgotten, as the Master in last season’s Dr. Who, and others in Armando Iannucci’s film version of one of Dicken’s classics. But I wonder if the Asian community generally prefers to look to its own cultural traditions, like Bollywood movies and traditional Indian arts and theatre, rather than mainstream film, TV and music. There have been Asian artists and bands in the charts – Apache Indian, Corner Shop and Kula Shaker, and I remember Jaz Mann’s brief hit with Babylon Zoo in the ’90s. But there seems to be far fewer of them than Black performers.

Clearly in a White majority society, there are limited roles for Black and Asian performers, hence the demand for ‘colour blind’ casting, as actors from ethnic minorities are given the roles of White characters. I also wonder if some of the casting of Black performers for reasons of diversity isn’t part of an attempt to create work for them. I heard from academics years ago that there’s actually only work for a 1/4 of the drama students who graduate everywhere. I think if this was not tackled, it would be particularly acute for Black performers. And so to avoid another furore about racism and for the other reasons discussed, the entertainment industry is deliberately casting Black performers in greater proportion than they are as part of the general British population.

This forced diversity is unpopular with White right-wingers like Webb and Belfield, but it is a problem when it serves to discriminate against Asians. And that needs to be tackled, like any other form of racism.