by Mike Vinti
This week, racial tensions in America have been reignited by the fatal shootings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castle and five members of the Dallas police. The response from the the majority of people of all races has been one of shock and sadness, with many black musicians and artists using their platforms to voice their solidarity with the victims and their support for the BlackLivesMatter movement.
Beyoncé and husband Jay-Z both released statements following the attacks, with Jay-Z even releasing his first new song – Spiritual – in years to support the BLM movement. UK rappers Stormzy and Novelist, two increasingly political artists in their own right, have spoken out, highlighting the issue of police violence in the UK as well as the US. RnB icon Miguel has recorded a song listing the names of black Americans killed by police with plans to update it every week. These are just some of the interventions made by high profile musicians in the last week. At this point in the debate, issues surrounding the injustice faced by black people in the United States have become so pervasive that to not address them in popular culture has started to seem negligent. Just yesterday, Serena Williams crowned her 22nd grand slam win at Wimbledon with a black power salute. This week, more than any other in recent history the complaints of the Black Lives Matter movement have been visible for all to see. (As of the time of editing this piece, high-profile movement activists – such as DeRay McKesson – have started being targeted by police at protests.)
The reason for this visibility is no coincidence. No doubt many of those mentioned above would have spoken out regardless, the Black Lives Matter movement has nonetheless succeeded in pushing pop culture to a place where a failure to acknowledge the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile (among too many others) would be ridiculous. There is, however, one thing missing from a lot of the interventions listed above: white people.
Black Lives Matter has been, and should continue to be, a black-led movement for reasons that I hope are obvious. Still, this past week has once more highlighted a noticeable silence from white artists when it comes to the deaths of people like Sterling or Castile, or the continued tragedy of police violence against black people in the United States generally. As a white person myself, I’m well aware that when in doubt about how to be a good ally it’s all too easy to not do anything; however, if ever there was a time for white people to stand up and say “Hey, I’m not OK with the police murdering black people” and ask “what can I do to help?” now is probably it.
when so many black musicians are using their platform to speak out in support of BLM, the lack of white artists doing the same makes me uncomfortable.
I am in no way saying that the Black Lives Matter movement needs white people in order to succeed, the ever-growing visibility of the movement and the tireless work of the black activists within it have made that abundantly clear. However, when so many black musicians are using their platform to speak out in support of BLM, the lack of white artists doing the same makes me uncomfortable. Let me try to explain why.
In light of the Brexit campaign, Donald Trump and the growth of the far-right across Europe and the US, what it means to be white has changed. In much the same way the Leave campaign monopolised the “English” identity during the EU referendum campaign, the far-right is attempting to monopolise what it means to “white” in 2016. For these groups, what it means to be white is to only care about “white” issues, and to ignore for example, the concerns of movements like Black Lives Matter. Part of the reason far-right groups have become so visible is down of a lack of competition. As progressive white people um and aah over whether it’s appropriate to voice their support for Black Lives Matter, those white people that actively do not support are filling the silence, creating yet more division.
Another part of this discomfort is that white artists speak out on almost every other issue. Take for example the shooting in Orlando, another tragic event that affected a minority group in the US: white artists across the US and Europe leant their support and solidarity, rightfully so, to the victims and communities affected by the shooting. There’s even a charity single, which features musicians of almost every race and sexual orientation, being released to raise money for them. Yet when it comes to Black Lives Matter, many white artists are still silent. Why are some causes worthy of support and not others?
In order to rectify this, more white people must accept that police violence against black people is not just a black issue. While it may not affect white people in the existential manner in which it does people who are black, it is still an obvious example of institutionalised racism in the western world, and something that anyone who considers themself an ally must oppose vehemently. We no longer have the luxury to pick and choose which murders we are against, the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castle are just as tragic as the deaths of any of those who died in Orlando, or any other victim of injustice.
Why are some causes worthy of support and not others?
This applies in pop culture as well: Black Lives Matter has done an incredible job in forcing their concerns into the public eye by embracing pop culture and popular music in particular. Silence is a luxury, and as those who champion racism and division grow stronger and more visible, it is one white artists cannot afford any longer.
Featured image © Cindy Trinh/Activists of New York