By Yolanda Carrington
Morrissey at the South by Southwest Festival, 2006.
The United States isn’t the only society plagued with xenophobia, as a recent controversy over a legendary singer’s remarks shows. And we sure aren’t the only society where white folks’ understanding of systemic racism is jawdroppingly low, nor is this great land the only society where most white folks will do anything to avoid discussing race. The latest racism scandal in the entertainment world involves not a tired shock-jock or stand-up comic, but the ethereal voice behind such classics as The Queen is Dead and Meat is Murder.
Former Smiths frontman Morrissey—a musical icon for many folks of my generation—has been under fire for the past couple of weeks over comments he made about immigration in a piece published by New Musical Express (more popularly known these days as simply NME). When asked by journalist Tom Jonze if he would consider moving back to the UK after over a decade of living abroad (alternating between Los Angeles and Rome), Morrissey reportedly said:
Britain’s a terribly negative place. And it hammers people down and it pulls you back and it prevents you. Also, with the issue of immigration, it’s very difficult because although I don’t have anything against people from other countries, the higher the influx into England the more the British identity disappears [my emphasis].
If you walk through Knightsbridge [London neighborhood] on any bland day of the week you won’t hear an English accent. You’ll hear every accent under the sun apart from the British accent.
Morrissey claims that NME ambushed him with a “stitch-up” job on him in order to sell papers, and he and his lawyers are currently pursuing legal action against the NME and its editor Conor McNicholas. Interviewer Jonze maintains that every quote attributed to Morrissey is accurate, and points out the fact that he never once asked Morrissey about immigration, yet the singer felt compelled to unleash his views anyway. Many people were quick to side with Morrissey against the NME, since the paper has a not-so-upstanding reputation with music fans in the UK. Other supporters defend Morrissey’s right to free speech, while others express agreement with his views on immigration, insisting that it all has nothing to do with racism but just the natural response to a “massive” wave of immigration that is destroying Britain’s national identity and way of life. Now where have we heard that argument before?
While it may be tempting to believe that this scandal surrounding the singer is merely a hatchet job by a sleazy tabloid-style rag, keep in mind that Morrissey has a long history of making insensitive public gestures and comments. He was once quoted as saying “All reggae is vile” in an early interview, which many people interpreted as an slap in the face to Black Britons and Afro-Carribean culture. Perhaps the most disturbing example of Morrissey’s racism was his 1992 performance at the Madness Madstock! reunion concert, as described by Wikipedia:
A trigger for much of the criticism was Morrissey’s performance at the first Madness Madstock! reunion concert at Finsbury Park, London, in 1992, in which he appeared on stage draped in the Union Flag, a symbol often associated with nationalism and hence with far right groups in Britain. As a backdrop for this performance, he chose a photograph of two female skinheads. The NME responded to this performance with a lengthy examination of Morrissey’s attitudes to race, claiming that the singer had “left himself in a position where accusations that he’s toying with far-right/fascist imagery, and even of racism itself, can no longer just be laughed off with a knowing quip.”
Morrissey’s pattern is predictable: When challenged about his wink-wink nudge-nudge comments and actions, Morrissey protests that he isn’t racist and that he is being set up by his accusers. When he’s playing around with the lives of people of color, it’s no big deal; it’s only when he feels he’s under attack and needs to defend himself does he gets serious about racism. It’s the same old pattern that we stateside people of color have seen time and again, this time on the other side of the Atlantic.
Yolanda Carrington is a member of Raleigh FIST and she also writes for her blog, The Primary Contradiction, where this article originally appeared.