The fuss over the news that Jay-Z is to headline this year's Glastonbury festival has caught me by surprise. When I first heard, I thought Jay-Z was a natural fit – the world's biggest hip-hop star at the UK's most forward-thinking music festival. Noel Gallagher disagreed: "Glastonbury has a tradition of guitar music... I'm not having hip-hop at Glastonbury," he said. "It's wrong." As a hip-hop fan, that struck a nerve with me. So when the BBC asked me for a comment, I gave them a quick, equally ill-considered quote: "These are the typical reactionary views of a pampered has-been." It's not that I have a problem with Noel or Oasis, it's just that I can't stand such monomania in the broad church of modern music.
The next day, I awoke to an in-box full of emails from irate Oasis fans; many reiterated Noel's point, that Glastonbury was about "indie rock" and nothing but, and how dare that big scary bogeyman Jay-Z spoil their beautiful garden party? Their response exposed one myth: that the old tribes of pop have all but dispersed, making way for a generation of technologically savvy, cosmopolitan consumers who cherry-pick the finest sounds from any number of contrasting genres. The furore also prompts a bigger question: is the Jay-Z row a storm in a teacup, or symptomatic of a far deeper malaise?
The hostility you see on the NME message boards – "we don't need this hip-hop wank" ran one posting – is hard to explain. Perhaps it's simply the prospect for "indie rock" fans that Jay-Z's appearance will force them out of their comfort zone. Or perhaps, as Emily Eavis, the co-organiser of this year's Glastonbury, alluded to in The Independent on Tuesday, at the heart of this row may be something more troubling than differences in musical taste: race. It would be interesting to know what the reaction would be if it weren't Jay-Z headlining, but Eminem.
British festival audiences have had their musical tolerance tested in the past, and found it wanting. In 2004, when 50 Cent (right) and his G-Unit crew played Reading, they were viciously bottled by a braying mob (don't take my word for it, go to YouTube). 50 was remarkably sanguine about it. "That was fun," he laughed. "It reminded me of when I first started. How do you react to it? You start to take it all in while you're up there and laugh – what are you going to do, get mad?"
That was an exception, and I don't think it'll happen to Jay-Z this year. His show isn't full of the cheesy rituals that you normally get in a hip-hop show: he's very
focused. He knows how to whip up a lethargic crowd with nothing but his superstar presence. But he's also part of a tradition in hip-hop of audience interaction – as opposed to the kind of rock gig where a band will play a song, wait for the applause, and carry on, often without so much as an aside to the crowd between songs. In contrast, Jay-Z will pick a member of the audience and rap straight to them for a minute at a time. It gives his shows a laser-beam intensity, and if people can approach it with an open mind, his appearance at Glastonbury will win a lot of converts. (One of the highlights of last year's festival was Dizzee Rascal joining the Arctic Monkeys on stage.)
The boy from Brooklyn's cause will be helped by the fact that, like the Arctic Monkeys, he understands the power of the special guest appearance. Last year at the Royal Albert Hall, Jay-Z brought on stage Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow. How fitting it would be if hip-hop's biggest act issued an invitation to indie-rock's pin-up boy at Glastonbury in June.
Andy Cowan is editor of the magazine 'Hip-Hop Connection'
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