Sorry Michael Gove, my blackness is not a funny outfit for politicians like you to try on

Blackness in all its forms, image and language is not an outfit to put on when you feel the need to be funny or relatable

Chanté Joseph
Wednesday 27 November 2019 15:11
Michael Gove describes Stormzy as a 'better rapper than he is a political analyst'

Social media erupted in indignation yesterday when Conservative cabinet member Michael Gove responded to Stormzy’s Instagram post calling for people to vote for Labour. Gove commented that Stormzy was a “far better rapper than he is a political analyst" – fair comment – but then went on to tweet lyrics from Stormzy’s track "Shut Up", quoting: "I set trends dem man copy."

What an odd and insensitive comment to make, given how heartfelt and thorough Stormzy’s original political message was. The rapper has been consistently critical of the Conservative government, even spelling out his anger at Boris Johnson and his party in expletives in the lyrics to his recent single "Vossi Bop", which inspired a movement of young people nationwide to protest against the government​.

Gove’s bizarre tweeting demonstrated how easy middle-class white politicians apparently find it to make a joke out of black arts and black artists; how quickly they pigeonhole writers and performers who look like me as opposition mouthpieces, rather than whole beings with individual opinions and experiences.

The background to the rapper's Instagrm post is significant. This Conservative government has affected communities of colour and black British people in some of the worst ways imaginable. Are we expected to ignore the "hostile environment" policy, which led to a parade of vans around high immigration areas telling immigrants to "go home", or the plight of black British Caribbean elders whose lives were destroyed by the Home Office Windrush scandal? Less than six months ago, a UN representative accused the Conservative Government of running a brutal austerity regime that was likened to 19th century workhouses – policies which left black and brown people (and in particular women of colour) bearing the brunt of unemployment, racial abuse and social deprivation.

Meanwhile, we live in the knowledge that people of colour are treated far more harshly under the criminal justice system, and statistics appear to suggest they are more likely to die in police custody.

Considering this, Gove’s mocking of Stormzy and his use of Multicultural London English (MLE) felt like yet another blow; once again, black British people, their culture and their identity is the butt of an upper class political joke.

With the backlash over director Rapman’s controversial (and, in some place, banned) film Blue Story still ongoing, Gove's comments rub salt in the wound of Black British creatives who see their art and language censored and restricted. Blackness in all its forms, image and language is not an outfit to put on when you feel the need to be funny or relatable.

Just this week, the Labour Party candidate Peymana Assad was forced to apologise for using the term “gassed” in a tweet because of the historic connotations it has for Jewish people. As she described in her apology, the word "gassed" is well used and widely understood MLE term meaning to be happy or excited – a fact that her critics failed to acknowledge. This is just one public example of the way in which the culture of black and brown inner-city brits is demonised and criminalised.

Assad was simply using language that we all use and, in fact, still use. The slang that she grew up with, that moulded her into the phenomenal person she is today, is now being used as a political stick to beat her with.

Politics has become a place that cries out for young and diverse people yet at every point at which we participate, we are mocked and suppressed. While Michael Gove gains viral recognition creating a gimmick out of a very successful and influential black British icon, Assad is run off Twitter mid-campaign for being a young person tweeting in her learned vernacular.

The Conservatives gripe with the black British art form grime goes as far back as 2006 when grime legend Lethal Bizzle and David Cameron had it out in The Guardian over Cameron’s assertion that his lyrics incited violence. Since then, through forms such as ‘696’ police risk assessment form, black music has been criminalised at parties and raves across the UK. We’re now seeing the same crackdown with drill music and drill artists.

Considering the chokehold that Black British artists are in, Gove’s jibes feel like a flaunting of privilege and access that will never be afforded to Black brits. His comments reinforce the divide between black working-class brits and the political establishment. We are not a group they pander to or they care much for; it feels instead that we're here to be persecuted and mocked for the amusement of the masses. We’re not taken seriously nor is our work a serious conversation.

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Dr Kehinde Andrews describes this as a form of "digital blackface", which it is right. Whether it be to appear more relatable or just make people laugh, Gove chose to adopt an online cringeworthy persona that was not of his own to evoke a humorous reaction online.

The Conservative party has proved through their manifesto – tough on policing and soft on social mobility – that the party cares little about the lives and futures of young black British people. To them, we are just a source of cultural touchpoint, a slang word to strike attention at an opportune moment. Conservative MPs are making a joke out of one of Britains greatest artists. No wonder Stormzy will be voting Labour.

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