At 20 years old and just days away from the release of his debut album, the lead single of which has already racked up over 1.5 million views on YouTube (in just 2 weeks!), Dave should be basking in the glow of his success and enjoying a break from the hard work that has got him to this point. Instead over the last few days he has been forced to respond to the visceral, uneducated and almost entirely white reaction to his incredible, powerful video ‘Black’. For those who haven’t seen it (watch it below!) Black is a less of a song than a work of art, a carefully considered piece that reflects on black identity in the UK and how it has been formed. It is at once a celebration of the richness of black culture and a reflection on the challenges that come with this constructed ‘black’ identity. Visual references to stalwarts of black culture, such as chilling at the barbershop and eating yard food off paper plates, and shouts to individual examples of black excellence like the sprinter Dina Asher-Smith and all-round intellectual heavyweight Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE; are contrasted with lyrics of black struggle like “It’s working twice as hard as people you know you’re better than/ ‘Cause you need to do double what they do so you can level them”. The affective capacity of these divergent themes is intense, evoking contrasting feelings that black Brits can relate to in equal measure, a feeling of concomitant pride and pain that many of us are all too familiar with.
When I first watched the video for Black, I was immediately struck by the artistry of it. Every shot is carefully considered, from the imagery of young African children shooting water pistols, with its connotations of the use of child soldiers in conflicts such as the civil war in the DRC, which received much western media attention; to the shot of Dave sitting with Dina Asher-Smith wearing her 3 gold medals from the 2018 European Athletics Championships. Each pairing of frame and lyric acts to reinforce the message that Dave is putting across, the message that “Black is beautiful, black is excellent” and despite the odds that we’ve been dealt, the connotations that we’ve become associated with, I am who I am, we are who we are – and we’re proud of it. As a kid from the same area as Dave, who is a few months younger than me, I’ve been impressed time and again by his ability to consistently articulate complex thoughts and ideas with such apparent ease; when I listen to him it often feels like listening to an intelligent and talented version of my own mind. The level of insight and maturity he shows so consistently is astounding, and the fact that he takes this challenging content and then makes bangers from it is frankly ludicrous. This video therefore cemented in my mind Dave’s status as the best rapper in the UK, he’s certainly not the first to tackle a social issue like race, but the concept, the composition and the delivery came together so perfectly, I felt sure that this would be the video that catapulted him into the realms of the superstar.
Consequently, I was beyond shocked when I saw this tweet from Annie Mac (below), having to defend Dave and her decision to play his song on her show. A quick twitter search confirmed that far from people hearing Dave’s message and considering its meaning, there was an angry, bitter and vocal section of the white community who felt threatened by the very idea of a black man celebrating his identity and his people. A lot of these comments are along the same lines, just to pick one of the intelligent, considered responses as an example “Imagine if the song was titled ‘white’ and performed by the Milkybar Kid. I doubt Radio One would be playing it”. Let us for a second put aside the fact that the whitewashed nature of the industry, and the whiteness that is therefore inherent in much popular music, would render the track ‘White’ unnecessary, and consider what the song might sound like. For starters the opening line – “Look, white is beautiful, white is excellent” would have to go; I’m not saying it’s not true, but the white faces and features that are constantly held up to us as beacons of beauty in magazines, advertising, films and television render a lyric about it rather redundant. If you’re trying to cash in on the rise of the far right through record sales I guess you could try it, but that doesn’t strike me as a great idea.
How about “Black is so much deeper than just African-American/ Our heritage been severed you never got to experiment”. How would this lyric sound? “White is so much more than just Northern Europeans/ we conquered world, caught the indigenous all sleeping/ divided up the continents, appropriated wealth/ So now our race is never questioned, you’re the other we’re the self”? Seriously though, to suggest a song called white would never be allowed is completely missing the point of Dave’s track. ‘Whiteness’ until recently has never been questioned, whiteness has never been defined because it has been the baseline of normality against which we compare others – those defined as black, Asian, aboriginal, Hispanic or any number of other labels in order to separate them, to make them outsiders. In verse 2 Dave says “Black is strugglin’ to find your history or trace the shit/ You don’t know the truth about your race ‘cause they’re erasin’ it”. This is not wanton victimisation of white people nor Dave having a chip on his shoulder, this is literal historical fact. In 2012 it was found that thousands of documents detailing illegal acts by Colonial British governments had been hidden away and many of them destroyed, in an explicit attempt to erase from history the cruelty and shame of Britain’s colonial regime. Much of Britain’s history has been based on similar acts, to justify colonisation it was necessary to destroy evidence of African civilisation such as architecture and academic scholarship. African history, ‘black’ history, was literally erased, so that Britain could colonise Africa and take control of its abundant resources, under the pretence of a ‘civilising mission’.
Why is this relevant? Because prior to about 1885 (the date when the European powers had a conference to determine the ‘rules’ of how they were going to divide up Africa as they colonised it) ‘black’ culture and identity also didn’t exist. Africa was a diverse continent of many different empires and factions. Far from being a totally undeveloped land full of people in mud huts and grass skirts it contained thriving cities and powerful empires, for example the Malian empire, which contained what is considered the world’s first university, the university of Timbuktu, prior to its fall in the 16th Century. I say this not to lecture on history, but to give some context to Dave’s lyrics, particularly those in verse 3, where he sums up these ideas in just one line “Look, black ain’t just a single fuckin’ colour, man there’s shades to it”. These shades are a result not just of the differences between Igbo and Ijaw, Zulu and Tswana, but to a large part the mixing between these groups that occurred when Europeans started to transport them across the world and trade them as property. As this occurred cultures were forcefully obliterated and African cultures were gradually homogenised into ‘blackness’, with its thousand different shades created both by loving interpersonal relationships and the sexual violence commonly associated with slavery. So when Dave spits what in my opinion is the most powerful lyric of the whole song, an early bar of the year contender, “We all struggled, but your struggle ain’t a struggle like me/ Well how could it be when your people gave us the odds that we beat?” it’s not ‘racist to white people’ it’s a recognition of the history of blackness. Without our history we wouldn’t be what we are. For better or for worse we are here, we are black and we are proud. For me that’s what Dave’s track is all about, and it’s bloody brilliant.