In defence of Honey G
Anna Gilford (aka Honey G) caused a mini media storm when she hit the stage at this year’s X Factor auditions, performing Missy Elliott’s ‘Work It’. The white, middle-class 35-year-old from the north-west London suburbs appeared sporting a shiny tracksuit-top, mirror shades and a baseball cap.
Before you could say Straight Outta Harrow, the liberal commentariat was accusing her of ‘mocking black culture’, and labelling her ‘racist’. The singer Lily Allen said Honey G was ‘offensive’, and rapper Professor Green claimed Gilford’s character was ‘an injustice’. The Guardian went into overdrive, describing Honey G as a ‘disturbing cultural phenomena’. According to Lola Okolosie, Honey G is a ‘modern-day blackface’ that highlights ‘how race really operates in post-Brexit UK’.
But these self-righteous critics aren’t standing up to racism – they’re trivialising it, and turning culture into something sacred and static in the process.
I spent most of my teen years listening to ska and reggae bands like The Specials, The Beat and UB40. I appreciated that these bands were from the Midlands, not Jamaica. But I was struck by their ability to embrace the music of the Caribbean, despite not hailing from that part of the world. Their music was ‘cultural appropriation’, but it was also British cultural diversity at its best.
If those bands appeared now they’d no doubt be attacked for their Eurocentric imitation of black music. As Frank Furedi has noted on spiked, cultural borrowing is viewed today by ‘cultural crusaders’ not as a universal form of human co-operation and appreciation, something to be encouraged, but as a form of cultural theft that must be reined in or censored. For these crusaders, culture is owned solely by the people it originated with. This idea undermines universal values, our common humanity. If so-called cultural appropriation is painted as so problematic, solidarity and understanding between people of different backgrounds and cultures becomes all but impossible.
These claims to cultural ownership are insulting and divisive. From this perspective, if you’re white and born in Britain, hip-hop music or reggae really isn’t for you. If you were born the wrong colour, from the wrong parents, in the wrong place, you can’t possibly understand or relate to musical genres from somewhere far away. This is obviously nonsense. But it also has an ugly undertone. It suggests that we can only understand culture made by people like us, and that we must avoid dabbling with different cultures that do not ‘belong’ or ‘relate’ to us.
Spurred on by Western self-loathing, these cultural crusaders are hell-bent on creating a dull and miserable new world, where artists are labelled ‘race-ish’, as one commentator put it, for paying homage to aspects of black culture, and where fashion designers are strictly forbidden from borrowing from the Other.
Honey G has been ridiculed for having the temerity to adopt somebody else’s cultural heritage. But nobody owns culture. It’s not a coat or a car. Culture is there for humans to borrow and appropriate. As the Roman dramatist Terence wrote 2,000 years ago, ‘nothing of that which is human is alien to me’.
Courtney Hamilton is a writer based in London.