This has happened before. No, I don’t mean that the brilliant work of an artist has previously been dismissed purely because of the colour of the artist’s skin – though that has happened many times. I don’t mean that an angry mob of ill-informed and unreasonable white people has previously risen up in condemnation of a black artist trying to get out of their box – though that has happened many times.
Brilliantly, comically, horrifyingly, this is not the first time fans of Glastonbury have decided that the biggest name in hip hop was not the right fit for ‘their’ festival. Noel Gallagher, who famously wasn’t even the right fit for his own brother’s shitty band, was one of the more vocal critics of the decision to book Jay Z for Glastonbury Festival 2008. Why any publication still allows Gallagher to be vocal about anything is a mystery, but also a matter for another time. Anyway, Jay had the last laugh on that one.
Jay Z was “wrong” for Glastonbury, according to Gallagher, because the festival has “a tradition of guitar music”. Similar claims dog the recent booking of Kanye West. According to Ronnie Wood, “Glastonbury is the home of rock music and, look, Kanye isn’t rock”, while an online petition calling for his removal from the line-up has garnered over 120,000 signatures.
Quite how the Pilton Pop, Blues & Folk Festival, as Glastonbury was originally called, has become all about rock music in so many people’s minds bears some examining. Is it true that booking rappers is in some way against the spirit of a festival that is supposed to be headlined by some men playing some guitars very loudly?
It’s true that the first few performers – T. Rex, Fairport Convention, Hunky Dory era Bowie – back in the 70s, tended to employ the guitar in some fairly prominent form. But then, it’s not like the organizers had much choice. Music in this country during the 70s stemmed almost uniformly from blues rock. Bands such as Madness and The Specials pioneered ska and 2 Tone, but the guitar was still pretty much as far as anyone got.
In 1994, one of the biggest years for Glastonbury, Orbital graced the Pyramid Stage with a performance to define a generation, almost single-handedly forcing rave culture into the mainstream – and all without a guitar in sight. Other successful non-guitar driven artists to headline the Pyramid Stage have included Robbie Williams in 1998, a rather different David Bowie in 2000, Basement Jaxx in 2005 (who replaced Kylie Minogue), and of course Jay Z in 2008, defiantly brilliant despite the detractors.
Glastonbury was founded as part of the hippy counterculture movement of the 60s, along with other free festivals of the period, like Isle of Wight Festival. It was in this countercultural, revolutionary spirit that Orbital changed the rules in ’94, and the invitations of Kanye West and Jay Z fit perfectly into the festival’s tradition. Jay Z’s is a true rags-to-riches story – he used to deal crack on the streets of Brooklyn – while Kanye, with his frequent outbursts against multinational corporations, and renegade performances like his iconoclastic display at the Brits, is the archetypal anti-establishment artist.
If Kanye and Jay fit so well into Glastonbury’s tradition, why are fans so peeved? Surely the hippies who railed against the festival’s perceived selling out in 2002, when Mean Fiddler, the UK’s biggest live music promoter, acquired a 20 per cent stake, would be supportive of an artist who has always been critical of corporate control over music and creativity.
Their anger can’t stem from doubts about his ability to put on a show. Regardless of his proclivity to stop mid-performance for a 15-minute rant (I can’t be the only one who secretly wants this; come on, this is what we all balloted for last term), Kanye’s live performances are stunning, star-studded, stupendous. Musically, he’s at the top of his game, and the calibre of guest stars he can call upon – from Skepta to Paul McCartney to Rihanna – is frankly ridiculous. The incomparable Lou Reed, beloved by the Glastonbury faithful, said of Ye on Yeezus, “No one’s near doing what he’s doing, it’s not even on the same planet.”
The real answer, of course, is that the Glastonbury faithful aren’t angry that Kanye West has been booked to play Glastonbury this year. Neil Lonsdale, who started the petition, hasn’t even been to Glastonbury. The most popular reasons given by signatories on Change.org include claims that Kanye “sucks”, is “a cunt”, “has no morals and no talent”, and “a talentless, arrogant, racist douche”.
Obviously it is ludicrous to claim that an artist with 21 Grammys, three albums on Rolling Stone’s ‘Greatest 500 Albums of All Time’, and numbers eight and one on Pitchfork’s list, has no talent, so where does all this hatred come from?
Emily Eavis, festival organizer, identified the problem in an article for The Guardian, in which she blamed the “dark underbelly of the web”. People of colour following this story will doubtless find nothing surprising in the vile things being said about Kanye. Statistics released last year by Pew Research Center revealed that 84 per cent of African Americans had witnessed online harassment, compared to 69 per cent of whites.
This debate has very little to do with music, as shown by Glastonbury’s past, and far more to do with the Internet’s relationship with race. Black people who try to be successful, to get out of the box in which society wants to contain them, are pushed down and belittled constantly.
Kanye West’s performance on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury this summer will be a triumph. That a man such as this still has to prove himself to haters is little short of a scandal; but rest assured, he will.