Alongside the grief and isolation of 2020, which hit the communities that gather around Eurovision in its own way when the contest was cancelled, and the solidarity and creativity of inventing new forms of digital togetherness – which Eurovision knows something about as well – 2020 was also a year of protest.
Historians of that first pandemic year will surely ask why George Floyd’s murder on 25 May, out of all the police killings of Black people there have been, sparked such a global mobilisation for racial justice, just as the first wave of Covid-19 was subsiding in many places, and why these protests were the ones to make many institutions around the world take sudden action towards the cause of racial equality. As the first Eurovision since the beginning of the pandemic opens in Rotterdam, we might ask: would this legacy of 2020 change Eurovision in any way?
In a contest which has still never had a solo Black winner, Eurovision 2020 would have involved a record number of contestants of African descent, and the contest’s most diverse set of Afro-European histories as well. Benny Cristo from the Czech Republic was the son of an Angolan who moved to what was then Czechoslovakia; Destiny Chukunyere was the daughter of a Nigerian footballer who moved to play in Malta; Eden Alene belonged to the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel; Senhit, making her second appearance for San Marino, came from an Eritrean family in Italy; The Mamas, from African-American and Afro-Swedish backgrounds, had won Sweden’s Melodifestivalen after supporting John Lundvik on backing vocals in 2019; and the singer-songwriter Jeangu Macrooy, hotly tipped for his introspective song ‘Grow’, was born in Paramaribo, embodying the history of colonial oppression linking West Africa, Suriname and the Netherlands.
Almost all these contestants have returned for 2021 (and, as of the semi-finals, Senhit has even been joined by Flo Rida): while The Mamas didn’t repeat their Melodifestivalen victory, this year’s Swedish entrant, Tusse, came to Sweden as an unaccompanied child refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, part of a very recent and still continuing episode in Europe’s Black history. (For the first time ever, Eurovision 2021 also has two contestants of Filipino heritage, Australia’s Montaigne and Austria’s Vincent Bueno; unfortunately for the Filipino diaspora as well as all their fans around the world, neither made it past the semi-finals this week.)
Performance scholars looking at Eurovision critically, like Katrin Sieg, have sometimes questioned wondered whether even its famed moments of multi-racial inclusion actually offer audiences an illusory, comforting moment of thinking about Europe as post-racial – somewhere that has overcome racism, or that has never known racism in the same way as the US. When we watch Dave Benton singing with Tanel Padar in Estonia’s winning song from 2001, or Madcon leading their flashmob in the interval of Oslo 2010, are we actually being offered a fantasy of inclusion that distracts us from seeing ongoing racial injustice in Europe – and is there space within the traditions, rules and constraints of Eurovision for Black music to represent at least some of the critique, anticolonial resistance, and radical thought that thinkers like Paul Gilroy see in the Black diaspora’s musical creativity?
While the format of a commercialised and televised international song contest will always constrain the radical and political potential of performance to some extent (if only through the threat of financial sanction for breaking the rules, as Iceland’s Hatari found out in 2019), Jeangu’s return entry, ‘Birth of a New Age’, might have come closer than ever before to using Eurovision to advance the cause of racial justice in a material way.
As singer, lyricist and main composer of ‘Birth of a New Age’, Jeangu both celebrates the struggle of the Surinamese people and their Sranan Tongo language, and appeals to a collective Black history, remembering the violence that European enslavers wrought against the bodies, languages, cultures and religions of the ancestors of millions of Black Europeans – with a video asserting that Black style, dance, hair, customs and worship, and Surinamese traditions of them more specifically, all belong inside the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
Jeangu’s very first line, ‘Skin as rich as a starlit night’, speaks a promise to recover Blackness as the centre of beauty, and his chorus in Sranan Tongo – ‘Yu no man broko mi, yu no man broko mi, yu no man broko, broko mi (mi na afu sensi)’, carries into Eurovision a traditional Surinamese odo, or saying of wisdom, translated as ‘You can’t break me, I’m half a cent’ – the smallest Surinamese coin, but the hardest to break.
As a creole language, with elements of English, Dutch, Portuguese and West African languages, Sranan Tongo has its origins in how enslaved Africans in Suriname, torn from many parts of West Africa and banned from learning Dutch, learned to communicate with each other and hide thoughts from their enslavers; when the Dutch authorities abolished slavery in Suriname in 1863, they forced children in compulsory education to learn only Dutch, hoping to stamp Sranan Tongo out. Even in contemporary Suriname the creole has a stigmatised history, and the official language is still the colonisers’ Dutch.
For those who want to see it, this year’s Dutch entry and the amount of creative input Jeangu has been able to exercise over its presentation do stand as an assertion of Black aesthetics in a mass entertainment context, albeit with all the tensions and limitations that implies. In the context of Eurovision, it might play the same creative role Black Panther does within the Marvel Cinematic Universe; its video’s high-fashion dialogue of resistance with how Black people were represented in Dutch and European art at the time the Rijksmuseum was built and filled simultaneously, also seems in conversation with how Beyoncé and Jay-Z staged their ‘Apeshit’ video in the Louvre in 2018 – following on from Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’, a project that inspired an entire Black feminist syllabus. (The choreographer for ‘Apeshit’, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, is Flemish-Moroccan and directed the interval act of Thursday’s Eurovision semi-final featuring ballet dancer Ahmad Joudeh and BMX rider Dez Maarsen, ‘Close Encounters of a Special Kind’.)
In Eurovision press conferences, Jeangu has also spoken of how important it is to be on the Eurovision stage as a queer black man (and one with Billy Porter levels of red-carpet style):
The song itself started out as a poem Jeangu wrote in the aftermath of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, which he has said he couldn’t have written if he hadn’t lived through 2020; even on a technical note, it couldn’t have sounded the same in any other Eurovision year to date, since the rule against more than six people performing (relaxed this year for Covid reasons so that delegations could send pre-recorded vocals and limit the number of people they’d needed to bring to Rotterdam) has always prevented soul, gospel and other collective Black musical traditions from being fully heard on the Eurovision stage. This year, Jeangu can be backed by the sound of a full choir (in fact laid down by Jeangu and his backing performers singing the vocals many times – among them Jeangu’s brother and ex-bandmate Xillan).
Put all this together, and Jeangu stands as one of the Afro-Europeans of his generation who, as Olivette Otele writes in African Europeans: an Untold History:
have shown an appetite for reviving the empowering stories of their ancestors. They are actively seeking these pockets of knowledge by engaging with virtual learning, online debates, social media […] They are also generating new narratives of resilience and diving into activism, from pushing for action on climate change, gender equality, and LGBTQ rights, to dismantling racism, islamophobia, antisemitism and other forms of discrimination.
Jeangu’s poetry communicates – to listeners who have felt the pressure of colonial legacies on their own bodies and to listeners who might have thought empire was just in the past – the violence that colonialism and the Atlantic slave trade inflicted on the minds and cultures of future generations, as well as on the bodies of those enslaved:
They buried your gods, they imprisoned your thoughts
Your rhythm is rebellion, your rhythm is rebellion
They tried to drain you of your faith, but you’re the rage that melts the chains
This ain’t the end, no, it’s the birth of a new age
Where narrating histories of violence and their legacies in the present at Eurovision are concerned, ‘Birth of a New Age’ deserves comparison to Jamala’s ‘1944’, which – two years after Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 – narrated Stalin’s deportation of the Crimean Tatars.
Both are narratives of historic oppression against their performers’ ancestors, the legacies of that violence for their communities, and how those communities have fought for their identities to survive – both, indeed, reassert that survival by switching into the oppressed language in their chorus. A response to Black Lives Matter at Eurovision could just have remediated images of Black American protest; here, instead, is a distinctly African European narrative, representing a nation which is undertaking its own reckoning with its colonial past and its legacies of racism today.
All this, indeed, has come from a delegation that (not necessarily with the same team involved) wasn’t equipped in 2018 to recognise that raising Waylon above four black breakdancers who might have been dressed like farmworkers looked incredibly like it was evoking racist tropes from the American South.
Even before 2020, the struggle for public reckoning with racism and the colonial past in the Netherlands had been putting more and more pressure on Dutch institutions: organisations including city councils and the broadcaster NTR have finally stepped away from the traditional Advent blackface character Zwarte Piet, and even the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, said two weeks after Floyd’s murder that he had been persuaded Zwarte Piet was not just an innocent tradition.
In the very same week as Rotterdam hosted Eurovision, the Rijksmuseum opened its new ‘Slavery’ exhibition, in development since 2017, which affirms that ‘the history of slavery and the history of the Netherlands are bound together’ – chipping away at the myth of ‘white innocence’ that, Gloria Wekker writes, has characterised the prevailing responses of the white Dutch public when challenged to consider Dutch colonial history and racism in the Netherlands today.
Much more still needs to change (not least at the Dutch supermarket chain Albert Heijn, which mocked Jeangu’s chorus and deflected its message by running an online advertisement for broccoli) – yet this degree of critical reflection on Europe’s colonial past and its links to racism today has never been as present at Eurovision as Jeangu has made it in 2021.