If you don’t get it, if you, if you don’t get it: Eurovision 2021 and the struggle for racial justice (part 2)

Eurovision 2021 saw a record number of Black performers, from backgrounds that represented a wider range of Afro-European histories than ever, and offered a home entry that made a more direct reckoning with the legacies of racism and colonialism in the host country than the contest has ever witnessed before – and yet the voting results brought the uncomfortable evidence that every single Black entrant appeared to have underperformed on pre-contest predictions, especially on the public televote.

Benny Cristo didn’t qualify from his semi-final (and neither did Australia’s Montaigne or Austria’s Vincent Bueno, this year’s two entrants of Filipino descent), and apart from Tusse, who got a relatively mid-table 63 points from the public, every Black contestant would have finished near the bottom of the Eurovision scoreboard if results had been televote-only as per most of the 2000s: Senhit and Flo Rida only scored 13, Eden Alene 20, Destiny 47 (despite ranking third in the jury votes), and for all the creative power and virtuosity Jeangu Macrooy brought to ‘Birth of a New Age’, the public vote awarded him no points at all.

No Black entrants placed on the left-hand side of the final scoreboard except for Destiny, who finished 7th, but the announcement of such a low televote total for what had been one of the pre-contest favourites was a crushing moment in what should have been the high-energy lead-up to Måneskin’s thrilling win.

We could point to reasons why each individual act underperformed: Cristo has given better vocal performances of his song than he did in the semi-final; the government of Alene’s country had just been at the centre of international condemnation; expensive American guest acts have flopped at Eurovision before (ladies and gentlemen, Miss Dita von Teese?); Tusse suffered from arguably the worst spot in the whole grand final running order by having to follow Måneskin; Destiny’s kiss-off hook might have relied too much on French slang (‘je me casse’ – ‘I’m out of here’) and a humorous English idiom (‘excuse my French!’) to connect with voters who are mostly second- or third-language speakers of both; the concept of Jeangu’s staging, breaking through a backdrop of oppressive concrete to reveal the joyous colour of his Sranan Tongo words, was slow to build and left him surrounded by a cold, bare background for those all-important first thirty seconds and more. (Imagine the same performance surrounded by a digital version of his video’s backdrops in the Rijksmuseum?)

Yet if every single Black artist in 2021 struggled in the public vote, including the one who jurors voted third best overall, is that evidence of something more unsettling in how voting audiences react to Black singers representing countries at Eurovision?

The 2021 scoreboard makes it most glaring because the final contained so many Black performers in the first place, but in fact since the current voting system was introduced in 2016, Black finalists have received an average of 123.4 points from juries but only 46.6 points from the public vote – and the contest has still never had a solo Black winner.

Accordingly, the contest’s communities do need to confront the likelihood that racism is having an effect on how audiences react to Black performers at Eurovision, and even in more subtle ways than viewers deciding not to vote for a Black singer because they are overtly prejudiced – modern Eurovision’s cardinal sin.

As well as conscious prejudice, which the majority of viewers interested enough in Eurovision to vote would probably distance themselves from, racism also manifests in less conscious forms of assumptions and bias.

Along with the beliefs about their backgrounds, attitude and appearance that Black creators and professionals have to fight against in essentially every sphere of public life, the context of Eurovision brings with it the idea that the show is celebrating European cultural traditions – and this is a ‘Europe’ commonly, though wrongly, thought of as a historically white place, where people of African descent have only recently started living and so are not part of its cultural traditions. Their own cultural traditions, in the same way, seem less ‘European’.

Applied to voters’ tastes at Eurovision, where viewers are being asked to make emotional connections with 26 different songs one after the other, this might invisibly contribute to viewers sensing that Black musicians’ entries are less what they enjoy in a Eurovision context even if they’d never come close to putting that thinking into words, or finding Black sound or dance too confrontational to connect to.

It likely has an impact, too, on how people react to particular Black performers – especially Destiny, who’s been being criticised since the final as overconfident even though her whole delegation was promoting her so heavily before the contest that they bought ads on social media campaigning for her to win. As a Black woman with a larger body shape, Destiny has borne the brunt of diverging from European beauty standards, and celebrates her ability to enjoy her body in her own song – yet a groundswell of remarks about the very same thing was going on behind her back at the very contest where she was supposed to be getting her message across.

Moreover, the conventions of beauty that Destiny stands out from are products of both racism and sexism at once – since the standard of preferring women to be thin dates right back to the era when being thin demonstrated white women’s ‘European’ level of self-control and distinguished them from curvier Black women, a trope we still see in hostile reactions to fat Black women performers like Lizzo today.

This would make Eurovision yet another context where Black people have to work ‘twice as hard’ as their white counterparts to achieve the same success, and where straying away from a white norm to pursue Black traditions of cultural expression is an extra creative risk.

(Without taking away from the example of representation that Tusse wanted to set on stage as a Black soloist with all-Black dancers, which he’s spoken about never having had when he was growing up in Sweden as a child refugee from the DRC, what he’s achieved in breaking through in Swedish pop, or how more accessible his message of liberation seemed to be on grand final night, it’s notable when we’re talking about how Black entrants’ songs resonated with the voting public that, musically and lyrically, ‘Voices’ hits all the beats of typical Swedish Eurovision production, to the point that it shares its hook line with Russia’s partly-Swedish-written runner-up from 2015.)

Another, even more subtle, way that racism in its structural sense influences how viewers connect with Black music and musicians at Eurovision is through something that philosophers of racism call ‘epistemic ignorance’ – or, very simply, what we’ve been trained not to know about our own society and our own history when it has to do with racism, slavery and empire.

Until Black historians and campaigners, and their counterparts from other racial minorities, started challenging it, the status quo in predominantly white societies was for schools, museums, media and other institutions that deal with the past not even to mention the violence that European colonisers inflicted on people of African descent and the inhabitants of other territories they colonised – and certainly not to deal with the material and psychological consequences for their descendants in society today.

How far that is being challenged in each country, and from what starting point, is a complex matter – and it’s far less on the agenda in countries that didn’t have their own overseas colonial projects, or where national history between the 16th century and the First World War was mostly a matter of being ruled by other empires themselves.

In countries which did have their own systems of colonial exploitation, but perhaps also when it comes to thinking about ‘Europe’ as a whole, we have to set that past and its consequences aside to be able to feel proud of our shared history – but the privilege of not having to know about racism or the history behind it doesn’t extend to Black Europeans or members of other racial minorities, who experience the disadvantage from it every day.

In my last post on Eurovision and the struggle for racial justice this year, I talked about how ‘Birth of a New Age’ could be compared to Jamala’s ‘1944’ in the way they both express their singers’ emotions about violence against their ancestors and what that means in the present. But compared to how ‘1944’ played out in 2016, where Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 was common knowledge, many viewers had strong feelings of injustice about it, and most viewers would have heard Eurovision commentators explaining that her grandparents were Crimean Tatars, colonialism and the Atlantic slave trade don’t figure as a living history to most white Europeans – nor, therefore, does the full resonance of how ‘Birth of a New Age’ calls into being its resistance to injustice.

Jamala enjoyed a wall of press coverage before her Eurovision in which she could explain Stalin’s deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944, describe how her own grandparents were suffering in occupied Crimea, and invite viewers to make the historical connections for themselves (all to the benefit of Ukraine’s public diplomacy, even before she’d won).

Although pre-contest media coverage was more limited this year due to Covid restrictions, the pandemic can take only some of the blame for how few viewers would have approached the grand final knowing and feeling as much about the history behind Jeangu’s song as they would have known about Jamala’s – and, with the Netherlands going through its own reckoning with the legacies of its colonial past (including what may at last be the phasing out of blackface Zwarte Piet, and the Rijksmuseum acknowledging the significance of the Atlantic slave trade to Dutch history in an exhibition that opened in the very same week as Eurovision), it’s not as if there wasn’t an epic scale of story to tell.

(Many more viewers will now know at least a small amount about Dutch colonial oppression against enslaved Africans and their descendants in Suriname thanks to Jeangu’s performance in the final, which shouldn’t be underestimated – but even in countries where commentators were linking the song to Black Lives Matter, how many viewers even now know the basic lowdown of what happened when?)

With more racial diversity behind the scenes in how Eurovision is covered – including, as Alesia Michelle has been pointing out, in fan media accreditation and the online press room – we might have seen more journalists asking the questions that would have let Jeangu and his delegation draw the nuances of his story out… and fewer of the unpleasant, disproportionately critical comments about Destiny’s rehearsals that reportedly marred the atmosphere of the online chat there.

What would it take, then, to improve awareness of the historical, institutional and structural dimensions of racism – or increase what’s sometimes called ‘racial literacy’) – across the Eurovision world in general? A priority would surely be strengthening racial literacy, and indeed sheer racial diversity, in Eurovision’s reference group itself, where incorporating more invited members with relevant lived and professional experience could compensate for the other pools of potential members still being wholly or predominantly white.

Besides a stronger ability to spot potentially problematic song concepts before they reached the televised stage, we could expect stronger support for other initiatives as well:

  • What more could Eurovision as an organisation do to spotlight the histories of racial and ethnic minorities in host cities, working against the misperception that Europe and its constituent nations have only ever been historically white?
  • How can it ensure that Black contestants and Black music are fairly served in the narratives that build up around the contest and help viewers connect with entries every year?
  • What can Eurovision do to see that cleaning, hospitality and security staff at its venues, who in many countries are more likely to belong to racial minorities, are being fairly treated?
  • What leverage could Eurovision use to support other struggles for racial justice in European television, such as the tide of resistance to blackface performance in many countries that may finally be turning?
  • And how can Eurovision ensure that its physical and digital spaces are as welcoming to fans, workers and participants of African and Asian descent as they are to anyone else?

It’s when organisations don’t get it that those most affected, and their allies, end up saying: je me casse.

One thought on “If you don’t get it, if you, if you don’t get it: Eurovision 2021 and the struggle for racial justice (part 2)

  1. Thank you for these blog posts. I’m an American Eurovision fan, and I remember a few years back watching the semifinals and during Outlaw in Em thinking “This is ridiculous, surely it will be banned from the final.” and my increasing bafflement when not only was it let through, but it performed very well with judges and voters. It made me realize that the American and European perspectives on race were very different (not to say we are winning or losing, but the racial composition of our populations are different and what we are willing to confront and accept is different). European academia about race reads a lot like American, so I knew there must be a difference in how it translates across to popular culture. I’m so grateful for these posts finally giving me a perspective into European perspectives of race, and to have material I can share with American folks I bring into Eurovision fandom who are struggling with this themselves.

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