Keith Richards once mused on the reasons why an underground sound from the segregated South crossed the Atlantic and spoke to a generation of white war babies better than any other art form in the 50s. His conclusion was that to ‘get the Blues’, one has to have suffered; and ‘thanks to Adolf’, he observed, Britain had suffered. Another Brit who got the Blues was Eric Burdon of The Animals; recalling an early encounter with Nina Simone, he remembered how the incendiary siren accosted him for having the gall to cover one of her numbers and receive more credit for the cover than she did for the original – something she perceived as classic ‘white theft’. Burdon countered her aggression by revealing his knowledge of how she herself had won plaudits for purloining songs penned by obscure bluesmen who were still working on chain-gangs whilst she was filling Carnegie Hall. Astonished that Burdon was aware of this, Simone softened; both realised they had more in common than that which society had weaponised to separate them. Music – like all art – is colour-blind.
One of Nina Simone’s most celebrated – and repeatedly played – recordings is her bombastic 1965 version of ‘Feeling Good’; both her voice and the production give the track a sexy, snazzy swagger that is jazz on a cinematic scale. But it was written by a couple of British white boys – Leslie Bricusse and his songwriting partner of the time, the multi-talented Anthony Newley. Who was culturally appropriating who – Nina Simone for covering a number penned by white songwriters, or white songwriters for writing in a style derived from the musical roots of Black America? Who gives a f**k? It’s a great song and hers is the definitive version. If popular music had adopted a contemporary Identity Politics approach to prevent the cross-fertilization of culture in the 1960s, Motown would have been confined to the ghettoes, and London would have swung to The Beverly Sisters.
When different artistic genres emanating from different cultures bump into each other and then spend the night together, the fruit of the union is often a hybrid that takes art to an exciting new place altogether. It has always been thus. It’s not about one stealing from the other; it’s about coming together and bridging unnecessary divides; realising these divisions are illegitimately imposed by the artless – just as Eric Burdon and Nina Simone recognised when music united them – is a vital bulwark against the preachers of knowing one’s place and not rising above a station one was designated at birth. To not resist is to seal art in stasis and sign its death warrant.
Attempting to enforce a cultural apartheid in which, say, the colour of the artist’s skin places them in individual boxes that they must remain locked in is a regressive restriction concocted by the creatively philistine. To use one of the most chillingly revealing phrases coined of late, the artist must ‘stay in their lane’. Within this Woke approach to art, to even imagine what it must be like to swap skins and perceive the world from the perspective of someone in another box – the ultimate expression of a creatively fertile imagination – is regarded as heresy. Ironic, really, when we’re simultaneously told that in ‘the real world’ a man can inhabit the persona of a woman and has to be accepted as female; but for an artist’s imagination to inhabit the persona of someone from a different cultural slipstream? Cancel!!!
Were I to personally adopt this credo, I could only listen to brass bands and would have to write stories with characters who are all based on myself and are forbidden to venture beyond their hometown. It ironically echoes the very attitude the practitioners of the Woke manual profess to loath – the Victorian approach to imperial rule that frowned upon the kind of mixing with the natives that the Georgian Empire-builders employed in India when they embraced the indigenous culture of the Subcontinent and took Indian wives. This insidious strain of segregation may have captured cultural institutions and media circles – the once-unmissable Radio 4 arts show ‘Front Row’ is now practically unlistenable as a result of its slavish dedication to the cause; but the art itself should be stubbornly immune, with the artist refusing to have their restless curiosity constrained by rules and regulations that have no place in art.
What I find especially concerning when one considers how creativity is suffering such an onslaught is how so few artists with clout – those who have both the financial means and critical respect to place them above blacklisting – are prepared to put their necks on the line and fight this attack. The arts can be perilous from the perspective of ‘making a living’ and it is to a degree understandable that those on the way up are worried of jeopardising their chances of future earnings; but the established have no excuses. One of the few lone voices making a stand is the novelist and columnist Lionel Shriver, a writer I regard as a real kindred spirit. The British-based American author of ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ has been subjected to the full vindictive nastiness of the cultural Stasi simply because she has had the guts to challenge its increasingly ludicrous dos and don’ts, a list which is added to on a seemingly daily basis.
Lionel Shriver was stirred into action because the most extreme example of Woke thought-policing at its McCarthy-esque worst can currently be found in the field of literature. Publishers of Young Adult Fiction now employ ‘Sensitivity Readers’ to weed out anything they regard as ‘problematic’ before a book goes to print, basically doing what the Lord Chamberlain used to do back in the days of this country’s theatre censorship. Books from the classical canon have been issued with retrospective trigger warnings, whereas new releases are perused with a fine toothcomb. A couple of months ago, the likes of Oprah Winfrey were falling over themselves to praise ‘American Dirt’ by Jeanine Cummins; the book was lauded as a novel for our times in its story of a mother and her young son fleeing the dangers of Mexico and making an illegal crossing into the US. Guess what happened next.
Well, several fellow authors (who should be ashamed of themselves) took to Twitter to criticise Cummins’ ‘stereotypical’ portrayal of Mexican immigrants; and this wasn’t either professional jealousy or legitimate criticism of the kind that might emerge in a book review; this was a deliberate dig at a novelist whose Irish-Puerto Rican lineage presumably disqualifies her from using her imagination to put herself in the mind of a Mexican – y’know, just like that bigoted old Tolkien pretended to speak on behalf of that notoriously discriminated-against minority, the hobbit. Rather than defending the right of the author to write about what the hell she likes, Cummins’ publisher promptly cancelled a planned book tour in the wake of the latest tedious teacup storm. Great to know the industry is backing the writers it creams a disproportionate chunk of royalties from.
If artists could put their own professional concerns to one side and unite to fight this assault on the one thing that put them where they are, their individual futures would be ensured. As it is, by spinelessly kowtowing to a ruthless movement that will take a mile from every inch conceded to it, they are allowing the school bully to pick on the weakest kid in the class in the misguided belief that they will then be spared a kicking. But this kind of crusade has an appetite that can never be fully quenched, and it will eat up everyone in the end if everyone gives in to it. And if mankind stands by and allows its imagination to be taken away by those who have none, all art – and civilisation with it – is doomed.
© The Editor