November 22, 2011
Florence + the Machine released the latest video this past Friday, for “No Light No Light,” the third single from their new album Ceremonials. Since frontwoman Florence Welch is known for her theatrical music video productions, the clip was eagerly awaited by her fans.
The video, directed by Iceland-based duo Arni & Kinski, has already garnered over 800,000 views on Youtube, in addition to generating countless responses over the images in the video. It’s actually slightly astounding how much racist imagery they managed to pack into just four minutes and 15 seconds.
You can watch the video for yourself to get your own interpretation, but if you can’t watch it for whatever reason here’s a brief summary: Welch, a thin white red-haired British woman, is the focal point, but at various points, we see what seems to be an Asian man in blackface, misreprentations of the voodoo religion (which of course inflicts harm on the poor white woman). The overall plot of the video seems to be of a white woman pursued by “darkness,” represented by the aforementioned man in blackface, who ends up falling into “whiteness,” represented by a choir of young white boys in a church. Oh yes, that old trope. Black = evil, white = good. Echoes of British religious imperialism and its violent history of colonization abound. You get the picture.
The video has already attracted criticism from around the blogosphere, and Jezebel’s Dodai Stewart mapped outwhy the representaion of the Voodoo religion in the music video is not only negative, but factually incorrect:
Haitian Vodou is a religion that is very misunderstood. Slaves were brought to the Caribbean against their will and forbidden to practice their traditional African religions as well as forced to convert to the religion of their masters. The Bond movie/Eurocentric/Americanized viewpoint presents Vodou as an evil, primitive version of witchcraft. But it’s a religion like any other, with a moral code, gods and goddesses. Many ceremonies deal with protection from evil spirits.
In addition, the “voodoo doll” itself has been misconstrued. In Haiti, it was traditional to nail small handmade puppets or dolls to trees near graveyards; these small figures were meant to act as messengers to the spirit world, and contact dead loved ones. It’s safe to imagine that European folks didn’t understand this — and assumed an evil intent behind a doll with nails in its body.”
On the other hand, all sorts of defenses and excuses are being pulled out of the hat to try and label this music video as anything other than what it is: racist. Glorifying the white female central character as representing goodness, all while vilifying the evil dark skinned heathen Other. The number of times this has been done in film date back to one of the very first blockbusters, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, and continue on until today with this latest incarnation. But in this age of “colour-blindness” and “post-racial” talk, we confront a fairly new beast: vehement denial.
That’s where a large part of the problem with the discussions around this music video lie – the desire to talk about anything other than race. Fans of Welch’s have offered their own denials, including:
- ”it’s not blackface, he’s green!”
- “It’s not blackface, people in Britain don’t know about blackface.”
- “It’s not blackface, it’s a representation of darkness.”
Even fans who will readily agree that this music video is “symbolic” and uses darkness (in the shape of a, lest we forget, a human being, an Asian man in blackface who practices voodoo and chases Welch) to represent “evil” and whiteness to represent “good” will still find ways to vehemently deny it is racist. “Maybe it looks like it could be racist, but it didn’t mean to be!” they say. When it comes to confronting the argument of whether or not the video was “intentionally” racist, I’ll point to minh-ha t. pham’s response for Threadbared to Crystal Renn’s yellowface photoshoot, where she explains:
Racism is so deeply entrenched and pervasive in many societies that everyday racism is often unintentional. On the other hand, what is always intentional is anti-racism. The struggle against racism resists the pervasive ideologies and practices that explicitly and invisibly structure our daily lives (albeit in very different ways that are stratified by race, gender, class, and sexuality). Anti-racism requires intentionality because it’s an act of conscience.
What Pham hits on there is the need to first acknowledge we live in a world where racism and white privilege exist. In the end, the excuses over why “No Light, No Light” is not racist are pointless to entertain if you can’t even begin to acknowledge that. You’d have to live in a very sheltered world to believe that this video is anything other than a giant platter of rehashed racist imagery.
Now, one thing I’m surprised others have not raised in their criticisms of the “No Light, No Light” music video is that this isn’t the first time Welch has been criticized for being “culturally insensitive,” to put it mildly. Her other music videos could hardly be excused as perfect, either.
A quick look at “Dog Days Are Over” (which has over 20 million views on Youtube) features a mishmash of unidentified Othered cultures in the background, such as women in head scarves banging on drums, an all-black gospel choir with silver foreheads, and two blue women (yes, blue). The already very light-skinned Welch is painted an even whiter white, and is featured prominently in the foreground leading the masses of ambiguously ethnic backup dancers in a frenetic crescendo. At the end of the video, they all explode into bursts of bright colours, leaving the “wild” Welch draped in a furry tattered garment, waving a flag.
What these music videos show is the amount of misrepresentations around race that many (white) artists are able to use, all under the guise of “art.” It happens in fashion photoshoots, music videos, films, books, etc on more occasions than one could possibly count. While it happens all the time, that does not make it any more defensible. And being a fan of an artist who makes a misstep and ends up creating something racist, intentionally or not, does not oblige you to running to their defense. Being a card-carrying fan of an artist or musician does not make them infallible.
Discussions about whether or not Welch is personally responsible for this racist music video have cropped up. When you break it down and imagine the number of people who were behind the storyboarding, choreographing, casting and creative direction around this video, it is slightly astounding that not one person raised concerns about how problematic this video is. Many petitions have cropped up, asking that “be pulled, edited, or reshot and she and her label should issue a sincere apology.” In putting forth this music video attached to her album and her persona, Welch has given it her unspoken seal of approval. In this case, she has also simultaneously alienated any number of people of colour and critical folks in her fanbase.
We’ll probably be waiting with bated breath, as Welch nor her label have responded to the public outcry so far.
In the end, the most important and all too often ignored factor in the case of this racist music video is just that: calling it racist. The fact that in 2011, a top-selling young creative artist has released a music video like this one means we still need to have conversations about racism, stereotypes, blackface, and impact that images in music videos like these ones have. Let’s take this opportunity to talk about how to hold artists, including pop stars, accountable for propagating racist imagery. Let’s talk about why blackface is always wrong, about why reductive stereotypical misrepresentations of people of colour are harmful and need to be confronted, and why we still have to unlearn colonial histories and legacies.