Nina Simone was wrong. To be Young, Gifted and Black is not all that lovely and precious. Black achievement is, at best, a trophy in White boardrooms. The million black stars in Ms. Simone’s dream, prized for their talent and policed for their colour, are more disposable than ever in the age of cancel culture.
Cancel culture isolates, silences and denies livelihood to public figures over their personal shortcomings or political incorrectness. As capitalism progresses from an attention economy to a conscience economy, communities of opinion are policing the private lives of powerful celebrities for public good.
But cancel culture has a racially sedimented infrastructure that allows White capital to reinforce its control over Black talent. For someone to be cancelled, scandalised memes have to be converted into the say-so of even more powerful, typically White, capitalist executives, who can financially censor her.
Cancel culture is not simply about picking the good side of a controversy but also its profitable side. Companies must isolate a target from her base, size her up demographically, backtrack when outnumbered, and generally fawn to north-heavy, White-majority commercial interests. The drive to discipline and punish Black talent can be safely overindulged.
Recently, West Ham defender and French international, Kurt Zouma, became the latest target of cancel culture. Zouma was captured in a video taken by his brother, Yoan (also a football player), kicking and punching his cat. Following a social media uproar Kurt Zouma later apologised for abusing the animal, which was then recovered from him by a British animal welfare organisation.
When the punishment doesn’t fit the crime
Amid the outcry condemning Zouma’s indefensible offence, sections of social media feel that the heavy-handed sanctioning of the Lyon-born center-back is inordinate, hypocritical and racially informed. Adidas has withdrawn sponsorship from Zouma; an American travel company has cut ties with his team; a National League club has suspended his brother, Yoan, for filming the animal abuse; and West Ham has fined Zouma $250 000. A statement from Adidas read: “We have concluded our investigation and can confirm Kurt Zouma is no longer an Adidas contracted athlete.”
While maintaining that the abuse of animals are unacceptable, some African Twitter users are questioning the motive for the extreme punishment of Zola and asking why non-African sportspersons have attracted far less punishment for racism, violence on the pitch and comparable crimes.
Fashion designer Samuel Otigba points out in an insightful thread: “The uproar from Africans in Africa about the double standard punishment meted out on Kate Zouma won’t move Adidas one bit because they will not lose money here, not even a single flagship store anywhere in Africa, they know it will end on the trend table,” Otigba tweeted.
Is what he’s [Zouma] done worse than what the people convicted of racism done?
“But if blacks living in Europe, esp top footballers, Athletes & celebrities, starts speaking out about how this extreme punishment isn’t replicated for racism & how their message as a brand who postures as a BME supporter is, Adidas would have dropped a statement by now,” he added.
West Ham forward Michail Antonio also questioned the reaction to the Zouma situation saying: “Is it worse than players convicted of racism?”. In the video of Antonio being asked about the reaction to the Zouma’s behaviour, Antonio responded: “I’ve got a question for you. Do you think what he’s done is worse than racism?”
“I’m not condoning a thing that he’s done. I don’t agree with what he has done at all.
“But there’s people that have been convicted and been caught for racism, and have played football afterwards. They got an eight-game punishment or something like that, but people are now calling for people to be sacked and to lose their livelihood.
“I’ve just got to ask this question to everyone out there: is what he’s [Zouma] done worse than what the people convicted of racism done?”
What is the motive of picking on Black artists in an industry with no shortage of criminal pasts?
If cancel culture is not simply about conscientious motives but also about corporate calculus, then Adidas and other companies will only relent in their unfair treatment of Zouma when their money is put on notice. In our economy of the spectacle, athletes and creatives are best placed to do this. Black athletes and creatives, isolated by design, can chip away at their racialised precarity by acting for each other and acting together.
In 2018, Spotify announced that it was removing the music of XXXTentacion, R Kelly and Michael Jackson from its playlists. Representatives of Kendrick Lamar threatened to withdraw his music if Spotify went ahead with the ban, and the biggest music distributor by streamed volume agreed to set the policy aside.
Passed up for misogynistic offences, some of the artists bailed out by Lamar from the wholesale ban divided opinion. Advocates of cancel culture argue that commercially supporting the creative products of sexual offenders, for example, empowers them to commit their crimes.
Spotify’s intervention, however, raised few worrying questions. What does it mean when a company of its size decides which artist cannot be heard? What motives may tomorrow decide which artist is no longer desirable to the new inquisitors? Artists have been sabotaged and silenced by their own labels before, what happens when this power is centralised in one company? What is the motive of picking on three Black artists in an industry with no shortage of criminal pasts?
A year after Africa won the World Cup in French colours, Kanye “Ye” West reminded us that Blacks have no culture. “We don’t have our own culture. We signed to culture vultures,” Mr West said in an interview with Big Boy. “Think about everything that’s cultural.
“Taking the knee (American footballer Colin Kaepernick’s campaign against police brutality) is cultural; being on social media (where we collectively channel our wokeness) is cultural; wearing high-fashion (shoutout to Adidas) is cultural; pushing a foreign is cultural. All these things are not owned about our culture,” said Ye.
The Black talent and social causes that drive sport and entertainment industries circle back to White capital. A similar comment is to be made about cancel culture whose community values circle back to corporate calculus.
Whereas older revolutionaries like Bob Marley fought their wars in saintly asceticism, Kendrick, Nas and others pursue a dialectics of authenticity that is not so much about renouncing capital but about owning it. No less an old-school communist than Slavoj Zizek knows tells us that the way to shake up a capitalist system is not conscientious acclamation but the takeover of its infrastructure.
But Kendrick is bitterly alert to the fault-lines of Black privilege. “While my loved ones were fighting a continuous war in the streets, I was entering a new one, a war based on apartheid and discrimination,” he darkly repeats over To Pimp a Butterfly. His fears of institutional annihilation are pronounced on “FEAR”, “Mortal Man”, “Wesley’s Theory” and many other songs.
White-run institutions and mainstream have Black athletes and artists where they want them, as far away from Kurt Zouma as possible. The instinct of self-preservation stashes our individual interests as far away from a maligned public example as possible. But the Black community needs Kurt Zouma as much as he needs us.
In “Gonzo ndiShefu,” the narrative song by Zimbabwe’s struggle music pioneer Zexie Manatsa, the rat requests the help of other domestic animals to defuse a trap. “We don’t eat nuts, defuse it on your own,” each animal shrugs away to her business, citing the rat’s “black privilege.” When the king learns from a mean bite that the trap has caught a snake instead, the rat’s complacent colleagues are slaughtered one by one to feed visitors to the king’s sickbed and eventual funeral.
Mr Lamar has cancel culture and its racial implications in mind in this leaked post-DAMN session: “We can’t create with joyous ambition, we’re out of luck/ The critics formed a new coalition and huddled up/ The non-creators are now elated and out of touch… I got a theory that most of y’all won’t allow to see/ It goes like this, talent doesn’t choose morality/ See, if Daniel Hale was a killer, would you not want a heart/ If Carl Benz was a racist, would you stop driving cars.”
Is our postmodern culture quite beyond the grand narratives and moral certitudes it begrudges the ancestors for? Hard science fiction author Stephen Baxter’s duology, Proxima, significantly opens in a high-tech far future in the first book and races forward to the Roman Empire for the second book. The further we progress in moral awareness, it seems, the more we relapse back to its intolerant enforcement.
In Baxter’s world-building, enlightened empathy for sentient life sits comfortably with racism, slavery, colonial violence and dubious puritanism. Where better to resolve the moral knots of postmodernism than Rome, the great civilisation that gave us the inquisitions and the banned-book indexes.
To be young, gifted and black could be a precious dream again. If Ms. Simone’s talented million channel their star power against the unfair treatment of Zouma. If we start painting the boardrooms Black.