In the last few hours legendary music journalist Simon Price has tweeted the above image. It shows a Morrissey t-shirt with his name, a union jack and the title of his last album; “World Peace is None of Your Business”. The second picture is of a t-shirt for another band; Skrewdriver. Skrewdriver were the darlings of the far-right here in the UK during the 1980’s, an openly and defiantly racist group who produced the soundtrack for the perverse, bastardisation of the skinhead scene during that decade, taking it from the original multi-cultural roots and helping to position the entire scene as a safe haven for racists. A close look at both t-shirts reveals that the font that has been used is the same. Coincidence? Not for Simon Price who tweeted;
The implication was very clear…the use of this font was, further, proof that Morrissey was, indeed, a racist. The point is emphasised by the capitalisation of the double “s” to invoke images of the Nazi SS. This, of course, isn’t a new accusation. Allegations of racism have dogged Morrissey for very many years. Initially my response to the tweet from Simon Price was to leap to Mozzers defence;
The reply to that from Simon was one that caused me to pause and reflect;
For Simon the font alone was evidence of nothing, but taken with some of the other pieces of “evidence” that are often used against Morrissey a strong case could be built to level the accusation of racism at him and to make it stick. So, is Morrissey a racist?
“Reggae is vile” (1984)
And so it begins! This really is the starting point for the case against Morrissey. Taken on its own I think one could easily dismiss it as a, possibly misguided and poorly phrased, attempt at a Wildean witticism. In recent years Morrissey has claimed that the remark was simply “..a joke” and that it had followed him for years. I think it is possible to view it that way, particularly in the light of his decision to resurrect the ATTACK label for his output with Sanctuary records. ATTACK was an imprint of Trojan Records and dealt, almost exclusively, with reggae music. However…
“…total glorification of black supremacy…” (Melody Maker, 1986)
Alongside the remark from two years earlier Morrissey doubled down on his seeming distaste for reggae with comments in Melody Maker including his assertion that reggae was a near absolute “…glorification of black supremacy” and was also “…the most racist music in the entire world”. To make matters worse he also described black artists such as Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston as “vile”. There is, unarguably, a strand of reggae music that promotes the idea of black power but that is a very different notion to that of black supremacy. I’m not any kind of expert on reggae so I can’t state with any certainty that Morrissey is wrong in his assertion but even if he was right one would have to put the ideas he is claiming into the context of the civil rights era, colonialism, the Atlantic slave trade and so much other suffering by black people across the globe. The use of “vile” to describe Jackson and Houston is, I think, simply another example of his attempting to be arch and superior.
“…life is hard enough when you belong here” (Bengali in Platforms)
The tale of a first generation Bengali immigrant on the debut Morrissey solo album “Viva Hate” is, like the later “National Front Disco”, a song that would benefit from quotation marks on the lyric sheet to make it clear that it is a character singing the above line and not Morrissey himself. I don’t think that’s excuse making, I think it’s clearly the case.
Madstock/National Front Disco (1992)
In 1992 Morrissey released his album “Your Arsenal”. It was full of glam stompers and was, at that point, the best thing he had released as a solo artist. It didn’t come without controversy though. It included the lines, “…we are the last truly British people you will ever know” (“We’ll Let You Know”) which, on its own and in the context of the songs subject matter isn’t grounds for any accusations. The more problematic issue, for the music press anyway, arrived with the track “National Front Disco”.
The title of that song alone was enough to send the left wing journalists at the NME into a frenzy. The fact that the song is clearly about the follies of youth and how far right groups target working class, council estate, unemployed kids for recruitment was lost on them.
The other issue was that at the same time Moz had appeared with Madness at their “Madstock” concert in Finsbury Park. The fact that he appeared on stage wrapped in a Union Flag tipped the NME over the edge. The flag, the left had decided, was a symbol of racism and Morrissey utilising it was the final nail in his coffin. They published an edition of the paper that presented the case for the prosecution with little to nothing in the way of defence.
Morrissey himself refused to dignify the affair with a comment other than to state that he believed that the entire thing was a vulgar attempt to simply “get” him. That decision itself was used against him. Silence was an admission of guilt for his accusers.
It was a lose-lose situation for the man who had, up until this point, been the darling of the music press. Defend himself and risk being seen to acknowledge that there was a case against him or stay silent and be condemned regardless. Clever old NME.
“I don’t really think, for instance, black people and white people will ever really get on or like each other”. (Q, 1992)
If one were being generous to Morrissey one could argue that in a historical context he is right. Relations between white people and people of colour have always been, to underplay things, “troubled”. In actuality the violence visited upon Africa and Asia (amongst many other places) by colonial powers is something far darker than merely “troubling”. One would have to acknowledge too that the cause of the tension between the groups lies with those who used violence without provocation and not with those who were the victims of that violence. It’s also the sort of throwaway statement that can too easily be seized upon by critics and given the fact that Mozzer isn’t a fool one would have thought that he would have been savvy enough not to say it without providing more context and analysis.
“The gates are flooded and anybody can have access to England and join in.” (NME, 2007)
Immigration is a complex and weighty topic…certainly one that requires careful thought and consideration as well as the room and time to properly discuss it. It’s not the sort of issue that can easily be discussed in an interview with a journalist for the NME in an hour. Quite why Morrissey would attempt to offer any kind of insight into this subject is something only he can answer. At this point in time he had also been living everywhere but the UK for over a decade so his insight into the impact of immigration extended to being served by a Polish girl in Starbucks or the veggie equivalent in Highgate. It’s another example of him putting himself into the centre of a divisive, controversial and complex issue…an issue that, in truth, he has no real understanding of.
Morrissey has a sepia tinted view of England. It’s a world of cobbled streets, black and white films, slate grey skies, Pat Phoenix and the angry young men. He’s trapped in the world he created for himself as a child. He’s never moved beyond it. He didn’t ever live in cosmopolitan Britain or a multi-racial world. That’s not an excuse for anything because other people who grew up in the same world hold different views…but many see things as Morrissey does. Immigration is a threat, something to be feared in their minds.
“Did you see the thing on the news about their treatment of animals and animal welfare? Absolutely horrific. You can’t help but feel that the Chinese are a subspecies.” (The Guardian, 2010)
Morrissey is an extremist. His belief that all living creatures are equal is absolute. He is no different on this topic than those fundamentalist Christians who believe that abortion at any stage and under any circumstances is murder. It is either a position of principle for which he is to be applauded or the ranting of a crank who needs to think more carefully before commenting. The above comments are impossible, I think, to defend no matter how one views his position on animal rights. To label a race as a subspecies has too many echoes of Nazi Germany for it to be treated as anything other than unforgivable. Given that he has also compared abbatoirs to Auschwitz that isn’t a difficult conclusion to come to.
James Baldwin t-shirt, 2017
Some people felt that the above shirt was another example of racism on the part of Morrissey. The use of the iconic James Baldwin accompanied by lines from The Smiths “Unloveable” seemed to my Morrissey loving eyes to be…clumsy, but not racist. He talked in his “Autobiography” about his love of Baldwins books “Go Tell it on the Mountain” and “The Fire Next Time” which suggests, to me, that this can’t be seen as anything other than a tribute to a hero. Others disagreed, both Pitchfork and Billboard described it as “problematic” and “uncomfortable” respectively. Eventually the shirt was removed from the online Morrissey merchandise store but with no comment from the man himself on the furore.
Morrissey has made a few comments about Nigel Farage, UKIP and the leadership results of that group that have shocked his followers and reignited the is he/isn’t he debate. I don’t buy the “UKIP are racist” line I’m afraid. I think there are a wide range of people who support them; disaffected working class voters, disillusioned Tories, young people, old people and even people of colour. Are there racists there? Probably…but the Tories and Labour don’t have clean hands on that issue either. As for Mozzer and his apparent support for them…I reckon he knows as much about them as I do about nuclear physics.
There are probably other things that M has said or sung over the years that lead people like Simon Price to believe Morrissey is a racist but these are, I think, the most significant pieces of evidence.
“Racism is beyond common sense and I believe that it has no place in our society.” (Morrissey)
That is as unambiguous a statement as one could reasonably demand from someone accused of racism. That and his donation to an anti-racism group should be enough to prove that he isn’t a racist. It’s not though because for many people denunciation of the thing you stand accused of is proof of nothing. I think the worst thing you could accuse Morrissey of is of believing his own hype; in truth writing some nifty lyrics is not evidence of intelligence and it’s worth pointing out that he has a limited formal education. Worth noting too that he has lived a sheltered existence for around 30 years, surrounded by sycophants and where his every utterance has been lauded as “genius”. He’s not a genius…he’s a songwriter and a singer.
Does he hate people of colour? Is he the same as Richard Spencer and the goons at the Daily Stormer? Is “Bengali in Platforms” the same as the bile spewed out by Skrewdriver? Are the Aryan Brotherhood readying themselves for his upcoming tour? No. No. No. The problem with hurling an accusation of racism at people who simply mis-speak or who fail to keep up with “acceptable” language is that it diminishes the seriousness of actual racism. Saying “…life is hard enough when you belong here” isn’t the same as saying “Go home”. Voting for UKIP isn’t the same thing as voting for the BNP.
Clearly there will be others who violently disagree but I just don’t think any of the “evidence” even when taken as a whole is enough to convince me that Morrissey is a racist. I know that progressives will urge me to check my privilege and, maybe, they are right…I’m open to being challenged.