Don’t want to take my country back mate. /
I want to take my country forwards.
At time of writing, the 2019 Women’s World Cup is reaching its conclusion. In the UK, the tournament has, by all accounts, been a watershed moment for the profile of the women’s game. The lionesses took England to the semi-finals, giving reigning champions the USA a run for their money. Electric performances from Ellen White, Lucy Bronze, Nikita Parris, Steph Houghton, Jill Scott, and Keira Walsh have been watched and applauded by millions – capturing the nation’s attention in a way that women’s football never has before.
But England’s campaign was marred by one game – and it wasn’t their semi-final defeat, either. Having qualified from their group, England faced Cameroon in the round of 16. They won 3-0 in a highly controversial game, and my feelings about it are… complicated.
On the one hand, Cameroon’s dissent (I was convinced they were going to down tools entirely at one point) was like nothing I had ever seen on a football pitch. Towards the end of the match, individual players committed some unpleasant, unnecessary fouls: pushing the referee, spitting on England players, thrown elbows, a raking challenge down the shin of England’s captain in the dying embers in the game, which could easily have put an end to Houghton’s tournament. Some of the criticism that was directed at the Cameroon team was entirely justified.
But… it was the vitriol of it. The condescending suggestion that these women – professional athletes who had qualified from the group stages of the World Cup – didn’t understand the offside rule. The ugly tropes about angry black women. It all gave me an uncomfortable feeling in my stomach.
Yes, the Cameroon players were angry. Some of their reactions were shocking. And the referee’s decisions they were disputing were correct. But there is an injustice here. An injustice that they were right to be angry about.
Cameroon, a former British colony, lest we forget, must have known that the odds were stacked against them. While the levels of financial investment in women’s football in the UK still lags well behind the men’s game, the disparity in resources between the England team and Cameroon is vast. Training facilities, coaching staff, media coverage… simply put, the England team have it better.
The systems which were behind those 90 minutes out on the pitch are unjust. It’s not a level playing field. So when Cameroon’s women began to feel that decisions were unfairly going against them (and it must be pointed out at this point, that I have never seen a game of football where players did not appeal to the referee about decisions, even in extremely blatant cases) tensions boiled over. It doesn’t excuse some of the behaviour. But it does contextualise it.
Wait, wait. Hang on a minute. I thought this was meant to be a light-hearted blog about music? What does all this have to do with the jazz record that this post is nominally supposed to be about?
Well, this week’s record, Your Queen Is a Reptile, is inseparable from its politics. The majority of the tracks are instrumental, but the urgency of the tracks, the African art inspired cover, the song titles (a celebration of various notable women of colour), the liner notes – they all point to it. This record wears its political heart on its sleeve (literally).
Right, at this point: a disclaimer: as a straight, white, cis-gender, able-bodied, university educated white man (something I have in common with pretty much all of history’s worst monsters) this isn’t really my story to tell. All I know about this subject, I know from reading work by people of colour, women, and particularly black women. I’m just as subject to the biases I’m talking about as anyone else in our society, so I will very likely get things wrong when discussing race and gender. I think it says something that, despite the extraordinary level of privilege that my identity gives me, I still feel a little nervous about discussing this.
With all of this in mind – I really encourage anyone reading this to seek out some of the great work that underpins my thinking here. I am happy to send out my copies of Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge and We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to any reader in the UK via post, on the proviso that, once read, you pass the books on to someone else who would like to read them. (And that you do your best to financially support the writers by buying your own copy if the work resonates with you, if you can.)
Secondly, as well as championing black women, Your Queen Is a Reptile is (as the title suggests) explicitly anti-monarchy. I’m not going to get into the republican argument here: that’s bound to court way too much controversy and deserves a lot more time and words than I have to dedicate to it.
OK, back to it. Your Queen Is a Reptile.
Reading through the track listing for this record for the first time, there were names I knew – civil rights heroes Harriet Tubman and Angela Davis – and names that I didn’t recognise (I was, for instance, totally ignorant about the story of Nanny of the Maroons). The final name on the list, Doreen Lawrence, was familiar, but it took me a moment.
The mother of Stephen Lawrence: a British teenager murdered because of his race.
This is one of the tracks that features vocals, and the song’s title gives the words some extra weight:
The song brings to mind the London riots of 2011 – something that has been lingering in my mind recently due to the likely ascendancy of the then Mayor of London to the highest office in this country. There is, I think, a parallel between this song, the riots, and the game between England and Cameroon. There were individuals in the riots and in the Cameroon team who committed acts which were damaging. And we can condemn those acts, but we should also look at them in context. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes in We Should All Be Feminists: “I am angry. We should all be angry. Anger has a long history of bringing about positive change.”
There is plenty to be angry about. The current government deported hundreds of legal British citizens from the Windrush generation. Not a single person has been prosecuted or gone to prison for the Grenfell tower fire. In the US, Alabama is imposing punitive abortion laws that impact black women most severely of all. The athlete Caster Semenya is facing legal challenges to her right to compete, because she doesn’t fit a narrowly defined idea of femininity. Even triumphant moments, like Stormzy’s recent Glastonbury headline set, as Stormzy was widely heralded as the first black artist to headline Glastonbury, the media having apparently forgotten about Skin from Skunk Anansie. Stringent police cuts leading to a rise in knife crime that disproportionately affects London’s black youth. The gender pay gap. Spiralling homelessness numbers. And on and on and on.
So this post has been about this week’s record. Sort of.
Maybe it’s more about austerity Britain and women’s football than a really good jazz record. But it’s music with a message, and it’s a message that I needed to hear: black women are required to be so exceptional just in order to have their voices heard, that we really need to listen to them.
So read Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Zora Neale Hurston. Read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Reni Eddo-Lodge. Defend Dianne Abbott from the lazy, bigotted jibes she’s subjected to in the British media. Cheer on Nikita Parris. Cheer on Serena Williams. Cheer on Caster Semenya. Listen to Alex Scott when she’s a pundit on Match of the Day. Seek out publications like Gal-Dem. Support your Woman of Colour colleagues. Read #Write52’s very own Katrina Marshall’s post about LGBT+ representation in PR. Listen to Laverne Cox, Munroe Bergdorf and other trans women of colour. Watch Ava DuVernay’s films. Watch TV shows written by Michaela Coel. Remind people that Sister Rosetta Tharpe invented rock’n’roll. Respect black women. Listen to black women.
A playlist inspired by this week’s record, in case your ears haven’t been treated enough yet today.
(I normally aim to hit around 1 hour 30 minutes for these lists, but even my heavily trimmed down longlist for songs to be included was well over 2 hours. So, here’s 2 hours of great music by black women.)