Once upon a time, the BRITs were a spectacle of a different kind. They were not only a showcase of the past year’s great music but also the site where moments that made pop culture played out. Without them, we would have never seen Geri Halliwell’s Union Jack dress, Jarvis Cocker invading the stage to sabotage Michael Jackson or Adele raising her middle finger to having her acceptance speech cut short.
The last few years, however, have seen a change in tone. In the wake of Brexit, the Grenfell Tower fire and a general growth in social consciousness, the artists performing have become more political. This year’s ceremony saw rapper Dave add an extra verse to his performance of ‘Black’ in which he decried Boris Johnson for being “racist” and host Jack Whitehall drew attention to the lack of female nominees in a comedic yet highly public fashion. Moreover, this seems to be part of a trend among award shows in general, such as when Joaquin Phoenix used his acceptance speech at this year’s Oscars to speak for the “voiceless” rather than himself.
The politicisation of awards ceremonies is primed to set off the classic “Should celebrities stay out of politics?” debate all over again. Should we be reserving them as a space to escape from politics, as an opportunity to solely celebrate art? Or is this something we should embrace?
Politics and art, in truth, are never found too far away from each other
Politics and art, in truth, are never found too far away from each other. Speaking as a writer myself, politics and society have always been the source of huge inspiration for them, especially in novels, poetry and music. If artists feel qualified enough to incorporate their opinions into their work, to sing or write about them, then how is speaking about them when they are given a stage and an audience of millions any different? If there is a cause you want to draw attention to, that isn’t a bad way to do it. In an alternative light, it is another form, perhaps, of political protest: think of Stormzy asking “Theresa May, where’s the money for Grenfell?” on the Brits stage two years ago.
In addition, perhaps the way in which celebrities express political opinions could also be beneficial for the audience. There’s inspiration we can take simply from seeing public figures using their voices for good, on the one hand, but what they do also promotes awareness of social issues in an accessible manner. It is probably not unusual for people to become invested in issues through hearing political music (which I myself can thank for bringing issues like police brutality into my consciousness) or watching politically charged films, for example. We’re always vocal about wanting to get young people engaged in politics, and not every young person will be incentivised to trawl through newspapers of their own accord in order to get informed about what is happening in the world. Could hearing a musician or actor stand up for what they believe in help?
Celebrities have as much right to express a political idea, provided it isn’t out-and-offensive, as anyone else
Ricky Gervais once complained while hosting the Golden Globes that celebs ought to refrain from making such statements that the likes of Dave and Stormzy have made, on the basis that they “don’t know what they’re talking about”. It isn’t a bad practice to critically examine another’s viewpoint, but if someone didn’t know how to discuss something without proper knowledge or at least the confidence that they had it, they wouldn’t discuss it. Imagine the attendees of the Brits or the Oscars being cautioned by the organisers or their managers not to say anything political or indeed prolific: the ceremony in question would be accused of being paternalistic, overly sanitised or even practicing censorship.
Celebrities have as much right to express a political idea, provided it isn’t out-and-offensive, as anyone else. And besides, isn’t art supposed to push boundaries? If awards shows are places where artists can take the opportunity to do that, it isn’t a bad thing. Ultimately it’s hard to force public figures not to say anything of that nature at all – maybe this should be accepted and appreciated as much as their art itself.