Let's Talk About Xenophobia in the Western Media

There's a reason why artists of colour are 'building their own table'

BY BASHIRAT OLADELE

"Their working formula: Be racist, get called out, play the victim, gaslight, rinse and repeat."

Bashirat Oladele - The Thread magazine.j
BY BASHIRAT
OLADELE
1 January 2021

In November 2020, we learned that we live in a world where Justin Bieber can receive a Grammy nomination for his song ‘Yummy’ despite lyrics repeating ‘Yeah, you got that yummy-yum. That yummy-yum, that yummy-yummy,’ but where masterpieces such as ‘Blinding Lights’ by The Weeknd or ‘Map of the Soul: 7’ by BTS were completely overlooked. Rina Sawayama, who gained universal acclaim for her debut album and was a strong contender for a Best New Artist nomination, was completely ignored by the Recording Academy. Despite the Academy’s defence that they’re not rigged, these snubs reinforce the message sent by the industry long ago: that white men can do the bare minimum and continue to be praised, while artists of colour must deliver and accept their crumbs. This message from the Grammys - broadcast each year to millions on CBS and playing a huge part in the Western media landscape - obviously goes beyond music, and echoes the xenophobic attitude the same Western media has been adopting towards people of colour for longer than we can remember. As people of colour, we are not awarded the luxury of mediocrity like our white counterparts. We always have to work twice as hard just to get half of what they get. It shows as much in the boardroom as it shows at the so white Oscars or the Grammys.

 

To just use the example of the music industry, the dismissal of artists of colour has been a major occurrence and quite frankly, those recent events are once again unsurprising. You’d think that all this ‘diversity and inclusion’ talk being so prominent would lead to some change, but the concept clearly remains inapplicable to the music industry. To add insult to injury, we also had to witness white artist Justin Bieber petulantly complain about his song being nominated in the Pop category, and not R&B. In case this wasn’t clear, Bieber’s case is white privilege at its best. The media would slander any artist of colour who did what Bieber did. One of the reasons the artist, fans and fellow artists alike are outraged by The Weeknd’s Grammy snub is that ‘Blinding Lights’ has spent 40 weeks in the Billboard Hot 100’s top 10 and broke the record for the longest running top 10 hit in history. Yet this isn’t enough for the Recording Academy to recognise his accomplishments.

The Weeknd tweet - The Thread magazine.j

What happened to The Weeknd - who publicly asked for transparency in his now infamous tweet - is not an isolated act, and tops off a long list of abuse people of colour have been subjected to in the music industry and Western media. Dubbed one of Time’s most influential people, The Weeknd had one of the most streamed albums of 2020. He is also a blatant example of how Black artists and artists of colour get boxed up by the music industry. On a global level, the Grammys are the ultimate stepping stone after a whole season of industry awards, from the VMAs to the American Music Awards. In the latter, in fact, The Weeknd is always nominated in Soul or R&B categories despite being a Pop artist. Just like him, Doja Cat was nominated and won the Favourite Soul/R&B Female Artist award at the American Music Awards, despite making Pop music. If it’s not in Rap, Hip-Hop, Gospel or R&B/Soul, Black artists don’t get recognised at these shows or placed in an ‘Urban’ category. Following his win in that particular category at the 62nd Grammy Awards, Tyler the Creator mentioned in his interview that having an ‘Urban’ category was simply a backhanded compliment. Why wasn’t he nominated in major categories? And more importantly, when you look at the faces of the artists placed in this category, what does ‘urban’ really mean? 

 

The Academy dropped the name ‘Urban’ in June 2020, and opted for ‘Progressive R&B’, missing the point yet again that Black artists do not need their own category to keep them apart from their white peers. The xenophobia is loud in Western award shows, and the categorisation of nominees speaks for itself. ‘Map of the Soul: 7’, a critically acclaimed and best selling album worldwide, didn’t receive a single recognition from the Grammys despite breaking records and instilling one of the biggest cultural resets of a pandemic-filled year. The album is RIAA Platinum and the first and only Pop album to be released and certified Platinum in 2020. BTS continues to make history and dominate Western markets, while bowing gracefully to an industry that persists in robbing them of major nominations like Album of the Year, because the album is sung in Korean. Something that is not an issue for the millions of people who purchased the album globally. Snubs like this one and The Weeknd’s makes the Recording Academy look irrelevant, and disconnected from the music that has actually been impacting the world this year.

 

But what else were we expecting from a voting board that remains dominated by the white ‘elite’, who views Black artists and artists of colour in a one dimensional lens? Black artists have pioneered the Pop genre, yet they remain excluded from the category. It is the very reason why ‘Global’, ‘K-pop’ or ‘Latin’ categories exist. Artists of colour and foreign artists continue to dominate but evidently, the industry continuously excludes them from major categories; instead creating new ‘special’ categories to box them up. If we are defining categories based on nationalities or heritage, shall we expect a ‘Canadian Pop’ category for artists like Justin Bieber and Michael Bublé? Probably not.

BTS Grammys - The Thread magazine.jpg
credit: Shutterstock

The issue with Western award shows is only the tip of the iceberg. Artists of colour have been battling the xenophobia and racism thrown at them by the media for decades, and not just during the award season. BTS themselves have been mocked by Western media for their origins, their English and their looks ever since they dared coveting that market. In September 2020, their ARMY of fans had to call out racist journalists and writers yet again for belittling them and dismissing their achievements. Following the band’s second speech at the United Nations, Anne Hegerty from The Chase called BTS  ‘a little Korean boy band that’s fundamentally not important’. The same ‘fundamentally not important’ band sells out stadiums in minutes, injected over $4 billion last year to the Korean economy (just their hit Dynamite is worth over $1.4 billion for the nation), has contributed to one of the biggest IPOs of the year, staged a campaign against violence towards children and teens with UNICEF, donated $1 million to Black Lives Matter in June 2020 (which was matched by their fans within a day) and topped the Billboard 100 for weeks with their now Grammy nominated single Dynamite, shattering YouTube records for most views in 24 hours. Korean American journalist David Yi gathered Anne perfectly for her (now deleted) tweets, and kindly explained why calling them ‘little’ is racist - especially given the rampant stereotypes of East Asian men. But racist journalists never learn, instead they rally support from their fellow racist journalists.

 

Initiated by Anne McElvoy, Senior Editor at the Economist, who retweeted BTS’s announcement about speaking at the UN for a second time with the caption, ‘please no’, followed by John Henley of the Guardian who tweeted ‘The end is nigh’ in reference to that same UN speech, the thread of white dismissal expanded with journalists Frances Weetman (who went as far as using the holocaust to make claims of reverse racism) and Stephen Pollard joining in, and of course Hegerty who took it upon herself to also gaslight the large numbers of people of colour in her mentions - telling them that their feelings were not her concerns. This is the issue with racist people with a platform, they won’t listen to the hurt or the complaints; they can’t seem to stop tormenting people of colour - deeming their feelings invalid -  and they stay blind to their achievements. The hate got a few blocks and non-apologies for some as a result, at times a slap on the wrist by some media who reported on the affair, but it has left a big impact in a fandom space vastly occupied by Black people and people of colour. And when we look at the ‘backlash’ we ponder - all of this for being Asian superstars delivering a message of hope for millions at the United Nations, at a time where hope was very much scarce?

Anne Hegerty gaslighting - The Thread ma

What is said on social media is important and should not be ignored, as tweets like these imply that a band as huge as BTS still does not belong in these prestigious spaces, in the same way Grammy snubs convey the message that they don’t belong in the major categories. These reflect what happens in other industries, where people of colour are kept at bay, made to feel like they don’t belong in white-dominated spaces. We also know how normalised racism is towards East Asians. These British journalists and editors (named and unnamed), this time and many times before, proudly showcase their xenophobia - disguised as ‘British humour’ - and actually find it funny. They also have a working formula that keeps them employed and reinforces the support of their racist followers: be racist, get called out, victimise yourself, blame the actual victim of racism, rinse and repeat. But we don’t forget nor do we forgive.

 

Now the biggest band in the world both commercially and culturally, BTS has been reviving physical sales in the era of streaming, achieving the first Billboard-All Kill and forcing the necessary conversation of inclusion within the industry. Yet they are forced to continue to fight back and pave the way for other artists of colour, and in particular Asian artists so they can have access to the same opportunities as white Western artists. Whether they are faced with racist comments about spreading coronavirus (not an isolated incident*) from the likes of Sal Governale of Sirius XM, or given pathetic radio spins compared to other chart toppers, they have been ‘building their own table’ (in the words of Beyonce). But behind the heroic act lies the sad truth that they simply do not have a choice. In the words of Halsey, "This is a band that has been taken advantage of, in many ways, by people promising them spins and radio play in exchange for social media power." BTS themselves are now even questioning whether they have a space in the industry and admitting they view themselves as ‘aliens’ for the American music industry.  

On 24 November 2020, BTS was nominated for their first Grammy for their chart-dominating English single, Dynamite. At the start of the announcements, the Recording Academy mentioned the list of this year’s nominees would be diverse, yet only the band’s English single was selected - leaving their best selling album without a single accolade. Forbes’ Entertainment contributor, Bryan Rolli, said it best: Dynamite was a “Trojan horse” the band strategically chose to attempt demolishing every obstacle the Western music industry has built up to keep foreign artists away. Meanwhile Beyonce (who lost several Grammys despite game-changing albums) is leading this year’s nominations with 9 nods, but that doesn’t mean she will end up winning them. After all, in 62 years the Grammys have only awarded 10 black artists with an Album of the Year, brushing off genre-defining records by legends from Beyonce to Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean and Prince. With a tendency to give these awards to white men instead.

 

The nomination is nice to have, but the music industry’s refusal to recognise accomplishments by non-white artists still rings pretty loud. At our level, as avid listeners or simple observers of the industry, the behaviour from Western, English-speaking media and award shows contribute to a society where people of colour and people who speak another language remain ‘othered’. It’s a shame in every sense of the word, as malice and ignorance can truly blind people’s perception of the world around them, and make them miss out on wonderful work. But while the industry keeps ignoring the biggest contributors to today’s pop culture, people of colour will keep chopping down wood to make a bigger table.

*Editor's note: 

On 25 February 2021, German radio network Bayern 3's presenter Mattias Matuschik referred to BTS, live on air, as a "s****y virus" such as COVID-19, adding that "hopefully there would be a vaccination against it soon."