By Keir Bristol
Last month, Florence + The Machine released their sophomore album, Ceremonials. I was a big fan of their first effort, Lungs (2009) and was curious to see what they would come up with next. For those who aren’t familiar with Florence + The Machine, Florence Welch is the lead singer and the only constant member of the band. Welch is a fiery, theatrical redhead with a grand voice that can often sound as if it were emanating from the Earth’s core itself.
Upon the first listen, I could tell it would take a while for the album to grow on me. There was no question that the album was more cohesive, if a bit redundant in sound. “No Light, No Light,” like most of the tracks on Ceremonials, is a song that can stand on it’s own. Not to mention, it is one of Welch’s more personal tracks- she abandons ghosts and water for such lyrics as, “Would you leave me / if I told you what I’ve become? / Because it’s so easy to sing it to a crowd / But it’s so hard my love / to sing it to you out loud…” Read the lyrics here. But the music video brought some new issues to light (no pun intended).
The music video features a man in Blackface attempting to kill Welch by pinning needles into a voodoo doll. Welch, in pursuit by the Blackface character, is trapped on the ledge of a large building. After being pinned one time too many, she falls from the ledge into the stained glass ceiling of a church and lands in the arms of a Christian choir of young boys. Watch the video here.
It is still hard for me to believe that people would defend this music video, fans or not. The number one rebuttal I’ve seen so far is, “It’s not racist! It’s ART. You just don’t understand!” On the contrary, I understand quite clearly. One of the number one rules I’ve learned in life is that if a marginalized person tells you that something is problematic, it probably is. So the fact that there are non-people of color telling people of color that they don’t understand is racist in itself. It’s like saying, “You silly POC, you just don’t understand art! Let me interpret it for you, since you obviously can’t for yourself.”
What I don’t understand is why people insist that art and racism are mutually exclusive. I don’t understand why people insist that racism is permissible within the margins of artistic creativity. If artists can be racist, why is it so hard to believe that their work can be racist as well?
The only explanation I can think of is that people don’t understand why Blackface is racist, regardless of context. Blackface was an important part of American entertainment from the 1830’s to the 1940’s or so. White actors painted their faces with Black oil, and sometimes donned Afro-wigs and ragged clothes to “imitate” Black people. They acted as characters such as coons, mammies and bucks to represent what they thought Black people were. As a result, the Black women were either stripped of their sexuality (see: mammies) or overtly-sexual (see: Jezebel), and Black men were vulgar admirers of White women, unintelligent, or grateful to the White man for “saving them” from their own savagery.
The video is also problematic because of it’s depiction of Voodoo, which is also widely misunderstood. Basically, Louisiana Voodoo (where the origin of Voodoo dolls came from) is a religion developed when African-Americans combined their own religious beliefs with Catholicism during the slave trade. Black people’s religions were misunderstood and considered inferior. People with Black skin were also considered “evil” and “dirty,” while White skin was supposed to represent purity. It’s a perfect recipe for Catholic rejection. So, like most things that White Christians didn’t understand or believe in, Voodoo was and continues to be viewed as synonymous with evil and wrong doing.
The fact that a person in Blackface is attempting to kill the presumably innocent Florence using Voodoo, who is eventually saved by the pure religion of Christianity, is a perfect example of this.
If both Blackface and a stereotypical view of Evil Black people performing Evil Voodoo practices are problematic and politically incorrect (which they are), then “No Light, No Light” can be seen as a double assault on Black people. As of now there is a petition going around protesting the video and asking for it’s removal. People need to understand that a person can be a great artist and visionary, but still have some major flaws that hurt people and isolate potential fans.