LEIGH-ANNE: RACE, POP & POWER | WE’VE BEEN WATCHING
Ben Woolhead checks out a new BBC documentary in which one of UK pop icons Little Mix shares her experiences at the sharp end of endemic racism – from comment box goblins and music biz top brass alike.
Like Marcus Rashford with food poverty and Ian Wright with domestic abuse, Leigh-Anne Pinnock is a celebrity-turned-social-campaigner who speaks from personal experience. Over the decade of Little Mix’s existence, she’s slowly become more aware of how her skin colour has both defined her image within the group and determined how she’s treated relative to her bandmates.
Frustrated that race seems to be a taboo subject rarely broached within the “pop bubble”, and both angered and energised by the Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, she recognises her “unique position” as “a black girl in the pop industry with a predominantly white fanbase … I do feel like I have a responsibility to speak out. I can use my voice to try to do something … I’m not where I am today to do nothing about this.”
This BBC documentary follows Pinnock as she tentatively explores the issues in a series of conversations: with choreographer Frank Gatson, now Beyoncé’s creative director, who at the start of her career advised her “You’re the black girl – you have to work 10 times harder”; with soul artist Nao, who points out the insidious impacts of unconscious bias; with fellow former X Factor winner Alexandra Burke, who recalls feeling industry pressure to bleach her skin; with ex-Sugababe Keisha Buchanan, who talks of the reputational risks of being outspoken as a woman of colour; with Dawn Butler, who’s routinely subjected to vile verbal and even physical attacks as a black MP; and with Little Mix bandmate Jade Thirlwall, who recounts her own experiences of racism as a child of Arabic heritage growing up on Tyneside.
Along the way, Pinnock is made painfully aware of her own privilege – by tedious online bigots predictably irked by a pop star’s use of the platform afforded to her, but also (more upsettingly) by some black people who suggest that her light skin tone somehow disqualifies her from calling out racism. Colourism is the subject of a tense and uncomfortable conversation with her fiancé, Watford footballer Andre Gray, whose Twitter history revealed that he harboured some questionable attitudes before they met.
As with sexism and misogyny, racism is clearly a problem in wider society rather than merely within the music industry – but, as Pinnock discovers, even effecting change close to home is an enormous challenge. Increasingly perturbed by the uniform whiteness of her immediate working environment and emboldened to do something about it, she requests a meeting with the head of her label, Sony Music Group – only to be fobbed off with the promise of a chat with a director of marketing, who happens to also be a black woman. The implication is clear: this is not an issue for white people to acknowledge and address.
When the bigwigs finally do consent to a conversation, the cameras are only allowed to capture Pinnock’s side of the dialogue. “It’s not about catching anyone out,” she says in understandable exasperation – fully aware for the first time, it seems, of just how much she and her bandmates are manipulated, constrained and denied the agency to make their own decisions about who they work with.
Like fellow “Big Three” record companies Universal and Warner, Sony have made much of their post-BLM munificence, reaping the PR rewards of publicly committing $100 million to social justice causes. And yet, as Drew Schwartz recently reported for Vice, the reality has proven to be rather underwhelming, not least when you consider that that sum is a miniscule fraction of the label’s overall revenue. Perhaps sceptical about the bosses’ vague talk of charitable donations and paid internships, and unwilling to wait for the music industry to get its house in order, Pinnock has set up The Black Fund, whose mission is “to channel both finances and other support to charities already doing important work to empower black communities”. Full credit to her for being the change she wants to see in the world.
Available on BBC iPlayer now. Info: here
words BEN WOOLHEAD