Last week I was chatting to a writer about branding. He told me that he almost ruined his career when he challenged his publishing company about the cover of his book. The book told the story of four men’s lives, two black, one white and one mixed race. The publishers wanted the white protagonist on the cover.
In an interview in the Guardian newspaper a few years ago, the children’s author, Malorie Blackman, argued:
“Through my whole writing career it seems people have always been criticising me for not tackling racism. But things like even having black characters on covers when I first started was a bit of a political statement, because I’ve had more than one bookseller say to me ‘that book would sell better if you didn’t put black people on the cover’.
Yesterday, I was chatting to a work colleague about finding children’s books featuring characters that – well – looked like our children. She had tried a well-known radical bookshop. She had received a blank look. Unfortunately, their lofty aspirations of equality did not stretch to boosting the self-esteem of brown children.
So does branding really matter?
On Saturday, we went to ‘Some Like it Hip Hop’, a dance and music show in London – though to simply describe it as a ‘dance and music show’ does it no favours at all. The grieving governor of a distant dystopia has shut out the sun and relegated women to second class. Two women are expelled through the city gates and return dressed as men – and good sense is restored by… books. What’s not to like?
There’s live singing – gospel, R&B, 80s-style funk, a folky ballad – and eye-wateringly good dancing. It’s funny, quirky, joyous and utterly London. The cast, all shapes and colours, look like London. The audience, all shapes and colours, look like London – a rare thing in a London theatre. The Welsh narrator beatboxes with the singer and guitarist who may be of east Asian heritage. The white guys breakdance, the black guy’s king and the women are tough and funny.
But – ‘hip hop’ is hardly a genre likely to entice in much of the general public. As much as I baulk at stereotypes, I can’t imagine the couple behind us, perhaps in their early 60s, going straight home to spit lyrics with their NWA CDs. But something filled every seat in the theatre that night. Could it be the sparkling reviews? The word-of-mouth buzz? The posters leaning on the humorous?
The show celebrates the joy of black music in way that won’t terrify a wider audience. And once again – books save the day!
Over to ”The Lion King’. The first time – yep, there has been more than once – it struck me. This is a ‘black’ musical – albeit, topping up the great Disney treasure box. Okay, it also features the songs of Elton John, so not quite ‘black’, but most of the cast are. (On the Wikipedia page, there’s an interesting passage about the potential racist and anti-immigration undertones of the film.)
Perversely, the only reason the thought occurred to me was because of the one solitary white guy, dancing and singing in Swahili. Nearly everybody else visible was played by black artistes. Yes, it’s set in Africa so that kind of figures, but likewise, good make up and costumes could have sorted that out.
Disney is hardly celebrated for its proliferation of black protagonists. There’s the princess who’s a frog. There’s the Jamaican who’s a crab. They’ve touched Chinese with Mulan and Arabic with Aladdin. And… So what if Lion King was celebrated as a showcase of black talent? An opportunity to nurture a generation of black stars?
Hmm, the problem for me is that’ it’s Disney. This organisation introduced thousands of little girls to pastel nylon and netting.
Disney rebranding itself as culturally-provocative, challenging the status quo? Nope. I wouldn’t buy it.