Anwen Crawford on George Michael, race and pop
After the death of the singer and songwriter George Michael, at the end of last year, I found myself watching one clip on YouTube repeatedly. It wasn’t a George Michael performance, though I looked at plenty of those, too, but a brief scene from the film Keanu (2016), which stars American comedians Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, commonly known as Key and Peele. In the scene, a mild-mannered suburbanite named Clarence, played by Key, is pretending to be a powerful drug dealer with the ludicrous nickname of Shark Tank. Waiting in a car while a drug deal takes place, Clarence nearly has his cover blown when one of his fellow gang members reaches for his phone to put on some tunes, only to hear George Michael’s hit song ‘Freedom ’90’ come blasting through the speakers.
“This shit sound kinda white,” says Bud, another gang member, his face a picture of scepticism.
“White, white?” replies Clarence, feigning astonishment. “Niggas, this is George Michael right here, all right. This one of the greatest recording artists of all time, man.” “So, he black then?”
“Yo, you know, he light-skinned.”
As with so much of Key and Peele’s comedy (the duo broke through a few years back with a television sketch show, also called Key & Peele), what makes the scene funny is the succinctness with which it directs our attention to all sorts of complex issues around race. Clarence is a black man trying to conform to a particular image of masculinity – the gangster – that is well outside of his experience. George Michael was a white man whose songs were heavily indebted to genres often thought of as black, such as soul music, that perhaps lay outside of his experience. The scene is a joke about, and a commentary on, the ways in which white musicians have used black music, or performed a version of “blackness”, for themselves; it’s also an upending of racist stereotypes, like the gangster or drug dealer, that have shaped assumptions about black men. If George Michael can be passed off to black listeners as a “light-skinned” black man, and Clarence is an actual light-skinned black man who also happens to love the white musician George Michael, then perhaps the differences between black and white people, our behaviours and our tastes, are not so easily discerned.
During his heyday in the 1980s, George Michael scored several hits in the US on the specialist Billboard charts then known as Hot Black Singles and Top Black Albums. (Today these charts are known as Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs and Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums, respectively.) His soul ballad