Cross­ing over

Anwen Craw­ford on Ge­orge Michael, race and pop

The Monthly (Australia) - - VOX -

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

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