This week a new BBC Sounds podcast series was released – You, Me & R&B, presented by Cheryl Cole. The announcement has been marred by criticism that Cheryl is a wholly inappropriate host for a podcast covering a music genre of Black origin – the response on Black Twitter has been tundra-like to say the least. And rightly so. In fact, the more you consider just how appalling a choice Cheryl is for this role, you cannot help but wonder which BBC decision-maker needs to be handed their P45 by the end of the week.
Or should I say, why not Cheryl.
Cheryl is not exactly considered venerable amongst Black people (NB Black people have differing opinions on every single topic, just like White people. There may be Black Cheryl-mega-fans out there, but I’m painting with a broad brush whilst simultaneously avoiding using the term ‘Black community’ because it’s reductive af. So when I say ‘Black people’ please bear in mind that I am in no way speaking for every Black person). This perennial mistrust of her stems from her assault of a black woman in 2003.
Cheryl was convicted of assaulting Sophie Amogbokpa in a club toilet, where Amogbokpa was working as an attendant. Cheryl had requested a lollypop, but was informed by Amogbokpa that they were not free and that she would be required to be pay for it. Cheryl consequently called the victim a “fucking bitch”, or a “fucking black bitch” depending on whose account you choose to believe, and assaulted her so viciously that she suffered blurred-vision as a result of her injuries. The judge in the case criticised Cheryl for showing “no remorse, whatsoever”.
It is important to note that Cheryl was acquitted of the charge of racially aggravated assault and has maintained that the incident was in no way motivated by racism. But taking everything into account, you could probably understand why Black people don’t lionize her as a role model of our times.
So why, of all the people in the British music industry, would the BBC choose Cheryl to front a podcast about a music genre steeped in Black culture, its roots firmly planted in the history of African Americans? The answer: white privilege.
The Protection of White Privilege
Cheryl’s seeming impunity undoubtedly stems from her position of being a stunningly beautiful white woman. Despite the assault, she easily clawed back her career and soared to vertiginous levels of popularity. Imagine if Beyonce had battered a White woman twice her age who was merely trying to do her job – she would never have been allowed the career she’s enjoyed. But Cheryl, who I can unapologetically say is a significantly inferior vocalist to Beyonce, was forgiven instantaneously and picked up where she left off.
Personally, I do not believe that Cheryl should be retrospectively flayed by today’s cancel culture. However, I strongly object to the notion of a person with a big “Racist?” question mark hanging over them, being given the role of presenting a series about one of the flagships of Black culture. I dare say, anybody with a hint of understanding of modern discourse surrounding race relations would put Cheryl’s name firmly in the “Not For This Project” box. My opinion is not that Cheryl should not have been allowed a career – it is that a few doors should have remained shut for her. Specifically, doors behind which were roles involving Black culture. But white privilege shimmied in and did its thing, allowing her to swing open those doors with the backing of the BBC, thus taking the space of hundreds of Black female artists who would have been eternally more qualified.
Marlon Kameka summarises this argument brilliantly: “Cheryl Cole is an example of white privilege. You beat up a Black woman, get arrested, found guilty & fined for the assault, spend your musical career not making r&b music but get to host a BBC show on the subject when we could all name several Black British artists more qualified.”
Cultural Appropriation vs Appreciation
Nobody can stop Cheryl enjoying R&B, and I’m sure she genuinely does. But there is an ever-recurring trope of evidently racist people enjoying the fruits of Black talent and culture whilst continuing to perpetuate racist behaviour and attitudes. A trope which feels frustratingly out of control.
Even if we were to remove the allegations of racism from the scenario, it would remain inappropriate for Cheryl to present this series, when there are so many Black women who could have taken this role. R&B originates from and remains strongly linked to Black culture – so why is a White woman being given the platform to educate us on the topic? If the decision was made in a bid to appeal to a White audience, I find it incredibly patronizing to assume that White people only find education palatable when it is coming from other White people (and statues, apparently).
If Cheryl really were as ‘passionate’ about the genre as she claims in the tagline of the Podcast, she would have recognised the need for a Black voice to be leading the show. She would have valued the cultural significance of R&B, admiring the artists who’ve shaped it. But in capitalizing on it so frivolously for her own gain, she is disregarding the Black talent that has shaped the genre, as well as the Black people to whom it has spoken for eighty years. As Kameka highlights in his quote (above), it is not as though Cheryl has even dedicated her ‘music’ career to R&B. That, although tenuous, would have been some sort of defence.
Systemic Racism: Example A
The decision behind casting Cheryl in this role whiffs strongly of systemic racism. I refuse to believe that decision-makers at the BBC are just simply naïve to any of the problematic repercussions of choosing her. I could, at best, believe that they simply did not think that this predictable deluge of outrage from Black people was actually important.
Trawling through Twitter threads on this topic, I found this eye-opening truth bomb from comedian London Hughes, who previously announced her professional move to America due to systemic racism within the UK entertainment industry. She commented: “I’m not sure why some of you are shocked that Cheryl Cole is doing an ‘Rnb’ podcast, when the biggest soulful singer that we have in the UK is Adele. White women have always been allowed to take up space in UK ‘Black music’ Word to Rita Ora, Jess Glynne, Jessie J, Joss Stone etc…There was a time in UK music in the 2010’s where every song you heard on the radio that sounded like a soulful Black woman…. Was in-fact a cute skinny white girl from Essex…Sorry but due to systemic racism the UK music scene doesn’t have its own Beyoncé’s, Rihanna’s, Whitney Houston’s, Mary J Blige’s, Diana Ross’s, Janelle Monet’s, Normani’s or Dionne Warwick’s… So until then, you’re getting this Rhythm & Blues brought to you by Cheryl Cole.”
What a mic drop.