My name is Isanne Yard. I’m a black, Dutch Eurovision fan with Surinamese roots who has been watching Eurovision since 2000, when I was 8 years old. Even though I grew up with black music such as soul, R&B and traditional Surinamese music at home, I have an enormous passion for world music more generally. That’s partly due to watching Eurovision, where I’ve developed a fondness for Scandinavian and Balkan music in particular.
Just like you I’ve been watching what’s going on in America at the moment through social media. From the death of George Floyd to the violence that’s followed, I’ve been feeling pretty powerless. At the same time it’s been consoling to see so many influencers, artists, public speakers and just normal people like you and me using our respective platforms to speak up. In a weird way, this divisive topic has brought many of us together.
That was never more true for me than on Monday when I found myself in Amsterdam’s Dam Square with thousands of people protesting against racism and police brutality. The latter is so often a symptom of the former. But it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Racism shapes so much of the black experience. On that day I stood arm-to-arm with people protesting the killing of innocent men and women, the fact black people don’t always have equal access to education and jobs, that they haven’t achieved income quality in countless countries, and that they face higher barriers to entry in countless industries including entertainment.
— Isanne Yard ?? (@ms__yard) June 1, 2020
As a Dutch woman, I was also objecting to the fact that kids are not always taught about Dutch involvement in the transatlantic slave trade and that in my own country huge numbers of people still think it’s okay to dress up as a blackface character with red lipstick, golden earrings and a black afro wig — a perversion of what my ancestors looked like — as part of a traditional kids’ celebration. I was protesting against racism towards black people everywhere because I am sick and tired of senseless deaths and cruelty. But I also drew hope from the fact I wasn’t standing alone. White people, Asian people, Latin people — people from these and so many other communities stood by our side. We are all sick and tired of the status quo.
So what does Eurovision have to do with racism or Black Lives Matter? And why is it important for Eurofans to take a moment, to sit down on #BlackOutTuesday and after to think about what’s going on? Well, the answer is that Eurovision, so long at the forefront of reflecting social change, has a part to play too. It can expose people to new visions — of the world and of themselves — something I’ve learned in my 20 years as a Eurofan.
Racism, of course, pre-dates Eurovision by a few millennia. It’s important to go back in time and confront some uncomfortable history. So let’s #OpenUp.
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Sam Cooke: “A change is gonna come” I was born by the river in a little tent Oh and just like the river I've been running ever since It's been a long, a long time coming But I know a change gon’ come, oh yes it will It's been too hard living, but I'm afraid to die 'Cause I don't know what's up there, beyond the sky It's been a long, a long time coming But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will ????????? #blacklivesmatter #blackouttuesday #protest
The racism of today can be traced back centuries to slavery, which fostered a culture in which black people were seen as sellable and inhuman — inferior to their white masters. I’m not just talking about the United States. But also the Caribbean, the northern parts of South America and Brazil. In the 1800s European countries finally started to abolish slavery. The Dutch ended the practice in 1863 for my ancestors in Suriname, but forced people to work on plantations for another ten years, as they brought in Asian labourers to help rebuild the country. It’s not even 150 years since the Netherlands ended slavery. Those attitudes of ownership of and disrespect toward black people have been passed on to slave traders’ children, their grandchildren and so on.
All of that underlies the institutional racism that’s led to inequality and brutality. But also the increasingly vocal response from my generation, which has had enough. The “Black Lives Matter” movement recognises that silence is oppression, which keeps people down, which keeps them from advancing and which keeps the hierarchy intact. In a way, silence is violence at the same time.
Eurovision, black performers and me
It’s sometimes difficult for a majority group to understand, but it’s a blessing to be able to see people like yourself on television. Whether you’re a gay kid growing up and only seeing straight romances, or a black kid watching TV and only seeing white couples, it’s in not seeing someone like yourself that you start to feel invisible.
When I was eight years old I watched Eurovision in front of the TV and made a list of of the particular jobs I’d like to have backstage. It was a rarity to see anyone on TV who shared my skin colour. Eurovision was largely filled with white performers. Thankfully there were black stars who made their way to that stage and gave me an inkling of inclusion and who let me know that you can, in fact, get where you want to go.
It’s kind of ironic to me that the first black singer at Eurovision hails from The Netherlands. Milly Scot — a Dutch singer and actress of Surinamese origin — performed way back at Eurovision 1966. It may have taken ten years for a country to be brave enough to send a singer with African roots to be the face of the nation, but better late than never. She opened so many doors for other singers who would later participate at Eurovision themselves. That her song “Fernando & Fillipo” was a rumba song — a musical style that was invented by African slaves who brought it to the Americas, in particular Cuba — was a harbinger of the more international sound Eurovision would welcome in the years ahead.
Milly’s legacy has given way to other amazing black artists, who helped kids like me see a reflection of ourselves — and our potential — at Eurovision. I feel lucky that I can now count more than a few. Dave Benton won the Eurovision Song Contest in 2001 with his musical partner Tanel with the song “Everybody”, which truly was for everybody, and Destiny Chukunyere was the very first black kid to win the Junior Eurovision Song Contest in 2015. For now, it’s just these two black people who have managed to raise the Eurovision trophy. On some level that’s unfortunate. But it is a start.
We have to look further down the scoreboard for other black artists. Many of them have achieved huge success outside of Eurovision, but struggled at the contest itself. Among the non-qualifiers, there is the beautiful Glennis Grace who sang “My Impossible Dream’’ in 2005, only to be eliminated in the semi-finals. Then there was that gorgeous Norwegian-Kenyan star Stella Mwangi — a bookies’ favourite with “Haba Haba” who ended 17th….in her semi-final. And let’s not forget France 2010 — the loveable Jessy Matador who was born in Congo and sang “Allez, Ola, Ole,” which was also an official song for the FIFA World Cup 2010. He didn’t reach the Top 10. And of course, there’s the Congolese-Ukrainian singer Gaitana, who sang “Be My Guest”, finishing 15th in 2012. That was Ukraine’s worst result for a while. No matter. These were all baby steps in a much bigger picture. The fact is their contributions — visibility and inclusion — are worth far more than any set of douze points.
A year later, in 2013, I had my first on-the-ground Eurovision experience in Malmö, volunteering with a fan site. I remember the experience so well — the joy of watching rehearsals for the first time and hanging out with so many enthusiastic Eurovision fans. But it was painful to see there was not even one black solo artist on stage — the only black performers were Anouk’s background singers. In the press room, I only encountered two black journalists. It makes you pause. You want to see people from your community up on that stage and down in the press centre living their best life. There’s no shortage of black men and women who want to be there. But for any number of reasons they weren’t.
It seems to me, though, that there is reason for hope. Increasingly the world of black music is influencing the world of pop music at large. Countless mainstream artists credit the likes of Michael Jackson, Rihanna, Kendrick Lamar, Tupac, Tina Turner, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey as inspirations. And we see the influence of black artists creeping into Eurovision, too. Who among us hears Aretha Franklin in Destiny’s “All of My Love”, Megan Thee Stallion or Cardi B in Athena Manoukian’s “Chains On You”, or Bruno Mars in Ben Dolic’s “Violent Thing”?
Bit by bit the tide does seem to be turning, both in terms of results and representation. We had András Kállay-Saunders — the Hungarian-African-American making the Top 5 in 2014, and Sweden’s John Lundvik reaching the Top 5 in 2019. Austria’s Cesár Sampson finished third overall and topped the jury — proving that skin colour doesn’t have to be a barrier.
And I take great pride in gains my country has made in celebrating black people on the Eurovision stage. In 2008, Hind, who has Moroccan roots, represented The Netherlands. Edsilia Rombley, who has Aruban roots, did it twice in 1998 and 2007, and even hosted the recent Eurovision 2020 replacement programme Eurovison: Europe Shine a Light. Franklin Brown (1996), Humphrey Campbell (1992) and Ruth Jacott (1993) all lent their voices — and faces — to racial diversity at Eurovision.
Among the many tragedies of the cancellation of Eurovision 2020? Not seeing a year of black excellence come to life. Eurovision 2020 had a record number of black artists singing at the biggest music entertainment TV show in the world. We’re talking about 7 acts out of 41. Sweden, Denmark, Israel, Malta, San Marino, Czech Republic and the Netherlands, all bringing diversity to the table.Thankfully five of these acts have been confirmed for Eurovision 2021.
Of the returning artists next year, I naturally feel a particular connection to Jeangu Macrooy — the host country’s torchbearer for the Open Up slogan. Jeangu — a gay, Surinamese singer-songwriter — moved to The Netherlands in 2014 to study music. His self-composed masterpiece “Grow” calls for change and inclusion, encouraging us to address our many problems by sharing them in open dialogue. His participation represents more than just three minutes, especially to those of us who have always perceived ourselves as outsiders at the contest — and often outside of it too.
It’s my prayer and my wish that through their talent and their presence, their voices and their stories, these artists win new fans and bring people together. In doing so they’ll offer further proof of what most of us already understand: that black lives really do matter.
You can learn more about racial injustice and access resources to combat it on the Black Lives Matter web site.
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No finals for team Georgia but I am super proud of you anyway @tamara_gachechiladze !! Loved working with you during Eurovision and You slaaaaaayed on stage! A beautiful voice and live Not once out of tune or off key!! A beautiful performance well directed by the beautiful @jeanbaptistegroup ???????? #georgia #georgian #tbilisi #ukraine #kyiv #kiev #eurovision #esc2017 #esc17 #eurovision17 #eurovision2017 #redcarpet #girls #proud #women #fierce #slay #keepthefaith #tamaragachechiladze #artist #music #dutch #swede
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