This week has been traumatic for members of the Black community, with shocking images from the United States resulting in global protests, and a renewal of energy behind Black Lives Matter in all its guises.
#BlackOutTuesday sparked a day of introspection for many, with wider society forced to confront long-standing issues of racial prejudice. In the music industry, many titles and labels paused their activities, and the hope is that this will allow room for positive change to grow, and that music may lead from the front in this.
Comedian Leigh Francis seems to have done some thinking of his own, and he’s decided to apologise for some of the sketches on his show Bo’ Selecta. Appearing as Keith Lemon, he donned blackface to impersonate Michael Jackson, the talkshow host Trisha Goddard, and – perhaps most frequently, and famously of all – Craig David.
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Discussing this on Instagram, a tearful Leigh Francis said: “It’s been a weird few days, I’ve sat and thought about things and what I could post to try and help things.”
The comedian expressed regret for those sketches, stating: “I just want to apologise, I just want to say sorry for any upset I caused whether I was Michael Jackson, Craig David, Trisha Goddard, all people I’m a big fan of. I guess we’re all on a learning journey.”
While Clash isn’t about to police Leigh Francis’ personal growth – indeed, his statement should be welcomed – it’s worth reflecting on the damage the sketches caused, and the scale of the backlash against Craig David in this country.
At the time Bo’ Selecta – even the title is essentially a crude, unknowing pastiche of Black soundsystem culture – first aired on British television in 2002 Craig David was only 21 years old, a kid from Southampton who had rocketed to fame as a teenager.
Yes, the sheer scale of his success was only going to be followed by a backlash, but not like this. Cruelly skewered on a weekly basis by a mainstream sketch show, it’s commonly regarded as helping bury the songwriter’s career.
Craig David himself disputes this – he wanted to try other things, after all, and UKG as a whole was splintering by 2002 – but the pervasive belief that Bo’ Selecta essentially demolished a Black artist’s career remains a damaging one.
It’s also worth putting the show in context – Craig David was already being pilloried in some quarters, with Melody Maker’s October 2000 cover featuring a model decked up to look like the UKG star sat on the toilet. Its banner read “THE ALTERNATIVE NATION FIGHTS BACK!” because, of course, the ‘ALTERNATIVE NATION’ in the eyes of that title was an overwhelmingly white one.
Craig David, to his eternal credit, has always handled Bo’ Selecta and it’s portrayal with incredible grace. Speaking to the Guardian in 2019, he reflected: “I have 100% forgiven Leigh Francis for Bo’ Selecta!”
“If you hold on to things and ask the question, ‘Why did it happen?’ it’s like you’re drinking your own poison. You have to forgive people, and the situation, and also look at what came from it. In a roundabout way, that period of time made me ask a lot of questions about what direction I was going in. Music isn’t a hobby for me. It wasn’t like I was going, ‘I’ve had a good innings, let me tap out now.’ It made space for me to come back. It was a blessing in disguise in a weird way.”
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While the UKG legend may well have moved beyond any negativity surrounding his portrayal, he should never have been put in the position of having to deal with it all. Furthermore, its lingering impact still festers in a broader sense. Leigh Francis’ apology contains a revealing phrase, one worth honing in on: “Back then I didn’t think anything about it, people didn’t say anything... I’m not going to blame other people. Been talking to some people, I didn’t realise how offensive it was back then.”
But the fact is plenty of people expressed disappointment, sadness, and outrage at the show, it’s just that most of the people complaining were Black and nobody wanted to listen to them.
That Craig David was able to retreat, take stock, and eventually return as a rejuvenated artist – with seemingly no bitterness towards the show – is testament to his powers as a person and a songwriter. That it’s taken Leigh Francis almost 20 years to realise the damage he caused is a testament both to his cultural blindness, and to the wider mindsets that exist within British media.
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