September 4, 2020

Given the febrile atmosphere created by the Covid pandemic, lockdowns, and the ongoing anti-police Black Lives Matter protests, the cancellation of this year’s Notting Hill Carnival must have been a relief to the police — as well as the residents of West London. The exporting of a specific American argument about police violence has already spilt out on the streets of Britain, so it was likely to be a higher risk event than normal.

Still this year’s event was not entirely casualty-free, with at least one carnival-related victim — the eight-times platinum selling and multi-award winning Adele.

Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email

Already registered? Sign in

Poor Adele has already been the subject of mobbing in recent months, having commemorated her 32nd birthday this May by releasing a photo of her looking distinctly slimmer than before.

Perhaps anybody in the public eye who releases photos of their body in the expectation of positive feedback should accept that a portion of the online public is not wholly positive about anything. On this occasion, the attacks came from people who advocate “body positivity” — that is, they argue that people who are overweight should not feel any shame over the fact. (As it turns out, 2020 has not been a good year for the “fat acceptance movement”, with the associated link between severe Covid and obesity.)

Now, barely three months later, Adele put her foot on another of the landmine issues of our time, although a rather more deadly one. From her home in LA, the Tottenham-born singer posted a picture of herself and the heart-warming message: “Happy what would be Notting Hill Carnival my beloved London”. Who could object to something so wholesome and positive? Well, quite a few people as it goes.

It was bad enough that the bikini Adele wore was in the colours of the Jamaican flag, a borderline dangerous act for a non-Jamaican person to risk. Worse still were her Bantu knots, a hair style originating in Africa and worn by women of African descent around the world. It was over this outrageous disrespect that the hordes descended.

“If 2020 couldn’t get any more bizarre,” one award-winning journalist declared, “Adele is giving us Bantu knots and cultural appropriation that nobody asked for. This officially marks all of the top white women in pop as problematic.” A remark that is of course in no way racially problematic.

Other social media users declared that “If you haven’t quite understood cultural appropriation, look at @Adele’s last Instagram post. She should go to jail no parole for this.” Another wrote “Bantu knots are NOT to be worn by white people in any context, period.” Perhaps the most popular response was from Jemele Hill, an American journalist with over a million followers on Twitter who has previously sought notoriety by claiming that the United States is historically almost as bad as Nazi Germany. 

It’s hard to read all this vitriol and look at the photo of Adele without pitying her, with that doey, slightly unsure, deeply-hoping-people-will-like-her look in her eyes. Not for the first time we see a person put themselves before the mob and having no idea of the onslaught they are about to endure.

Fortunately, at least on this occasion some prominent figures were willing to come to the rescue — including the new, more sane and reasonable remake of David Lammy. Responding to the hoo-ha, the Tottenham MP said that such “humbug totally misses the spirit of Notting Hill Carnival and the tradition of ‘dress up'”.

To some extent, this is a generational divide. While someone of David Lammy’s age still believes in people’s right to do their hair in any way they want, those raised in a later era do not share this liberating ideal. But perhaps, equally pertinently, the Adele episode reveals the specific importing of American ideas, about culture and race. For as Lammy pointed out, wearing costume and indeed “appropriating” part of the dress and cuisine and even dancing of carnival is part of the point of the Notting Hill event. The tradition has gone on precisely because people of all backgrounds — even William Hague at one point — have wanted to be a part of it.

This particular element had always been part of the point and was never a problem until certain culture warriors in the United States tried to make it so. Indeed there is something ironic about American activists, who know nothing about the Notting Hill Carnival, trying to impose their own cultural norms on a singer from London celebrating a London event, and doing so in the name of opposition to cultural appropriation.

Yet it also provides an opportunity to once again reflect on what these opponents of cultural appropriation are actually urging, that art and literature should be allowed to consist of nothing other than a succession of memoirs, everyone stuck in our own lives, none of us at any point allowed to try to soar out of them.

The same rule goes for every other realm in which the doctrine of “cultural appropriation” is being attempted. It is a world in which people would not be able to play or listen to music across cultures, all of us stuck in our musical silos, forbidden to communicate with each other and forever in our un-evolving cul-de-sacs delineated along carefully-marked racial lines.

If people were not allowed to borrow fashion ideas from other cultures, then we would forever be forced to live in an almost literal straitjacket decided for us by dint of birth and after which we would have no freedom of expression or choice.

Anybody not mentally imprisoned by America’s culture wars would recognise that to live in such a world would not just be boring or limiting but stultifying. I may have no special desire to do my hair in Bantu knots, just as I have no special desire to attend the Notting Hill Carnival or drape myself in flag-designs of any particular nation. But if other people do, then good luck to them. That spirit used to be known as liberalism.

The fact that it now seems so alien to people in the United States who still call themselves liberals should cause the deepest self-questioning about the sort of ideology they have come to inhabit. It is not liberalism, and it is certainly not anti-racism.