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The BRITs 2021: Performance Made Political

Throughout 2020 and into the beginning months of 2021, the contrast between affecting positive change and performative gestures has not only widened, but people are becoming more aware of how to tell them apart. It’s the difference between painting post boxes black during Black History Month and deciding not to deport the Windrush generation; or clapping for the NHS as opposed to better protecting staff and giving them better pay. People that may have declared themselves helpless and powerless in the face of global issues such as racial and gender inequality are finding collective voices through the likes of social media. For example, Twitter stood (and still stands) as a key element of the #BLM movement in mobilising and organising millions of people worldwide with the use of a hashtag. Although empowerment is fulfilling, in this case, it is a feeling arguably bittersweet due to the fact it has become a responsibility rather than a complementary feature. The self-proclaimed license for people to cause change is largely due to negligence and lack of action from the bodies and institutions that are meant to represent public opinion. As a result, fandoms are finding role models in surprising places from their playlists to the football pitch. The 41st BRIT Awards, hosted in the country's capital, actively tried to alter the narrative around award shows’ deafening silence and oversight; by giving various artists and personalities the freedom of the stage and hyper visibility to address matters governments around the world failed to do effectively.

It was no secret that Dua Lipa stole the show with her performance and by winning 2 out of her 3 BRIT Award nominations for Best British Female and Best Album (Future Nostalgia), but she was very quick to give the show back to those who deserve the limelight. This year each BRIT Award was accompanied by a second trophy, which the winner could dedicate to another person, and Dua Lipa chose British nurse Dame Elizabeth Anionwu who has spent her career fighting racial injustice. "She has said that there's a massive disparity between gratitude and respect for frontline workers," said the winner on the night. "Because it's very good to clap for them, but we need to pay them...So I think what we should do is we should all give a massive, massive round of applause and give Boris a message that we all support a fair pay rise for our frontline." This evoked an amazing response from the crowd, which was filled with key workers as a token of appreciation.

Back in 2017, when Dua Lipa won Best British Female and British Breakthrough Act, the talent said in an acceptance speech that she wishes to see more women in the nominations and ultimately winning, and her dream came true. Women won four of the five mixed award categories and made history in the process, with Little Mix becoming the first all-female group to win Best Group. Jade, Leigh-Anne and Perrie shared a heartfelt message about their decade-long journey together whilst thanking Jesy but also used their widespread success to highlight the “white male dominance, misogyny and sexism” within the entertainment industry that constantly threatened their careers. By devoting their win to the decorated girl bands that paved the way for them, it further solidified their point that the likes of the Spice Girls and Sugarbabes deserved more recognition than they were given.

From Stormzy calling out Theresa May, to Dave’s piano rendition of Black and now Headie’s 2021 BRIT performance - it has become a staple in recent years for Black British Rap artists to call out injustices through their art at the ceremony. However, Headie One took the use of ‘art’ and developed it to greater heights. The North London rapper spoke out about a plethora of issues, starting with the long-running negative and racist stereotypes associated with Drill music. Instead of the standard stage performance, Headie carried out one of his British Single nomination songs from inside a ‘newspaper box’ created by Virgil Abloh, with controversial headlines on the dangers of Drill. When asked about his creation, Louis Vuitton’s Artistic Director said, "Supporting the next generation’s talent is a part of my ethos. Watching Headie One build his career in music while being a voice of evolution makes his art practice important in contemporary art." As Stormzy wasn’t able to join AJ Tracey and Headie for Ain’t It Different, the pair used the allotted time to share their thoughts on support for key workers, Marcus Rashford and his initiative to feed the youth - before ending on the intersection that is being Black British.

"Two Black Brits stand here at the BRITs but still we ain’t seen as British"

Although a large portion of the performances drew attention to domestic struggles within the UK, the International awards presented broadened the horizons of the audience and viewers at home. In particular, the shock presenter of the International Male Act (Michelle Obama) and the winner, The Weeknd, highlighted that artists can be recognised for their talents as well as their character. Whilst announcing the winner, the former First Lady listed Abel’s philanthropic accomplishments alongside his musical achievements, which included his donations to Global Aid in Lebanon, racial justice groups such as Black Lives Matter, National Bail Out, and Know Your Rights Camp Legal Defense Fund as well as the Covid-19 Relief Fund and supporting frontline health workers. The outcome may not be seen as a total upset but fans on social media were demanding justice for the likes of Burna Boy and Tame Impala, who also released critically acclaimed albums in 2020. Abel’s night was rounded off with a Jamiroquai-esque performance of Save Your Tears alongside Oneohtrix.

Elton John and Olly Alexander (AKA Years & Years) paid homage to one of the UK’s most revered television productions of 2021, with their take on It’s a Sin, whilst also bringing the conversation around HIV/AIDS back into the forefront. The performance was layered in that it was emotional with the solo piano, liberating through the dancers and also high energy and provocative compared to the Pet Shop Boys original. “The fight goes on until we can banish stigma, ignorance, fear, and the virus itself forever,” said David Furnish as he introduced the number. The proceeds of the song will go to the Elton John AIDS Foundation.

In a similar attempt to directly impact change through music, Rag ‘n’ Bone Man, Pink! and the Lewisham and Greenwich NHS choirs closed the BRIT Awards with their new single - Anywhere Away From Here. Award show host and comedian, Jack Whitehall, described the spectacle as, “a powerful reflection of the new hope that we’ve found; there’s light at the end of the tunnel.” The proceeds from the song will also go towards a good cause in the form of supporting NHS charities.

To say that The BRITs achieved their purpose of presenting the award show as sympathetic to world issues may be true, but does not absolve or set them apart from other ceremonies when it comes to scrutiny. Although change is happening at the BRITs through making history, donating proceeds and diversifying nominees and winners - these acts are the minimum requirements needed to be seen as 'progressive'. Award shows are a synopsis of feats and achievements roughly within a year but it usually consists of the 'best of', rather than a realistic overview of the industry within the timeframe. Addressing matters through rose-tinted lenses means that the host can confidently conclude saying that there is "a new hope", when issues that are being featured are struggles that date back decades.

The 2021 BRIT Awards winners:

Breakthrough Artist: Arlo Parks

Best British Single: Harry Styles (Watermelon Sugar)

Female Solo Artist: Dua Lipa

Male Solo Artist: J Hus

International Female: Billie Eilish

International Male: The Weeknd

International Group: Haim

British Group: Little Mix

Best Album: Dua Lipa (Future Nostalgia)

Rising Star: Griff

Global Icon: Taylor Swift


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