Morrissey’s fanbase is one of the most committed in music. But with the recent James Baldwin racism scandal stirring up a quagmire of controversy, how do his followers reconcile the former Smiths frontman’s increasingly reprehensible behavior with their enduring admiration for his art? April Clare Welsh asks his fans for their take on Morrissey the provocateur.
Morrissey has courted controversy throughout his three-decade plus career, but his latest malfeasance might be the final straw for many of his fans and critics.
As Morrissey fansite True to You reported last month, a T-shirt emblazoned with author and civil rights figurehead James Baldwin’s face – that also quotes the lyrics “I wear black on the outside, ’cause black is how I feel on the inside,” from The Smiths’ ‘Unloveable’ – was advertised as being available to buy on the former Smiths frontman’s upcoming North American tour. It was also reportedly up for sale at Morrissey’s official online store, Mporium.
The news happened to surface just a few weeks ahead of the UK theatrical release of Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated I Am Not Your Negro – a documentary on Baldwin’s life as a gay, black American playwright, novelist and essayist. The film, which came to US cinemas in February, is due to be broadcast on PBS later this year and will hit UK cinemas this Friday (April 7). Narrated by Samuel L Jackson, it’s based on Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House, which maps America’s bloodied race relations through the lives and deaths of civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Smiths’ co-founder is a longtime fan of Baldwin. He has projected video clips of Baldwin interviews on stage during past tours and described both a sighting in Barcelona and the allure of Baldwin’s writing in his 2015 Autobiography: “I drink him in, but can do no more. I pin so much prestige to James Baldwin that to risk approach places my life on the line; I’d hang myself at any glimmer of rejection.”
He continued: “History books overlook James Baldwin because he presented an unvarnished view of the American essence – as blunt and rousing as print would allow. His public speeches were intoxicating, his motivational palette of words so full of fireworks that you smile as you listen – not because of humor, but because he was so good at voicing the general truth, with which most struggled.”
However, Morrissey’s fandom does not mitigate the T-shirt’s troubling connotations. His use of the word “black” in ‘Unloveable’ is a reference to depression and sadness; when the lyric is wedded with the image of a black person’s face, it equates a white person’s depression with black reality. This then positions white people as superior. Wearing “black on the outside” sounds like a description of black clothing – traditionally associated with a post-punk aesthetic – but the T-shirt is designed in such a way as to suggest that any non-black person wearing it doesn’t feel “black” as in depressed, but black as in black.
Morrissey’s gaffes go back to The Smiths’ heyday, when the band’s 1986 hit single ‘Panic’ was branded “the most explicit denunciation yet of black pop” by Melody Maker journalist Frank Owen. (In the same interview, Morrissey described contemporary black top 40 artists such as Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson as “vile in the extreme”.) In 1992, Morrissey’s Union Jack-brandishing performance at Madstock was viewed by some critics as a semaphore for the festival’s fascist skinhead contingent, while in this decade, the Queen Is Dead artist has described Chinese people as a “subspecies”. He has also seemed to align himself with a right-wing ideology that includes calling Brexit “magnificent” – criticizing the BBC for its “smearing” of Brexit supporters – and declaring his admiration for former UKIP leader Nigel Farage. Despite this, the Pope of Mope continues to have an ardent fan base – but the Baldwin T-shirt has understandably divided fans across the aisle.
“Imagining Morrissey attempting to explain why he feels ‘black on the inside’ within this context is so laughably tone-deaf, it further proves that his racial naïveté knows no bounds and that once again [he] must be without a manager,” wrote one poster on Morrissey fansite Morrissey-solo.
“The trouble with Morrissey’s T-shirt stems from his continued naïveté about race,” says Yesha Callahan, senior editor at The Root, who has also written about the incident. “To superimpose a photo of James Baldwin on his T-shirt, with his own lyrics stating that he feels black on the inside, not only tarnishes Baldwin’s legacy, but also implies that ‘feeling black on the inside’ is actually a ‘thing’.”
UK-based music publicist Michele Kambasha may have initially gotten into The Smiths as an “angst-ridden, spot-laden, misfit teenager searching for a voice that I could relate to”, but she also says that her love for the band has “definitely waned” over recent years – mainly because “Morrissey has just talked shit far too many times.”
“Being a Morrissey fan as a woman of color, you put yourself in a very precarious position,” she continues. “There’s no use deifying artists when they’re all just people who’ll do and say things you don’t like sometimes. But Morrissey says and does things that are beyond faux pas. The James Baldwin T-shirts are the latest in a long list of things that make me ask myself: ‘How many times have I felt victimized by Steven Patrick Morrissey?’
“No matter how much of a fan Morrissey is of James Baldwin, misappropriating a sentence of your allegedly favorite author for personal gain is obviously terrible,” she adds. “Imagine reading [Baldwin’s] work – some of the most thought-provoking, accomplished analyses of blackness in the English language – and thinking, as a white man, ‘I’m going to make some merch with that quote to cause provocation.’ The shirts aren’t just offensive on face value, but in the way that they casually negate the importance of Baldwin’s words.”
Angie Cooke, a Huddersfield, UK-based superfan and member of the Moz Army Twitter community, tells FACT via email “It’s important that a black fan has their say on the T-shirt furore.” She notes: “James Baldwin was a civil rights activist as well as a writer, and I feel that Morrissey, the son of Irish immigrants, feels an affinity with both [Baldwin] and the movement.” Cooke says Morrissey and The Smiths have helped her feel comfortable in herself, and that “being a bit on the weird side was by no means a bad thing.” That’s not the only connection she feels with Moz.
“I feel that I have a lot in common with Morrissey and, indeed, the entire band. My parents hail from Aruba and Grenada, and most of the parents of the individual members of The Smiths all originate from the Republic of Ireland,” Cooke notes. “As the child of fellow émigrés, I feel there is a massive connection. The sign ‘No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs’ would have been prevalent in many shop windows in the days when our families were trying to settle in the north of England.”
I Am Not Your Negro also features passages from one of Baldwin’s most popular writings, ‘The Devil Finds Work’. Published in 1976, the book-length essay sees Baldwin critiquing racial politics in America through his own experience of watching films. “The dangerous appeal of cinema,” he writes, can be as escape – “surrendering to the corroboration of one’s fantasies as they are thrown back from the screen” – before adding the needle-sharp line: “No one makes his escape personality black.” In other words, no one uses blackness as a lens.
“If any white man in the world says, ‘Give me liberty or give me death,’ the entire white world applauds,” Baldwin says in the I Am Not Your Negro trailer (which you can see below). “When a black man says exactly the same thing, he is judged a criminal and treated like one and everything possible is done to make an example of this bad nigger so there won’t be any more like him.” It’s a particularly important quote in illustrating race relations in America, and its sentiments extend to Morrissey’s T-shirt: fundamentally, its problem is that it is empowering people to wear it who have not actually experienced the feelings it presents.
Still, some fans are equivocal over the T-shirt’s meaning. Camilo Lara, the leader of the Mexican Morrissey tribute act Mexrrissey, says he admires the way Morrissey views the world. “Thanks to him, I finally realized it was OK to be a misfit. Being an outsider in a normal world is not good, until you realize that it is fantastic,” he explains. “Listening to The Smiths, I met the kind of people I like. We share the same codes on how to see the world.”
Morrissey’s unwavering popularity among Mexican-American music fans has been well-documented, with some writers pointing out the connection between the Mexican ranchera folk, traditionally about love, longing or nature, and Morrissey’s own lyrical themes. “In some songs, he explores two subjects – the sense of cultural belonging and longing for the motherland – that many Mexican-Americans contemplate at some point in their coming of age,” wrote Javier Cabral in the Washington Post in 2014.
Lara doesn’t support the racist allegations against his hero. “Would you consider racist the way he has supported Mexicans in the States? I don’t think so… [But] I’m an old-school kind of person and I like listening to albums, reading the books. I don’t pay attention to any personal matters.”
It’s complicated, say other fans. “I think the James Baldwin controversy is a good indication of how sensitive the issue of racism against the black community has been in recent years,” offers David Tseng, who has been a Smiths devotee since 1986 and who has run the Morrissey forum Morrissey-Solo for 20 years.
“This issue itself has been pretty sensitive in the past year with Black Lives Matter, so the way the T-shirt was handled is definitely a bit clumsy. But I think racism is a complex issue for Morrissey in general. He has a lot of minority fans continuing to be fans and you have to ask, how is that possible if he is racist?”
Tseng – who can’t pinpoint why he admires Morrissey so intensely, but simply declares that there is “no one quite like him” – says Morrissey’s offensive comments about Chinese people were, to him, palpably worse. “My heritage is Chinese, so I did take offence. But I do try and separate the artist from the person,” he says. “I still do the site and I am still interested in Morrissey, as an artist. But as a person, it brings up some questionable [feelings].”
Tseng is actually banned from Morrissey’s live shows and in 2014 was at the center of another disturbing controversy. “TMZ reported that this bodyguard was going to sue Morrissey,” he explains. “The bodyguard was fired because apparently Morrissey wanted him to beat me up – put a hit out on me – and he didn’t want to do it. I think it was eventually settled as I didn’t hear anything about it after that, but I had to process this thing of being under physical threat, which was kind of scary.”
Tseng confirms that he has seen long-time Morrissey fans sever ties with the artist over the years. “It does seem like there have been even more questionable moments recently and it’s been divided with the fans. Maybe it’s just a reflection of wider society in general, but it’s even more divided now than it was before.”
However, Tseng – who saw Morrissey play over 50 times back in 1992 – says he won’t stop being a fan. “Certainly the early material is part of my own formation, so that will always be there, although I don’t relate to the new material as much. My opinion of the music isn’t that important to me – I try not to post of what I think of it personally. The site is more a space for multiple voices. I am just one of them.”
April Clare Welsh is on Twitter