Over the weekend the video Florence And The Machine's new music video for 'No Light, No Light' premiered on Youtube; since then it has garnered over 800,000 views alongside criticism from many angles highlighting the supposedly racist overtones (or subtext depending on how you look at it). Ex-Bloc Party frontmen Kele has questioned Florence's intentions alongside a wealth of other blogs who have extensively analysed the video, outlining the potentially offensive subject matter. Unfortunately for Florence Welch this is a debate that raises questions of whether the short film is unintentionally racist or intentionally so given her stamp of approval and how such a culturally insensitive video could me made in this day and age.
Firstly and most importantly let's break down the video into its component parts: it begins with a blacked up man (later revealed to be Asian), with a sack over his head, puncturing a voodoo doll. We are then introduced to Florence who looks like she's been dipped in flour, followed by a choir of good Christian boys reminiscent of a gaggle of kids from the omen. The gist of the video from there is Florence being pursued/haunted by the blacked up figure who moves in a distinctly uncanny fashion whilst intending to harm Welch. In the conclusion she plummets from a high tower only to land in the arms of the choir boys landing in a "beam me up Scotty" style white light.
Even just describing the video, quite frankly sounds ludicrous and massively racist at the same time - just mentioning blacking up in this day and age is the sort of thing that has a culturally wince inducing reflex. Disregarding that for a moment however let's break down the imagery within the piece. If historically regarded it can be viewed in terms of colonialism, or civilisation in broader terms, with the Christian choir bringing a calm to the proceedings and essentially representing good. The blacked up Asian man is a personification of an alien culture and the unknown superstition of voodoo which within the film represents darkness, evil, the supernatural and ultimately the inhumane. To push it even further the video in simplistic terms is defined by contrasts: Florence and the choir are the white light representative of good whilst the blacked up man is the dark representation of evil. Jezebel’s Dodai Stewart has done a superb job of summarising the cultural realities behind the practice of voodoo:
"Haitian Vodou is a religion that is very misunderstood. Slaves were brought to the Caribbean against their will and forbidden to practice their traditional African religions as well as forced to convert to the religion of their masters. The Bond movie/Eurocentric/Americanized viewpoint presents Vodou as an evil, primitive version of witchcraft. But it’s a religion like any other, with a moral code, gods and goddesses. Many ceremonies deal with protection from evil spirits.
In addition, the “voodoo doll” itself has been misconstrued. In Haiti, it was traditional to nail small handmade puppets or dolls to trees near graveyards; these small figures were meant to act as messengers to the spirit world, and contact dead loved ones. It’s safe to imagine that European folks didn’t understand this and assumed an evil intent behind a doll with nails in its body.”
It's actually quite stunning the amount of racist visuals the Icelandic directors Arni and Kinski have managed to fit into the video. Just factor in for one second the fact that they blacked up an asian man to make him look even more uncanny in contrast to the whiter than white Florence and you have inherently problematic imagery - especially given the historical context of colonialism, culture and race all at once.
Now the video is not necessarily an extreme racist piece as no video director in their right mind would go out to intentionally stoke such controversial fires unless they were literally insane in the brain. Florence's videos have always been heavy on pretentious imagery, as such it is very easy to read anything you wish between the lines, whether it be controversial or not is up to the own predispositions that the viewer brings to the table. Regrettably for all involved though their intentions were callously thin, they probably just thought it looked "cool" and failed to analyse the message inherent within the images on film. Even more worrying is the reality that a huge amount of people were involved in the production of the video, none of whom raised any concern? Also ultimately it would have been approved by Welch, implicating her as more than a tad insensitive.
The only defense in so far has been fairly idiotic responses from Welch's fans saying:
"That's not just green imo, it's a green-black, allowing for the connotations of black (i.e. No Light) and using the green hue to eliminate any racism, and to contribute with green's connotations: Envy, lust and a Chinese terming of a cuckold re: 'would you leave me if I told what I'd done?'.
Crux is that whatever it is, it is NOT racist and is, instead, complex symbolism."
What is perhaps going to be most interesting is to see how Welch and the record label respond to the reaction, if they pull the video it will be an admition of some level of guilt, whilst leaving it they may be accused of insensitivity.
The crux of the matter is that the video whether they like it or not is unintentionally very racist in its pretentiousness. This implicates Florence and the those involved's collective insensitivity towards problematic overtones that really should have been clear as day.