Durham Pride: the Leanne Harper controversy

By Danny Walker

This week, Durham Pride decided that a headline act for its May 29th celebration, ‘Beeyonce’ (portrayed by Leanne Harper) would not be allowed to use fake tan in order to emulate Beyoncé’s skin colour. Public controversy has ruptured this year, despite Harper performing at the last three Pride events. Harper’s practice of ‘blacking up’ for her performances is unnecessary and short-sighted. It certainly sits uneasily with the Pride movement. Yet is the vitriol directed at both Harper and the Pride organisers justified?

It is true that Harper’s stage appearance draws uncomfortable parallels to the tradition of ‘blackface’, which has promoted racist stereotypes of black people since the eighteenth century. This tradition primarily manifested in ‘minstrel shows’, which caricatured Afro-Caribbean people, with over-prominent lips and shoe polish used to darken faces. And these shows are not just of antiquity; Britain’s “Black and White Minstrel [TV] Show” only ceased airing in 1978.  Harper’s act simply sustains historic stereotypes. John Strausbaugh correctly argues that ‘blackface’ is emblematic of wider appropriation of black culture; genuinely endorsing the tradition therefore seriously contradicts Pride’s goal of raising awareness of ongoing social injustice.

The offence engendered by the act is not justified by any performance enhancement. Harper claims to be the best Beyoncé tribute act in the U.K. If so, how does modifying her skin tone aid her rendition of the 62 Grammy-winning singer’s voice? It is right that Durham Pride responds proactively to public opinion. The decision shows that boycotts by university groups such as the Labour Club (DULC) can induce progressive change.

But the repugnance of ‘blackface’ is not the only issue at stake here. Without question, an event with inclusivity and diversity at its core should not promote this tradition. However, Harper’s act could be seen as a somewhat benign nod to one of the world’s most successful black musicians. Does it warrant the public ruckus to the extent that it has? Harper certainly does not deserve the online death threats she has faced.

The public outcry over ‘Beeyonce’ might be excessive. We must not conflate the racist ‘blackface’ tradition with this much milder tribute, which claims to use skin tone products that are widely available. We should also take note of Durham Pride’s elaborate U-turn on the act. Organisers first argued that consultations with a BME charity had approved the event, before later confirming that Harper had agreed to perform without ‘blackface’, presumably after ongoing disquiet and online threats. Even the Pride Committee, with its commitment to promoting marginalised voices, had not foreseen the controversy of Harper’s performance – she has starred at Pride since 2014. Their position highlights how many simply view that makeup as an extension of the act.

Surely in this instance, boycotting of Durham Pride – precisely because the boycotting groups are amongst its strongest supporters – would merely undermine Pride’s success? It is by no means certain that ethnic minorities in Durham are unequivocally opposed to Harper’s ‘blacking up.’

Harper’s act celebrates rather than trivialises black talent. The fact that a white tribute act can make a black musician centre-stage is testament to the progress made towards a more tolerant British society. The use of tan merely reflects Harper’s perceived commercial need to portray her likeness of Beyoncé. Succumbing to the calls for her act to be dropped altogether might complicate this accolade of black culture.

The ‘Beeyonce’ act controversy is warranted, but perhaps steers away from the real purpose of Pride. The Durham Sands event symbolises progress towards a more tolerant society. Leanne Harper can still be a part of that progress.

Photograph: Durham Pride

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