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Is Morrissey Racist?

Updated on November 5, 2009

Why would anyone think it?

Morrissey is one of pop's greatest iconoclasts. Standing apart - and almost alone - from the mainstream rock traditions of sex and drugs and noise and barely-literate lyrics, his persona has beguiled and repelled millions since he first hit the charts in the early 80s with The Smiths.

Down the years he has courted controversy in both his lyrics and interviews, expressing views that have often shocked. In 1988, he was the subject of a police enquiry over his lyrics for Margaret on the Guillotine - a song that apparently called for the murder of Margaret Thatcher. He was also excoriated by The Sun for two of his early songs. Suffer Little Children dealt with the Moors Murders, long a touchstone for the paper. And somehow, Reel Around The Fountain was taken as a coded reference to paedophila.

So no stranger to controversy. However, one claim that has been made perhaps more times than any other about the singer is that he is racist - or at least prepared to flirt with racist sentiments. The claims first arose during the 90s but still carry on clinging to his reputation today. This page will take a quick look at the evidence and hopefully prove useful to anyone wondering about Morrissey's attitude to race.

Morrissey, wrapped in the flag at "Madstock" in 1992
Morrissey, wrapped in the flag at "Madstock" in 1992

The Lyrics...

Morrissey's lyrics often tackle subjects that are way, way out of the mainstream. Whether it is disability, pregnancy, religion or bisexuality, Morrissey archly confronts his subject

Bengali In Platforms
One lyric in particular is produced as evidence of Morrissey's racism. In this song from his 1988 solo album Viva Hate, he includes the following lines:

"Shelve your Western plans because life is hard enough when you belong here"

and

"He only wants to embrace your culture and be your friend forever".

The National Front Disco
One of Morrissey's most memorable tunes is also one of his most controversial. The album which contained the track - 1994's Your Arsenal - did not, unusually for a Morrissey album contain printed lyrics. Taken in that context, lyrics such as these became hotly debated as the racist accusations reached their peak.

"You want the day to come sooner when you've settled a score"

"England for the English, England for the English"

Morrissey as an artist often writes in the third person, and it is clear to most people who read the lyrics in full that this is a the case in this song. Whilst even placing yourself in the shoes of a member of the NF might be a bridge too far for many artists, it is Morrissey's willingness to explore the alienation of almost any situation that makes him unique among songwriters.

"Madstock"

In 1992, Morrissey took to the stage in London's Finsbury Park to support Madness - on the comeback trail after their split in the late 80s. During the show, he played against a backdrop of a huge photograph of a skinhead and literally wrapped himself in the Union Jack onstage.

To some, this was playing dangerous games with the iconography of the far right. So much so that even as he performed, some of the concert-goers pelted the stage with bottles. There was an element of history at play here. Madness themselves had been unfairly associated with racists during their early career - largely because of their skinhead uniform.

The ignorance of the charge should have been evident from the fact that skinheads had existed as fans of black ska and reggae music for decades before the look was appropriated by the likes of the National Front.

Nonetheless, Madness fans still bridled at the association and some thought that Morrissey had no place to dally with nationalist emblems.

It was a thorny time for the singer and prompted the NME to make its first accusations of racism against him.

In interview

As in his lyrics, Morrissey often walks a fine line in interviews. To some, he appears to be revealing a great deal about himself, but most readers come away unsure how much of the things he says are actually reflective of his real personality, and how many are merely witty extemporisations.

At the height of the "Morrissey is racist" storm in the mid 90s, various quotes were dragged up in support. Perhaps the most ridiculous was his 1981 assertion that "reggae is vile." Almost anyone else would see that as a simple statement of musical choice, but the witch-hunt against Morrissey meant it assumed huge significance.

Against that backdrop, it was amusing to see Morrissey chose to release his 2004 'comeback' album You Are The Quarry on the famous 'Attack' record label - that was home to many reggae artists. No coincidence, I'm sure!

In 2008, he hit the headlines again, saying he wouldn't live in Britain again because of the "immigration explosion". As is so often the case, his reported comments were extremely divisive. However, Morrissey began court proceedings against the NME within days, saying that his quotes had been distorted and taken out of context.

It is true, however, that in today's climate concerns about immigration are often a cover for mere racism. The BNP, for example, is careful to decry immigration rather than race in order to claim legitimacy for its views.

In many ways, Morrissey could be said to be a little out of his time - a fact he alluded to in his comments, where he said that he "no longer recognised" England as a result of immigration. However, it is a stretch to use that as proof of racism. Morrissey offered free space at all venues on his subsequent tour to Rock Against Racism to emphasise his point.

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    • profile image

      Biff 

      22 months ago

      I've often wondered what was the meaning of "Bengali in platforms" I used to to think of a Bengal tiger in a circus but after reading this I see its about Bangladesh immigrants I suppose and also "the national front disco" which I really like but being American I had no idea of the national front! I understand how he must feel with all of the immigration its sad to not feel at home. But I never knew of this national front and if Morrissey shares certain views with them on immigration I really wouldn't consider him racist.

    • profile image

      skegos 

      4 years ago

      Yes Loretta, think you're a bit over the top there. Personally i think that Morrissey being draped in the Union Flag was the very first step on the road To Britain reclaiming the Union Flag for itself and to it no longer being almost exclusively associated with right wing racism and extremism. If you look at things that happened not long after that you'll see what i mean - only 3 years later Noel Gallagher toured the world playing to millions of fans with a Union Flag guitar during a period in music that was termed BRITpop. Britain had again become confident in itself again and able to take back It's most reconisable symbol and declare it ours and not the property of some righ wing racists or facists. Furthermore, only 2 years After Noel Gallagher, the spice girls Peformed to the world, Geri Halliwell dressed in a Union Flag dress. Neither of these acts ever came in for the same sort of criticism as Morrissey, fair enough they didn't flirt with controversy the way Morrissey did but i think Morrissey was the first step to getting the flag back.

    • ernold mystery profile imageAUTHOR

      ernold mystery 

      5 years ago from Leeds, United Kingdom

      How is the Union Jack the symbol of decadence and oppression of imperialism? Or the final stage of capitalism?

      It's a flag.

    • profile image

      Loretta 

      5 years ago

      Wow what a way to apologize for Morrissey's support for Great Nation Chauvanism, racism and imperialistm. He's wrapped in the Union Jack which is a symbol of the decadence and opression of Imperialism, the final stage of Capitalism. Fans need to get beyond the fact that he is gay and can express 'feelings' quite well in song. Homosexuals can be callous and fascist too.

    • profile image

      Primo 

      6 years ago

      Morrissey is cool!

    • profile image

      icountthetimes 

      7 years ago

      I think Morrissey is very aware of how others view him. He recently stated that to many people he has become "Mad Morrissey". He's always been a very contray, opinionated individual, so he calls it like he sees it rather than towing the line on issues. I wouldn't say he's a particularly likeable individual, but he is fascinating and his music forms the soundtrack to many a life.

      If anyone knows what it's like to feel marginalised it's Morrissey. Do I think that he dislikes people based on their race or country of origin? No. Does he have make cultural statements that push the boundaries, sometimes for effect. Certainly.

    • profile image

      brain 

      7 years ago

      anyone with an intellect can see morrissey isn't racist. the whole thing is utterly ridiculous

    • profile image

      Sean Wilts  

      7 years ago

      Morrisey plays with the boundaries of racism. He's clever in that he can defend what he says and claim that he was misquoted or whatever. I think he's a cowardly racist moron. That's it.

    • profile image

      Detestable Dandy 

      7 years ago

      This does more to affirm the belief that Morrisey is a racist and xenophobe that it does to discount it. I still love his work with The Smiths and his early work even though I find his social/political views repugnant. I still think Celine's Journey To The End of The Night is brilliant even though I later learned he was a nazi sympathizer and abetter. Artists are people and, like all people, they have repugnant qualities as well as endearing ones.

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