Eric Clapton Was A White Nationalist. Please Don’t Buy His New Christmas Album.
Before you add Eric Clapton’s new Christmas album to your seasonal playlist, take a moment of reflection with me.
When it comes to white people who made their careers appropriating Black people’s music, we usually expect at best a benign, paternalistic racism, along the lines of Elvis. One shade more unpleasant is the appropriative ‘purism’ of people like Ryan Gosling’s character in La La Land, who take a conservative stand and claim to ‘protect’ Black-invented music forms like jazz and rock from often-Black innovators. And then, there are the Eric Claptons.
Last year, a Showtime documentary called A Life in 12 Bars came out, telling Clapton’s story, as advertised, “in his own words.” It left me with a strong sense that it was other people’s words, not Clapton’s, that are needed to give context to his life.
The sticking point is this: in the 1970s, Clapton was an avowed, aggressive white nationalist. At a 1976 Birmingham, England concert, Clapton praised virulently racist politician Enoch Powell onstage and gave a long “keep Britain white” rant. “I used to be into dope,” he said, “now I’m into racism. It’s much heavier, man.” (You can read a transcription of the rant, with excellent commentary, at The Root). This speech was heard by thousands, and was, in fact, the catalyst for the formation of the anti-racist group Rock Against Racism.
The documentary covers this moment, but couches it in rhetoric that makes it look like a one-off mistake, rather than the revelation of a hypocritical way of life. The documentary’s focus is on Clapton’s use of Black-pioneered blues and rock music to make his name as a guitarist, and it largely paints him as an advocate. We see several iterations of interview questions asking a 1960s Clapton how white blues players would affect the careers of Black blues players. We see him painting himself as an educator, even as a sort of psychopomp for the death of racist cultural bias (and, warning, there’s some antiquated offensive language ahead): “What’ll happen is that, after a long time, they’ll become so well-educated, musically, they’ll be able to dig spades singing the blues instead of having to accept watered-down imitations…then all the white guys are gonna have to find something of their own to play.” Clapton, of course, sees himself as the instrument of that “education.”
This framing primes the audience to write off Clapton’s aggressively racist phase the same way Clapton himself does: as a low point tied up with alcoholism. But it’s clear to the careful viewer that it’s more than a fluke: it’s a spike in an established pattern of thought. When Eric is young, he enters a shop and hears Muddy Waters for the first time. In a voiceover, he recalls thinking, “this is for me.”
Which, of course, it wasn’t. He further recalls, “I didn’t even know that it was Black music. I didn’t know about Black and white being different stuff.” Well, that settles it then. Since he loved blues before he had a social consciousness of race, he is therefore innocent in all forthcoming racial inequities.
Stop letting white men get away with things like this. Clapton may be a talented guitarist, but there are plenty of talented guitarists (some of them are even people of color, women, and even women of color!). While it’s true that addiction can often cause people to act in ways they later regret, Clapton’s tone is a self-congratulatory one that shows no real tendency toward change. And whether or not he has repented isn’t the point anyway. The point is, a racist rant and public endorsement of a fascist politician in front of a crowd of concertgoers should be a career-ending moment.
Or, in simpler terms: endorsements of fascism, racist language, other forms of bigoted hate speech, and the rape and beating of women should all be career-ending crimes. No matter what that career is. No amount of talent, no amount of competence, no amount of fame or political importance should ever protect people who behave the way Clapton did. He doesn’t deserve public forgiveness or forgetfulness. He doesn’t deserve our money.
I know it’s a drop in the ocean, but please, don’t buy Clapton’s new Christmas album. When it comes to justice, every little bit helps.