What a difference a year makes. As we left Rotterdam 2020, I looked back at the cancellation of Eurovision 2020 and the loss of what was set to be one of the greatest Eurovision Song Contests for BAME representation on one of the largest musical stages in the world.
Rotterdam 2021 more than makes up for that.
With COVID-19 causing so much uncertainty in March and April last year, it felt optimistic to even consider the existence of a Eurovision Song Contest in 2021 let alone the hope that the quality of the songs would match the high standard of the Song Contest that never was. Even at this late stage there still exists a degree of uncertainty as to the look of this year’s Eurovision Song Contes, with the 39 songs we have, I am certain of one thing ; the quality of songs this year is higher than ever before. Whilst quality is obviously subjective and even those who agree with me will have their own explanations as to why, all I will say is that having eleven BAME competing acts from a diverse range of cultural backgrounds definitely helps.
The Importance Of Representation
So let’s look at this lineup of BAME competing artists whose mere presence at this year’s Contest must be regarded as impressive. Why? Well, aside from this being the largest number of BAME competing acts in a single Song Contest in Eurovision history, the group are from an impressive array of ethnic backgrounds that span three continents… four if you count the Middle East separately to Asia and five if a certain American rapper turns up.
The stories of each of these artists and their routes towards success as outsiders in white-majority nations are different, but share a theme of overcoming adversity that is incredibly inspiring. Most impressively though, at the time of writing, four of these acts are in the Top 10 of the bookies’ odds to win the whole Contest; with two in the Top 3, and one as narrow favourite… and the singer who managed to convince Flo Rida to feature on her entry isn’t even included in that list (current odds may vary). Whilst these facts should be taken with a pinch of salt, what can’t be ignored is that there is a realistic, objective possibility that a BAME artist could win this year’s Eurovision Song Contest. Given the fact that this has only happened twice in the history of the Song Contest, that would be absolutely huge.
This article is going to focus on some of this year’s competing BAME acts and what they are ultimately bringing to the mix.
When The Public Votes
We start with France and Russia, two nations who ditched their internally selected acts from last year to organise National Finals which ultimately selected two BAME artists in Barbara Pravi and Manizha.
Whilst France and Russia are culturally extremely different, they both share a strong national identity and a clear sense of expectation around their representation at the Eurovision Song Contest. Being chosen as the Eurovision act of either of these nations brings a lot of scrutiny from domestic and international press so for public televotes to have selected BAME acts in both these nations is remarkable and speaks to the cultural shift of the last twelve months.
What’s more, they each won with songs that are undeniably representative of their nations with ‘Voila’, a dictionary definition of the term ‘chanson’, and ‘Russian Woman’, a feminist anthem that has invoked a national debate around its lyrics, marking the cultural divide that still exists in Russia regarding women’s rights.
They each won out on their own merits and come May, they are each going to be singing their truth on the Eurovision stage with their sizable nations’ viewing public behind them. This is a turn of events for the 2021 Song Contest that would have been surely unthinkable when the 2020 Contest was cancelled last year, but with everything that’s happened in the world since, now seems like a positive, progressive step in how people in these major European powerhouses want to see themselves represented on a literal continental stage.
Who Can Call Mr Rida?
We need to talk about San Marino and we need to talk about Senhit. Her presence at the Eurovision Song Contest last year with an online vote published at the last minute to select ‘Freaky’ was nothing remarkable. It felt like business as usual for the micronation at the Song Contest where the best that they could hope for was qualifying for the Grand Final.
Soon after the cancellation, the San Marinese delegation announced that Senhit was returning to the contest for 2021. Then in July, Senhit announced that she was embarking on a ‘Freaky Trip to Rotterdam’ in which she would release covers of various Eurovision songs in the build up to her participation the following year. Then on March 7th, the freakiest happening on that journey started unfolding.
A rumour became a leak which turned into an official snippet and then to the full release all within twenty-four hours; Senhit was back with ‘Adrenalina’, a modern, ethnic-tinged pop banger and she was bringing Flo Rida along for the ride. Yes, Flo Rida hasn’t had a UK chart hit since 2015 but he is undoubtedly still both a talented rapper and a recognisable name (especially for my generation of music-lovers). It would be a coup for any nation to convince him to feature on their Eurovision entry but for Senhit to have managed it for San Marino is utterly insane.
The news that he will perform on stage (should circumstances allow) accompanied by Senhit’s reveal that his interest in participating was linked to his enjoyment of the track when she sent it his way is an incredible story. Whether Flo Rida ends up on the Rotterdam stage or not, his appearance on a song of this calibre at the contest has already created a media buzz that will at the very least increase Senhit’s profile coming into the week of the contest.
The Winners That Are Coming To Our Contest
But who could realistically be that elusive third BAME winner of the contest? Well, aside from the runners already mentioned, we should consider two teenagers whose routes to the contest have been nothing short of extraordinary. Tusse came to Sweden as a refugee having fled war in the Democratic Republic of Congo and learned to sing in a refugee camp in Uganda. This story is already incredible but add into that his learning Swedish, winning Swedish Idol in 2019, winning Melodifestivalen with more televotes than have ever been received by a Melodifestivalen candidate, and the fact that when the 19-year old was asked by host Måns Zelmerlöw if he was excited about Eurovision, responded by telling him that he had an essay to submit on Monday; and it is possibly the greatest Eurovision journey to date.
‘Voices’ represents an anthem for the marginalised in society both within the song itself and the way it is performed on stage by Tusse and his dancers. It is unashamedly relevant to the times and the discourse we are having regarding ethnic diversity in western society and there is no doubt whatsoever that this is a competitive song should Tusse manage to translate his Swedish success to a continental audience.
And then there’s Destiny Chukunyere, the 2015 Junior Eurovision Champion who after last year’s cancellation is finally going to have the chance to compete for Eurovision glory in May. Destiny is the child of a Nigerian footballer father and a Maltese mother who was born and raised on the Mediterranean island. She has been singing publicly since the age of 10 both domestically and internationally and at 18 years of age, she was not even alive when Ira Losco brought Malta the closest they have ever come to winning Eurovision. At the time of writing, Destiny is the bookies’ favourite to win the Eurovision Song Contest.
If she does, it will be seen as a massive success for Junior Eurovision and for the Eurovision community who have rooted for her from a very young age, but the part where she is BAME makes the story even more remarkable. For a young, mixed-race, Maltese woman to become the first person to win both Eurovision Song Contests and in doing so, bring the main contest back to her home country for the first time would be groundbreaking and would certainly inspire a whole generation of ethnically diverse children to make music and dream of Eurovision success.
Let’s Not Forget Our Hosts
Finally, I want to turn the focus back to our hosts and the marvellous Jeangu Macrooy.
As we all know, the host nation automatically qualifies for the Grand Final, so the artist selected by the host nation is effectively a free hit, a chance for the broadcaster to select an act that may not necessarily be competitive but who represents something unique and special to that nation on the Eurovision stage.
Everything about Jeangu Macrooy and the music he makes is not traditionally popular by Eurovision standards and yet many in the community (including the ESC Insight team) have embraced him and what he represents wholeheartedly.
As a writer, I place a lot of my valuation of Contest entries on lyrics; what they say about the time we live in, what are the themes songwriters are exploring, what context does it offer to a country’s standing within the European community (consider checking out the lyrics to every British entry since 2016). I would share some of my favourite lyrics from ‘Birth of a New Age’ but honestly, they are all perfect to me in the context of the year we have just had and what it has meant for BAME people around the world.
In 2020, Jeangu Macrooy brought ‘Grow’ to the contest, a song that represented inner reflection on life that spoke to where many of us were at emotionally at the beginning of the pandemic. This year, he has brought ‘Birth of a New Age’, a song that represents hope, new beginnings, pride, rebellion, overcoming adversity and optimism straining against the weight of centuries of cultural oppression that ultimately comes back to one central message in the chorus – “Yu no man broko mi” (Sranan Tongo for “You will not break me”). I don’t think this will win the Contest (and neither do most of the community) but for me as a BAME man reflecting on the year we have had as a society and how this song being performed 23rd in the Grand Final of the Eurovision Song Contest on May 22nd plays into that, it’s already a winner.
Last year, I wrote an article that questioned if 2020 was “the contest of the racial watershed”, the year in which BAME artists from across Europe were finally recognised and represented in a way that was representative of the continent’s cultural diversity. I wrote that “It is not enough for BAME people to be represented; it is essential that that representation is of all-round high quality.”
I am delighted to be able to write a year later that that promise has been fulfilled far more than I could have reasonably imagined even then. Last year, I was struck by the sheer number of BAME acts participating in Eurovision, but none of them ever looked like they could realistically win the Song Contest. This year, both the quality and the quantity has improved alongside several stories that mark the Contest as a place where these artists from diverse backgrounds are recognised, celebrated and placed on the highest possible plinth to allow them a reasonable shot at winning the whole thing.
I have no idea what’s going to happen on May 22nd in the Ahoy Arena but I do know that I am going to be so incredibly proud and excited by the acts that will be performing in that Grand Final and the overwhelming cultural message that it will send out to the 200 million people watching them perform their songs, representing their country in a way that will fundamentally influence the landscape of the continent’s artistic taste forever.
In short, their rhythm is well and truly rebellion and this isn’t the end, it’s the birth of a new age.