Toxic masculinity and knee-jerk journalism
About six months ago I sat and witnessed Northampton grime artist Slowthai (Tyron Frampton) take to the stage to perform at the 2019 Mercury Awards. The rapper's style of abrasive musical activism and political protest was clear to see for even those who had not yet heard of him, brandishing a replica of Prime Minister Boris Johnson's head and waving it around while performing his song 'Doorman' to a shocked, but enthralled crowd. His debut album Nothing Great About Britain rightfully received recognition for its biting political criticism of the state of the UK but after his conduct at last night's 2020 NME Awards, the perception of Slowthai as a man of the downtrodden and a champion of equality has been greatly damaged, and rightly so.
Irritatingly however, despite there being a great deal to criticise about Slowthai and last night's actions - much (if not all) of the media coverage of yesterday's awards show has been either distorted, ill-informed or downright incorrect. Without TV coverage, many reporters have relied on piecing together random excerpts of videos circulating the internet and have fashioned together a story that conveniently suits a simple tabloid narrative that Slowthai jumped on stage, assaulted Katherine Ryan and then attacked the crowd unprovoked. Myself and Visceral Records' Alisdair Grice were in the theatre yesterday at the o2 Academy Brixton to watch the awards, so here's what actually happened from the perspective of someone who was actually there...
The night started off with Slowthai himself, opening the show with a performance of the NME Best Song In The World nominated 'Deal Wiv It' alongside co-writer Mura Masa. The audience was fully on board with Slowthai and his usual antics, performing the song with his typical exuberant and exhausting intensity. He capped the performance off by walking towards backstage, pulling his trousers down and revealing his arse to the cameras. Slowthai and Mura Masa would soon win their first award of the night, receiving NME's award for Best Collaboration, sponsored by Brixton Brewery, he responded as expected:
Slowthai took his top off. He sprayed champagne. He got on the table. Irritatingly cocky? Maybe. Toxic masculinity? Perhaps. Slowthai's speech ended with the following:
"I just wanna say, yeah? In a world where we're so disconnected by our phones and distractions, and we separate ourselves by colour, by sexual orientation, by all the fucking things that don't mean nothing, yeah? All I want is fucking unity. Remember: it's ok not to be ok, but don't deal with it on your own, and you know what? Fuck everything else, mate."
This speech of "unity" means nothing if the rapper's actions don't correspond to what he preaches. I am certainly not writing here to defend Slowthai, nor am I adding to the knee-jerk response of 'Slowthai is evil' that reverberated around the press today. Instead, I want to show from Frampton's award speech that this is a rapper that claims to be an ally to the downtrodden and has repeatedly used his platform as an opportunity to criticise injustice, racism and homophobia (but irritatingly did not mention sexism). He regularly says he opposes these things, but the old cliche is true - actions speak louder than pissed words. It is perhaps unfair to call Slowthai a misogynist, but it is certainly not unfair to call him out for appalling actions after making a speech about progress, only to exhibit the exact type of behaviour that prevents the equality and "unity" that he supposedly strives for.
Some time passed before NME hosts Julie Adenuga and Katherine Ryan took to the stage again. As they began introducing the presenters for another award, Ryan shouted out into the VIP section of the awards night, jokingly asking why an individual among the guest list was only making heart gestures to Adenuga and not to herself (surprise, it was Slowthai). Both presenters did an excellent job of hosting the awards, balancing consistently excellent humour with heartfelt praise for the incredible Emily Eavis (recipient of the Godlike Genius award) and the late Keith Flint. Ryan acted just as she does in her phenomenal stand-up material: confident, honest and sexually forthright. It worked perfectly, and the entire awards show was propelled forward by the Canadian's charisma, so when she responded to Slowthai's heart gestures with a playfully sarcastic performance of romantic jealousy, the two ignited into a flirtatious exchange that, while initially feeling two-sided and consensual, quickly progressed into an uncomfortable moment.
After seeing Slowthai's heart gestures, Ryan immediately began exercising her trademark comedic talents, responding:
"You are adorable. Thank you for participating in the awards show. I like you. Can you give me a heart like you gave to Julie? Pardon me, I've got to earn it? Ok... I will do that, *or* I'll just keep earning money and buy my own massive house without a man. Are you a house? Do you have a cinema inside of you? Will you appreciate in value, young man. After Brexit?"
Ryan then proceeded to walk down from the stage, leaning down to Slowthai, as the two moved in close, facing each other with only the microphone separating them. In the room, with Ryan moving down to the rapper, the situation was received with cheers from the crowd, enjoying Ryan's display, initiating a sexually-charged exchange while sarcastically disassembling Slowthai's confident bravado with quotes like "I'm a balls girl, get your balls out" (thankfully, he didn't, though it wouldn't have been surprising if he had). Katherine Ryan flirted sarcastically "I would love you to trim my bush" and then sardonically cheered "let's hear it from him! he's so hot!". Slowthai seemed to appreciate this was a joke, walking back to his table, as his twitter apology would later point to.
Frampton issued a formal apology after the fact, but this apology is not anywhere near enough to excuse what he would go on to do. Nothing would even come close to a sufficient apology for the toxic masculinity the rapper would go on to exemplify later in the night. This tweet is not used as an excuse, nor an attempt to show that Slowthai is a good boy who has learned his lesson, but when read alongside Katherine Ryan's own tweets, our initial audience reaction of shocked cheering for an initially comical interaction between the two felt like a room of people who understood that the situation as a flirtatious joke between an over-confident Slowthai and a gifted comedian. Additionally, co-host Adenuga looked visibly uncomfortable during the entirety of the exchange between the two.
The 'escalation' Tyron Frampton references arguably happened in that initial exchange, but the interaction was made sexual both by the rapper, and with the consent of Katherine Ryan, in fact, arguably it was Ryan that initiated the sexual (albeit jokingly) aspect of this interaction. Following on from that however, Slowthai made his way onto the stage, and forced himself onto the Canadian in a manner that immediately made the room uncomfortable with what was undeniably and inarguably an act of sexual harassment. Pulling Ryan close, Slowthai continued to make inappropriate comments about how "she got jealous" that Tyron had made those heart gestures to her co-host, and not to her. The gestures themselves could well have been entirely inappropriate - only those involved could tell us, but Slowthai's escalation of what was flirtatious banter into physical assault is utterly disgusting and rightfully deserves shaming. Particularly in the context of the rapper's criticism of British inequality through his music and the content of his first speech on the night, his groping of Ryan felt immediately appalling to us and totally at odds with the recognition the artist received as a man who supposedly fights against oppression and unfairness in the United Kingdom.
Katherine Ryan later returned, placing a ball under her dress claiming that the Northampton rapper and herself were now expecting a baby. She joked "more like fast-thai, am I right?" and then, the final significant moment of this story came with Slowthai receiving the (now incredibly ironic) Hero of the Year award on the back of his political involvements throughout 2019. Receiving the award, a man from the audience's standing section shouted up to the rapper that he was a "misogynist". Ty replied in rebuttal: "I stand for equality" before ending his speech by directing a comment at the individual in the crowd "thanks for ruining my speech, thank you very much." The rapper then forcefully threw his microphone onto the floor (not at the crowd as many sites are reporting) in front of the standing section, where an audience member picked it up and shouted "Slowthai is a wasteman" before hurling the microphone at the artist, followed by a drink being thrown at him as well. Slowthai responded to this escalation by escalating further, taking his champagne glass and throwing it into the audience section - perhaps being the absolute worst action he took all night, endangering people in the crowd who were entirely un-involved with the provocation by shattering glass into a tightly packed group of people.
Slowthai jumped down into the standing section and was held back while trying to fight with the audience member goading him into the altercation. That outspoken audience member is very much also to blame for the violent escalation, regardless of the motivation of championing anti-misogyny and was escorted out immediately (though if you're going to be thrown out for anything, fighting against toxic masculinity is certainly a good reason). Katherine Ryan then came out from backstage, calling out to Slowthai "babe, babe", asking him to calm down and to defuse the situation. In fact, she later wrote in her twitter reaction of the night that she had defused the interaction using only 2/10 of her capabilities:
Ryan's suggestion that she "knew [he] was joking" is not a get out of jail free card, but it is a very important voice to hear in this discussion where the entire internet has formulated a moralistic response to what happened off the back of out-of-context viral videos and a collectively dismal attempt at journalistic coverage of the issue. That being said, "I knew you were joking" is a totally insufficient response to this issue. Frankly, I don't care what the motivations are, if a man forces himself on a woman like that - especially with the platform Slowthai possesses - any idea of that as a 'joke' is both damaging and farcical. In a few ways Katherine Ryan's response is a disappointing one; offering almost an absolution of Frampton's sins without any reference to the toxicity of his actions that she herself has stated she needed to defuse. The Canadian is not playing the victim, and perhaps does not want to be considered as a woman who's rights were infringed upon as she is more than capable of handling herself. It is distressing however that for many women, what was witnessed last night in Slowthai's unwanted and unwarranted physical engagement with the comedian was something that most, if not all, women can identify with. A great majority of women have had interactions with men that closely resembled what happened last night, and placating the criticism of Slowthai, while arguably mature, is perhaps dangerous considering how important it is to challenge hostile masculinity right now.
If we are to believe her tweets though, and to consider that these are honest tweets not coordinated by PR departments hoping to control the negative press, what was witnessed in Brixton was a consensual and flirtatious encounter between Slowthai and a comedian that enjoyed a sardonic destruction of his ego with razor sharp wit and confident femininity, before the rapper began acting in a shockingly disgraceful manner. Slowthai did not escalate the situation violently by his decisions alone, and I am alarmed that no more has been said in criticism of the audience member equally to blame for the violence at the venue, but yesterday was no way to behave for anyone, let alone someone being lauded as NME's Hero of the Year.
This should not at all be excused as a joke that got out of hand, but it should be understood as an event that has been incorrectly reported. Too may articles seem to have run with the idea that unannounced, Slowthai initiated an unwanted sexually-charged interaction with Katherine Ryan, sexually assaulted her and then attacked a fan unprovoked. While this is close to the truth, and arguably closer to the truth than Ryan's twitter responses would suggest, it is not the full picture. Many articles discussing this issue have been far too happy to paint the easy picture of the villainous Slowthai being cartoonishly evil rather than reporting exactly what happened, and precisely how the event escalated from flirtatious joking to Slowthai acting awfully and sexually assaulting the host of the NME's.
It doesn't matter why he did it, Tyron Frampton deserves to be shamed and punished for this behaviour, but this event was not simply an occasion of 'evil man does evil thing'. This is a person who we should criticise for an act of disgraceful behaviour, but following Katherine Ryan's own perspective on what happened, and the misreporting of several major news outlets on this event, perhaps there is an argument that we should afford Slowthai the opportunity to prove that he really does stand for the things he claimed to in that first speech. Perhaps instead though, he has already disqualified himself from being a 'man of the people'. I am certainly not one to argue against that, but I am very concerned that people reporting on this interaction, largely on the basis of instagram stories and viral tweets, are not truly interested in discerning what happened and what did not happen, but are motivated by reducing a complicated series of events into an easy caricature of toxic masculinity, while ignoring exactly how a man who claims to represent equality could act as disgracefully as he did.
Slowthai may have shown us all who he really is yesterday, it's up to him to try and demonstrate that he's better than that, and he may very well never be able to do it. Your move Slowthai.
Ben Wheadon is editor and founder of Slow Motion Panic Masters. He is a Welsh musician and English Literature student at King's College, London and he should be writing a dissertation instead of creating a blog.
Thanks for reading! Slow Motion Panic Masters is a music, arts and culture blog created and edited by Ben Wheadon, a literature student and musician based in London, England.