When dance troupe Diversity’s performance at the first Britain’s Got Talent semi-final of 2020 was met with uproar and over 24,000 Ofcom complaints, it became the second most complained about TV moment of the past decade. What seems to have led to the objections were the references to the Black Lives Matter movement – in particular, those to the memory of George Floyd. In a poignant moment during the routine, Ashley Banjo was seen with his head pinned under a knee, re-creating the now infamous and fatal position in which George Floyd died.
I thought the performance was an incredible and moving way to deal with something so important; I felt gratitude towards Diversity for being so publicly vocal against racism. Unfortunately, not everyone in the country felt the same, and the troupe leader, Ashley Banjo, amongst many other members, is still receiving daily abuse via Twitter.
Wanting to know more, I contacted Ashley to get a better understanding of what happened behind the scenes.
For us, your performance was a surprise; however it must have been ages in the making for you. How did the idea come about?
It didn’t come about how anyone would have expected. I had two or three phone calls with ITV and they asked if I wanted to stand in for Simon Cowell and in the same sort of breath they said: “We have a performance slot and we think it would be great for you to come out on week one as a judge and perform”. I was like, OK, but the problem is that the performance is six days away, that doesn’t leave us with much time… It was two days’ prep for me and two and a half days to learn it. We turned up to BGT, they hadn’t seen anything, didn’t know what we were doing, but were fully supportive. It was literally that quick.
Was it a long process to come to an agreement with ITV?
Not at all, they trust me creatively. At any point they could have stopped me, or shut it down, but they were supportive.
What was your decision process regarding the way it was presented?
The idea was to go to BGT to create something that represented this year. We wanted people to feel emotionally affected but, if anything, feel more hopeful by the end of it. If my kids said to me, “Dad, what happened in 2020?”, I would want to tell them a story of hope and people coming together. That doesn’t mean shying away from the difficult issues, it just means that we brought them to the forefront and they made positive change, and that’s what the set was about and that’s why we presented it in that way.
When you found out about the reaction, where were you? What did you think?
I was filming when it went out. A lot of people were saying “oh great, the show has been really well received”, but because we are not used to getting negative responses I started to notice, “no there’s definitely more negative here than I’m used to”, and then it just grew and grew and grew.
Did you expect it to be controversial or politicised? To this extent?
No. No way. I thought there would be people that didn’t like it, I thought it would spark a bit of debate but I didn’t think I would help to make BGT the most complained about show in a decade and I didn’t think I would be in the news every day for three weeks.
This is the first time you guys have done something more political, so I would not expect you to be used to any kind of negative comments. How did that impact you?
I understand the idea that entertainment is escapism for the most part, but what I don’t agree with is that that’s all entertainment can be used for. At the end of the day, if they try to tell us that’s all it’s good for, it’s completely untrue. Art and politics are so closely intertwined, as are art and social issues. Because at the end of the day it’s about human expression, and if we can’t say this is what we feel in this crazy year, then you sort of start to defeat the object of what it is to create, surely.
That’s true, the whole thing about it being escapism is interesting because the impression I got was that people felt affronted that their safe space had become politicised. What do you think of the comments that the performance shouldn’t have a place on a family show?
I would agree if the same people were up in arms about the glorification of World War One, the discussion around climate change, the dog meat industry, or various other things that entertainers and artists have brought to BGT. However, what they’re actually complaining about is that it’s a type of politics and conversation that makes them uncomfortable, so they lean on the fact that “oh no this is a safe space” and I’m like, well it wasn’t safe when we were talking about flying spitfires over – millions of people died in the wars, but that’s safe [to talk about] because we are on the correct, and winning side.
ITV have very much stood in solidarity with you, what do you think of that?
Oh, super proud of them, as a commercial channel at the end of the day money talks. It’s one thing to say we support you but it’s another thing to spend £100,000 to place that on page ads across national tabloids. I respect them for being so open with the way they support us, I respect Ofcom for their report and saying that they don’t feel there’s anything to investigate. I respect the production company for standing by us. These are not predominantly Black-run channels or companies either, these are obviously predominantly white-owned and run which is really important – the way systems are designed means we need the people in power to really make changes.
Do you think that we have made progress with racism in recent years in Britain?
Yes, I think that there’s a long way to go but we’ve definitely made progress all the time. Part of me thinks that racist attitude just gets hidden and suppressed more, as opposed to dying out. On Twitter people are able to make accounts left, right and center, but they should be linked to those profiles and there should be accountability because nowadays people can say things online that they would get arrested for saying in real life. They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it.
Has being a parent made you feel differently about social issues like race in Britain and made you reflect on what you want to talk to your children about?
Funnily enough, when I had my first baby, Rosie, it made me much more conscious about womens’ rights than it did race rights. It made me go, “wow I really want the world to be equal and fair for YOU”, because I completely see that there’s a long way to go there. So as much as it did a race issue, it sort of made me more conscious about equality between men and women, in the workplace especially.
What is your opinion about Black representation on TV?
I think that there is more Black culture on TV but I still think that Black people are underrepresented, especially across prime time and major channels. And I think that’s because a lot of people have been in the game for so long, so a lot of what we’re seeing is reminiscence of the past. Whereas, I think that as change has come in and new people come up I think that we genuinely see changes there, a lot of emerging talent, and it’s different from the old school talent. But if you look from the people who are famous from back in the day, there aren’t an awful lot of Black people.
What are your hopes for the future?
I feel like it would be really easy to go “I hope for a world that is equal”, and Martin Luther King had a dream; I feel like he said that about 50 years ago, and we’re still waiting for it. We’ll probably be waiting a long time before genuine equality exists but I suppose I just hope that we can still be in a world where conversations are open and we’re making positive steps. I hope we just keep taking steps in the right direction, in the hope that one day we will get there.