O n Wednesday night, the music industry glitterati assembled for the return of the NME awards. With their golden middle-finger statuettes, the awards have always positioned themselves as a light-hearted antidote to their self-aggrandising peers, but have sometimes felt like a boys ’club. Antics Such as Bob Geldof’s four-letter rant against Russell Brand while collecting an award in 2020
Ten of this year 728 winners are female, but any apparent progress was undermined when rapper Slowthai made leering comments to host and comic Katherine Ryan on stage . A video shows the rapper locked in an uncomfortably close embrace with Ryan, saying: “You ain’t never had one play with you like I’ll play with you.” Ryan played it off confidently, but the incident provoked an audience member to heckle Slowthai as “misogynist” during his acceptance speech for the hero of the year award. Slowthai responded by throwing his drink into the crowd and almost starting a fight.
Slowthai has now rightly apologized to Ryan – his actions were sexist. The more puzzling part is Ryan’s response on Twitter. She said: “He didn’t make me uncomfortable. This is why we need women in positions of power. What a sweet boy. I defused it. Tonight was fun! ”
The suggestion is that because she was able to deflect Slowthai’s unwelcome advances, the advances weren’t a problem. But what if it had happened to someone less confident? To someone with a history of abuse or trauma?
Outside of a glitzy music awards show, women fear for their lives when they reject men’s advances. The Instagram account @ cheerupluv documents real-life stories of sexual harassment and abuse submitted by its followers. It’s a sobering reminder of the daily fear harbored by women and queer people. (This fear is compounded if you’re a person of color: a 2020 US study found that black women were more likely to experience harassment at work.) Although Slowthai’s actions may not have had a huge effect on Ryan, they demonstrate an attitude that young fans could possibly replicate.
Her response also implies that the problem will be solved by having women and people from marginalized groups in positions of power. But women showing themselves to be autonomous individuals won’t necessarily stop men thinking they have the right to harass them. This is as much about educating young boys on how to act around women as it is about holding them accountable when they transgress. It’s also about showing young girls that they’re worth more. In the hours after the event, there were more than a few comments on social media from girls saying that they wished they could have been in Ryan’s place: tweets such as: “I fancy him more now.” Sure, this may be partly performative, but when behavior like that is passed off as the norm, it can twist what potential harassers and their victims also feel is acceptable.
The widespread horror in the room and online shows that some progress is being made, but a clear example also needs to be set by NME. No mention was made on the night by representatives or employees of the publication.
This isn’t a call to cancel Slowthai; his political voice and brash antics have been a welcome antidote to a relatively conservative mainstream music scene. But his actions demonstrate of a need for vigilance. He harassed a woman on stage, in front of an audience and press photographers – perhaps emboldened by the rowdy reputation of the awards themselves, and the way our culture tends to celebrate “rock’n’roll behavior” more generally. If he felt confident enough to do that in public, who knows what others feel confident enough to do behind closed doors?