Ashley Banjo: ‘Britain isn’t racist. But racism here is real’
By Jonathan Heaf 5 October 2020
Almost 25,000 viewers complained to Ofcom about Ashley Banjo and Diversity’s powerful performance on Britain’s Got Talent last month, making it one of the most talked about television moments of the decade. But does this make Britain inherently racist? For the first time since the show aired the man at the centre of it all goes on record to explain why he did it, what his message is and how that four-minute routine has changed his life forever
Ashley Banjo has some serious presence. Not only is he statuesque, but his aura seems to have its own gravitational pull. All eyes in the room drift towards him like iron filings to a magnet. Yet, also, for one who spends so much of his time in motion – as the figurehead in dance troupe Diversity – he can be surprisingly still. He seems to watch situations from a slight distance, his brain sizing up the environment and context. He’s watchful, although not standoffish. He’s cautious, but not guarded. If it’s possible to be a little wary while also being sure-footed, that’s Banjo all over.
I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t know as much as perhaps I should about Banjo. I knew what most of us know: that he and his dance team, Diversity, had entranced millions of viewers worldwide with their dynamite, bombastic dance routines and that, after successfully wowing the judges including Simon Cowell on Britain’s Got Talent in 2009, he and his ten somersaulting teammates saw off bookies’ favourite Susan Boyle to claim the talent show trophy. Overnight, Diversity and Banjo became national treasures – with added kinetic energy.
Over ten years ago, that was a performance that changed Banjo and his troupe’s lives forever. Since then they have sold out global stadium tours, grown up, had families, entertained and made phenomenal careers out of the very thing they are so talented and passionate about: dancing. On 8 September 2020, however, Diversity performed another routine that would change all their lives once again, not least Banjo’s. (The performance was to mark Banjo’s enrolment as the new BGT judge, replacing Simon Cowell, who broke his back falling off an electric bike.) It was a routine that was dedicated to some of the standout moments – good and bad; tragic and hopeful – of 2020.
Using the concept of a father (Banjo), in the future, telling his son what a year 2020 had been for humanity (“I’ll tell you a story about how the world was before…”), the dancers re-enacted a series of vignettes, the chilling piano accompaniment of Dave’s “Black” being heard in the background. Through a narrator’s voice and their routine, Diversity told the story of our times and this upside-down year, a world of “poverty and plenty”, of the pandemic’s arrival, the lockdown restrictions, Zoom calls, Amazon deliveries and family bonds made and then broken. They also told of another “disease”, one that was “deep-rooted in our system. Fear, hate and ignorance”, where “racism was the symptom”.
At that precise moment, about one minute into the routine, Ashley Banjo put his hands behind his back, placed his body and head on the floor of a raised platform, while an actor dressed as an American police officer, the Stars and Stripes on his left shoulder, knelt down and placed his knee close to Banjo’s neck, memorialising the horrific killing of George Floyd in May. As a dance routine, a message and a television performance it was incredibly powerful. Astonishingly so.
Diversity and Banjo were saying it as acutely as they could, the only way they knew how: black lives matter.
Although the routine in its entirety lasted just over four minutes, it were these 20 seconds that was truly exceptional. The other judges afterwards – David Walliams, Alesha Dixon and Amanda Holden – applauded, although nothing could have prepared the dance troupe and Banjo for the onslaught of hate and negativity that would come at them online, on social media and in the press. Ofcom eventually received more than 24,000 complaints – the second most complained-about television moment of the decade after Celebrity Big Brother’s “punchgate” in 2018.
Throughout all this Ashley Banjo has stayed silent. He made a brief statement on his own social media, but otherwise he’s turned down all requests (of which there have been hundreds) to sit down and talk in depth about what happened. Until now. He wants to explain, in his own words, his reasons for choosing the routine; how, with only a handful of days to put it together, it was one of the most creatively liberating and fluid art works he’s ever channelled. He explains how the dance just “come out” of him, as if touched by divine intervention, and how he is now coping with a life that is changed forever. An astonishingly candid interview with a man right at the centre of an astonishing cultural moment in Britain.
GQ: Firstly, how have you been coping with what’s been going on in the world these past few months?
Ashley Banjo: I’m going to sound really pessimistic from the get-go… I don’t really enjoy overly optimistic attitudes; I like realistic attitudes, sprinkled with optimism. That’s how I approach things. And so I feel this year I really got hit by the negative aspect of it at one point. It was really tough. We were locked down; I didn’t know where things were going. I had a son in lockdown, which was amazing. But these past few months, I’ve really started to see the incredible positives that have come out of this year. And also the positives that have been born from some of the negatives. It’s almost forced me to think differently, to change perspective. And, actually, this year, for me on a personal level, has been just a really important one, for growth and perspective. I’m actually really grateful for it.
Are you someone who deals well with solitude and isolation, that aspect of what we’ve all been having to go through?
I thought I’d be better [at it]. I think I thought I’d be fine. Actually, I sort of take it for granted how much I thrive off and appreciate social interaction. I’ve been around the group, I’ve grown up in a group, I don’t really use the word “I”. If I have an opportunity, or I am able to go somewhere and do something, I think about my team as well. I think in the context of a group a lot. So when we were locked down for so long, just me and my family, it was definitely different. I missed [the Diversity team] a lot. But, you know, we got by and it was actually just magical spending some time with my babies and my son.
© Adama Jalloh
What was it like having a son during lockdown?
It was incredible. It was right at the start – I think it was week [one] or two of lockdown. You’re kind of in your own bubble: he was born and I was just on cloud nine. Oh, my God, of course. “Love you!” I got all of that stuff. And then I remember walking out of the hospital to go and get the car seat. I was in central London – empty, boarded-up shops – and obviously I got my iPhone out and I was in the middle of the road. I was like, “Just to let you know, son, this is what the world looks like as I walk to get the car to come and take you home.” I didn’t know what was going to happen. And it sounds dramatic but I was like, “Is this the start or the end?” London was empty. And I was bringing this vulnerable little baby back home. So it was a little bit scary at one point.
Let’s go back to Saturday 5 September 2020 at 8pm. That Diversity BLM performance went out across the nation. For those who haven’t seen it, just describe that performance for us if you can.
I’m proud for it to be [called that], but it’s really interesting how you coined it our “BLM performance”, because it wasn’t. What I find the most incredible thing about all of this is that the Black Lives Matter element of the routine is the part that stuck with people, which, like I said, I can’t reiterate enough how much I’m proud of. But the performance itself was supposed to be a roundup of everything that we felt in the year; a summary of the things that have affected us, from lockdown to Covid to, you know, people standing out in the streets clapping the incredible NHS at 8pm on Thursdays. It was an idea of unity, the idea of hope. And obviously, as part of that routine, it would be impossible to ignore how much the Black Lives Matter movement, the idea of racism coming to the forefront of global attention, is present. It’s here and it’s right now. So in our summary of the year, it was impossible for me not to reflect upon it. But our performance has become somewhat of a symbol of race relations in this country. It became a debate in every newspaper in the mainstream press for two-and-a-half weeks. I can’t think of another performance that has caused that sort of uproar and conversation. We had no idea what was going to happen once we performed it.
We’ll get to the reactions in a moment, but I just wanted to try to understand also what it was like to perform it in that moment. What was it like for you and Diversity to actually do it on stage live?
We knew it was something special. I had a call to replace Simon [Cowell] temporarily. And on the same phone call they said, “Obviously it feels right to come out performing on week one.” In other words: just really make your mark and say, “I’m here to replace Simon for this set of live shows.” But what a lot of people don’t know is that this only happened about six days before the show itself. So
this was actually the purest creation process I’ve ever gone through.
Normally, I would have weeks to write [it] down. How can I create something? What do I fabricate? I break it apart and then shine it up again and put together this product for people. Whereas [now] I didn’t have time. I had to write this overnight. And so I literally sat and just said, “What do I want to say? What do I think? What do I think needs to be said?” [Britain’s Got Talent] is a such a huge platform. It feels too important for me to go on there this year, pick a great track and show off a little bit. To me it felt much bigger. I don’t think I created anything, if I’m honest. I think it came into me. And then out of me. I think that performance and the routine was always supposed to happen. Before we knew it, the performance had gone out live on television… And everything started.
What was the consultation processes in terms of the people running that show? Did you tell them your idea? Were there any concerns?
I don’t think I’ve had anything but full support from the production company and ITV. I’ve done a lot of work with ITV, so they trust me creatively. I said to them on the phone that week before, “This is what I think I’m going to do.” And they were great with it. That’s really important. They didn’t say anything until we turned up on the day. We turned up and we rehearsed. I think it was a bit of a shock for everybody [there]. Everyone was like, “Wow, this is where you’re going.” But as much as it was a shock, I don’t think as many people have ever taken me aside individually. The first run-through in rehearsal, people said they either were in tears or that it connected with them. That for me was so important. Diversity gets a lot of people complimenting us – who doesn’t like being complimented? But it means so much more when people say, “I felt that. It meant something.” To be able to do that with your art is the ultimate gift. After winning [BGT in 2009], it was the most important two hours of television of my life.
What was the reaction from the judges initially?
It was different, again. Alesha was crying – it got her from, I think, 30 seconds – and the same for Amanda. David was really sort of taken aback. They were just overwhelmed – not just by the execution of what we did, but also how we told the story. It really connected with them, and maybe connected with them in a different way than Alesha. But they just said they felt it to their core and they really appreciated it. And that to me was everything.
© Adama Jalloh
How quickly were you aware after broadcast of both the positive comments and the negative comments?
I think I was aware before anybody else, to tell you the truth. Because, in all honesty, we’re just not used to getting negative feedback. So even once the first negative tweet, the very first, I was like, “Oh,” and then two and then three and then four and then five. And, for me, I noticed straight away because they were coming through steady enough. But, if I’m honest with you, the initial wave was positive. It was love. Some people were shocked, some people were taken aback, but it was generally positive. And I was like, “You know, I’m starting to feel there’s a little bit of upheaval here. You know, some people didn’t agree for various reasons.” But I definitely started to feel a little spike of negativity. It was probably, I would say, 24 hours after that I really started to notice and started to feel it.
All from social media, Twitter and Instagram?
Absolutely. And the headlines. The majority of the press headlines weren’t about “Diversity does performance to celebrate the NHS” or “Diversity does performance to bring together the idea of 2020”. It was, “Diversity received 1,200 complaints”. That was the sort of the energy of the reporting. I get it. But I thought that there was such an overwhelmingly positive reaction at first, that I thought that maybe there might be some sort of notion of Diversity pulling off something that is really different for national television, especially for the arena of Britain’s Got Talent.
I mean, you’re right, the media did hook on to that number of complaints. Did you think that was unfair?
I think if I sit here and call that unfair, I have to call myself naive as well. I’ve been in the game long enough to understand that, you know, a story is a story and for us to go on to Britain’s Got Talent and do that performance and receive 1,200 complaints overnight, from an act that doesn’t ever receive complaints or negativity, I understand why they run it. It’s interesting, but isn’t it a shame in a way that people couldn’t say, “Did you see that performance? Whether it connects with you positively or negatively, this is something that summarises what’s happened to us all – go and watch.” I mean, that’s never going to be the headline, but…
Some people were saying that they agreed with the sentiment, they agree with the messaging, but that Britain’s Got Talent wasn’t the right stage for that kind of message. What’s your reaction to that?
What is the right stage? I mean, like, it’s the right stage to talk about, you know, personal loss or patriotism or to bring a beautiful story this year about a dog and the dog trade. We talk about climate change. Yet, if I bring 20 seconds of the idea of racism into performance, all of a sudden it’s not the right stage? And you have to ask why, you know? Why can we talk about a multitude of other issues yet me as a creative and an artist, with something that has affected me, impacted me deeply and also been global news for the past month, I’m not allowed to talk about it? You have to kind of wonder why.
Does this show a significant problem with British culture?
I think a significant problem is an idea of perspective, right? I feel like, to some people, there is a massively significant problem, and to others there is no problem. And it is that spectrum, for me, that’s the problem. You know, I can’t pin it to one specific moment.
The idea that there are some people who didn’t even really know that racism still exists – that’s the problem for me.
That’s why it’s the right stage. That’s why I’m so passionate about creating these performances. And I’m also really passionate about freedom of speech and about open conversation and opinion. I love this country. That’s why I love living here and that’s one of the beautiful things about living here: the fact that we can all speak our mind. But if the moment I as an artist from a show like Britain’s Got Talent can’t use my four minutes to say what I like and have it come from the heart, and not even say it offensively, but just say [it] honestly and artistically, that’s an issue.
Were you or any of the other Diversity members concerned about the negative reactions both before and after?
Not one person [in Diversity] was worried. Not one person was ever hesitant. But not one person was silly enough to think that there wouldn’t be some kind of backlash. Everybody knew what we were going into and everybody knew that there would be a lot of disagreement from people. But if I’m 100 per cent honest, I don’t think we anticipated the level at which this would cause an uproar. To be the second most complained-about television moment of the past decade – and the only reason, if I’m honest, we didn’t get to No1 was because Ofcom replied before we got there; honestly, I was really hoping for No1 –
© Adama Jalloh
In one subsequent social media post you were right to say, “This isn’t just criticism, this is racism.” How did this affect you?
Diversity is a network group of people who stick together and operate in a bubble, so without each other, if I was receiving [the criticism] on my own, I don’t know how I would have coped. I rang home and said to my wife, “Put the alarm on, make sure you’re OK.” Or she would ring me and be like, “Ash, if you’re going out for a run, you know, just make sure that you’re OK.” Even though we never said it out loud to each other, it affected our way of thinking and our behaviour to an extent. It affected the way that we acted. I walked out of the front door, and you always have to prepare yourself for some level of attention, but I didn’t know what kind of attention I was going to get, especially when you’re getting open threats. It’s a lot to deal with.
Have you been seriously worried about your safety?
At points, I think. So there were points when I was genuinely worried, you know, points when I would think to myself, “Will it be safe to go here or go there?” Even now, you know, sometimes I’ll look and go, “That could be a group of people that really disagrees with me”; you don’t know how they’re going to [react] when you put your neck out on the line for what you believe in. It’s caused a pretty visceral reaction from people.
Like your Britain’s Got Talent win in 2009, this performance may well go on to change the direction of your life. Are you ready for that?
It already has changed the direction of my life, if I’m being honest. I feel more life-affirmed. I feel more sure of myself as a person. And I also feel proud that we have become a bit of a symbol for something that I want to live up to. I want to be able to speak up – and not just about racism, not just about the idea of Black lives mattering.
How difficult has your journey been within the British television industry? I’m sure you faced your own prejudice and challenges along the way?
Nothing worth having comes easy, right? And I think a lot of people will look at Diversity and myself and think,
“Well, you won Britain’s Got Talent, so how can this be a racist country? We voted for you!”
I want to say so many things [to] that statement: I want to say, well, firstly, I’ve never called the country racist. Secondly, the idea of using the word “we” in that sentence puts me on the outside, when I’m British. I’m also mixed race, I’ve got a Black dad, so that statement is racist if you ask me. But, yeah, the idea for me that it’s all been easy, you’re absolutely right, it’s not true. [But] the way I have stayed level and been successful and kept climbing – I hate to say made sacrifices – but there have been times when I wasn’t absolutely authentic to myself. I knew that there was a version of me that wouldn’t be as accepted and a version of me that would. Now that I’m older I’ve reached a point where I’m prouder than ever and that’s why this performance was so important to me because it was authentic to me. It was something I don’t know if on the way up I would have had the confidence to have done five years ago.
Can you tell me some examples of those sacrifices you’ve made of your more authentic self?
Oh, it can be it can be anything from the way that you portray your art, the music you chose, the clothes you wear, the way you speak, the way that you walk into a building, the friends you take. I even remember at one point I had cornrows, braids. And that was authentically me. But I remember thinking, “There’s no one else on TV with plaits like me. Can I see myself hosting prime-time BBC One like this? Maybe not.” I remember thinking, “I’m on the up, let me shave [them] off.” It happened at school too.
My hair is a prime example of a life filled with change in order to reach some level of acceptance.
From the beginning of your television career, were you seeing similar young black men in charge, making decisions?
There are opportunities. I think that to say there aren’t opportunities isn’t correct. But I think sometimes ideas are so deeply embedded you don’t even realise, to the point where people think they’re being nice to me or being positive by offering me a job because I’m black, right? Which is the oddest backhanded compliment you can ever receive. It’s this idea of “Oh, no, you’d be great because you’re diverse”. They want to tick a box. But I’d rather you not give me the job. I don’t want sympathy here. I just want equal opportunity. And there is a difference.
Some of the criticism aimed at you and your teammates after your performance was that “this isn’t America. We don’t have these issues in the UK.” How do you feel when someone says something like that?
That’s the perfect response, isn’t it? “It’s happening somewhere else.” Let’s ignore it. I mean, I don’t know what else to say. I mean, sure. The fact is we do have problems in the UK, but let’s just assume what they’re saying is correct for a moment. So that means that we should ignore it because it happens somewhere else. I don’t even have to go deeper into the argument to dismiss that one. I’m like, listen, if that’s how you want to live, in your own small bubble, live there. But me, personally, if I see an injustice, I like to speak up about it no matter where it happens, if I’m honest.
© Adama Jalloh
We have a prime minister who referred to black people as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles” and Muslim women who wear burqas as looking like “letterboxes”. Do you think he is the right leader for this country?
Such a big question. I think the bigger question for me is who is the right leader? You know, I’d love to find that perfect person. And whether or not I think Boris [Johnson] is the right leader… It’s so heavily tilted. You’re basically asking me, “What is [your] political stance and who do [you] think is right to lead the country?” That’s exactly what you’re asking me! Who did I vote for? Did I vote Conservative? No, I didn’t. So, arguably, you could say that I didn’t think, at the time of voting, Boris was the right person to lead the country. Do I think that Boris has done some things right? Yeah. Do I think he’s done things wrong? Yeah. Do I think he said outrageous things in the past? Absolutely. What do you do? I’d love someone to present me the perfect candidate. I haven’t seen him yet.
How about yourself?
Oh, absolutely not. I actually enjoy politics. I love politics. But I think that you can actually change just as much from the outside. I was with Marcus Rashford the other day. Marcus came in and he fought for what he thought was right. And, you know, he had that clout; people listen and you make change. So sometimes I think if you really want to stand up for something, [you] don’t need to be prime minister or an MP. Sometimes I go to myself, “You know what? If you really want to make change, you can do it right from where you are.”
Do you feel that your message has been hijacked to a certain degree?
One thing that’s come out of all of this, for me, that’s really interesting is the amount of people who have used what happened and created their own narrative with it. And it’s never happened to me before, but [people] using my name and my intentions to further their own ideas and their own narratives, which is really, really dangerous. So I think it’s important to say exactly what I am: I am someone who is passionately against any form of racism. I’m someone who has always stood up for trying to do the right thing. So I think it’s really important for people to understand that I want to spread nothing but love and positivity, and it’s also really important to make people understand that they need to educate themselves beyond what they read on social media and beyond what they hear even in the news. Go out and do research and look into these things. The very slogan “Black lives matter” itself is so simple, but, also, at points, confusing, because of the narrative that has been dragged on to me, which is, if you use the statement “Black lives matter”, you then instantly are in support of the most extreme left ideas that also support Black Lives Matter. And the fact is that’s not true. You can believe that Black lives matter, and you can accept that as fact without aligning yourself politically or even aligning yourself to what you might think is right morally as a person. But if the fact [that] “Black Lives Matter” makes you feel uncomfortable, you have to ask yourself why, and [in] that moment, rather than throw negative energy, I want you to go out, research, educate yourself and find where you align yourself to support people who are oppressed. That’s the difference. I stand by the statement, always will. But that doesn’t mean that it comes into my ideas of what I think is right politically. For me, [Black Lives Matter] is a human issue.
When I spoke to your lovely mum she told me you were almost suffocating from not being able to correct some of those false narratives going on about you.
It is suffocating because you realise that there are people saying, “Ashley Banjo’s made a political statement.” I just want people to know racism is real, and, right now, we’re shining the light on the idea that black lives matter, because they do. And the moment that there are other oppressed minorities or other issues to shine the light on, I’ll be there with bells and whistles on saying, “If this is wrong, it needs changing.”
But right now, we are talking about the fact that black lives matter. And if you can’t get on board and support that and dig deeper than just blaming a few people who have an opinion that you might not agree with, you need to take a look at yourself.
© Adama Jalloh
Are you still optimistic about Britain and about the people who live in Britain?
I think I’m more optimistic about this country now. Even though the response has been mixed, to say the least, ITV’s response of standing with me and the group and then advertising that fact across the national press in the following days was massive. The majority of the country – messages, writing emails, letters – standing with us and saying, “Even if I didn’t understand, we’re willing to open our eyes and ears now”, that is huge. That is significant. So how can I feel negative about the country based on a few thousand people who are always going to exist? A lot of people think that I have called the people who complained racist, or the people who didn’t like the performance racist. I mean, not only have I never said that, [but] it doesn’t make sense. You’re absolutely free to say that you don’t like something, or you feel that Britain’s Got Talent wasn’t the right platform, because it made you uncomfortable. But as far as I’m concerned, that proves why it was right: because whereas you can go into your front room, eat fish and chips and, you know, be comfortable, there are a lot of people experiencing what we spoke about who can’t just turn it off, which is why I feel so passionately about it. You can have that opinion. You’re certainly not racist. And there are other people out there who are racist and the people who have just been spewing nothing but racism since it happened. But I feel positive, I feel proud and I just feel that, you know, if we can keep these conversations going then we really might make some long-lasting change in this country.
When your new son is old enough, will you be showing him the video of your performance?
I think about that moment a lot. And I also actually tried to save as many of the responses as I could, not just like newspaper clippings that show it in a positive light, but newspaper responses, press responses and also Twitter and social media responses that were negative. I’ve tried to actually save and document hundreds, thousands of them, because I want to show my kids. And I want to say, “Look what happened in its entirety. Here’s the bigger picture.” Not “Look what Daddy did” or “Oh, my God, everyone loved it”, because that’s not true. I want to show them exactly what happened and I want to use it as an example to say, “Never let people put you in a box. Never let people tell you what you are.” [To the] thousands of messages I’ve received from people telling me I’m a racist, I am a Marxist, I am an extreme lefty, I’ve put back race relations hundreds of years… I want to say you don’t know a thing about me. What you know about me is that I did that performance of which 20 seconds made you uncomfortable.
What you know about me is that I said Black lives matter. And that is an absolute fact. It’s the truth. It’s a statement. It’s a fact. And I will never, ever back down from that fact ever.
I want to tell my kids, “Look what happened. This is what we did. This is what we believe in. Not everyone will always like you. Not everyone will always agree with you. But listen, stand by what you believe in and speak up for it. Because if you do, you can make change.”