Yasmin, 17, first became a One Direction fan in 2013, and always had a particular soft spot for Harry Styles. “I love his charm, voice, charisma,” she tells me. “As clichéd as it sounds, he helped and still helps me get through rough times, as I suffer from anxiety and depression.” She was one of hundreds of fans excited to attend his solo concert in Hammersmith, London on 29 October 2017.
If you’ve never been to a Harry Styles concert, or a One Direction concert, then it might be worth pausing to explain the strange and giddy atmosphere you find there. Yes, they’re overwhelmingly attended by young women who are bursting with excitement. Girls camp out for days outside the venue to get a space at the front; friends hold hands with each other as they scream towards the stage. Corny as it sounds, it’s a space that’s defined by love – and the band do their best to send some of that love back. Since early 2015, Styles in particular made a habit of bringing rainbow flags on stage, and started signing off messages, “All the love”.
Now on his solo tours, he asks audience to find a stranger and embrace them. He tells everyone that his gigs are a space to “be whoever you want to be”. His merchandise is emblazoned with the slogan, “Treat people with kindness.” He has chosen “queer-identifying band” MUNA as his support act, whose song “I Know A Place” is all about finding a safe, accepting venue to dance your cares away. (Introducing it, lead singer Katie Gavin makes comparisons between the song’s lyrics and the loving community she sees at Styles’s gigs every night.) And pride flags are more part of his show than ever – he’s brought one on stage during every concert so far. As Emma Garland writes for Noisey, a Harry Styles gig feels like an inherently empowering space. In the words of Aamina Khan, and the fans she spoke to for her piece, Harry Styles concerts are LGBTQ+ safe spaces.
As a black fan, Yasmin says she often felt underrepresented in the One Direction community – citing the “Night Changes” video, which sees each band member on a date with a woman lingering just behind the camera (so you feel like the date is you) for only including white women’s hands.
As the day of Harry Styles’s solo concert in Hammersmith approached, Yasmin decided she wanted to make the presence of his black fans known. She printed out 500 black and white paper signs reading “Black Lives Matter” to distribute amongst fans and ordered a massive banner to hold near the front, in the hope that her idol would read it and show solidarity with the movement.
It’s a plan that’s worked before. As Khan explains, in 2014 One Direction fans – who are known for collectively organising to win polls, drive obscure songs to become chart hits, or raise money for charities the band have supported in the past – started Project Rainbow Direction. This encouraged fans to bring rainbow flags and other symbols of LGBTQ visibility to One Direction gigs, declaring: “We want all fans to feel safe, welcome, and supported.” As the number of flags at concerts grew, Styles in particular started taking note, pulling them onstage, wearing them like capes, and emphasising messages of love and equality to the crowd.
Styles is a musician, not a politician. But as the political climate in America has become increasingly fraught, pressure has increased on celebrities from all areas of the arts to speak more politically. (There has been, for example, much discussion of Taylor Swift’s silence on white supremacy.) Styles is British, and, as Emma Garland notes, “a faithful disciple of silence”, who shies away from all interviews, and especially anything political, instead working on cultivating an air of mystery. That doesn’t make his fans any less keen for him to speak up for their rights.
At both Styles’s London gigs this October, the hundreds of Black Lives Matter signs littered across the audience, alongside miniature rainbow flags, were a moving sight. But if Styles saw them on 29 October, he didn’t comment on them specifically. Yasmin was disappointed.
“It felt horrible that he wouldn’t show support to his black fans, which there are actually quite a large number of,” she told me. “It wasn’t that we didn’t think he loved us, we knew he did. It was more that he didn’t show support to our movement even though he shows support to the LGBT community.” Holding a sign, or talking about one, would have been “a small way for him to say ‘I see you,’” says 20-year-old Minneapolis-based fan Elham.
Ruth, also 17, was at the same show, and had a blast. “It was amazing,” she says, “And so worth camping two nights for.” She, too, held Black Lives Matter signs at the gig. “Harry has really emphasised his whole ‘treat people with kindness’ motto, and has talked about how his show is a safe space. So I think that was a large reason why people started bringing Black Lives Matter signs and flags to the shows.”
Even though she loved the show, Ruth does feel conflicted about the experience. “I was right at the front. I watched him blatantly ignore the Black Lives Matter sign. It hurt multiple of my closest friends, who are also black.” A black member of security thanked Ruth and other fans for holding the signs.
“We want him to include all minorities in his safe space,” she explains. “It’s important for him to bring light to all of these issues because, as a celebrity with such an impact like Harry, you have been blessed with a platform which you cannot abuse.”
I reached out to multiple Harry Styles fans posting about his gigs and the Black Lives Matter movement. The vast majority of fans who weren’t black turned down the opportunity to be interviewed, instead suggesting black friends who’d be better placed to speak on the subject. It’s clear that almost all of Styles’s most devoted fans want everyone to feel safe and welcomed in their community – whether that’s at gigs or online.
Kula, 19, first became a fan of Styles back in 2014, and describes going to his first ever London gig at The Garage in May as “one of the best days of my life”. She was at the Hammersmith Harry Styles show the next night, on 30 October, holding her sign with pride. “I’m not saying we need his validation because black lives will always matter,” she says. “Bringing signs isn’t just about Harry, it’s about making black fans feel safe and loved in that room.”
During that gig, support act Muna acknowledged the signs – Katie Gavin held one up during “I Know A Place”. Again, Styles didn’t specifically mention them – but he did say something. “It’s beautiful to look at the crowd and see different flags and different signs,” he told the audience. “Thank you.” Two days later, he posted a picture of fans holding up Black Lives Matter posters on his Instagram, with the caption “Love.”
For some fans, it was a non-committal gesture. “It was such a vague caption and in some ways damage control,” Kula says. “If that was some sort of apology then that’s mad dumb.” Ruth describes it as “the bare minimum”. Monique, a 16-year-old fan from Puerto Rico sees it slightly more positively. “I do think it was his own way of trying to show that he’s heard us,” she says.
At a gig in Stockholm a couple of days later, on 5 November, Harry addressed race with more specific language. He told the crowd, “If you are black, if you are white, if you are gay, if you are straight, if you are transgender, whoever you are… I love you all.”
It’s been met with mixed responses from Styles’s black fans. Some are even more disappointed. “I just don’t understand why he had to lump in the ‘white’ part as if they face any sort of oppression,” says Elham. Kula responds with four words: “All lives matter headass.” She’s not sure she’d currently describe herself as a fan.
Others feel that the statement was step in the right direction. Melodi, 18, is a fan from Texas who went to a Harry Styles solo gig in her home state last month: “It was an out-of-body experience. I went to the box office without any tickets and ended up getting front row. It was truly the best day of my life.” Melodi says that while Styles “didn’t actually address the problem at hand,” she does think “what Harry said was very loving, which is great”.
Ruth speaks similarly. “I think it was great what Harry said on stage. It’s nice to finally have acknowledgement from him, especially after the way his fans have been educating him the past week.”
And Yasmin, who started the project, calls the moment “sweet”. “He’s obviously seen the backlash and doesn’t want us to feel like he hates us,” she says. “This sounds pathetic, but even saying ‘if you are black’ was a big step for him.”
Styles’s fans hope that their idol will speak up for them more loudly and more specifically as time goes on. “His black fans, myself included, would like for him to actually say he supports the Black Lives Matter movement and not just say he ‘loves us’ and everyone else,” says Melodi. “We want him to recognise us and our struggle.”
Ruth agrees. “I think that he shouldn’t be scared of talking about the Black Lives Matter movement as fighting for the rights of black people around the world shouldn’t be a taboo subject, nor should it be ‘too political’ for celebrities to talk about.”
“I’m proud that I opened this discussion in our fandom,” says Yasmin. “I think he supports and loves his minority fans. 100 per cent. I may be mad at him for the past week, but I refuse to make him out to be the villain that he’s not. Harry is kind and caring.”
And despite her criticisms, Melodi, remembering her Texas gig, is excited to see Styles again. “He makes his shows so fun and interactive, dancing with the crowd, even calling some people out. I screamed my heart out and had the time of my life. I can’t wait to have that feeling again.”
[See also: Harry Styles’ new album is a summery, Eighties-infused poolside record]