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19 May 2021

Little Mix, Leigh-Anne Pinnock and the power of the celebrity activist

In a new documentary, the pop star addresses racism in the music industry – and the difference between “having the conversation” and concrete action.

By Emily Bootle

When Leigh-Anne Pinnock began to speak publicly about racism in 2020, she faced a backlash. Pinnock is a member of Little Mix, the best-selling contemporary girl group in the world; she has just short of seven million Instagram followers and, after ten years in the band, is well-accustomed to brushing off internet trolls. But the tenacity she shows throughout most of her new BBC Three documentary, Leigh-Anne: Race, Pop and Power, slips for a moment when reading comments on her posts about the 2020 Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement (which included pictures of her at the London protests) that suggest she is virtue-signalling. Why should we listen, one suggests, to a pop star who has made her name by “dancing in her pants”?

The sociologist Francesco Alberoni observed in 1972 that celebrities are a “powerless elite”: despite having been essentially – or in the case of Little Mix, whose record deal resulted from winning The X Factor in 2011, literally – voted into stardom, pop stars and actors have little material power to change things. But now cultural influence is currency, and celebrity activism can have huge resonance. Taylor Swift, for example, publicly came out in support of Democratic candidates in Tennessee in the 2018 midterm elections after years of political silence, prompting more than 160,000 people to register to vote. Pinnock’s bandmate Jade Thirlwall is a vocal supporter of LGBTQ rights. And former bandmate Jesy Nelson has also made a BBC Three documentary, 2019’s Odd One Out, about her experience of online bullying and body image issues, which was widely praised by both critics and fans.

Nelson’s documentary resonated because it was intensely personal. She was unrelentingly bullied on social media about her weight and appearance, resulting in a suicide attempt. There was a sense that Odd One Out was not a retrospective: she was still visibly struggling with low self-esteem, which made the documentary difficult to watch. (That she has now left Little Mix because of the band’s effect on her mental health may suggest that this was the case.) Pinnock, meanwhile, touches on something more subtle, describing her experience of feeling invisible in the band as the only black member; the creeping and distressing sense that, despite her dreams having come true, she still wasn’t quite enough. As she digs deeper into race politics and hears experiences of other black women in the music industry, it all begins to add up. She recalls, for example, Frank Gatson, the black choreographer of Little Mix’s first ever music video shoot (and now Beyoncé’s creative director), telling her: “You’re the black girl, so you’re going to need to work ten times harder.”

That Pinnock recognises the nuances of her own experience makes it unsettling when, online, multiple people suggest that she is too light-skinned to speak with authority about black issues. Pinnock is the daughter of two mixed-race parents, and identifies as black, as does her mum. (When she asks her dad how he identifies, he replies “as John Pinnock”, which is a neat reminder of the frequent generational divide on identity politics.) She doesn’t claim to be the worst off, she’s just trying to help. Even so, the comments make her question whether she is even “the right person” to make the film.

As well as offering a reminder of the cut-throat world of online identity politics, this opens up a conversation on colourism (prejudice incurred by people of colour with a dark skin tone). In a roundtable with other black women in the music industry, Alexandra Burke, another previous X Factor winner, says that she has been advised by music industry professionals to bleach her skin. Discussing the absence of dark-skinned black women in pop, Pinnock asks the group if they think she would have been chosen for Little Mix if she were darker-skinned. A suggestion is made that Pinnock was a palatably light-skinned black person who ticked the girl-band diversity box. It’s uncomfortable viewing, as is a prickly but productive conversation between Pinnock and her fiancé Andre Gray about his colourist tweets, which have recently resurfaced since they first appeared in 2012 (and for which he has apologised).

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Race, Pop and Power interrogates what is perhaps the central issue of both celebrity and general online activism: the difference between “having the conversation” and taking action. Pinnock discusses this with her interviewees – from the hosts of the Trilly Trio podcast to Dawn Butler MP – but the question also feels embedded into the structure of the documentary. While the first half is largely Pinnock learning about the more nuanced elements of race politics (at one point she is actually taking notes on a Pukka pad) and reflecting on her own experiences, the second half focuses on her attempt to get Little Mix’s label, Sony Music, to address its diversity problem with more than empty gestures such as posting black squares on Instagram. She is, as she says early in the documentary, a black girl in the pop industry with a majority white fan base. And so it seems important that she learns along with the people watching, guiding them gently from vague interest to making a real difference. Bit by bit she proves her own point that nobody should shy away from speaking up because they are scared to say the wrong thing.

Bandmate Thirlwall, herself a light-skinned woman of colour, with Yemeni and Egyptian grandparents – and recently confused for Pinnock on the front page of Metro – suggests to Pinnock that any backlash is because people are aware of how much influence Little Mix have: they know the band will cause changes in attitude that they don’t support. Equally, it is clear that Little Mix have a unique impact because of their warmth. Despite ten years at the centre of the pop industry they have managed to retain their down-to-earth sensibilities; it is easy to feel an emotional connection with them just by watching this documentary. By the end of Race, Pop and Power, Pinnock has educated herself and her fans, pushed Sony to introduce diversity policies (despite the label’s refusal to let her speak to somebody on screen), and set up her own foundation, The Black Fund, which aims to help black people enter the creative industries. She has exposed many of the specific prejudices of the music industry – and pointed out the irony of the fact that it relies on black culture to function.

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All the while, Leigh-Anne Pinnock doesn’t try to be anything other than the pop star that she is. Snippets of Little Mix tours, clips of days in the studio and insights into her £5m Surrey mansion give reminders of this throughout. She bought the house, lest we forget, with money she earned by dancing in her pants. So what?

[see also: Men tend to think they’re the authority on music – but I have learned to fight my corner]