Last week, London's new Mayor Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson made a pitch in support of the upcoming London Mela, a major festival celebrating British Asian arts and culture that some have called the "Asian Glastonbury." Speaking at the press launch for the festival, which will be held in early August, Johnson urged Londoners to "get on down" to the festival and "strut [their] funky stuff." He acknowledged that he had merely a "passing" acquaintance with bhangra and reminisced about his effort to learn some moves at a cousin's wedding in Delhi:
I was told you had to do "lightbulb lightbulb, motorbike motorbike." I practiced a great deal, and I had my kurta pajama, and my chappals, and my everything else, and I thought I looked absolutely tremendous. And everybody else turned up in a suit. [link]
Since becoming mayor back in the spring, Johnson has been all about the melas, making one of his first major public appearances as mayor at a mela to celebrate Vaisakhi in Trafalgar Square. Perhaps Johnson's mela yatra is an effort to fulfill a campaign promise. At one point during a campaign radio debate hosted by the BBC Asian Network's Nihal Arthanayake, Johnson, whose current wife is half-Indian and whose great-great-grandfather was Turkish, vowed not to be "out-ethnic[ed]":
Nihal Arthanayake: "What part of your Turkish culture have you retained?"
Boris Johnson: A lively … interest in Turkey.
Nihal: How often do you go and see your family?
Boris: It turns out I've got plenty of Turkish cousins living and working in London.
Nihal: Did you just find out when you needed it to get the ethnic vote?
Boris: No, I'm happy to say that lots of Turkish relations have been coming and going in our family for a long time.
Nihal: Are you down with the ethnics?
Boris: I'm down with the ethnics. You can't out-ethnic me, Nihal.
Nihal: How many bhangra gigs have you been to over the last few years? Who's your favourite bhangra artiste?
Boris: I can't remember. But my children are a quarter Indian, so put that in your pipe and smoke it.
Unfortunately for Johnson, things have not been entirely "balle balle" in the "down with the ethnics" department. During his mayoral campaign, Johnson was dogged by allegations of racism that prompted charges that he would "destroy the city's unity." The allegations in part arose from a 2002 newspaper column in which Johnson characterized crowds greeting the Queen in Commonwealth nations as "flag-waving piccaninnies" and asserted that Tony Blair would similarly find himself greeted during a visit to Congo by "tribal warriors ... break[ing] out in watermelon smiles to see the big white chief touch down." Johnson also found himself apologizing to Papua New Guinea for comparing leadership struggles within British political parties to "Papua New Guinea-style orgies of cannibalism and chief-killing." (Johnson explained that remark as having been informed by a "'fantastic' Time Life book" depicting "tribesman in Papua New Guinea in the 1950s or 1960s engaged in 'primitive warfare and killing.'")
Since becoming mayor, the race rows have continued to trail Johnson and his administration. Last month, Johnson fired a senior aide who reportedly dismissed a suggestion that Johnson's election might prompt Caribbean immigrants to emigrate back to their countries of origin by responding, "Well, let them go if they don't like it here."
These comments may or may not be evidence of racism on the part of Johnson and his administration, but they have led him to be described by Calvin Trillin as a "virtuoso of saying he's sorry." Johnson also has been dubbed by one British television journalist as "the Fumble-ator":
(No word as yet from Governor Schwarzenegger on his evaluation of Johnson's dancing abilities.)
Post your comments on Boris Johnson's record on race and the ethnics or on the London Mela below.