Rock 'N Roll, Visas and Whatever we Mean by Merit

By Nina Cerasuolo Magazine | June 22, 2023

Cover Illustration: A man playing a bass guitar. Edward Eyer / Pexels

Magazine reporter Nina Cerasuolo explores the fight against racial bias by comparing Little Richard’s career and the recent denial of visas to Ghanaian artists.

May, 2023. I am in the cinema, watching “Little Richard: I Am Everything” (still in theaters in June). Directed by Lisa Cortes, the documentary traces the life of rock ‘n roll star Richard Wayne Penniman, alias Little Richard. In 98 minutes, it chronicles everything between Penniman’s birth in 1932 as the son of a rigid pastor in Macon, Georgia, to his death of bone cancer in 2020, in Tennessee. The movie tells the story of how Penniman gradually became Little Richard: a story of glamor and torment, of ahead-of-its-time, unapologetic queerness and violence resulting in tragic self-repression. Friends, family and other artists come together, along with historic clips, to bring to light Little Richard’s extraordinary talent. The documentary provides a vivid depiction of the time, which was marked by Jim Crow racial segregation. At the time, a black musician could play in clubs but was not allowed to use the same toilet as his audience.

At one point, while the extraordinary (in the literal sense of outside of the ordinary, beyond the realm of normalcy) story of Little Richard develops on the screen in front of me, one particular clip strikes me. As I watch Little Richard play his hit song “Tutti Frutti”, the song that earned him the title of the “architect of rock ‘n roll”, I cannot help but think: “Isn’t this Elvis?”. The documentary answers immediately: Elvis Presley did make a cover of “Tutti Frutti”, selling records that far exceeded those of Little Richard. The only difference (if “only” can ever be an appropriate term, in this context) between the creator and the interpreter is race: Little Richard was black, whereas Elvis was white. Chronologically, it was Elvis who sang and moved like Little Richard; yet the logic of race, resistant even in the face of excellence, leaves us to confuse the master with the apprentice.

Two days later, I’m on Instagram, mindlessly scrolling when something comes up that  grabs my attention. Italian magazine Rivista Studio titles “The visas denied to three Ghanaian citizens invited to the Venice Biennale have become a political case”. For the first time in over forty years, this year’s Venice Biennale (the world-renowned architecture exhibition held in Venice, Italy, from May to November 2023) is dedicated to Africa. The exhibition, titled “The Laboratory of The Future”, was curated by Afro-descendant academic and architect Lesley Lokko, who hired six personal collaborators who were supposed to travel to Italy from Ghana. However, the Italian embassy in the country refused visas to three of them, on the grounds that they would be “unessential youths”. To this day, the three artists have not been able to travel to Italy, and Lokko has interpreted the embassy’s decision as having been made to “make a good impression on the politically conservative Italian government”.

In that “unessential” lies the same logic of invisibilization that made me think Tutti Frutti was Elvis Presley’s. A rejection on the grounds of being “unessential” confirms immigrants are only worth welcoming when “essential”, “exceptional” and, at the same time, it contradicts it.

Being exceptionally skilled is not enough; talent cannot do much when faced with the geopolitics of race. Some passports and the visas that come with them are a formality; others are destined for constant scrutiny, to an ever-lasting request for permission to enter, permission to be seen. The rhetoric of excellence, then, is unmasked for what it is: a fragile attempt to hide race behind merit, reinforcing a model minority myth to avoid self-awareness.

“A rejection on the grounds of being “unessential” confirms immigrants are only worth welcoming when “essential”, “exceptional” and, at the same time, it contradicts it.”

Nina Cerasuolo is a university student in Amsterdam. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of The Amsterdammer. 

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