The mother of all British festivals Glastonbury, has built a peculiar place in the British nation’s heart. Curated since 1970 by the self-confessed still hippie Michael Eavis and held on his farm in the country’s rural south-west. Over the years it has extended far beyond a traditional musical context, in financially supporting environmental causes and becoming widely recognised as a pantheon of alternative contemporary arts.
It’s still the musical side however for which the festival is most recognised and – as became apparent following the announcement of a headline appearance for rapper and self-proclaimed “CEO of hip-hop” Jay-Z – it’s perhaps least bohemian tentacle.
Fans used to seeing the likes of The Arctic Monkeys topping the bill were clearly underwhelmed. Ticket sales – which the year before had been concluded within two hours of being made available – were at best sluggish. It took the ever reliable outer monologue of Oasis, muse Noel Gallagher, to provide the most controversial assessment of the rapper’s suitability, bluntly stating: “I’m not having hip-hop at Glastonbury”.
Gallagher’s statement may read like that of a man radically out of time but to briefly add some context, hip-hop is far more ingrained in pop culture in Britain than being a bona fide urban lifestyle. Whilst Jay-Z’s global celebrity status is unquestionable, despite its critical acclaim as a return to form, UK sales of the American Gangster album have been relatively modest. His bemused response to the controversy was undoubtedly justified – after all rappers headline festivals across the globe – but Britain’s pugnacious sense of cultural isolation was evidently lost on him.
In the end, of course he had the final say. Sandwiched between more traditional Worthy Farm head-liners Kings of Leon and The Verve and with Beyonce Knowles in the wings, the set opened with a profane video montage of Gallagher’s diss – “Sorry, but Jay-Z, I’m not fucking having him at Glastonbury” – to which, by way of introduction the subject, meekly responded with “My name is Jay-Z and I’m pretty fucking awesome”.
It didn’t end there either, further ridicule being harvested via a semi-cover of Oasis iconic Wonderwall, before the crunch of 99 Problems began proceedings in earnest. Designed to create headlines and carefully shorn of any special guest cameos to keep the focus totally on centre stage, it was a set rich in both entertainment and symbolism, saluted widely afterwards as the weekend’s defining moment. More importantly, it completely dismantled any remaining prejudice towards the genre.
And yet as the dust settled, the feeling that either consciously or not the whole thing had been something of pantomime, was hard to shake. Talking about the spat in this week’s New Musical Express, prominent UK DJ Tim Westwood, opined that the situation was in fact little more than a minor disagreement.
In comparing the gravity of the situation to other famous hip-hop beefs, he categorised the whole dispute as little more than a misunderstanding, stating, “This was fun”. “Noel’s comments were a rallying cause for Jay-Z, no question”. Gallagher himself has also this week appeared to distance himself from the controversy, saying “For the record, I like Jay Z”.
Any PR, as we also know, is good PR. Since Glastonbury both Oasis and Jay Z’s British sales have, according to music retail chain HMV, increased by hundreds of percent. Already a perennial favourite in pub jukeboxes across the country, Wonderwall last week re-entered the Top 200. By pure coincidence, Oasis new album Dig Out Your Soul is released on the band’s own label in October. It seems that the controversy may have definitively cemented Jay Z’s persona in Britain’s consciousness, whilst at the same time revitalising interest in the Mancunians, whose best work it could be argued is more than a decade behind them.
Oasis return to tour North America next month. Expect pickets, pro hip-hop demonstrations and strong ticket sales.