Why Stormzy and Lukaku’s Case of Mistaken Identity Says More About Racism Than We Want to Admit

This story will feel all too familiar for Black men in Britain.

July 12th 2017

Much to the amusement of the Internet, an Irish newspaper has mistaken Stormzy for Romelu Lukaku. The grime artist’s photo was placed alongside an article in the Evening Herald about the new Manchester United forward; cue widespread derision on Twitter.

It’s an error that has been made before, with both Stormzy and Lukaku being dark-skinned and well over six foot, and it’s a similarity that the MC has mentioned himself, even playfully at one point. In one of the videos for his hugely popular Wicked Skengman series, he refers to himself as the “grime scene’s Lukaku”. However, when he was made aware of the current confusion, he tweeted that “I don’t find none of this funny btw…”

This figures; after all, jokes are rarely fun when you’re the butt of them. It’s tempting to view the ignorance of the Evening Herald with nothing but pity and mockery, but there’s a little more going on here.

Most obviously, it’s extremely careless, not to mention disrespectful. Stormzy has had reason to be wary of the misuse of his image before – only as recently as March this year, the music magazine NME put his picture on its cover without his permission, a decision for which he quickly took the publication to task on social media. The Evening Herald, to its credit, issued a full and frank apology later that day. Alan Steenson, the paper’s editor, wrote that “to be honest, we are totally embarrassed, and want to say sorry to all involved and our readers for the error. We will keep our eye on the ball in future.”

Though there is hopefully no lasting harm done, this episode struck an unfortunate note.
It’s reminiscent of all those times when, as a black person going through a country where there aren’t that many black people, the locals will try to make themselves laugh by noting your resemblance to others who share your vague ethnicity. This might seem harmless enough to some – a light-hearted way of breaking the ice. Beneath that ice, though, lies an element of discomfort at someone who is visibly different. When people say that “all of you look the same” – which was more than a little implicit in the newspaper’s mistake – then you sometimes wonder what other package of stereotypes they have in mind about you. Stormzy is famous now, but he will well know what various preconceptions there are about men who are young, tall, athletic, and dark-skinned.

“Most black people aren’t famous and, for them, this type of occurrence is all-too-common and uncomfortable.”

Those preconceptions are sometimes innocuous – on several occasions, I have been told of my resemblance to Don Cheadle and De La Soul’s Posdnuos (both of which are ridiculous comparisons – we’re essentially all just black men with greying hair), and I have a friend who has been offered copious amounts of drink because people thought he was Sammy Davis Junior’s cousin. Every now and then, though, they are more damaging. There are the assumptions that, just because you’re a man of visibly African heritage walking through a particular part of town, you must be selling drugs – an attitude which can lead people to step into your path as you’re strolling past, interrupt you as you’re peacefully listening to some music, and ask you where you can get weed. Or, more darkly, there are the times when the police are looking for someone who has committed a crime in the area, and they begin stop-searching every black man in sight, regardless of how little they look like the actual perpetrator. As Jeru the Damaja once rapped so concisely on “Invasion”, a track from his 1996 album “Wrath of the Math”:

“Police all on my dick like I shot somebody/’Cause of these big ass lips and I rock my locks knotty…/Under pressure, they got me under pressure/What’s your name, your address and phone number/Your occupation? Come down to the station/There’s been a robbery, they claim a nigga fit the description.”

This is why, then, black people may get somewhat frustrated or upset when they are seen as indistinguishable from one another, as interchangeable – because, typically and historically, very little good has come from such confusion. On the face of it, it’s merely a funny case of one famous person being mistaken for another. But most black people aren’t famous – a status Stormzy himself has only acquired fairly recently – and, for them, this type of occurrence is an all-too-common and uncomfortable reality.

It’s good, then, that the Evening Herald didn’t make light of their error, and contribute further to the mist of ignorance that still swirls around this issue. It’s just a shame that it fell to Stormzy to speak out, and to make the laughter feel a little more hollow in so many throats.

@Okwonga