On February 15, New York City rapper Princess Nokia performed in the UK at Cambridge University’s Charity Fashion Show, where her efforts to help raise money for the disabled took a disturbing turn. According to front-row witnesses quoted by The Cambridge Student, the artist born Destiny Frasqueri allegedly asked an audience member, a white man, if he was being disrespectful, threw a drink on him, and leapt from the stage before hitting him three times. Returning to the stage, Frasqueri threw another drink towards the crowd and declared, “That’s what you do when a white boy disrespects you.” She then walked off the stage, ending the concert just two and a half songs into her high-energy romp of a set.
The unnamed audience member who was attacked told the Student, “I was standing in the audience and was told by a fellow audience member that the name of the performer was ‘Abigail.’ Given that I was enjoying the performance, I shouted out ‘Let’s go Abigail!’ After I shouted this, she came down from the stage. She slapped me and threw drinks on me.” Backstage, Frasqueri told two students—Richelle George (a member of FLY, Cambridge’s network for women and non-binary people of color) and Jason Okundaye (VP of the Cambridge University Student Union’s Black and Minority Ethnic Campaign), that she could “see him mouthing dirty obscenities like, ‘Show me your tits.’” In a blog post, George and Okundaye expressed solidarity with Frasqueri: “We must emphasize that the humiliation experienced by Princess Nokia onstage is all too common in the daily experiences of women of color at Cambridge.” (Multiple requests for comment from Frasqueri went unreturned at the time of publication.)
Frasqueri’s incident is just the latest in a long line of incidents in which women (especially women of color) are objectified, sexualized, and harassed in the course of performing or otherwise just doing their jobs. It remains impossible for women to get onstage (or hell, walk down the street) without the threat of men calling out to comment on their bodies. But Frasqueri’s response is reflective of a broader trend in the way that we respond to politicized hate speech at this point in time. And make no mistake—in 2017, a white man sexually harassing a brown woman on stage at a black-tie charity event at one of Britain’s most storied academic institutions is most definitely political speech. Particularly when you consider what a Princess Nokia set can do, how her shows shake with empowerment when she adopts the “girls to the front” sentiment of Kathleen Hanna and asks her fellow women of color to heed her words.
While the student that Frasqueri struck disputes her account, it’s clear she felt her safety was compromised, and she responded to that threat with violence. Whether one condones or condemns her response, it’s no longer an outlying method of dealing with threats. Punks have been fighting Nazis pretty much since the genre was formed, but one need not look all that far back for evidence. As recently as 2013, the Dropkick Murphys’ Ken Casey felt the need to beat the hell out of a fan who had joined the crowd onstage during a St. Patrick’s Day performance, only to start throwing up a Nazi salute.
Ever since Richard Spencer’s on-camera face-smashing got meme’d into immortality, the previously rhetorical question of, “Is it OK to punch a Nazi?” became a legitimate part of contemporary political discourse. The music world was not exempt from this—lovable beardo percussionist Thor Harris even posted a short PSA on Twitter, in which he instructed proper Nazi-punching technique. His sentiment drew some condemnation (though technically not a Twitter suspension as suspected), sure, but he also received a fair bit of praise from more liberal corners. And when Milo Yiannopoulos was greeted at Berkeley by violent protests, the outrage drew condemnation from the President—but the message that he was not welcome rang loud and clear.
Of course, yelling “show your tits” at a woman onstage is not a Nazi act. But the groundswell of public (or at least online) support for Nazi-punching raises the question of where to draw the line. If it’s OK to punch a Nazi, is it OK to punch someone spouting hate speech towards women? Or even just disrespect and harassment? Spencer and Yiannopoulos are just two (admittedly high-profile) voices preaching anti-inclusive messages, but their sentiments are now being broadcast from the highest levels of government. The fact that it took until this week for Trump to bother commenting on the rise of anti-Semitism is concerning but not all that surprising, given his administration’s policies targeting the bodies of women, Muslims, and people of color. This political environment has emboldened a culture of bigotry and discrimination, and as the concert in Cambridge proves, it’s not just limited to the U.S. In a country where half of women say they have been sexually harassed at work, is it any surprise that a college student might feel comfortable enough to sexually harass a musician on stage as she tried to do her job?
When a young Nazi sympathizer passing out white power flyers on the Cal Poly campus was greeted recently with a fist to the face by an anonymous masked avenger, his boldness instantly receded. He declined to even file a report or even give his name to police. This line of logic suggests that audience members will harass a performer only if they think they’re safe from physical harm. Is the Cambridge student likely to repeat his actions in the future with the sting of Frasqueri’s jabs reverberating in his memory? In theory, an eye for an eye is an ugly way for humanity to live. But history also proves that oppressors are not reformed by simply asking nicely.