Leonie Hayden was editor of Rip It Up until its sale to Grant Hislop in 2013. She writes about the experience of watching a publication she once loved disappear from view – until it published an already-infamous review of the film Dope.
Rip It Up has long been redundant as a pop cultural touchstone. Many will argue that has been the case since Murray Cammick relinquished the reins in the ’90s. God knows I tried during my time as editor, but I was operating in a publishing landscape with diminishing resources that had lost much of its ability to attract advertisers – or connect with an audience that had a buffet of free online content at their fingertips.
When Grant Hislop bought the title from Satellite Media in 2013, I was not offered a place within his new publishing company. He preferred to give the role of editor to his daughter Tyler. I didn’t anticipate anything good coming of the purchase. Call it sour grapes – I was certainly in a bad place at the time, having just been made redundant a second time. Hislop had already acquired another title I used to edit, The Groove Guide, and had turned it into the most banal pile of scrap paper to ever take up space on a café counter. Despite his claims that he would be returning Rip It Up to its former glory as a grassroots, free monthly ‘zine, I didn’t necessarily trust that the manager of Op Shop and Autozamm would make a particularly astute music commentator.
On September 28 Rip It Up published a review of the film Dope on their website, in which co-editor Andrew Johnstone used the word ‘nigger’ five times and made outrageous statements such as “a Nigger likes bling and deals drugs” as well as “Actually, a Nigger is just like a white person”. Understandably, everyone in New Zealand with a Twitter handle and a Facebook account reacted… unfavourably.
I feel bad for Andrew Johnstone. He isn’t a bad guy; he’s a bad writer. Worst of all, he’s so out of his depth he doesn’t seem to realise what he’s done wrong. Hislop has defended the piece, saying they’re not a bigoted organisation, and offers as proof the fact they have published pieces about “the TPPA and more recently abuse against women.” Since when is it the remit of a music and pop culture title to write about the TPPA and domestic violence? More to the point, writing about those issues doesn’t change a word of what was published. It’s a bewildering editorial policy which has placed too much responsibility in the hands of someone that is clearly ill-equipped to deal with such weighty issues.
Johnstone says his point was a positive one – that racial stereotyping is bogus. Context being everything, he could have easily used his own cultural background (the Herald reports that he is “of Polynesian descent”, without being more specific) as a platform to explore his own relationship to the word ‘nigger’, but this never happens. At the very least he could have explained that his liberal use throughout the review was a reflection of the liberal use of the word throughout the film – that would have been a good place to start and could have been a clever device had it been delivered by someone, well, clever.
At any rate, his use of ‘nigger’ isn’t the aspect I have the most issue with. I listen to a lot of rap and hip hop, I’m fairly inured to it in music and pop culture, although as a writer, even as a person of colour, I am aware that it is not my word to use.
My problem is with the claim that the film’s premise is “a Nigger is just like a white person”. It shows a fundamental misunderstanding of cultural identity to think that ‘white culture’ is the ideal marginalised communities aspire to. To many hundreds of minority communities that have dedicated considerable time and attention to the matter, white patriarchal society is not the benchmark of cultural enlightenment; it is simply the dominant one.
I do believe the major failing is that of the publisher. You can’t put someone who writes poorly in charge of a nationally distributed publication, fail to provide support and infrastructure, then act surprised when he writes something stupid.
I feel like I’ve watched a vibrant, beloved child grow into a lumbering idiot that pushes other kids over in the playground—and other former editors and contributors feel the same. What advertisers were left I’ve no doubt will now flee like spooked pigeons, and I can only hope that it is the nail in the coffin that means my cherished RIU can finally RIP.