David Byrne, former Talking Heads frontman, has issued an apology for wearing brownface and blackface in a 1984 promotional video for the band’s iconic concert film Stop Making Sense.
In the clip, Byrne interviews himself in a split-screen scene, portraying different reporters. Byrne addressed the matter in a series of tweets on Tuesday.
“To watch myself in the various characters, including black and brown face, I acknowledge it was a major mistake in judgment that showed a lack of real understanding,” he wrote. “It’s like looking in a mirror and seeing someone else — you’re not, or were not, the person you thought you were.”
Byrne said he was “grateful” that a journalist unearthed the clip, and that he hopes “the past can be examined with honesty and accountability.”
Recently a journalist pointed out something I did in a promo video skit in 1984 for the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense. In the piece I appear as a number of different characters interviewing myself, and some of the characters portrayed are people of color.
The 66-year-old British-American musician has for the past several years oriented his career around progressive messaging. For instance, Byrne began ending each concert on a serious note two years ago, with a song that calls attention to Black victims of violence.
The Janelle Monae protest song Hell You Talmbout is a rhythmic chant that recalls people such as Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Sharonda Singleton. Gray died inside a police van while in the custody of Baltimore officers. Martin was fatally shot in a case that helped spark the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Garner died after being put in a chokehold by New York police officers. Singleton was killed in the July 2015 church shooting in Charleston, S.C.
The anthemic song’s chorus commands: “Say his name! Say her name!”
Byrne said at the time he’d written to Monae, asking how she’d feel about “a white man of a certain age” taking on the song. She gave him her blessing, saying she was “moved that he reached out and asked if he could include the song in his show.”
“I thought that was so kind of him and of course I said yes,” Monae told The Associated Press in 2018. “The song’s message and names mentioned need to be heard by every audience.”
Byrne is just one of multiple celebrities forced to grapple with similar old clips resurfacing.
Earlier this year, talk-show hosts Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon along with writer-comedian Tina Fey apologized for their use of blackface in the past. Kimmel has portrayed NBA player Karl Malone and other Black celebrities in skits, as had Fallon during his stint on Saturday Night Live. Episodes of fellow SNL alum Fey’s show 30 Rock included characters in blackface.
“I apologize for the pain they have caused,” Fey wrote of the episodes, which were pulled from circulation. “Going forward, no comedy-loving kid really needs to stumble on these tropes and be stung by their ugliness.”
American Utopia, director Spike Lee’s concert film of Byrne’s recent career-spanning Broadway performance of the same name, is slated to premiere at the Toronto International Film festival in September. On TIFF’s website, the project is described as a “vital call to connect with one another, to protest injustice, and, above all, to celebrate life.”