Ashley Banjo on Black Lives Matter, backlash and reality TV: ‘I’m a sceptic of cancel culture’

<span>Photograph: Mark Waugh/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Mark Waugh/Alamy

By the time he was 30, Ashley Banjo had spent nearly a decade in the public eye. Having pipped Susan Boyle to the Britain’s Got Talent (BGT) title with his dance group Diversity in 2009, he completed seven UK arena tours before transitioning back to television, with a slew of judging gigs on television dance shows, including Dancing on Ice, Got to Dance and Dance Dance Dance.

Nothing, however, could have prepared him for the backlash that followed Diversity’s appearance on BGT last September. The performance featured backing dancers in riot gear and the image of a white man standing on Banjo’s neck, a reference to the murder in Minneapolis of George Floyd, and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests that followed.

To date, it has racked up more than 30,000 complaints to the media regulator Ofcom, earning a spot as one of the top five most complained about moments in UK TV history.

“People were very quick to label it the Black Lives Matter performance but I wasn’t trying to make a political statement,” says Banjo, 33. “I wasn’t trying to cause reform or change policy, I was just bringing the conversation to a place that is natural for me: a stage.” Without the BLM element, he says, “it wouldn’t have been too political or too sad, or not right for light entertainment. What was ‘wrong’ is that I brought in Black Lives Matter.”

In doing so, he pushed his troupe into unfamiliar, politically charged terrain, and unleashed a torrent of online threats and abuse. As the face of the operation, Banjo became a particular target. On social media, he says, racial slurs were just “sitting there untamed” in stark contrast to the platforms’ crackdown on Covid-19 misinformation or women who “even hint at showing a nipple”.

Banjo holds less resentment against people who expressed disapproval respectfully, including those who complained to Ofcom. “Listen, there’s a lot of ignorance but I don’t think the 30,000 people are racist,” he says. “That’s such a sweeping generalisation. Probably a lot of those people are racist. But there’s a lot of people who felt uncomfortable, or who didn’t even see it and complained because their mate in the pub was complaining. I’ve had personal conversations with people who have apologised when they realised where they might have gone wrong.”

He also received encouragement from a few people he “wouldn’t normally hear from” following the BGT performance: Elton John contacted him, as did the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. “They called when everything was going on, just to check in and offer their support. [Meghan and Harry] understood racism in Britain and what it felt like to have a certain level of backlash … In the sea of negativity, it was a huge help.”

I was born to be a boxer but dad wasn’t having it – he said I could put my face to better use

I meet Banjo on a boat, moored outside an east London studio, where he is being photographed. Weary after a day of trying on outfits, he is now wearing the biggest item of clothing I have ever seen: a fluffy, grey fleece that drowns his heavyweight boxer physique. His dad actually was a heavyweight boxer: “It’s much harder to dance when you’re big,” says Banjo, who is 6ft 6in. “I was naturally born to be a boxer but dad wasn’t having it – he said I could put my face to better use.”

Banjo was born in Leytonstone, east London, but grew up in Essex. His Nigerian father, Funso, originally moved to Scotland to attend boarding school before settling in Forest Gate, while his mother, Dani, a dance teacher, was born and raised in Ilford. “I was in a buggy in the corner of the studio from when I was born,” he says. “I was a little kid seeing my mum at the front, putting everyone through stretches, being the sergeant major. She has always been that figure in my life,” he says of the woman who not only trained him as a dancer, but is still his manager.

At 14, Banjo started teaching dance himself. “We were an old-school circus family,” he beams. He met his wife, Francesca Abbott, two years later, teaching at his family’s Rainham studio. She also now works for Diversity Dance, the management company behind the troupe. “As a 20-year-old, knowing that if your ideas aren’t good enough, your brother, your mum, your wife don’t eat, that’s a life-shaping responsibility,” he says. It was also a responsibility he felt most intensely during the pandemic. Unable to tour, and with a one-year-old and a newborn baby to look after, he says he fell into a “dark hole”. “You can’t see any of your family, your businesses and jobs are crumbling around you. It was tough.”

As a child, he attended private school in Billericay, Essex, where he was academically successful and also head boy. But, he says, he “grew up straddling two worlds: being the only Black kid [at school]” before spending his evenings at the dance school where “everybody’s making ends meet … you mix that with being mixed-race”, he says. “My mum’s white, my nan’s white, my wife’s white, one of my kids has blue eyes, blond hair. You don’t like to think about it because they are my family, but we are not the same.”

At school, he experienced his fair share of bullying (“I was a young, mixed-race boy who danced and didn’t play football”) but because he was so much bigger than everyone else, the intimidation was never physical. He remembers an incident where a white pupil approached him “bragging about beating up Black and Asian people at the weekend, like as a hobby”. If he ever wanted to react violently, his boxer father’s warnings would ring loud in his ears: “People might think he was like, ‘Give him the right hook’ – but my dad was the opposite. He always taught us to turn the other cheek.”

Banjo says he formed Diversity by accident. In the mid-2000s, the only boy dancing on screen was Billy Elliot and so, feeling embarrassed, he and the other boys at his Rainham dance school would retreat into a backroom to practise their own “cool” routines. Two years later, they won BGT. “It was all organic; I’ve never held an audition,” he says.

But in 2009, inexperience wasn’t the only thing between them and the BGT title: “Susan Boyle had already been in The Simpsons,” he explains. “She was world-famous at that point, which took the pressure off.” Diversity, however, won the public vote, leaving a young Banjo to face the disappointed media scrum waiting to greet Boyle. “There was press there from around the world: America, Asia … it was her crowning moment. From the beginning, the first question was: ‘Why you?’ But I remember sitting there, thinking: ‘This is going to change my life completely.’” Banjo took time off from his degree (in physics and biology) to compete on BGT and, 12 years later, has yet to return to it. “In a way, I hope I don’t – but I would also love the chance to finish my degree,” he says.

Diversity in May 2009, two days before winning Britain’s Got Talent.
Diversity in May 2009, two days before winning Britain’s Got Talent. Photograph: Stuart Atkins/Shutterstock

Last summer, Banjo returned to BGT as a judge when Simon Cowell broke his back after falling off an electric bike. The competition is sometimes viewed as one of the “softer” reality shows, with only three performances demanded of participants in total, but Banjo acknowledges that many of the issues around the exploitation of vulnerable contestants and the lack of psychological support available, both on set and after filming, remain. “You’re still exposing ordinary people to the public … Diversity have been blessed. It’s very rare that big groups win those things; normally, you’re on your own. It sounds so dramatic, but it can honestly destroy you. That’s the only way to describe it.”

Did he feel any trepidation about working for Cowell, given the recent allegations of bullying and racism on the set of America’s Got Talent, which NBC has denied? “Personally, no,” he says. “I’m a sceptic of woke culture to the point where it’s cancel culture – and the speed of allegation is 100 times quicker than the speed of investigation. It’s very dangerous to be able to point a finger and change someone’s life.”

His latest project is an hour-long ITV documentary, Ashley Banjo: Britain in Black and White. “There will be a lot of assumptions, but I didn’t want to poke the hornet’s nest,” he says. Indeed, the show is not quite the journey into the dark heart of British prejudices that you might expect. Rather, he was driven to make the programme after “people saying to me, ‘I’ve never really thought about racism before’ or ‘I didn’t really know it existed’.“I’m learning too, but I have a platform – which means that I can do it with people watching,” he says.

His commitment to promoting Black history is also something of a personal crusade: “I want to get to a point when it is no longer [considered] ‘Black’ history,” he says. “I want this to be stuff that people just learn.” In the documentary, “this”, specifically, is the New Cross fire in 1981, in which 13 young people died in a house fire at a 16th birthday party. No one has ever been charged in connection with the fire, but the slogan “13 dead, nothing said” became a rallying cry for political action – in part due to the work of activists such as the writer and editor Leila Hassan Howe. “Meeting Leila was one of the most educational, eye-opening experiences of my life,” says Banjo. “The sheer hate was so overt back in the day, to the point where people were being murdered in fires. We’re only talking about a generation ago; it can’t just evaporate.”

It’s Banjo’s name in the title, but the documentary is almost a two-hander with the historian David Olusoga, whose production company, Uplands TV, was involved in making it. “I wanted to educate and inspire,” says Banjo. “But I wanted to come from a place of knowledge and historical context, not finger-pointing and assumption,” which is why he was keen to share the screen with the academic.

“We wanted to do something about now, and about how the past and the present have combined in this moment we’re living through,” says Olusoga. “This is Ashley’s story but it was also a moment that millions of people followed and were affected by ... Ashley understands the unique place he occupies in British culture. I think a lot of people are going to see a different side to him in this film.”

It clearly irks Banjo that his contentious appearance on BGT has become known as “the BLM performance”. “We’ve never given it a title, but I would call it The Great Realisation because that’s what happened to me personally.” If he had known how much backlash the piece would provoke, would he have tempered his approach? “I still would have done it,” he says. “But I would have been scared.”

“I didn’t intend to be an activist, but somehow here I am,” he says. “I’ve learned to believe in my own choices.”

Ashley Banjo: Britain in Black and White, 19 October at 9pm on ITV and ITVHub.