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Speech Debelle: Arts Council is punishing me over racism legal battle, says rapper

Speech Debelle  ( Ty Faruki )
Speech Debelle ( Ty Faruki )

An award-winning rapper who’s facing legal action from Arts Council England (ACE) following her allegations of racial discrimination has condemned a “vindictive” lawsuit in an exclusive interview with The Independent.

In an unprecedented move, ACE is seeking legal costs of up to £20,000 from Speech Debelle after she brought an unsuccessful employment tribunal case against them over racial discrimination last year.

Speech Debelle, whose real name is Corynne Elliot, became the second woman to win the prestigious Mercury Prize in 2009 for her Speech Therapy album and began working at the council as a relationship manager for three years.

In September 2021, she left the role and brought a claim against the charity for racial discrimination, bullying and harassment that was not upheld. Now, it is seeking to recover the money it spent fighting Ms Elliot’s claim.

“It’s retaliatory discrimination,” the artist, 40, told The Independent. “What they want to do is punish and make an example of me. It’s a tactic. Despite the internal issues within the organisation, their concern is what is seen by the public.

“It's not about whether what happened to me is true or not, whether what happened to the other people who complain about racism is true or not, it's about ‘we cannot show that we have a culture of racism’; that is ACE’S concern.

“A lot of people cannot afford to fight them in court and not everyone has my profile. I’m being made an example of because ACE doesn’t want anybody else to follow suit and hold them to account.”

Speech Debelle in 2009 (pa)
Speech Debelle in 2009 (pa)

Launched in 1994, ACE is a registered charity and a non-departmental public body of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

An independent review commissioned by the Arts Council and published in June 2023, revealed issues of racism within the organisation, highlighting that Black, Asian and ethnically diverse staff had faced racism and discrimination that had not been dealt with consistently within the organisation.

“Almost all staff colleagues of Black, Asian and ethnically diverse backgrounds who contributed to the review shared negative experiences at the Arts Council in relation to their race,” the report read.

The organisation has never previously sought costs following a tribunal claim against them, a spokesperson confirmed to The Independent; this is an exceptional case that could force the rapper and her legal team to pay £20,000 each.

The rapper slammed the “David versus Goliath” case against ACE but says she remains adamant about fighting back.

“This battle really is a ‘David versus Goliath’ case,” said Ms Elliot, who says the case has had a financial and emotional toll on her.

“I wouldn’t say I’m optimistic about the outcome - I know that I’m going up against some giants. ACE’s team are not just your everyday barristers and solicitors - but justice is very important to me.

“That’s why I’ve been doing music for years; my second album was called ‘Freedom of Speech’, it was about revolution. There’s nothing about me that is going to be okay with injustice.”

 (AP)
(AP)

An Arts Council England spokesperson said: “The unanimous judgment of the tribunal was that the claims against Arts Council England were dismissed and the tribunal found that Arts Council staff acted professionally and appropriately.

“Whilst we will not comment further as proceedings are ongoing, we can confirm that we take our responsibility as custodians of taxpayers’ money seriously, and are therefore seeking to recover legal costs.

“Our approach is based on the exceptional comments of the judge on the merits and conduct of the claimant’s case, which was dismissed entirely on every point.”

Ms Elliot is representing herself in this case and crowdfunding towards legal costs.

This article was amended on the day of publication. It previously said that Arts Council England was trying to recover costs of up to £40,000 from Speech Debelle, but that was inaccurate. The council is trying to recover £20,000 from Debelle and the same amount from her legal team.