With its singalong rhymes and upbeat tales, Rastamouse is like many other children’s TV shows–except this one has sparked a bitter row about racism.
The patois-speaking puppet, who fights crime and spreads love and respect, has been a huge hit with the BBC’s younger viewers since the show hit screens at the end of last month.
He has dreadlocks, a Rasta Tam (woolly hat), rides a skateboard and uses words like “irie” (happy) and “wagwan” (what’s going on?).
His mission is to “make a bad ting good”. And the stories feature his all-rodent reggae band, Da Easy Crew, who hang out at the Nuff Song recording studio in Mouseland.
Celebrity fans include Lily Allen, Dizzee Rascal, Adrian Chiles, Radio One DJ Rob Da Bank and actress Tamzin Outhwaite. But the series has also provoked hundreds of complaints–some parents fear it is racist and encourages the use of slang.
One concerned mother on the Mumsnet forum said: “I’m most worried about her saying words like ‘Rasta’ . . . My child is white and I feel if she was to say this to another child who was not that it would be seen as her insulting the other child.”
And a parent on Bumpandbaby.com said: “Just watched a couple videos . . . I think it is racist.”
One of those unhappy with the show is Levi Roots, the man behind the Reggae Reggae sauce brand.
Levi told the Mirror: “I was asked to do the voice of the mouse, but I said no. I am a Rastafarian and I wouldn’t want to portray a Rastafarian as a mouse. For me it is about integrity.
“I’d never portray a Rasta as a pig or a mouse as I don’t think the values of being a Rasta are served by that. If it was a lion that would be very different, a lion is strong symbol in Rastafarianism.
“Personally, I do not support this representation of us. But we do need representation on TV and as this is the first it should be given a chance. People need to decide whether it is right or wrong for themselves. I have seven children and I would most certainly not want them to watch this show.”
Rastafarian poet Benjamin Zephaniah is less critical. He said: “It’s not the greatest representation of the community, and the accents are not very accurate–probably because people wouldn’t understand a real one. But it’s the first, so of course it is going to attract criticism
“The fact that he’s a mouse isn’t great. If you asked the community 99% would want a lion, but so would English football fans.
“On the whole, I’d rather have Rastamouse than not.”
But psychologist Delroy Constantine-Simms has slated the show, saying: “Rastamouse is no better than the new sambo–golliwog in drag. No other ethnic group in Britain would allow their religion to be represented by a rodent. Can you imagine a Jewish person writing Jewie the Crime Fighting Pig? Or a follower of the Hindu faith endorsing Hindi the Crime Fighting Cow?
“Or a book from a Muslim writer titled Jihad Jane? It just would not happen.”
The row has even got as far the Voice newspaper, which aims to serve the black community. Its entertainment editor Davina Hamilton said: “We should applaud Rastamouse–whose mission of ‘making a bad ting good’ is wholly positive–as a first for children’s programming. And we should use it as an opportunity to encourage broadcasters to create other programmes and dramas that reflect elements of black culture.”
According to the BBC, six viewers have complained that Rastamouse stereotypes black people, while another 95 have complained about the language in the show.
Radio One DJ Reggie Yates, who is the voice of Rastamouse, has defended the show.He said: “When I was a kid there were never any cartoons that felt relevant.
“Rastamouse is an amazing opportunity for me to be involved in a show that my nieces and nephews watch and think is really cool.
“There are a million and one children’s television programmes where all of the characters are either racially ambiguous or very European–nobody bats an eyelid about those shows.
“But the minute you do something different, naturally, it earns attention. That’s not a bad thing, but it would be nice to get to a point where people just say: ‘Oh great, there’s another show that represents a different part of our community’.”
Rastamouse’s love of cheese has also sparked controversy. Some adult viewers have claimed on Twitter that it is code for marijuana. But creators Genevieve Webster and Michael De Souza insist Rastamouse does not endorse drugs. Genevieve added: “There is no innuendo intended.”
Despite the controversy, Rastamouse is set to go global. The Rastamouse Company has licensed the 52 episodes to broadcasters in Poland, Australia, Canada and Israel with a range of merchandise to follow.
Rastamouse has also signed a deal with EMI to release an album of reggae tracks. He has a debut single out, Ice Popp, and a Facebook group: Let’s get Rastamouse in the Charts.
He may not be a lion, but he is already a roaring success.