During my social media wanderings recently, I took note of two Black Britons – very different from each other. Now, these are not your average Black Britons. They are celebrities. It always seemed to me that if you were black and living in the UK, you were either (A) a celebrity, or B) of no significance at all. When I was living there, most of the black people I knew – mostly of Caribbean heritage (read: Jamaican) – were certainly not (A) – but trying hard to be much more than (B). I hope that there are more living there now who are somewhere in the middle; doing well, even if not famous.
So firstly, an earnest young man called Akala spoke on a video. I looked him up and discovered he is a 32-year-old rapper from Kentish Town in North London – a pleasant enough and quite diverse area of North London. In the video, Akala enthused to a white man (who was trying to look very hip) that Bob Marley, Marcus Garvey and Usain Bolt are all from the same village, and how amazing is that! Well, it would be amazing, if it were actually true. Actually, Mr. Akala, Bob was born in Nine Miles, Marcus Garvey in St. Ann’s Bay (a town) and Bolt was born in Sherwood Content, Trelawny. Never mind. He did get one thing right though: Jamaica does “punch above its weight.”
And I like Akala’s comments: “My mum’s a white Scottish woman and my dad’s a black Jamaican, so for my life not to be about bringing people together would almost be a contradiction in terms. I want to reach everybody but do it truthfully and honestly. That’s got to be your ultimate aim as an artist – that’s what the best artists do. I’m not saying I’m there yet, but that’s what I aspire to.” Described as “the often angry child of a broken home,” he experienced British racism in bucket loads. He embraces the word “edutainment” – which we are also rather fond of in Jamaica these days; it is effective, if done well. Akala was wheeled out for Black History Month (yes, they have BHM in the UK now) by the Oxford Union last year, and you can find his address on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WUtAxUQjwB4 He is doing “out of the box” stuff like the Hip Hop Shakespeare Company, and he likes the word “interconnectedness,” which I am rather fond of, too. His website is http://www.akalamusic.moonfruit.com
Then there is The Black Farmer (http://www.theblackfarmer.com). His name is Wilfred Emmanuel Jones. He was born in Clarendon, and moved to the UK as a small boy, growing up with eight siblings in Birmingham in a small terraced house. He did not do well at school – nor in military service, either it seems – describing himself as “a black guy with a bad attitude” in his youth. He began working in the catering business and then did well in the world of television as a director and producer of food and drink programs for the BBC. Mr. Jones stood as a Conservative candidate for the rural town of Chippenham – yes, he’s a Tory! – in the 2010 general elections. He loves all things traditionally British, he says – even the Morris Dancers – and the rural way of life. Oh, and flamenco dancing.
Like many Jamaicans, it was always Jones’ dream to own a piece of land. With great determination (and it really did take enormous grit, I am quite sure) he had made enough money to buy a small farm near Launceston in Devon, at age forty. A few years later, he re-mortgaged the property (he was unable to get a bank loan, he said, because bankers were wary of black businesses) to start his food venture, The Black Farmer brand. It is going from strength to strength; last year’s turnover was around fifteen million pounds. He started with pork sausages and then branched out into meatballs, organic and free range chicken, bacon, eggs and cheese. His products are gluten free – a big selling point. His marketing is spot on, and he is good at it.
The rural conservative Mr. Jones and the edgy, urban Akala are from different generations and one suspects have widely differing political opinions. Yet, they may have more in common than meets the eye – a philosophy of harmony and the “oneness” of humanity. On his website Mr. Jones says: “The importance of sharing our stories unites us, makes us stronger. I find people and their stories endlessly fascinating and enriching. I never stop learning and being amazed at what drives and inspires us. We can learn so much from each other.”
Sadly, The Black Farmer has been suffering from Acute Myeloid Leukaemia; and a stem cell implant (quite a rare thing, I believe) brought on another rare disease which has caused him to lose his skin pigmentation. I really hope he pulls through, as he is only sixty years old.
So I’ve started following a Facebook page (also a website) called The British Blacklist – the name sounds like it’s trying to be smart but ends up sounding rather negative, somehow. I was hoping for a little more than soul singers, rappers and sportsmen/women; but the site describes itself as “the UK’s only database of black British talent.” There’s something about the word “talent” that does not appeal to me, at all; it simply means you have a skill or an aptitude for something. It also sounds patronizing. In the British context, it reminds me of the painful talent competitions at our local youth club, or at Butlin’s Holiday Camp. There are those embarrassing television shows like America’s Got Talent or the equivalent. In beauty pageants the talent part is where the beauties show they are more than just pretty faces and bodies. I like to think that creativity and innovation in the arts is what this website is all about. Hopefully.
Delving into the “writers” section of the Blacklist, I see Kei Miller has been co-opted as British. There are some others I am not familiar with (except for Zadie Smith) and will have to explore further; I had expected to find more. As for Ben Okri (Nigerian-born, who moved to the UK when a little baby) – his novel The Famished Road took me into another world – African magical realism, if you will, with an infusion of political corruption – from which I emerged a different person. The book won the 1991 Man Booker Prize.
By the way, I’ve discovered that the actor Idris Elba – born in Hackney, where I used to live – is a major fan of Arsenal Football Club, like me. So, of course, I now follow him on Twitter. Elba has also expressed the view that if Tottenham Hotspur wins the English Premier League this season, he will be physically ill. Indeed, a man after my own heart. He and I can vomit together.
But I digress. I will return to this topic as I discover more interesting black Britons (apart from my family members, that is – who are always interesting).
One thing I must do, though, is to raise my glass to the Black Britons: young and old, struggling and successful, aspiring and no longer aspiring. It’s not easy being Black and British. I want Black Britons to be more than just “talents.” And I know they are so much more, if given half the chance.