The history of Black People in Britain goes as far back as the Middle Ages, possibly even further. British Historian David Olusoga recently documented these obscured histories in his 2016 book, Black and British: A Forgotten History. The richness and diversity of histories from the original coloniser island (Britain) was also recently popularised in Reni Eddo-Lodge polemic Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. Reni documents a modern history of Black people in Britain and their impacts across politics, social causes and culture, bringing an often erased history to mainstream consciousness. Her podcast is also worth a listen — I personally love adding it to the end of emails after interactions with exploitative white people, a young drop and dip so my time isn’t further wasted explaining. Issa vibe.
Black presence in Britain, is a long and complex history — as most are — but as to be expected, there are an incredible amount of inspiring individuals who have changed the game and the political, social and artistic landscapes of this cold little Babylon. When I say Black people, I mean of Black and African origin, no political blackness inna dis writing.
And so in reflection of U.S. Black History Month 2020, I spoke to nine artists of multiple disciplines from across the country about the icons, dead and alive, who have influenced the current cultural climate in Babylon Britain and in turn influenced their artistic careers and trajectories today.
I spoke to these modern day icons because I've seen the impact their work is having across Black communities in Britain. I believe wholeheartedly that we are always standing on the shoulders of those who came before us. Highlighting and paying homage is not only crucial to avoiding erasure, but also to acknowledging our lineage in a way that humbles ego and feeds the spirit. We’ve been about this and we've been about. Always, and together. Plus, I’m a whore for a good history, herstory, ourstory, so let’s jump in.
1. Lex Amor, inspired by Linton Kwesi Johnson
In 1980 – 1981, Dub Poet and all round real one Linton Kwesi Johnson (LKJ) published the work "Inglan Is A Bitch." Linton’s work has always discussed the political and cultural impact of being Afro-Caribbean in the UK. In an article from 2014, when speaking on his practice and career, LKJ proclaimed, "Writing was a political act and poetry was a cultural weapon ..."
When talking to musician and rapper Lex Amor on LKJ’s legacy and impact on her, she cites the poem *‘Inglan Is A Bitch’ as being one of the first “I heard that summarised the complexity of my experience in this country.” She further explains, “In ‘Time Come,’ Linton Kwesi Johnson speaks to the inevitability of rage — that has always stayed with me; the similarities that span across generations are both disconcerting and comforting. Both our generations have attempted to mute anger, both generations have been unable to do so. Work like that of Linton Kwesi Johnson’s gives a voice to the headlines and history books — it humanises our history and urges us to do the same.”
Lex Amor continued, “Not only can art articulate the thoughts and feelings of a community, it also serves as a tool to archive history — to mark a footprint, be defiant and act against erasure. His voice, for me, spans across generations and speaks to me in a way you have to be from here to get; It’s cold, it’s shit — but it’s ours; Not even because we want it, but because we’re here. And we are, here.”
Lex Amor is a musician from London who first surfaced in 2016 with her characterful slant on descriptive hip-hop. Her measured delivery is already cultivating a growing group of listeners, whether they first heard her as part of the SXWKS Collective or on her monthly radio show, Mellowdic, on REPREZENT Radio.
Find out more about Linton Kwesi Johnson here.
2. Travis Alabanza, inspired by Zsarday
In 1992, over 10 years later after Linton Kwesi Johnson work was published, we will now explore The Black Cap Pub in Camden. The Regina Rong Show — a regular and dearly loved drag cabaret show — is in full effect when Zsarday AKA “The Skinny B***h” takes the stage to belt an incredible rendition of Jennifer Holiday’s “And I Am Telling You.” The whole audience is captivated by Zsarday’s performance, and it’s easy to see how such an iconic and mastered performer continues to inspire artists today.
The life and times of Zsarday is very poorly documented and continues to show the erasure of the Black trans community across the world and on our doorstep in London. I caught up with Travis Alabanza, a London, via Bristol, based writer, theatre maker and performer who spoke on the impact of the late Zsarday and the impact of not archiving her legacy.
They said, “The late Zsarday was a Black trans performer and queen that performed across London clubs in the late ‘80s and ‘90s. I'm inspired by the performers who acted like the clubs of London were The 02 arena, who could galvanise crowds to rapturous applause with a simple movement. So often, these performers are left un-archived, and for me, learning about Zsarday reminded me that we have always been here — even if we do not always know it.”
Travis’ work, surrounding the experience of living as a trans and gender non-conforming Black person has seen them perform both nationally and internationally, including venues such as The Tate, V&A, Oxford and Harvard University, as well as in platforms such as The Guardian, Dazed and Vice. Their recent critically acclaimed show Burgerz, toured the UK and Europe and won a Total Theatre Award for best emerging show. In 2019 they were placed in The Dazed 100 list, as well as The Evening Standard listing them as one of the 25 most influential people under 25.
Read Zsarday’s Obituary here.
3. Weyland Mckenzie, inspired by Don LettsIn 1975, Don Letts, the British film director, DJ and musician who first came to prominence as the videographer for The Clash, set up Acme Attractions. The moment was the beginning of an era still influencing Reggae & Dub worldwide today.
Don is a multi-hyphenate if ever there was one. From selling electric blue zoot suits and sound systems blaring dub Reggae through his clothing store, Acme attractions; to DJing, making music and documenting how Reggae and Punk Rock cultures of the ‘70s and ‘80s clashed and collaborated. It’s safe to say Don Letts is a big legend in this game.
Weyland Mckenzie, a 22-year-old rapper, audio producer and DJ, born and raised in Stoke Newington, London, thinks so too.
Weyland explains how he didn’t know he was inspired by Don Letts until they met.
“I hadn’t heard of Don Letts before meeting him when I was working at Boiler Room back in 2017. Aside from his set that night being amazing, there was something about him that interested me.”
He continued, “Upon reading his autobiography, Culture Clash: Dread Meets Punk Rockers, I immediately related to and was inspired by his description on what it was like trying to find harmony between his Jamaican roots with his London upbringing. As someone who works in multiple creative fields I’m also inspired by Don’s ability to translate his creativity across multiple mediums. He assured me that it is possible to be more than just one thing.”
Weyland’s debut EP, Northeast, dropped in 2019. it highlights Weyland’s versatility as an artist, from the hard hitting intro “TDM,” to the soulful house-inspired duet with South London Vocalist SueLily, “Hold On it’s Raining.” Weyland’s music also features on the award-winning “The Walk” advert for Absolut Vodka, as well the campaign for Samsung’s 2020 Galaxy A smartphone.
Weyland is also a part of ABOE (A Bit Of Everything), a London-based arts and music platform that in the last couple years have hosted and DJ’ed parties across London in venues like Visions, Soho House and Borderline, as well as supporting Smino & Monte Booker and hosting the Brazilian Soulection Duo DKVPZ’s London show of their European tours.
Find out more about Don Letts here.
4. Emmanuel Unaji, inspired by Yinka Shonibare
Moving into the space of academia, Black British histories have always been underrepresented in syllabi, and with six percent of British academia being Black, it’s clear to see the teaching staff demographic isn’t great either — especially in comparison to the 11% Black student population across UK universities. Institutional racism strikes again.
University was, however, the space that multimedia artist Emmanuel Unaji gained inspiration from British Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare. Sculptor Shonibare was born in London in 1962. He moved to Lagos, Nigeria, at the age of three to return to the UK for art school in his teens. His work explores cultural identity, colonialism and post-colonialism in the midst of globalisation. A hallmark of his art is the brightly coloured Dutch wax fabric he uses in his sculptures. A politics that says a lot more than initially meets in the eye captivated Unaji, who speaks to the importance of Shonibare’s inclusion in his art school syllabus.
"It was really at art school that I started to see the relationship between history, philosophy, politics and art, prior to that I thought art was just pretty pictures," says Unaji.
“Shonibare provided great inspiration during my time as an undergraduate, his work encourages an honesty to cultural duality. I believe the opportunity to study fine art at the university has been a luxury in of itself, because education is the foundation that enables artists to contextualise their work within art history, no matter how visible or obscure one's history is. Critiques with tutors are pivotal preparation for the industry. They’re metaphorical in the sense that all people should be held accountable for their contributions to society.”
Unaji’s artwork is principally an exploration of what lies beneath the surface. He critically examines our tendency to form opinions on the basis of media headlines and photographs (propaganda), thereby critiquing the digital era we live in and the vast amount of information we are bombarded with on a daily basis. The contrasting aspects of his characters, who frequently appear as images torn between beauty and existentialism, aim to give us a glimpse into complex personal realities.
Unaji is intrigued by the dichotomy of the art industry, the polarising queue for institutional validation and the impatience in self-validation.
5. Amaal Said, inspired by Stuart Hall
Emmanuel hasn’t been the only one inspired by the legacy of Black British people whilst in education. Amaal Said, a Danish-born Somali photographer, and poet, based in London reminisces on her time in education and the impact Stuart Hall (March 2, 1932 – October 2, 2014), a Jamaican-born British Marxist sociologist, cultural theorist and political activist had in making sense of her experiences.
Hall’s work transformed the British discourse on race, class and racism throughout his life, bringing intellectual and cultural theory to mainstream consciousness and prime time TV, as well as being part of the Black Arts Movement, Hall also coined the term "Thatcherism." Many artists cite Hall’s many works as a source of influence, Amaal is no exception.
“I was introduced to Stuart Hall through my Year 12 Sociology teacher in a class about race. It was a tiny section of the course I wanted to be longer. I’ll never forget it because he gave words to something I knew only as a feeling, a terror in my life — which was racism. Not only did it give me some language to identify the anger I felt, but his voice comes to mind when I think about how I want to create work. For me, it’s about knowing that the work I produce in the world isn’t guaranteed to change or break structures. In a smaller sense, it is to mark my own place in the world, the people I come from, and what they’ve given me.”
Amaal Said’s photographs have been featured in Vogue, The Guardian and The New York Times. She is concerned with storytelling and how best she can connect with people to document their stories. She won Wasafiri Magazine’s New Writing Prize for poetry in 2015. In 2017, she was exhibited in Los Angeles, California. In 2018, her photography was featured in the fourth volume of African Lens and was exhibited in Accra, Ghana. She is a member of Octavia and is a former Barbican Young Poet.
Read Stuart Hall’s obituary here.
6. Jacob V Joyce, inspired by Claudia Jones
Outside of the Academy, well more specifically in the dance halls and streets, none other than Claudia Jones fought for the preservation of Caribbean culture on this cold likkle island. The January following the Notting Hill Riots of August 1958, Claudia founded a modest Mardi Gras that took place at St Pancras Town Hall after stating the need to "wash the taste of Notting Hill and Nottingham out of our mouths.”
The Carnival took to the streets of Notting Hill in 1966 and today is the world’s largest carnival of Caribbean Culture, seeing over two million visitors a year.
Multidisciplinary artist Jacob V Joyce, who recently painted a mural for Transport for London (TFL) celebrating Claudia and other iconic figures in Black British History, highlight Claudia’s words, "a people's art is the genesis of their freedom," and she proved this by founding Notting Hill Carnival.
Joyce highlights the significance of Carnival then and today:
“You only have to look at the explosion of black joy, creativity and liberation that takes place at Carnival to see why this event was vital in giving Black British people space to heal from the trauma of white supremacy. She also founded the West Indian Gazette, was a leader in the US Communist party and identified the intersections of oppression faced by black women long before the term intersectionality was coined. I hope that my work in some way contributes to the legacy of her activism and it was an absolute joy to include her in a large mural I painted in Marcus Garvey Park West London for TFL last year. The mural honours many women who fought against British Imperialism in many of its various guises and I hope it will encourage more people to learn about her amazing life.”
Jacob V Joyce’s work ranges from afro-futurist comics, world building workshops, community mural paintings, illustrated political publications and performance art. Best known for their illustrations, Joyce has self-published a number of books, illustrated international human rights campaigns for Amnesty International, Global Justice Now and published comics in national UK newspapers. Recent Transport For London Arts Grant awardee, artist in residence in the Tate Galleries Education department, Joyce is a non-binary artist amplifying historical and nourishing new queer and anti-colonial narratives.
Find out more about Claudia Jones here.
7. Cherrelle Skeete, inspired by Olive Morris
“Black womxn are brave as f**k and will always be the first to stand up and call out the bulls**t but quickly are erased when time has passed. What once was a riot, a radical movement often times founded by Black Womxn is reduced to a party or festival.”
— Cherrelle Skeete
Brummie actress Cherrelle Skeete, speaks to a similar sentiment as Lex Amor on the outright rage of being Black and existing in Britain. When James Baldwin said, “To be a negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time,’’ Baldwin spoke of America, but he could have very well been speaking to the experience of on the other side of the pond. One figure who exemplifies this rage being taken to the streets, is community organiser and activist Olive Morris.
"I love Olive because she had what I think of a JUST anger. The kind of anger that is ancient, divine, feminine, that is the protector of humanity. I first came across her whilst being curious looking at documentary photographer Neil Kenloch’s work over the internet. I saw this small, what at first I thought was a teenage boy, holding a placard saying ‘Black Sufferer Fight Police Pig Brutality.’ Her head shaved, cigarette in hand and barefoot, surrounding her was a crowd of what appeared to be all Black men taller and older than her."
Cherrelle’s experience of discovering Olive’s legacy continued:
“Sifting through more pictures, I saw her jumping from a roof which was the front of the squatters handbook. This person had heaps of audacity in every picture. Olive was a radical black feminist, committed to the struggle against racial, sexual and class oppression. Olive was a Black Panther founding Black women’s groups and fighting for social housing. She crammed her fight into 27 years, passing from Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma. Fire can burn the whole thing down and that was her. I know that spirit. Anger and all its uses can be transformative — it starts careers, grassroots groups and saves lives. Olive was truly likkle but Talawa, a fearless warrior woman.”
Cherrelle is an actress, singer, writer and producer, born and raised in Birmingham, UK. She graduated in 2011 from Central School of Speech & Drama. She is also co-founder of Blacktress UK, a network and support group for Black womxn actors and creatives.
Currently, Cherrelle is appearing in The High Table at the Bush Theatre and is a regular in series two of Amazon Prime's HANNA.
Read more on Olive Morris here.
8. IGGYLDN, inspired by Steve McQueen
Bringing it back to 2020 and those setting pace in the short film space, I spoke with filmmaker, artist and writer IGGYLDN (Iggy London) about the ripple Steve McQueen had made in his life.
Steve McQueen, was famed for directing the 2013 film adaptation of Solomon Northup’s memoir, 12 Years a Slave, and more recently, Widows. However, McQueen’s career started in more experimental film, often projected in galleries across the world and featuring himself, he’s cited Andy Warhol and Film Noir as major influences in developing his unique cinematic style.
It’s clear to see some of the experimental and visually stunning frames in young director IGGYLDN’s work today. He says, "I’ve always been a huge fan of Steve McQueen’s work. He [Steve] never fails to astound me. I guess it’s his depiction of the human condition that makes his films so difficult to watch yet so hard to turn away from. I think that’s what makes him a great filmmaker — his ability to tell stories in a brutally honest way.’
IGGYLDN is a British filmmaker, artist and writer. He is an award-winning film director, known for his distinctive style and creative approach to storytelling. Emerging at the height of the post-*Moonlight cultural zeitgeist, his films are emotionally dense and touch on themes of identity. Iggy is committed to making waves and spearheading shifts in culture through his films. He has been commissioned by brands like Nike, Adidas and many more. His most recent work, Velvet, is exemplary of this.
Find out more about Steve McQueen here.
Watch IGGYLDN’s films here.
9. Shaé Universe, inspired by Sade
Side stepping back into the ‘80s and ‘90s to an all too familiar soundtrack of a Naija born, Essex raised and real-time smooth operator, Sade Adu. Sade is without doubt one of the biggest names to push Black British music worldwide during this time, particularly in R&B and soul.
Her debut album, Diamond Life, was released in July 1984 and peaked at number two. It spent over six months in the UK top 10 and was later certified four times platinum. The album went on to win the 1985 Brit Award for Best British Album. When her third single from the album, “Smooth Operator,” dropped in July 1985, it propelled the British singer into the U.S. top ten. That same year, Sade Adu became the only African-born artist to appear in front of the live audience of 75,000 for Live Aid at Wembley Stadium, to an estimated worldwide television audience of 1.4 billion in 170 countries.
From Squatting in Tottenham in the ‘80s to becoming an international superstar, Sade has continually rejected media interviews, favouring her private life staying private and not becoming all consumed by her career. She famously quoted, “You can only grow as an artist as long as you allow yourself the time to grow as a person.”
Sade’s unique voice was hailed by The New Yorker as a "grainy contralto full of air that betrays a slight ache but no agony, and values even imperfect dignity over a show of pain," a "deeply English" quality that makes categorizing the artist's voice difficult. The deeply English sentiment that journalist Sasha Frere-Jones speaks of continues to resonate with young Black artists in Britain today.
It’s this same voice that inspires and boosted the confidence of singer, songwriter and American Theatre Arts graduate from Watford, Shaé Universe.
“I find Sade to be super inspiring as she was also born in Nigeria, like myself, and found a way to make her dreams a reality in the commercial world whilst still protecting her soul and ethnic authenticity. This is ultimately my aim too. Sade was also one of the first female singers to make me appreciate my lower register as a woman and through the uniqueness of her musical ear, I started to pay more attention to mine. Lastly, Sade was also an actress, I obtained my degree in American Theatre Arts and desire to delve into that world in the future, so she really inspires me on all fronts.”
Shaé has always had a flare for all performance arts, however, singing has been the most prominent gift of hers, which has led her to progress rapidly in the UK music scene since her first Soundcloud release in August 2015. Since then, Shaé has gone on to release a variety of music independently, with her highest streaming single, “No Stallin,” currently at 1.7 million streams.
Shaé also featured twice on Boogie’s (Shady Records signee) album *Everything For Sale. Having been co-signed by the likes of Ella Mai, Stormzy, Chance The Rapper, Tory Lanez, Nao, Syd and more, the UK artist eagerly awaits her debut album, coming in the latter half of 2020.here.