Part of The Black Creative Voice series commissioned by our alumni Seyi Alawode and team. This article looks at Celebrating 6 black voices that moulded Creative Britain.
It is near impossible to ignore the rise in black creativity across the United Kingdom. In reaction to our being historically oppressed, stereotyped, and gate-kept from opportunities within creative Britain, black creatives have successfully carved our *own* creative heritage reflective of our nuanced cultures; resulting in an artistic force to be reckoned with.
This Black History Month, we’re celebrating the richness that black British creativity has to offer. Yet in doing so, it’s crucial that we pay tribute to the pioneers that came before us. As such, we’re recognising those who managed to express their creativity during a time when the black voice was systematically silenced. Below are some iconic figures that paved the way to allow for the black British creative culture to take place in the way that it has.
Neil Kenlock - photographer and media professional
‘Sometimes I look at my work and can’t believe I did it. I was just doing something to stop this harsh racism that we were going through.’
Neil was born in Jamaica in 1950, where he lived with his grandmother and moved to London in 1973, aged 23. He co-founded Choice FM, Britain’s first legal radio station for black music. As an active member of the Black Panther Party UK, he subsequently became their official photographer, documenting Black Panther meetings, campaigns & relevant movements. Some of these iconic works can be found in the National Portrait Gallery, Black Cultural Archives, and the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Key Black British pioneers featured in his photographic archive include Olive Morris, Althea Le Cointe, Darcus Howe, and Lionel Morrison. Among international superstars whom Kenlock has photographed over the years are Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Eartha Kitt, Donald Quarrie, Eddy Grant, James Baldwin, and Muhammad Ali, icons of reggae music such as Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff. Desmond Dekker and John Holt, and political personalities including Diane Abbott.
Claudia Jones -- Founder, NottingHill Carnival
‘A people’s art is the genesis of their freedom.’
Claudia was a Trinidadian born journalist, activist and founder of NottingHill carnival. She emigrated to New York at age 9 and was soon deported to the UK after being offered residency on humanitarian grounds in 1955. Claudia settled in London at the height of the post-war immigration era, where she fell victim to deep racial tension and anti-immigration rhetoric. She then made it a goal of hers to take on the role of protector and advocate for the then 10,000 strong Caribbean community in the capital. Claudia made it her mission to create a platform for people to be heard and founded the West Indian Gazette, Britain’s first black-owned Newspaper.
Later that year, in response to the Nottinghill riots, Claudia launched a special showcase for Afro-Caribbean British talent, designed to uplift the black British community, its culture, and its heritage. Originally dubbed Claudia’s Caribbean Carnival, the first event took place at St Pancras Town Hall on the 30th of January 1959, and was televised by the BBC. The following six years would see the annual celebration staged in local town halls and community centres, where people would get together for a comparatively low-key version of the street extravaganza we indulge in today.
Margaret Busby -- Publisher, Journalist
‘Well that is another battle I’m constantly fighting; for diversity within the publishing industry’
Ghana-born Busby grew up in the UK, where she set up the publishing house Allison and Busby in the 1960s. This made her both the youngest and the first female book publisher in the UK at the time. Margaret made history 2 years later when she published Sam Greenlee’s much-rejected novel The Spook Who Sat by the Door, which eventually became a required reading at the FBI Academy and is thought to have inspired the Blaxploitation genre in American cinema.
An independent editor, writer, broadcaster, and critic since the 1990s, Margaret has contributed to many publications – including The Guardian, The Observer, New Statesman, and TLS – and judged numerous literary prizes, including the Caine Prize, the Commonwealth Book Prize, and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. She’s also written several stage plays, song lyrics, reviews, anthologies, and obituaries that celebrate the achievements of famous writers.
Daughters of Africa, her most prolific anthology, brought together literature written by over 200 African women, bringing in representation unheard of within the British creative writing sector.
Lord Kitchener -- Calypso Singer
‘I've tried to make calypso more intelligent and make soca more danceable’
Lord Kitchener - real name Aldwyn Roberts -- was the widely acclaimed Master of Calypso, the trailblazer responsible for the widespread growth of Trinidadian music in Britain.
His hit song ‘London is the place for me’ is quintessentially regarded as the ‘Windrush song’. He composed the stunning piece moments before arriving in London and unfortunately experiencing the widespread racism and discrimination against migrants like himself.
Upon Roberts’ arrival into the UK, he performed at bars & pubs, slowly spreading the Calypso sound to an initially bemused British public. Six months later, he successfully broke into the London nightclub scene with his own band. He is prolific in being one of the first artists whose sounds reached outside the British Caribbean diaspora: Princess Margeret reputedly bought 100 copies of his track ‘Ah Bernice’ to send to friends!
Linton Kwesi Johnson -- Poet
‘Writing was a political act and poetry was a cultural weapon.’
Linton Kwesi Johnson was born in 1952 in Chapelton -- a small town in rural Jamaica -- and made the bold move to London 11 years later. He joined the UK Black Panther Party, where he helped put on poetry workshops within the community.
In 1977, Johnson was awarded a C. Day Lewis Fellowship and was later appointed as writer-in-residence for the London Borough of Lambeth for that year. He went on to work as the Library Resources and Education Officer at the Keskidee Centre, the first home of Black theatre and art. Much of Johnson’s poetry was political and often centered on the realities of living as an Afro-Caribbean in Britain. Johnson’s poems first appeared in the journal Race Today in 1974. He also dabbled in music production - something he nicknamed “dub poetry” -- which involved the recitation of Jamaican Patois over dub reggae. In 2002 he became the second living poet, to be published in the Penguin Modern Classics series, and the only black poet to achieve this.
A huge chunk of Black History Month pertains to our recognition & appreciation of Black British History.
In a world where our stories face the risk of erasure, the goal is for this piece to remember those that fought for the right for the black creative to express themselves.
We encourage the young, black self-starter reading this, to look to creativity as a means of self-expression and take inspiration from the above mentioned figures, whenever you feel silenced.