Part of The Black Creative Voice series commission written by our alumni Seyi Alawode and team
Pioneership has connotations of glory, big shiny awards, and ultimately, the kind of gravitas that lets people know exactly who you are when you enter a room.
We know that Black pioneers sit at the tip of the iceberg because everyone’s Mum, Dad, and neighbour has a favourite Black artist, actor or model. Before an individual becomes a pioneer, however, they are something much less recognisable, polished and brazen.
When we refer to the Black British creative voice, we are referring to a long line of trailblazers, often with little resources and connections, who have used sheer innovation and passion to establish themselves within their respective fields. These individuals are not few and far between, but for every one that “makes it” there are likely to be five that haven’t been given their true dues.
Although the British love an underdog, there is little to celebrate about promising minds being begrudgingly dragged into sullen obedience by the adverse conditions surrounding them. For Black creators, it is easy to paint their struggles as a noble quest, but realistically, there is nothing dignified about having to constantly fight against adversity that shouldn’t exist (que: racism and structural disadvantage). Congratulatory accolades of “paving the way” neglect to mention just how hard and lonely this road is for some. There’s no roadmap, talk much less of help.
For each generation to pass the baton from one onto the next, the creative voice has to start somewhere. To draw a line between the old and the new is not to project the figure of bygone legends onto a new generation of talent, but to establish a timeline of resistance to adversity and of creative innovation between them.
These are the ones to watch
Post-war migration to Britain from Africa and the Caribbean contributed heavily to the emergence of Black British theatre in the 50s. The work of Errol John, Barry Reckford and Wole Soyinka in the 60s cemented their position in the canon, and Wole specifically went on to win the first Nobel Prize for Literature. A moving archive of their newfound home-away-from-home, theatre became as much a celebration of their Blackness as much as it did their Britishness.
Exclusion from public life by reductively being cast as economy-boosting workers became the ghoul that haunted most Black migrants at this time. Carving space for Black leisure outside of work and struggle was significant for providing moments of sheer joy and solace. Today, although there are more Black figures both on and behind the stage, the theatre remains an exclusive space. Economically, the sheer cost of tickets does more than enough to deter potential attendees, nevermind the cast of respectability it is surrounded by.
Coming through to rip up the rule book is Tobi Kyramanteng. She is the creator of the Black Ticket Project, an initiative specially targeted at reconnecting young Black people to the theatre space. With the help of some friends, Tobi began by simply paying for people to attend shows, beginning with Inua Ellams’ popular play the Barbershop Chronicles. Since expanding to work with charities, schools and youth arts companies to have more impact, BTP is now much more than the idea it began as. Tobi herself continues to lead the charge from the front, winning award after award as a producer herself.
Radio is one of the pertinent cultural markers that never gains a month in age, despite its long-standing status as a pillar of the community.
Unlike theatre, it lacks the image of an exclusive domain, instead, being perceived as a nifty, universal form of entertainment that people of any walk of life can appreciate. However, radio’s easy links to music do not necessarily make it a natural domain for Black talent.
Despite Black music being widely played and appreciated as a neat art form, Black representation is sorely lacking in presenting and executive decision-making positions. What some would refer to as a virtual glass ceiling is in fact a veil for a myriad of representational failures, not only diluting the culture but warping it into something else entirely.
In the 80s, Pirate Radio became one of the few ways to absorb culturally diverse music. Beside the widened popularity of Reggae, Black music was little accepted in any other form. Unknown to many, the UK’s beloved Kiss FM actually began as a pirate radio station.
By sidelining the rigid respectability of commercial stations, these early originators opened a space for Black culture to be celebrated in a way that did not have to cater to anyone else’s gaze. Lindsay Wesker, who joined in 1986, recalled “the UK Black music scene was absolutely buzzing," he says, "there were tons of pirate radio stations, the clubs were full, the record shops were doing brisk business and the UK acts were really starting to make noise.” And true to form, years later the scene evolved even further, giving us Funky, Grime and Garage among others.
Nevertheless, the dominance of commercialisation remained, meaning set-up costs for any station were virtually impossible to generate (without, of course, needing the backing of a much bigger entity). The renaming of the much-loved Choice FM to Capital Xtra effectively dissolved the station’s Black identity, making it a much more generalist space brand of which, true meaning and purpose are harder to find.
Following the COVID-19 lockdown, Jojo Sonubi and the team at NoSignal Radio single-handedly signal boosted the capital’s mood with the inception of an online sound clash, NS 10 v 10. With nothing but the laptops in their bedroom and the imagination in their minds, they managed to create a fully functioning radio station with scheduled shows, games and guests with enough buzz to trend on social media at least once a week. As the world slowly tries to emerge from the pandemic, they have also begun crowdfunding for a physical space to hold their events and shows in, so it is fair to say that they will soon be jumping from our screens into a studio near us - to much promising anticipation.
As No Signal’s resident sweetheart, Henrie Kushawe deserves her very own flowers. Beginning her presenting streak on Brixton’s Reprezent Radio, her iconic grey hair can be spotted from a mile off and her energy is infectious. As proof that visibility should always be matched by talent, she has gradually worked her way up whilst doing so on projects close to her heart.
The most recent is a feat few have achieved, her very own production company, HTK. Releasing a documentary series named “Is Your Area Changing?” to open conversations on gentrification and the future of London as a city, Henrie has an eye for topics that we all have on the tip of our tongues, but aren’t as sure how to discuss openly.
Considering the first Black women most of us and our parents’ generation watched was June Sarpong on the likes of 2001’s MTV and T4, it is easy to smile seeing another Black woman presenting and being openly loved for it. It is easy to root for Henrie because she does it whilst being herself. It’s no surprise she made the 2020 Dazed100 list, just after starting as co-host on Spotify’s Who We Be podcast.
For anyone who considers themselves to be a diasporan of our parents’ native countries, our identities are not simply “Black”. If anything, “Black” is a smaller qualifier of a complex mixture of cultures.
Lanaire Aderemi is best known as verse writer, a Nigerian-British poet who’s dual cultural experience forms the inspiration for much of her work. Exploring both feminism and postcolonialism together, much of Lanaire’s work straddles the world we live in now, and the separate one we some of us may refer to as home. From the bustling markets of Lagos to the intimacy of hair braiding in the salon, she finds stillness in the moments that we often breeze past.
Subtracting wider politics from our histories is easier for those who would rather forget how some of us came to be here, how Black British even became a descriptor in itself. But in remembering this, celebrating it and resituating it in our daily lives, perhaps we are able to be truly ourselves, and unapologetically so. More widely, the lived experience of Black creatives is more than enough qualification to discuss the things we do, to be more than enough for our aspirations. Right now, we hold the cultural currency to be considered cool, trendy or edgy, but it goes much deeper.
Looking to the future, it is hard to predict what the Black British creative scene may look like in a decade. Perhaps 2020 has thrown us enough hurdles as it is. If Issa Rae’s mantra of “network across, not upwards” is anything to go by, things are looking promising. More than that, they are looking far beyond any prediction or dream can go all together.