what it means to be black and british today
In his book 'Black, Listed', writer Jeffrey Boakye explores black identity in the 21st century. In this extract he investigates black Britishness.
Black, Listed by Jeffrey Boakye
It must have been 96 or 97. Possibly as far back as 95? A busy house in Brixton. Picture three overexcited siblings listening to the Saturday morning breakfast show on Choice 96.9FM. It was a weekend ritual. My two older sisters, assorted visiting cousins and I would tune in on the dial and listen out for competitions in the hope of scooping a record or two, maybe tickets to some local event, maybe even a film on VHS cassette. This was back when you would pay up to £17.99 for the privilege of watching a film that would erode in quality over time and ran the risk of being destroyed beyond repair if you felt the need to rewind or fast forward at any point.
I can’t remember the prize on offer that one week, but I can definitely remember the competition question: who should play the next James Bond?
At this point I should remind you that Choice FM wasn’t just any radio station. It was a black radio station. A source of black music across many genres and, based in Brixton, one of the most famously Afro-Caribbean communities in the UK, an analogue meeting point for south London’s black community. All morning we listened to callers dialling in and offering up a selection of very black 007s. Denzel Washington. Blair Underwood. Eddie Murphy. Wesley Snipes. Tyson Beckford. Tupac Shakur. Et cetera. It’s worth noting how American these options were, proving how UK blackness at the time was so heavily influenced by Afro-American culture (as is much of this book, but more on that later).
None of them won. Because my big sister Marcia won. She won by suggesting that the next James Bond should be David Jason. Specifically, David Jason in the role of Delboy Trotter, the hapless wheeler-dealer star of that classic British sitcom Only Fools and Horses. What my sister had done that none of the other callers had thought of was remember that Choice FM was British as much as it was black. She offered up a very British James Bond, someone hopeless and un-secret agent like and charmingly misguided and hilariously unsuited to the role. David Jason was the best answer, because, in context, he was the most British answer. Cool Americans didn’t stand a chance.
Being Black British is a tangible identity in as far as there are black people who are British. (I’m one of them.) It is equally true to state that there are British people who are black. (I’m one of these too.) This may sound like unnecessary tautology, but it’s important to stress that Black British isn’t a 50-50 split; it’s an ideological knot. Another anecdote might help to explain. November 2016. I’m driving to work on the morning after Skepta’s Mercury Award-winning Konnichiwa has been certified Gold. I haven’t seen it, but he has been celebrating on social media. For some reason, I’m listening to Radio 1. The DJ is young, caffeinated and vaguely irritating, which is perfect for the breakfast broadcast. He is also white. He is talking about Skepta having posted a video on Instagram in which he is singing along to a song in celebration of his album’s Gold-selling success. You won’t believe the song he’s singing, I’m told. And, with a tone bordering on disbelief, the DJ continues to tell me that Skepta knows all the words. The song in question? Gold by Spandau Ballet.
A few facts. Skepta is black. He’s also a very successful grime artist. But he’s also a British-born 30-something. Which means that he has spent three decades living and growing in these Great British Isles. Of course he knows all the words to Gold by Spandau Ballet. He’s British. He’s been subject to the same cultural influences as any other British person who came of age in the 90s, which means he’s been hearing traditional British floor-fillers like Gold for as long as he can remember. No doubt he’s equally au fait with Come on Eileen, Club Tropicana and Agadoo-doo- doo, push pineapple shake the tree, whether he likes it or not.
For there to be any surprise over Skepta’s familiarity with Spandau Ballet is a reminder of the invisible division between ‘Black’ and ‘British’ in the ‘Black British’ persona. This is not to say that Black Britons don’t have specifically black experiences. For me, growing up Black and British was like a cultural Where’s Wally?, searching for racial representations of myself in a very white (specifically British -- even more specifically, English) landscape. It might be hard to believe that there was a time not that long ago when seeing a black contestant on a TV game show was reason enough to jump on the landline and call as many of your closest friends and family as possible. No word of a lie, a black guy on Blind Date could clog up the house phone for the rest of the evening. Then there are all those very non-British things that Black British people go through, including but not limited to:
- Putting hot sauce on things
- Being the last person in your friendship circle to have a particular labour saving device in your family home
- Having cousins who aren’t your cousins
- Having aunties who aren’t your aunties
- Having uncles who aren’t your uncles
- Turning up two hours late and still being half an hour early
- Living with a debilitating fear of dry of skin
- Cocoa butter and Vaseline (see above)
- Other such stereotypes
Black Britishness is essentially just British Britishness among people of Afro-Caribbean descent, but the black part is too easily assumed to be an overpowering element affecting the whole. What my sister did on that Saturday morning in 1995, 96 or 97 was to prove that blackness and Britishness are not mutually exclusive. She showed me the possibility of embracing Britishness in a black context, something that mainstream radio would struggle to do twenty years later -- not out of malice, but due to the conceptual gap between Black and British as distinct identity markers.
Black, Listed by Jeffrey Boakye is out now, published by Dialogue Books.