2018: THE YEAR IN BRITISH BLACKNESS
By Grace Shutti
December 17, 2018
A decade ago, grime artists from all over London recorded tracks on which they competed to prove that their patch of the capital was best. The “Rep Your Endz” challenge was iconic, and the songs still go off at a rave – I’m team Norf Weezy. Yet if you asked me about repping Britain as recently as two years ago, I would tell you, “I don’t know her.” I would explain that I love my passport and the National Health Service, but I can only do postcard patriotism during the World Cup and royal weddings. Still, as I reflect on the Black cultural boom of 2018, there are aspects of my Britishness I am on board with.
I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but us Black Brits are killing it. Daniel Kaluuya was nominated for an Oscar for a terrifyingly brilliant film; while fellow north Londoner, Letitia Wright joined him to feature in the ninth highest-grossing film ever. Comedic genius Michaela Coel made her dramatic debut as the lead in the BBC series, Black Earth Rising (coming to Netflix in January); and Jorja Smith won the Critics Choice Award at the BRITs, continuing her global takeover.
Then there were all of the books about life, race, trauma and slaying in your lane. Edward Enninful has firmly established his reign as editor-in-chief at British Vogue, and is putting it to good use. Stormzy has been announced to headline Glastonbury in 2019 (they say it’s the epitome of British music culture). Photographs of Naomi Campbell, Sir Trevor Mcdonald and over 30 other prominent public figures taken (and donated) by Simon Frederick are being exhibited as the show “Black Is the New Black” at the National Portrait gallery, and will remain in the collection “where they will be seen, enjoyed, and celebrated for generations to come.”
We’re living in space I’m not sure has been explored before. We don’t have to look to our cousins over the pond to measure up. Artists like Skepta show that we can celebrate our connection to the continent, yet acknowledge there are still differences. Even the highest institution in the land has taken note of Joseph Adenuga’s success. This year, they handed MBEs — that’s Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire medals, the Queen’s annual honours — to Skepta’s manager Grace La Doja; Kanya King, founder of MOBO (Music of Black Origin Awards); grime legend Wiley, and ‘Blacksonian’ director Gus Casely-Hayford.
Recognising these artists, is important and in the words of Issa Rae, I’ll continue to root for anybody Black. But in a nation where Brexit was peddled on dodgy, racist ideologies and elderly Black citizens are illegally deported, I don’t think I can ever be on board with anything else that comes along with being British.
There was no bigger insult to Black Britons in 2018 than the treatment of the ‘Windrush generation’. People from the Caribbean, who were once invited and granted citizenship by the British government, were now refused cancer treatment, lost their jobs and deported because they ‘could not prove their legality’. These were people who had worked, paid taxes and often hadn’t ever returned to their country of origin. I found it difficult to grasp that law-abiding citizens who had lived here for years could be thrown away. Especially when they didn’t see themselves as anything but British.
It makes me think hard about the so-called Black cultural renaissance we’re living in now. I credit our ability to thrive in 2018 to the stability of the previous generation. They did the groundwork. Just as many of the bus drivers, doctors, engineers and healthcare assistants we know could have been cultural giants, but instead did what they thought they needed to. Without a foundation, there would be no freedom to go against expectation. How can you dream of success in new ways if you’ve never seen it modelled before?
But if that security can be swept away by good, old-fashioned racism, where are we really?
That’s why when poet Benjamin Zephaniah, who had previously rejected an MBE, rubbished the idea of becoming Britain’s Poet Laureate, I wasn’t mad. But I can also empathise with artists like Ms. Dynamite, who felt the need to defend accepting her MBE this December.
We can’t ignore the truth that our presence in Britain has always been full of conflict. Whether it’s about the reality of being Black in Britain now or even a colonial past.
Misty, a meta-masterpiece by actor-playwright Arinze Kene that opened in March, taught me a lesson about this. Kene stands solitary in front of an inner-city backdrop. For half of the play, he raps a tale of gentrification, violence, sex and drugs. But woven into the story is another ‘real’, or at least semi-autobiographical, Kene, the one born in Nigeria and raised in Hackney. Breaking the fourth wall, he tells of desire struggle to write this ‘stereotypical story,’ which friends fear panders to the wrong type of audience – the phrases “n*gga play” and “Black trauma” are used at least once.
At the climax of Misty, Kene runs around destroying balloons, a physical manifestation of the expectations placed on him to be both creative and to tell the story he wants. In a question and answer session with fellow playwright Inua Ellams following the performance, Kene made it clear that this conflict was always been part of the story. For him, the dissonance became inspiration.
That’s a pattern we see across much of the work we’re celebrating this year. From Kene’s play to Stormzy using his BRIT awards performance to hold the government to account for their handling of the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy, Black British art in 2018 is a touchstone of where we are and what our experience is really like. That doesn’t mean that we have to focus on the trauma, but as Kene explored, it’s not something we should shy away from, if that’s what we’re living.
It means that we can celebrate the wins and the criticism. We should tell the stereotypical stories of inner city life, but be able to recognise other experiences and that we shouldn’t be scared to say something new either. Embracing the dichotomy is how we’ve always lived. And while I don’t know what the future of Britain is, or where we stand within that, but I do know the future of Black culture here is promising and that’s something I can get behind.
Grace Shutti is a writer, producer and presenter who has worked for The Guardian, Noisey and gal-dem. She tells people’s stories, is passionate about journalism that makes a difference, and believes pop culture can be a metaphor for pretty much everything and should be given the respect it deserves.