‘We must tell our stories’: Lenny Henry introduces a Black British culture takeover

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Lenny Henry: ‘Culture is our champion anticipation successful answering the question wherefore immoderate of our lives truly matter’

Lenny Henry
Lenny Henry Photograph: Tom Jackson/The Times Magazine/News Licensing

Black lives matter. Before it is an organisation oregon capitalised governmental movement, it is conscionable a elemental connection of fact. Black people’s lives are important and person meaning. However, excessively often erstwhile we sermon the meaning of the phrase, we framework our discussions astir however our lives are not valued.

It is simply a outcry that has resonated crossed the satellite against the worst excesses and horrors faced by Black people, whether successful effect to police killings oregon to the toppling of statues commemorating enslaved traders.

There is nary denying the racism we look successful British nine is shocking. But the extremity effect is that our lives are often portrayed arsenic a negative, defined by the precise bigotry and prejudice that tries to constrain us.

Edward Colston
Colston hauled … a statue of 17th-century enslaved trader Edward Colston is dumped successful the stream Avon connected 7 June, 2020. Photograph: NurPhoto/Getty Images

That is wherefore we decided to edit the publication Black British Lives Matter, a postulation of essays and conversations by salient Black British figures connected wherefore Black practice successful their respective fields is truthful important. It is besides astir the unsocial publication we bring to each facet of British society: from Black British Historians Matter by David Olusoga to Black British Mothers Matter by Doreen Lawrence.

We privation to admit the racism we look but we besides privation to framework our lives successful a affirmative way. The hostility successful this extremity is captured successful the last chapter, wherever my chap exertion Marcus Ryder recounts an statement helium had with his woman implicit the meal array astir our book:

“When Stephen Lawrence was knifed to death, Doreen Lawrence did not acceptable up an anti-knife charity. She didn’t adjacent acceptable up an anti-racism charity,” my woman tells me. “Doreen acceptable up a foundation for aspiring young architects due to the fact that that was Stephen’s ambition and that was the beingness that was chopped abbreviated – that was the Black British beingness that mattered. These essays absorption connected the architects of the future, they bash not dwell connected the knife.”

“But this publication is astir capturing the unsocial acquisition of Black British people,” I reply. “Police brutality is portion of our reality.

“There is much to our world – and it feels that is each I perceive about.

We decorativeness our meal successful silence.

The information is, we cannot beryllium silent. We indispensable perpetually find ways to archer our stories but framework them successful a mode that reflects some the antagonistic and affirmative forces successful our lives. Our creation and civilization is the champion mode to bash this, and that is wherefore we jumped astatine the accidental erstwhile we were approached by the Guardian to instrumentality implicit its Saturday civilization conception due to the fact that we fundamentally judge Black British Culture Matters.

We judge that the creation immoderate assemblage produces, the euphony it creates, and the narratives it tells astir itself, are important to however that assemblage views itself and its spot successful the world. We besides judge that thing rather unprecedented is presently happening artistically successful the Black British assemblage (or should that beryllium communities?). As Kwame Kwei-Armah writes successful his section of our book: “A nine is measured by the prime of its artists, not the quantity of its accountants.” And civilization is our champion anticipation successful answering the question of wherefore immoderate of our lives truly matter. Lenny Henry

‘With assurance comes a willingness to criticise Britain portion embracing it’ Marcus Ryder

Marcus Ryder
Marcus Ryder Photograph: Jamal Yussuff-Adelakun/The Guardian

We are successful the mediate of a British renaissance, 1 driven by Black Britons. As with the emergence of the Young British Artists successful the clip of Brit creation and Britpop of the precocious 1980s and aboriginal 90s, the grounds of a British taste renaissance has been wide to spot successful these pages, week aft week, successful each sphere of culture.

From Daniel Kaluuya to Michaela Coel, Black actors and screenwriters are astatine the cutting borderline of their craft. Writers and governmental commentators specified arsenic Afua Hirsch, Akala and Emma Dabiri are reshaping the nationalist discourse. The acclaimed ocular artists Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and sculptor Tom Price person had monolithic successes, and are joined by newer names specified arsenic non-binary creator and illustrator Ashton Attzs and figurative creator Somaya Critchlow. A striking diagnostic of this taste question is that, with a fewer notable exceptions, they are each 40 oregon nether – and this is nary coincidence.

We often speech astir the Windrush procreation arsenic paving the mode for Black Britain arsenic we cognize it; my parent fell into this category. And portion the Windrush chiefly refers to the migration of Caribbean radical to the UK successful the 50s, arsenic independency was gained crossed Africa successful the 60s and 70s, African families besides began to marque their ain ways over.

I beryllium to the archetypal procreation of Black Britons calved successful the UK. My procreation were nary longer the Caribbean oregon African doctors, nurses oregon autobus drivers with a “grip [suitcase] connected apical of the cupboard” due to the fact that they perpetually had 1 oculus connected going backmost home. We were the procreation that not lone fought racism but demanded equality – due to the fact that if you cannot beryllium adjacent successful your ain home, wherever tin you beryllium equal?

Linford Christie
Flying the emblem … Olympic sprinter Linford Christie embraces his Britishness successful 1992. Photograph: BTS

Sir David Adjaye, successful his effort for Lenny Henry’s and my publication Black British Lives Matter, writes that my procreation was the 1 to “extend the statement of expressive civilization … they didn’t ‘come from’ the onshore of their parents, they were calved successful Empire”. At assemblage I retrieve being asked whether I thought of myself arsenic Black British. My Blackness was not being questioned, nor was the thought that I had a close to telephone Britain my home. It was an existential question. Did I spot myself arsenic “British”? Was that a statement I wanted to beryllium identified with?

That statement was inactive raging successful 1992 erstwhile Linford Christie draped himself successful the national emblem aft winning golden astatine the Olympics. The show of a Black idiosyncratic embracing their Britishness and a awesome that had antecedently been seen arsenic synonymous with assemblage oppression, slavery and racist governmental movements specified arsenic the National Front was thing galore Black radical struggled with. The Black radical I knew each wanted Christie to win, but determination was nary denying the interior conflict of seeing this arsenic a British victory, arsenic opposed to a Black win.

The Black British renaissance we are seeing present is calved retired of the archetypal procreation of Black Britons who bash not endure this cognitive dissonance. They are Black British and proud. They spot nary contradiction successful embracing their Black British identity. Hirsch titled her bestselling opus Brit(ish) – not British?, which mightiness beryllium however the procreation earlier her would person framed it. And Akala, successful his seminal publication Natives: Race and Class successful the Ruins of Empire, writes of a abbreviated situation helium experienced arsenic a Black British musician: “I felt that a British accent was not authentic enough, possibly adjacent not ‘Black’ capable to beryllium existent hip-hop. Luckily, I got implicit this situation wrong a week and person ne'er rapped arsenic if I were American since.” This procreation has some virtually and metaphorically recovered its voice.

It is this assurance that is astatine the bosom of this renaissance we’re seeing. And with that assurance comes a willingness to criticise Britain portion embracing it. There was nary contradiction erstwhile when Stormzy chose to airs with a national flag stab-proof vest connected the artwork for Heavy Is the Head.

When I was editing Black British Lives Matter with Lenny, this generational displacement was profoundly disposable to our writers. “What strikes maine erstwhile I speech to radical successful their 20s, radical who are students, radical who protested, they person aspirations and ambitions that virtually ne'er occurred to maine to adjacent entertain,” writes the 51-year-old historiographer David Olusoga. “So, erstwhile you speech to these kids, their purpose and what they respect arsenic their generational ngo is to destruct racism and to weed it retired of their society. It ne'er occurred to me.”

Moses Boyd
Banging the drum … Moses Boyd, who calls his euphony ‘an hold of the diaspora’. Photograph: Heritage Images/Getty Images

And conscionable arsenic Oasis and Blur were wholly antithetic expressions of Britishness during the heights of Britpop, and arsenic Tracey Emin brought thing highly chiseled to Brit creation from Damien Hirst with his sharks, this caller renaissance is simply a flowering of the multiplicity of Black British identity. It is simply a assurance to explicit idiosyncratic British and different identities portion inactive centring Blackness.

We spot this capableness for quality successful everything from Black British ocular arts, wherever determination is simply a immense assortment successful mediums, styles and subjects, to the caller Black British jazz movement, wherever determination appears to beryllium a wide eschewing of immoderate “right way” to make jazz. For example, the drummer and Mobo grant victor Moses Boyd describes his euphony arsenic “an hold of Black music, the diaspora”, which draws power from Afrobeats, soca, reggae, drum’n’bass and jungle music, portion groups specified arsenic Sons of Kemet clasp rock, Caribbean people and African influences.Artistic movements are often marked retired by however they respond to moments of crisis. For my generation, this was nary uncertainty the execution of Stephen Lawrence by racist teenagers, and Doreen Lawrence’s conflict for justice. The lawsuit that has marked this caller procreation is surely the execution of George Floyd. The cardinal representation of the Black Lives Matter question successful the UK is that of histrion John Boyega, shouting into a megaphone, recognising that helium could not abstracted his creation from his politics, and astir importantly, his Black British identity. It is simply a defiant image, steeped successful Black Britishness.

We could ask: bash we spot this clip arsenic a Black British taste renaissance, oregon is the relation of Black artists present truthful cardinal to nine that it should simply beryllium viewed arsenic the British taste renaissance? Fundamentally, it speaks to what Lenny and I are trying to execute successful Black British Lives Matter: a reminder that Black British people’s lives are important to each portion of nine – not conscionable successful the UK but crossed the globe. Our lives matter. Marcus Ryder

Marcus Ryder writer is simply a director, media enforcement and seat of Rada. Black British Lives Matter: A Clarion Call for Equality edited by Lenny Henry and Marcus Ryder, is published by Faber connected 16 November.