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Give black boys a break

MAINSTREAM: Big Shaq – the creation of comedian Michael Dapaah

DESPITE THE shocking events of last week in London, I still maintain that young black boys spend more time writing poetry than stabbing or shooting each other. And who can dispute that?

Yet you don’t hear that reflected in the somewhat hysterical reaction to the real family tragedies that saw several black children lose their lives in the mayhem of the worst week of murderous assaults in living memory.

I shouldn’t have to say ‘innocent children’. Innocence is the very de nition of children. Not least children who spend their times writing and listening to poetry.

You don’t hear that reflected in education, the media, Government, nor by the gatekeepers of the heart, soul and conscience of Britain’s art, language and philosophical thought known as the ‘canon’. How different that would be if it was white boys ‘spitting bars’ (reciting verses) on our street corners. We’ll soon see, because things are changing.

On the same day in January that my appointment as Chairman of the Bernie Grant Arts Centre (BGAC) in Tottenham was announced, rap star Big Narstie (Brixton’s finest) was featured on Good Morning Britaindoing the weather in ‘grime’ so to speak – a modern take on Cy Grant, the World War II hero, reading the news in calypso on the BBC back in the 1950s.

This follows on the heels of the ‘godfather of grime’, Wiley, being awarded an MBE by the Queen in the New Year’s Honour’s List. Grime is UK rap and, to be fair, Narstie tore down the GMB house. Even Piers Morgan had to ‘spud’ him – or, if you prefer, bumped fists with him.

Mainstream telly ain’t afraid of the big bad grime no more. Not if it behaves itself by making everybody laugh and feel comfortable like Big Shaq’s Man’s Not Hot, one of the biggest hits of last year and which may just be the best thing that’s happened to the English language since... well, er, the last best thing that happened to English.

PHENOMENAL

MPs like Labour’s Fiona Onasanya spit bars in parliament (“two plus two is four, minus one that’s three - quick maths”) and middle-aged white guys flex with it. This street t’ing has changed the way we talk for ever. Which is phenomenal for white kids who are now spending more time writing poetry than stabbing each other up.

But it hasn’t changed the way young black boys are criticised and patronised and demonised and marginalised for their originality and creativity before they go mainstream, whether it be in the way they walk, the way they talk, the way they dress, the way they stress/distress and the way they see themselves: a little way different from the way everybody else sees them. Even black parents blame grime for knife crime.

I get that, because I was like that once. When you don’t get grime you don’t get grime. Like you don’t get Shakespeare. As I recall, the entire opening exchange of Romeo and Juliet between Sampson and Gregory is all about stabbing man up and doing unspeakable things to women.

And yet we praise Shakespeare for his puerile play on words (“the heads of the maids or their maidenheads – take it in what sense thou wilt”) and elevate him as the greatest exponent of English while refusing to entertain the lyrical dexterity of the poets of today’s generation of Brits.

Is it because Shakespeare is not black? And why should black have to be white to be valid Professor Paul Gilroy once noted that we reject the black “in the Union Jack” at our cost and peril. When Elvis embraced the black “in the stars and stripes”, American culture conquered the world.

When the Fab Four embraced Motown they put Liverpool on the global map and we are still earning from it. But when that historic migrant boatload of 491 men and one woman arrived from the Caribbean 70 years ago this June, Britain in the main was disinterested in the colonial swing that the greatest calypsonian ever (Lord Kitchener) landed at Tilbury Dock, when he disembarked the Windrush.

With the notable exception of Her Majesty, who has booked the BT Steelband a dozen times, Britain wasn’t dancing to the culture that post-war immigration brought. Like I say, things are changing, but until we put authentic black British culture back where it belongs from cradle to the remarkable black funerals that the photographer Charlie Phillips has captured in his book How Great Thou Art, and until it is in the school curriculum with GCSEs and A-levels in rap (yes, and why not a degree from Oxbridge in it?) and until we are able to shed our own prejudices about black British culture, Britain is no country for children of any colour.

The late Bernie Grant MP understood this. Long before Jeremy Corbyn embraced grime, Bernie Grant had lent his voice to British rap music (B.R.O.T.H.E.R. – Beyond The 16th Parallel). But he also knew that for black British culture to be able to uplift the country it needed a room of its own in the same way that Virginia Woolf advocated for women in her still-unparalleled essay.
That ‘room of one’s own’ for black-interest is the BGAC – Bernie’s dream. I am honoured to be its latest curator.

But I will not have done my job, the job that I am tasked with, if I am unable to create a hub at the venue for the multitude of artistic expressions (from theatre to literature, dance, music, rap poetry and otherwise) which are simmering, waiting to explode like nitro into the world that we live in, in order to reclaim the narrative of life back from the murderers who have turned our streets into war zones.

Art makes all the difference. Come to Tottenham and see. Bring your children to the BGAC so they can see one hundred years of black British artistic expression.

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