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

Black lives matter. Before it is an organisation or capitalised political movement, it is just a simple statement of fact. Black people’s lives are important and have meaning. However, too often when we discuss the meaning of the phrase, we frame our discussions around how our lives are not valued.

It is a cry that has resonated across the world against the worst excesses and horrors faced by Black people, whether in response to police killings or to the toppling of statues commemorating slave traders.

There is no denying the racism we face in British society is shocking. But the end result is that our lives are often portrayed as a negative, defined by the very bigotry and prejudice that tries to constrain us.

That is why we decided to edit the book Black British Lives Matter, a collection of essays and conversations by prominent Black British figures on why Black representation in their respective fields is so important. It is also about the unique contribution we bring to every aspect of British society: from Black British Historians Matter by David Olusoga to Black British Mothers Matter by Doreen Lawrence.

We want to acknowledge the racism we face but we also want to frame our lives in a positive way. The tension in this goal is captured in the final chapter, where my fellow editor Marcus Ryder recounts an argument he had with his wife over the breakfast table about our book:

The truth is, we cannot be silent. We must constantly find ways to tell our stories but frame them in a manner that reflects both the negative and positive forces in our lives. Our art and culture is the best way to do this, and that is why we jumped at the opportunity when we were approached by the Guardian to take over its Saturday culture section because we fundamentally believe Black British Culture Matters.

We believe that the art any community produces, the music it creates, and the narratives it tells about itself, are crucial to how that community views itself and its place in the world. We also believe that something quite unprecedented is currently happening artistically in the Black British community (or should that be communities?). As Kwame Kwei-Armah writes in his chapter of our book: “A society is measured by the quality of its artists, not the quantity of its accountants.” And culture is our best hope in answering the question of why any of our lives really matter. Lenny Henry

We are in the middle of a British renaissance, one driven by Black Britons. As with the rise of the Young British Artists in the time of Brit art and Britpop of the late 1980s and early 90s, the evidence of a British cultural renaissance has been clear to see in these pages, week after week, in every sphere of culture.

From Daniel Kaluuya to Michaela Coel, Black actors and screenwriters are at the cutting edge of their craft. Writers and political commentators such as Afua Hirsch, Akala and Emma Dabiri are reshaping the public discourse. The acclaimed visual artists Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and sculptor Tom Price have had massive successes, and are joined by newer names such as non-binary painter and illustrator Ashton Attzs and figurative painter Somaya Critchlow. A striking feature of this cultural movement is that, with a few notable exceptions, they are all 40 or under – and this is no coincidence.

We often talk about the Windrush generation as paving the way for Black Britain as we know it; my mother fell into this category. And while the Windrush primarily refers to the migration of Caribbean people to the UK in the 50s, as independence was gained across Africa in the 60s and 70s, African families also began to make their own ways over.

I belong to the first generation of Black Britons born in the UK. My generation were no longer the Caribbean or African doctors, nurses or bus drivers with a “grip [suitcase] on top of the cupboard” because they constantly had one eye on going back home. We were the generation that not only fought racism but demanded equality – because if you cannot be equal in your own home, where can you be equal?

Sir David Adjaye, in his essay for Lenny Henry’s and my book Black British Lives Matter, writes that my generation was the one to “extend the debate of expressive culture … they didn’t ‘come from’ the land of their parents, they were born in Empire”. At university I remember being asked whether I thought of myself as Black British. My Blackness was not being questioned, nor was the idea that I had a right to call Britain my home. It was an existential question. Did I see myself as “British”? Was that a label I wanted to be identified with?

That debate was still raging in 1992 when Linford Christie draped himself in the union flag after winning gold at the Olympics. The sight of a Black person embracing their Britishness and a symbol that had previously been seen as synonymous with colonial oppression, slavery and racist political movements such as the National Front was something many Black people struggled with. The Black people I knew all wanted Christie to win, but there was no denying the internal struggle of seeing this as a British victory, as opposed to a Black win.

The Black British renaissance we are seeing now is born out of the first generation of Black Britons who do not suffer this cognitive dissonance. They are Black British and proud. They see no contradiction in embracing their Black British identity. Hirsch titled her bestselling opus Brit(ish) – not British?, which might be how the generation before her would have framed it. And Akala, in his seminal book Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire, writes of a short crisis he experienced as a Black British musician: “I felt that a British accent was not authentic enough, perhaps even not ‘Black’ enough to be real hip-hop. Luckily, I got over this crisis within a week and have never rapped as if I were American since.” This generation has both literally and metaphorically found its voice.

It is this confidence that is at the heart of this renaissance we’re seeing. And with that confidence comes a willingness to criticise Britain while embracing it. There was no contradiction when Stormzy chose to pose with a union flag stab-proof vest on the artwork for Heavy Is the Head.

When I was editing Black British Lives Matter with Lenny, this generational shift was profoundly visible to our writers. “What strikes me when I talk to people in their 20s, people who are students, people who protested, they have aspirations and ambitions that literally never occurred to me to even entertain,” writes the 51-year-old historian David Olusoga. “So, when you talk to these kids, their aim and what they regard as their generational mission is to destroy racism and to weed it out of their society. It never occurred to me.”

And just as Oasis and Blur were completely different expressions of Britishness during the heights of Britpop, and as Tracey Emin brought something highly distinct to Brit art from Damien Hirst with his sharks, this new renaissance is a flowering of the multiplicity of Black British identity. It is a confidence to express personal British and other identities while still centring Blackness.

We see this capacity for difference in everything from Black British visual arts, where there is a huge variety in mediums, styles and subjects, to the new Black British jazz movement, where there appears to be a clear eschewing of any “right way” to create jazz. For example, the drummer and Mobo award winner Moses Boyd describes his music as “an extension of Black music, the diaspora”, which draws influence from Afrobeats, soca, reggae, drum’n’bass and jungle music, while groups such as Sons of Kemet embrace rock, Caribbean folk and African influences.Artistic movements are often marked out by how they respond to moments of crisis. For my generation, this was no doubt the murder of Stephen Lawrence by racist teenagers, and Doreen Lawrence’s struggle for justice. The event that has marked this new generation is surely the murder of George Floyd. The key image of the Black Lives Matter movement in the UK is that of actor John Boyega, shouting into a megaphone, recognising that he could not separate his art from his politics, and most importantly, his Black British identity. It is a defiant image, steeped in Black Britishness.

We could ask: do we see this time as a Black British cultural renaissance, or is the role of Black artists now so central to society that it should simply be viewed as the British cultural renaissance? Fundamentally, it speaks to what Lenny and I are trying to achieve in Black British Lives Matter: a reminder that Black British people’s lives are crucial to every part of society – not just in the UK but across the globe. Our lives matter. Marcus Ryder

Marcus Ryder author is a director, media executive and chair of Rada. Black British Lives Matter: A Clarion Call for Equality edited by Lenny Henry and Marcus Ryder, is published by Faber on 16 November.

Comments are closed.