Black and brown Britons have every right to challenge a government that doesn’t serve the country writes Kristel Tracey
When grime artist Stormzy took to the stage at this year’s Brits and delivered his politically-charged rap, it was lauded by many as an iconic moment in British music history. A beacon and symbol of the youth revolution, he represented everything the establishment is not:
“Theresa May, where’s the money for Grenfell? What, you think we just forgot about Grenfell? You criminals, and you got the cheek to call us savages, you should do some jail time, you should pay some damages, we should burn your house down and see if you can manage this.”
Black, working-class, successful, socially conscious and unashamedly himself, Stormzy is conservative Britain’s idea of a nightmare – which is exactly why the artist has been a favourite target for the The Daily Mail’s abundant stream of bile. Returning the favour, he made sure the publication didn’t feel left out of his Brits diatribe, telling the newspaper they could “suck my —-“.
Like many musicians before him, Stormzy has used his global platform to “speak truth to power”. He followed up the Brits performance on social media by rallying support for a Grenfell inquiry petition, started by Grenfell survivors and relatives of the victims of the tragedy, asking the Prime Minister to appoint panel members “with relevant background, expertise, experience, and a real understanding of the issues facing those affected”.
Grime, the genre once dubbed the sound of London’s social underclass, has made its ascent from the fringes to the mainstream. Black Britannia rules the airwaves, giving voice to the social and political issues impacting the country’s inner-city, working-class young people – and finding fans far beyond the council estate bedrooms of its inception. With its subversive and rebellious spirit, its little surprise that grime has been touted as the new punk.
While many applauded Stormzy’s sense of responsibility to address social ills through his art, others were incensed by what they saw as an abuse of his platform to ‘push a political agenda’. The racist undertones of much of the negative commentary has had echoes of the recent “shut up and dribble” comment from Laura Ingraham regarding NBA basketball player LeBron James’ audacity to state an opinion on US politics. Subtext: black artists and sport stars – you are here for our entertainment, not for our enlightenment.
It was only a matter of time before the Daily Mail responded to such a shameless display of left-wing subversion. Step forth Amanda Platell – an Australian journalist, whose whiteness apparently gives her the inherent right to question Stormzy’s British credentials. Opening her article by making reference to his upbringing in social housing to a single mother from Ghana, she wrote:
“For all his life Stormzy has happily benefited from the health care, housing and education opportunities the government, whether Tory or Labour, has provided… is it asking too much that he show a scintilla of gratitude to the country that offered his mother and him so much? Instead of trashing it.”
In other words, Stormzy and his ilk should be grateful for the opportunities afforded to them by benevolent Britain. The article screams ‘You are here because we allowed you to be – not because you had any right to be’ to other non-white Britons who might dare to critique the society in which they live.
I think it’s fair to say that most non-white Brits have come to expect similar sentiment from some sections of British society, made all the more apparent by insidious anti-immigrant sentiments brought to the surface by Brexit, keyboard warriors and a lifetime of being asked where you’re really from.
What Platell’s outrage exemplifies is the underlying, dominant narrative that brown and black Britons have little legitimate claim to this country, and that their place on these isles comes from a place of charity and benevolence – rather than as a result of Britain’s tentacle-like reach in the world.
Stormzy has nothing to be grateful for. Black and brown Britons have nothing to be grateful for. In the words of Stuart Hall, ‘They are here because you were there. There is an umbilical connection. There is no understanding Englishness without understanding its imperial and colonial dimensions.’
The UK is infected with an epidemic of collective amnesia, quick to recall Britain’s glorious past whilst leaving out the inglorious details.
“Let’s put the Great back into Great Britain”
“But wasn’t that when the British Empire was pillaging vast wealth from elsewhere, treating its home-grown working class like trash and subjugating people in its colonies?”
“Stop talking about the past and move on”
I am mixed-race, but my great-grandfather was an engineer in the British Colonial Service, whose work sent him to countries in Africa, the Caribbean and India. I have one of his souvenirs from his time in the tropics – a map of German East Africa (which the Brits swiped after WWI), and on it his hand-drawn markings of mines and railway lines. On a spot near a place called Pambani, he has pencilled ‘diamonds’. To hold this map in my hands – to have a physical and ancestral connection to this side of Empire – is both unsettling and fascinating.
I am also the daughter of a Black Jamaican father, whose ancestors will have gone through unfathomable cruelty to enrich the country we now call home. My grandmother left pre-Independence Jamaica to arrive in the UK as a British citizen in the early sixties, while her young son followed soon after to gain an education, make a life for himself, raise a family and pay his taxes. Tax revenues that were – unbelievably – still being used up until 2015 to pay off a loan used to compensate slave owners.
As black and brown Britons, we can talk until we’re blue in the face about global human migration, Cheddar Man, colonial legacies and the things that connect rather than divide us as multi-ethnic citizens of these isles. We can win Brit Awards, BAFTAs, Olympic medals, enter politics, save lives working in the NHS, die for this country, pay our taxes, live as law-abiding citizens and model ourselves on the archetypal ‘good immigrant’. But it’s hard to shake the feeling of futility in the knowledge that our right to belong will always be under scrutiny.
Why must we continue to have to justify our place in Great Britain, when we have given far more than can ever be repaid?
Speaking of his home country, James Baldwin once wrote: “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticise her perpetually.”
For many black and brown Britons, the UK is the only home we know. And like anyone who has the fortune of finding themselves here – by coincidence of birth or migration – we have the same right to demand more of those whose decisions disadvantage Britons of every hue.
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Queen Nefertiti in a past life. Reborn in Luton as a plebeian. Reinvented as a too-much-to-say-for-herself Londoner and writer. Tweets @the_vajabond.
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