My London

Essay commissioned by The London Magazine - October 2016

My London has changed countless times over. I have known London unemployed, slept on sofas and box rooms too small for a wardrobe and desk (which kickstarted my bad habit of writing on my bed). I have known London working seven days a week, breakfast through dinner packed in sandwich boxes clumsily solidifying at the bottom of my backpack. I’ve been a student here, speaking in half formed essays and only feeling the August sun on my back through a library window. I’ve lived within the contradictions of young professional London; wearing ill fitted shirts and hovering around after meetings to take the left over sandwiches for later. I’ve known London lonely, only this is state that still finds me frequently, no more so when taking a night bus from start to end on an empty phone battery.

In many ways my London has been a continuous turning page, prompted by the most unlikely of things; a new job that makes you relate to a different part of London and its people entirely, when a friend moves away and then all of a sudden there are certain places you don’t go to anymore or the first poetry open mic I did which opened my eyes to everything that came next. I have passed shops and landmarks knowing the last time I was there I was a different person entirely. And this change does not happen over the years you might expect, but months sometimes, weeks. I often wonder how many past lives I’ve shred in this city, how many I’m stepping over.

It’s funny to think I never expected to live in London. I grew up in Rotherham in South Yorkshire and while I always had ambitions to leave, my itchy feet were never for London, rather for somewhere I could never place exactly. My first memory of London is being dragged through Brixton market as a child by my mother. I imagine that for her the market was a treasure trove of produce she could make home from and I remember her taking every yam and scotch bonnet and weighing them in her hands it as if they were gold. But for me, I only felt the dull obligation of following and the smell of the butchers clawing at my nostrils. Very occasionally as a teenager I would visit my older sisters who were living in various shared flats across the city. In those times I experienced London for its claustrophobia; no space for a garden, the heat of the tube on my chest, a strange man grabbing my sister’s arm. I decided I would never live in London, bus drivers didn’t wave at each other, food was more expensive yet no tastier and no one smiled. I was assured, in the hapless way the naive often are, that by the time I got to my sisters’ ages I’d have my shit together, probably living somewhere in the world with my own flat, balcony and if the mood struck, a motorbike.  

Fast forward some ten years later and I found myself newly living in London and sleeping in the living room of my sister’s flat in Elephant and Castle. My bed is a mattress that I drag from behind the sofa once all my sister’s flatmates have gone to sleep. I’ve graduated and just come back from living in La Réunion, a French speaking island in the Indian Ocean, where life moves at a lulled pace, food is plucked from trees moments before being chopped in the kitchen and space lush and ample. So needless to say this living room set up in Elephant and Castle is a slap in the face and, let’s face it, fairly ironic given my former loftier aspirations. It didn’t take too long, however, before I started to understand how fortunate I was to have a somewhere rent free to set myself up in. And so I embarked on trying to be as invisible as possible so no one would notice that I’d definitely outstayed my welcome.  

Choosing where to live as an adult can be a complicated decision. While I was lured to London by the promise of its opportunity, you also choose a place because you hope it will suit your temperament, certain aspects of your character. My experience of London in those early days was a city living at its cockiest; brash and complicated, often unforgiving. Everywhere I’d lived before London felt like it could be conquered and I could know its twists and quirks fairly quickly. But this was a city that was altogether unknowable, forever ready yet under construction. In retrospect, I also think this initial uncertainty with London was compounded by a phase of graduate grief; the realisation that neither you nor your degree are as special as you were once led to believe. And so it was a period of scrabbling around for mediocre jobs I didn’t really want and didn’t get, of temping and doing unpaid internships whilst drastically lowering expectations for my future life plans. I was lost - often physically (getting on and off the tube did no good for my general sense of direction) and existentially.  

So I took to walking. It was my cheapest option and a way in which I could know where I was going and feel intentional, albeit in a very basic sense. I walked everywhere and as far as I could, wandering around willing the city to give me something to do. It is in this way that I began to discover a more sedate London, its parks and residential areas. I know quiet exists in London, far more than the brass face of it would have you believe, but quietness in London still feels like a delicious form a cheating somehow, like something secret I’ve stumbled on. Southwark still remains one of my favourite boroughs, for its brick buildings, hidden corners and council flats yet to be gentrified. I find Southwark to be a borough that is altogether beautiful, once you know where to look that is. I still credit this time for how I know well I know London by foot. Having no claims over the city also helps; I am still able to glide its parameters without the diehard loyalties of the born and bred. The north - south divide means nothing to me unless we’re talking southerners and northerners (and then let’s discuss about how you pronounce the word glass).

While I had a shaky welcome to my life in London, being here has undoubtedly made me the writer I am today. It’s because of all those closed doors I encountered whilst trying to find a job that I turned back to my writing and eventually started sharing it. Meeting people making a life out of their creativity and using it to say something meaningful inspired me to do the same too. It might just well have saved me. Five years after being here, I became Young Poet Laureate for London, a yearlong position which has enabled me to think about London through poetry. My work often dwells on observation, identity and often the complexities of belonging and I think London has been an ideal place to interrogate these issues.  During my laureate year I’ve also had to hope; to play with London and imagine what it could be without limitations. As my laureate year finishes, I wonder whether I will still continue to hope for London as well as myself.

For now, London continues to be the place I call home. Sometimes I do not like London (central line, rush hour) but I trust it. I trust that it is a city, from its people to its landscapes, always in evolution. This change sometimes happens in brutal ways I do not like, but it reminds me that if a city like London must change, for better or worse, then so must we. There is nowhere better than London, for all its perplexities, unflinching nature and sheer backdrops to remind you that we are all just a temporary flecks in this place, walking past former versions of ourselves in a city that has always been morphing and expanding from under our feet. In the end, all of this does and doesn’t matter and after all this time I’m beginning to realise: that’s the way I like it.

The White Tent

Written for SableLit Magazine - November 2015

 La Réunion, a French speaking island near Madagascar, is relatively unknown. Along with islands such as Guadeloupe and Martinique, it is a French overseas ‘department’ meaning its currency, political, health and education system all mirror that of France, despite its tropical location. Though I didn't know it at the time, my decision to live in La Réunion was a rare gift. I went from 2008 to 2009 as an English teaching assistant and researcher for a women’s charity.  In my younger state of mind, I didn’t go with much intention, but rather saw it as an opportunity to escape somewhere new. And while I don’t think this decision was fuelled with new aged dreams of ‘finding myself’, there was something about going to a dot of an island that many people had never heard of that reeked of possibility and both terrified and appealed.

Living abroad is always an eye opening experience. But as the days pass and the ‘new foreigner’ fears wane (but never completely disappear), it's often surprising how soon you become acquainted with your new surroundings. It is, after all, part of the package of truly living somewhere else; new ways of living softly become your own. And so, it wasn’t long before I succumbed to the island’s rhythms, knew the best place to buy my Rougail saucisse, found grainy warmth from its lava sand beaches and became friends with its panoramic sea and mountain views.

Generally speaking, I found La Réunion to be an inspiring mirror of how different cultures and religions can co-exist respectfully. This multicultural island hosts a whole array of cultures from Chinese to Indian to Madagascan. And because of its diverse cultures, it felt like such a rare privilege to see the diverse ethnic DNA of its people and how I fitted in perfectly- an unexpected thrill for an ‘ethnic minority’ who grew up in northern England.

 But beyond these trappings of paradise lay an underlying tension that I increasingly could not ignore; the French – Creole divide. While the guide books will tell you that French is the official language, after living there I know that the Creole culture and language is very much the heartbeat of the island. And while the unique mix of French influences merged with the Creole culture is both beautiful and fascinating, there is a certain divide between the two cultures that becomes apparent when you scratch beneath the island’s idyllic surface.

 One particular example of this division came after about six months into my time in La Réunion. I was increasingly disappointed by how few people I knew on the island and the fact that most of my friends were foreign. I really didn't come half way across the world to be a closed off foreigner and I always consider a good sign of having lived well in a country is by how well you know its people. So bearing this in mind, I consciously pushed myself to make an effort to meet new people and do new things. This was how I found myself alone at the visual and interactive exhibition, La Théorie d’Antoine - Extension, where I was invited to leave my bag outside and step into what can only be described as a room, kind of like a white cloth rectangular tent.

Inside were four dancers, all dressed in white, and a chair in which they pushed me around and swung my legs. Through the course of this experimental session, the four of them proceeded to carry me sky high with each dancer taking a limb and turning me clockwise. Afterwards I was led to a makeshift door, again made of cloth, with just a hand sticking out. Feeling very Alice in Wonderland-esque, I took the hand and was led into a dark room where I was taken through the same procedure, only now in sheer darkness. As this finished, I was led back out into the terrace to view the rest of the exhibition. The whole concept focused on the role of choreography and how each new person who entered the tent played a role in this dance sequence without actually doing anything.

The exhibition, however interesting (and slightly strange), was overshadowed by something else; I was there, surrounded by seemingly interesting people, but had never felt so invisible. I had purposely come by myself with an open mind and intention to meet new people, but I didn’t talk to anyone. I’d like to think that I’m a fairly sociable creature and so all I was looking for was someone to throw me a bone; some eye contact or a smile so that I could reel myself into the start of a conversation. But I got absolutely nothing. What else could I do but obviously eat the free food?  I kept on waiting for the silver lining (free wine?) but soon realised there really wasn’t one. 

From my awkward point of view came a more difficult observation. Standing there in my isolated corner, stripped of friends to distract me, I saw a terrace full of white faces. The French-Creole divide that I'd only partially acknowledged before was staring me in the face.  I was forced to wonder why this kind of art seemed reserved for a small minority instead of belonging to everyone, especially on an island famed for its all encompassing acceptance of diversity. That night I felt so out of place and I was mindful of the fact that most people on the island probably would assumed that I was a 'Cafrine' (a name given to people from La Réunion of African ancestry). So it really knocked me off my feet as these people clinked their wine and nibbled on their cheese on sticks while looking straight through me.

Although I see La Réunion primarily as a home to this beautiful blend of ethnicities, this could have easily been in a rural town in Normandy. I was forced to truly acknowledge that, despite the paradise I had associated the island, hierarchies and divides still remain. There are certain places where ‘les 'Métros' and 'Z'Oreilles', terms given to those originally born in inland France, are more likely to live and socialise. My friend Lucy’s predominately white prestigious tennis club came swarming into my mind (black waiters work in the on site restaurant, I’ve noticed). Similarly, there are places where the 'les Creoles', a term also used for those from the island of mixed ethnic heritage, are also more likely to live and socialise. There are places of prestige and ‘highbrow’ culture, such as this exhibition, where French is spoken and Creole, much like my bag at the white tent, is left at the back door. I, as a foreigner, had obviously stumbled into a tent where I did not belong, that was seemingly not designed for my presence.

 I was forced to reconfigure my experiences in light of the island’s colonial history. La Réunion, an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, is owned by France. And while I never fully dissected this, given the unique melange of treasures La Réunion holds as a consequence, this scene made me feel uncomfortable. Are the white elite playing at living on this tropical island while the rest of us watch? They have no profound right to call it home, except from the colonial power of the country that they happen to be born into. Furthermore, as a European citizen who has equally taken advantage of this status, does this make me just as bad? How do I reconcile my experiences here, with my own Nigerian heritage and its English colonial history?

I left early, somehow pushed out of this ‘white tent’ exhibition. Two minutes away from the gallery and I was back into city I recognised, once again reassured, albeit more sceptical, that diversity still does exist.

Looking back at my time in La Réunion, years later, I often wish I’d gone with the same critical awareness that I have now. I think I would have been more likely to give a name to my discomfort. Nevertheless, there are moments that punctuate through words and critical theory that just feel wrong, where the hairs on your arms tell you that something isn’t right. And while I would come across other instances that would further reveal the intricacies of La Réunion’s colonial baggage, it was this experience that was the most telling of my year in La Réunion

Deeper than the pipelines – Oil exploitation in the Niger Delta and the legacy of Ken Saro-Wiwa

Written for the Free Word Centre- 30/05/2015

The average life expectancy in Nigeria is less than 50 years

– United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), 2011

“It is genocide. I accuse the oil companies of practising racism because they do in Ogoni what they do not do in other parts of the world.”
– Ken Saro-Wiwa, 1993

The story of oil exploitation in the Niger Delta is one of severe injustice.

Before oil was first discovered in commercial quantities by Shell in 1956, the Niger Delta, home to approximately 31 million people and over 40 ethnic groups, was sustained by a system of rich agriculture and natural resource. Inhabitants also benefited from one of the largest and most important wetlands and marine ecosystems in the world, with an estimated 75% of the Niger Delta population relying on the environment for farming and fishing as a means of sustaining their livelihoods.

It is crucial to remember that though oil production began in 1956, imperialist structures, stemming from the beginning of the twentieth century, facilitated this process. In 1937, under the rule of the British Empire, Shell was given exploration rights to the whole of Nigeria. Therefore, though the discovery of oil was thought to increase the wealth of Nigeria, in a global market desperate for crude oil, the move to oil production wasn’t based on the needs of the indigenous communities of the Niger Delta, but rather part of the expansion of British imperialist powers, which have continued to the current day.

 To date, over $600 billion has been generated from Nigerian oil exports since 1960 and yet the majority of people from the Niger Delta have been left impoverished. The infrastructure implemented for oil production was prioritised over the region’s agricultural dependence, with pipelines built in front of homes and across farmlands. As the pipelines have aged and have been poorly maintained, the area has suffered from constant oil spills, leading to farmlands and forests covered in oil, severely reducing the capacity for growth of crops.

In Ogoniland, an area in the south of the Niger Delta, there were an estimated 2,976 oil spills between 1976 and 1991. Despite the vast quantities of oil being produced in the area, Ogoni villages have no clean water, little health care provision and have received no form of reparation, leaving locals with neither the revenue from oil production, nor the agricultural resource afforded to them previously.

The heavy pollution of water sources has led to a loss of the biodiversity that the Niger Delta was so renowned for, as well as contaminating water used for cooking and bathing, with drinking water containing carcinogens up to 900 times above World Health Organization standards.

Also, contrary to Nigerian law, Shell burns off excess natural gas, a by-product of oil drilling, which creates walls of flames so large that some can be seen from space. Some of these flares have burned non-stop for over 40 years, leaving locals to contend with the constant heat and light from the flames, which among other ailments, can cause sleep deprivation and insomnia.

Unsurprisingly, this has led to catastrophic detrimental health affects for the people of Niger Delta. With an average age expectancy of under 50, people are significantly more prone to suffer from respiratory problems, gastro-intestinal disorders, malnutrition as well as various forms of cancer.


Ken Saro-Wiwa and Ogoni protest

The Ogoni community have historically led fierce opposition against the resource exploitation undertaken by Shell. A well-known figure who was pivotal in peaceful protests against Shell was writer, satirist and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. In 1990, as president of The Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), he was central to the creation of the Ogoni Bill of Rights which called for the self-determination of the Ogoni people and which shone a light on imperialist structures at force. The Bill also paved the way for other indigenous communities worldwide to produce similar manifestos.

Moreover, MOSOP, led by Ken, mobilised 300,000 people to protest against the actions of Shell, calling for environmental justice and reparations for the damage done to Ogoniland. This was the biggest protest of its kind against an oil company, forcing Shell to stop oil extraction in Ogoniland in 1993. However, in response, Shell allegedly colluded heavily with the Nigerian military government, who consequently accused Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni activists – Saturday Dobee, Nordu Eawo, Daniel Gbooko, Paul Levera, Felix Nuate, Baribor Bera, Barinem Kiobel, and John Kpuine – of murder, conducting a bogus trial for their condemnation. They were executed in 1995. After a lengthy legal battle lasting 14 years, Shell finally paid $15.5 million in compensation to the families of the Ogoni activists killed.

Legacies of Saro-Wiwa

The legacies of Saro-Wiwa and the eight Ogoni activists (otherwise known as the Ogoni nine) leave a heavy but hopeful burden. Whilst their execution was and still continues to be a devastating and terrifying loss, they pay testament to the strength of community leadership and activism. The protests of the Ogoni people prevented Shell from returning to area and have provided inspiration to communities around the world who continue to resist multinational companies. Moreover, protests do continue and organisations such as Social Action, the People’s Advancement Centre, and Environmental Rights Action continue to campaign with and for Nigerians affected by multinational oil exploitation, striving to keep the issue on the international agenda.

However the challenges persist and evolve; the execution of the Ogoni nine showed the extent to which the military are involved in Shell’s operations in the Niger Delta and research has shown how Shell regularly colludes with armed militants, offering financial incentive to violently suppress opposition to the oil operation.

Though there has been no oil production in Ogoniland for over 20 years, oil spills still occur regularly. Though the chief executive of Shell, Ben van Beurden, has recently paid lip service to cleaning up the region, the company continues to show no real commitment to doing so, ignoring the report from UNEP in 2011 which confirms that the Niger Delta has been extensively damaged by Shell’s actions.

Moreover, the reputational damage incurred from the execution of the Ogoni nine means that Shell has adopted the language of sustainability, referring to ‘alternative’ and ‘clean’ sources of energy, under the guise of corporate social responsibility. This serves to soften their image and cultivate a veneer of respectability. In considering the challenges of oil production in the Niger Delta, Shell’s focus on the crude oil theft in the region, without considering the root causes, is again an attempt to stretch the narrative beyond their own corruption. This is further compounded by their association and sponsorship of cultural and educational institutions which, again, serves to soften their image and encourage us to disassociate them from their actions in Nigeria.

Whilst considering the challenges that continue to plight the lives of people in the Niger Delta, it’s crucial to contextualise the situation within the neocolonial structures at force. How has Shell been able to continue these actions for the past 50 years with the complete disregard of the Nigerian people? With more oil spilled in the Niger Delta each year than that of the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, whose lives continue to be more important than others and why? How would we react if a similar situation were happening in Norway, for example, or Scotland?

The people of the Niger Delta are living in a state of paralysis. Being denied the benefits of their own land and means of livelihood is keeping them, as Saro-Wiwa described, in a state of slavery. What was so powerful about the protests of MOSOP and the Ogoni nine was that they called for more than an end to oil exploitation, but for the real autotomy of Nigerians – they called for Nigerians to be seen and heard. And this remains the biggest threat to the current neocolonialist structure, which remains rooted in the archaic notion that the people of Africa cannot and should not be in control of their own land. It is this fear; of the loss of neocolonial powers and the notion of meaningful autonomy for the people of Niger Delta, benefiting from their own resources, that runs deeper than the pipelines

Review: Assata, An Autobiography

Written for Red Pepper - 16/11/14

Assata Shakur is the US government’s hangover. Many black political activists of the 1960s and 70s were systematically targeted by the FBI, falsely convicted and at times killed in order to destabilise the black power movement. However, after being convicted of killing a police officer in 1977, Assata’s escape from a similar fate remains a defiant and symbolic act of resistance. Though the evidence of the murder trial, both forensic and medical, is overwhelmingly in Assata’s favour (there were no traces of gun residue on her fingers, no fingerprints on the gun in question and with the injuries sustained from being shot at three times it would have been impossible to shoot at the police officer), she is considered a threat to the US government and is on the FBI’s most wanted terrorist list. Forty years on, Assata Shakur is still a dangerous woman.

With this in mind, it’s clear that Assata: An Autobiography, republished by Zed Books in July, is as imperative a read and powerful a defence against the FBI’s ongoing claims as it was in the year of its original publication in 1987. The autobiography begins at the shootout involving the police officer and from there Assata takes us through her subsequent legal battles. This is interspersed with emotionally charged poetry and recollections of formative experiences throughout her life, which lead up to her political awakening and involvement in the black power movement. In the final chapter, she brings us up to the 1987 present day – having escaped from prison, she is living in Cuba.

Through Assata’s experiences, we are invited to look directly into the mechanisms of power and the measures the US government has taken to uphold its winners and subjugate its losers. She shows us how the police, backed by the FBI, operate with impunity under the guise of neutralising ‘black nationalist hate groups’, while Assata, much like her black radical counterparts of the time, is systematically targeted and vilified for an array of fictitious crimes. The language used by US officials offers a critical case study in systemic power and denigration. The parallel between the public depiction of Assata and her eloquence and compassion is palpable throughout the autobiography. Words used by the police and media to describe her, such as ‘threat’ and ‘enemy of the state’, create a reductive caricature of a woman seeking justice and equality.

Angela Davis, in the foreword, recalls how Assata asks in an open letter to the Pope, ‘Why, I wonder, do I warrant such attention? What do I represent that is such a threat?’ The reality is we were never supposed to hear Assata’s story; the criminal plastered on every ‘wanted’ poster wall in 1970s New York was the only side of her we were ever supposed to see. The danger she poses to the US government, therefore, lies in her freedom and her disruption of this mainstream narrative. Assata has lived in the bowels of a corrupt and oppressive legal process but she has lived to tell the tale. Her unapologetic critique of the system that tried to crush her and her beliefs exposes the hypocrisy behind the principles of equality and freedom that the US believes its ideals were built upon.

Assata’s autobiography is a book that should be irrelevant now, a historical flag post of the struggles of our revolutionary forebearers. Instead, the picture she paints is strikingly similar to the deep-rooted structural inequalities we are familiar with today. Her accounts of police brutality and impunity, the communities of colour disproportionately imprisoned and the selective character defamation all have resonance in the injustices of Trayvon Martin, Mariss Alexander, Mike Brown and the ongoing struggle in Ferguson. For all of the misguided assertions that we are living in an Obama ‘postracial climate, these continuing cases of racialised police brutality, as well as the ongoing attempts made by the US to denigrate and convict Assata, signal a systemic prejudice as raw and as visceral as it was in the 1960s.

 There is much to learn from this book. As personal as it is political, it has vital lessons for any activist committed to challenging social injustice and fighting for global solidarity. Assata’s reflections as an activist in exile are also important; she is both in the centre and the periphery of the struggle, which breeds insightful and nuanced considerations.

 Assata’s sense of hope, even in the most dire of situations, is striking. She talks about the creativity and power borne out of hardship and her poems within the book, often written during the bleakest of times, seem to give testament to this. For her, there is still beauty and truth even in the darkest moments of struggle. In her words:

I believe in living.

I believe in birth.

I believe in the sweat of love

and in the fire of truth.

 

And I believe that a lost ship,

steered by tired, seasick sailors,

can still be guided home

to port.

Another creative resolution? Read more fiction

Written for the RSA -20/01/14

When was the last time you read a good literary book? Or recommended one? Though a staple for some, reading a good novel increasingly feels like a luxury not all of us can afford in the midst of busy schedules and digital distraction.  Additionally, in a time where literary novel sales are declining and libraries are closing, it’s clear that our appreciation for the literary masterpiece is waning. It also seems as if children are beginning to mirror our increasing disengagement with literature; according to the National Literary Trust, only 40% of children aged 8-16 read daily in 2005, a figure which dropped to 30% in 2011 and by a further 2% in 2012.

However, a study in Science journal connects reading literary fiction with Theory of Mind; the ability to emphasise, imagine and understand the mental states of others. As part of the study, one group were given excerpts of literary fiction, while other groups read popular fiction and non-fiction. When finished, participants were asked to take a test to assess and understand other people’s thoughts and emotions. Interestingly, there were stark differences between those who had read literary fiction and those who had read non-fiction. Those who read the literary fiction excerpts exhibited increased levels of empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence. Participants who had read excerpts of popular fiction were also deemed less able to connect empathically.

 

The differences between literary fiction and popular fiction stir a series of old rivalries between ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’ interpretations of literature, but I think what is most important is the potential for literature to enable a person to think and feel creatively. Good literature gives space and time for the reader to delve more creatively into the psyche of their protagonist and to explore human complexities and behaviours. But as we become increasingly embroiled within the world of social media, everyday communication is often whittled down to 140 characters and appreciation in the form of ‘likes’ and retweets has become a normalised endeavour. Our thoughts are increasingly becoming condensed and immediate for social media consumption as are our reactions. Though clearly beneficial in certain respects, the world of social media often provides a somewhat one dimensional approach to communication, often bereft of emotionally sensibilities.

Reading literature, it seems, is fast becoming the equivalent of ‘slow’ food – wholesome and most probably good for you but without the immediate gratification and universal appeal of faster alternatives. Tellingly, on speaking on Radio 4’s Front Row earlier this month, writer Ruth Rendell connects the belated literary success of John Williams’ novel Stoner, a novel in which a young farm man  falls in love with literature, with our literary nostalgia and claims the novel reminds us of a love of literature that we as a society seem to be gradually forgetting. But in thinking more widely about this loss, we need to consider and examine the detrimental effects of the increasing absence of literature, particularly when considering its role in the development of empathy and emotional intellect.

In contemplating the RSA’s current discussions on ‘the power to create’, it’s clear that reading fiction is certainly not the only wayto delve deeper into what creativity at the heart of RSA might look like (if only!). But it’s interesting and important to consider our collective levels of empathy and emotional intelligence when thinking about channels of power and creativity. And while recent debates are still at the forefront of the RSA psyche, maybe reading literature is not a bad start…

Give young people a voice in the EU referendum debate

Written for the Guardian -31/05/13

Ukip’s recent rise in popularity and the increased fervour behind talks of an EU referendum has placed the matter of the UK’s future within Europe at the forefront of the mainstream agenda. But when I read these headlines, something just doesn’t ring true. David Cameron’s claim that the people of Britain are unhappy with the relationship between Britain and the EU does not reflect my own experiences – or those of my peers.

I studied as an Erasmus student in both France and Italy. Not only did I come away fluent in two languages, but this experience informs my outlook in all kinds of ways – whether by informing my ability to translate reports for work or by giving me a lasting sense of snobbery for inauthentic Italian restaurants back in the UK.

A recent report from the Fabian Society shows that the majority of the 18- to 34-year-olds surveyed claimed they would vote yes to EU membership in a referendum. Far from donning rose-tinted glasses about the current state of the EU, the report reveals that the majority of young people, despite economic instability and the burgeoning eurozone crisis, still feel positive about the UK’s involvement within the EU.

What’s clear here is there is a discrepancy between Ukip’s and the Tories’ anti-Europe rhetoric, and the views of the pro-European majority among the younger UK generation. Why do rightwing political parties continue to dismiss young people’s views – and the potential to be gained from staying within the EU for younger generations?

My Erasmus year instantly placed me within a network of young people from 27 countries and reputable universities to study in. To be exposed to so many different opportunities, cultures and people (and given a grant for the privilege) all under the umbrella of “Europe” connected me to the EU in a way that makes the overly simplistic makings of the EU referendum derisory.

The reality is that young people are less likely to vote – and issues surrounding Europe are no exception; only 29% of people aged 24 or younger voted in European elections in 2009. However, it would be lazy to mistake this lacklustre political presence among youth for apathy. The young may be disillusioned with the democratic process, but for most of us, the EU serves more of a cultural function than a political one. But because this level of engagement doesn’t translate into a cohesive or valuable entity in political terms, it’s all too easily dismissed, and for the right to continue to portray the UK as an aloof and distant cousin within the European family.

Many young Brits are currently facing limited opportunities, so why is shrinking them further by UK withdrawal being discussed? As youth unemployment rises and hideous terms like, “benefit scrounger” and “Neet” bounce around current day vernacular, youth engagement within the EU presents a mass of opportunity. EU schemes such as the Leonardo Da Vinci programme and the European Voluntary Service allow young people to work and live abroad as well as encouraging young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to apply. It’s crucial that the chances for young people are widened, not limited, and our views taken into account (and where have we seen this before?) instead of being disregarded for the ideas of the privileged few.

It’s a chilling and all too familiar story, to listen to the constant stream of white middle-class rightwing politicians claiming separation from the EU would be best for the country as they prove time and time again that they do not speak for me or the majority. When Cameron speaks for the supposed majority about Britain’s overburdened relationship to the EU, he undermines the fruitful experiences and voices of those who reject the sovereign and individualistic mentality that surrounds the EU debate. Instead of flailing and jumping to the drum of Ukip, it’s time the Conservatives listened. We need Europe and future generations should not be left bearing the consequences of decisions they did not make and outcomes they did not vote for.

REVIEW: Black Power Mixtape

Written for Red Pepper - 17/12/11

 

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The film Black Power Mixtape is a look back in history to the struggles of the US civil rights movement, with footage from 1967 to 1975. Retrieved from the depths of Swedish television archives, the film is a collection of interviews, images and commentary by Swedish journalists of the time. Directed by Göran Olsson, it pays fitting tribute to the power of documentary and, from a contemporary point of view, demonstrates the dividends of documentation in the midst of struggle and political activism.

Using footage shown in chronological order, the film gives an insight to the visions of different pivotal activists in the black power movement. Interviews and speeches with leading figures prove both touching and powerful. Activist Stokely Carmichael’s sharp turn of phrase, in the context of an intimate interview between him and his mother, forms part of an invaluable historical snapshot. The interview demonstrates, directly and personally, Carmichael’s rise above the generational passivity and rhetoric that preceded him.

The film also covers contemporary reactions to the vilification of the black power movement. Angela Davis’s eloquence is noteworthy as she outlines, with righteous incredulity, the often one-dimensional discourse of violence associated with the black power movement without reference to the barbarism and violent culture initiated and perpetuated by white America. Interviews such as this, alongside speeches and other footage, give the viewer a real sense of the notion of black power and the different approaches activists and leaders took in their fight for equality.

Black Power Mixtape has its limitations, however, and its narration is at times lacking. It is striking that although we are given a vivid feel for some of the activists of the American civil rights movement, the modern-day counterparts providing commentary in the film are mostly of musical standing. While the contributions from artists such as Erykah Badu, Talib Kweli and Questlove are often thought-provoking and have their place, the absence of current academic and political figures is noticeable and robs the documentary of important perspectives and flavour.

The irony in Erykah Badu’s comments about black people needing to document and tell their own stories is that Black Power Mixtape is told essentially from a Swedish perspective. Commentators such as Badu and Questlove are given the platform to comment but the structure is driven by the Swedish footage available.

The documentary also covers such a large range of topics that the subject matter is almost too big for it to handle and it suffers a loss of depth. While this is inevitable to some extent given the time constraints of a film of just over 90 minutes, some issues are just too important to leave aside. The lack of reference to the often misogynistic nature of the black power movement, for example, leaves a gaping hole in the narrative and its discussion of notions of black power.

For a film so seemingly political, Black Power Mixtape manages to raise weighty issues born of the civil rights movement without properly acknowledging the proximity of these events and how their effects are still being felt today. Instead, as a conclusion, we are told in a passing, somewhat stereotypical statement that the black power movement’s legacy can be found in certain forms of hip hop, reducing the issues raised by the film – and the movement – to a musical genre.

The lack of modern-day context in tackling such an important issue leaves me with a raised brow, particularly when considering that Talib Kweli’s hip hop company Blacksmith Records was involved in the film’s production. Even the use of the word ‘mixtape’ in the title, while on the one hand referring to the mix of different footage in the film, points ambiguously to the hip hop soundtrack and music in general.

Although Black Power Mixtape is invaluable in the rare footage and insights it provides, the film’s relative lack of contemporary academic and political analysis leaves it incomplete. Though the film offers powerful commentary from the past, it is as telling in what it lacks as in what it offers.

While it is made clear from the content that oppression gives rise to what Talib Kweli describes as ordinary people ‘standing up for themselves’, the film leaves the impression that the struggles and achievements of the civil rights movement have done little more than reap a politically conscious group of contemporary hip hop musicians. Is this the real power that civil rights activists fought for?

Oppressing the ‘oppressed’ – What good can come from the banning the burka?

Written for Women's Views on News- 26/05/11

 April saw the much debated burka ban come into effect in France. With reported acts of resistance already underway, the ban means that women seen wearing the burka and niqab (full Islamic veils) in public can receive a €150 fine or a French citizenship course.

Considered a violation of human rights and a slur against Muslims by many of its critics, the law in itself makes no explicit reference to the burka or niqab. In fact it’s the absurd elephant in the room as the law, labelled‘prohibiting the concealing of the face in public’, oddly makes no direct mention of women or the veil in what can only be assumed as a misguided attempt to appear neutral.

However there is no doubt that the estimated 2000 Muslim women who wear the burka in France have been targeted here. Deemed a ‘sign of subservience’, by French president Sarkozy, the niqab and burka have been growing sources of contention in France for years.  With many other European countries such as Belgium and Holland threatening to jump on the bandwagon, we have to ask ourselves; will this ban actually solve anything?

One of the main arguments for the ban is that the burka is a method of ‘debasement’ that only seeks to oppress women. Sarkozy, that well known trooper for women’s rights, claims that these women are, “prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life (and) deprived of identity”  Moreover, with no solid mention in the Qur’an, another recurring argumentfor the ban is that there is no religious standingon which the burka should be worn.

Amidst the backlash, the mainstream media has given us a few examples of strong Muslim women who’ve expressed their outrage against the ban, many considering it a betrayal from a country they call home.  Many have asserted their right to wear the burka, deeming it a personal and spiritual choice. These voices seem to be the part-remedy to the conservative rhetoric that would have us believe that all women wearing the burka are shackled to abusive relationships. However imperative this insight, the voices of the women that are truly oppressed are unlikely to make our newspaper columns and could even remain unaffected by the ban.  Abusive and oppressive relationships are controlling by their very nature. Surely an abusive man forcing his wife to wear a burka would have his wife stay at home rather than abide by a law he has no control over. This would further exacerbate the problem and isolate the woman from the community, rendering the ban irrelevant.

The French feminist group, Ni Putes Ni Soumises, (translated Neither Whores or Submissive) begs to differ on this take and are in full support of the ban, calling the full veil the ‘ultimate paroxysm of machismo’ and launching the campaign, ‘Ni Voiles Ni Burqa’  (Neither Veil or Burka) in the run up to the ban. However these vocal advocates seem to have missed the point. True emancipation cannot come by force.  If the burka is symptomatic of powerlessness and oppression, legally controlling these women and restricting them from wearing the burka will not help either. How can you berate and yet employ the very same methods as the oppressor you criticise?  Is this hypocrisy the antidote?

Regardless of the reasons and rationale behind the ban, what remains is that the women discussed needed to have been a pro-active part of the legal process. Where have they been?  Only one niqab wearing woman was part of the 6 month French parliamentary inquiry which produced a report recommending the ban out of a total of 211 people.  Yet again, we find the male minority exerting their power over a decision they do not have to live by. It’s a time old problem that seems to be stuck on repeat.  There are plenty of intelligent Muslim women with an array of opinions on the burka and niqab, how much more insightful and richer would that report be with their input? Not to mention more credible.

Despite Sarkozy’s apparent concern for these women (nothing to do with upcoming elections, of course), this law shows no real respect for these women. They’re the children in the back of the car while politicians muddle over who should be in the driving seat. France hasn’t really fully broached the issue of the burka and niqab because it hasn’t provided any real way for these women to have access to any power and have their voices heard. Real respect comes from horizontal consultation with opportunity for education (that works both ways) and interactive discussion in a public forum, not a law that these women have had no part of.

So the rhetoric of releasing women from a ‘male prison’ just doesn’t wash- whether it’s the ‘abusive partner’ at home or the 210 male parliamentary committee members, it’s seems that at best these woman have just been transferredfrom one 'prison' to another. Some freedom.

The politics of protest: The emergence of an ‘alternative’ breed of protester

Written for Hackery Blog - 11/04/11

26 March saw several thousands of people from all backgrounds protest on the streets of London. Organised by The Trades Union Congress (TUC), many came from near and far to voice their disdain over the government’s manhandling of UK public services.  With protesters ranging from students to pensioners, 26 March exhibited the kind of unity last seen in the anti-Iraq war march of 2003. People from all kinds of professional and political persuasions stood shoulder to shoulder to voice their anger and to, ‘March for the Alternative’.

Deemed as an all-round success, no one can deny that the events in the day were mostly peaceful and paid tribute to the stella organisation skills of the TUC. However as the day moved on, a more aggressive form of ‘protest’ developed. We’ve all read about the backlash and many heard of the ammonia filled light bulbs that were thrown at the police.

As shocking as this was, this violent undertone of protest is unfortunately nothing new. There will always be a violent aspect to larger protests whether from a minoritygroup of ‘protesters’ or the aggressive actions of the police, Ian Tomlinson being a fitting example among many others.  People looking to cause trouble will always gate crash other people’s causes and use it as a platform to justify their own violent behaviour.

However can the same be said for the minority involved in the Black Bloc movement, a masked group who vandalised symbolic property throughout the march?  Their anonymous interview in the Guardian was telling. Far from the yobs and misfits the government would have us label them; they spoke articulately about their cause and motivations and were able to voice this to the mainstream media without sacrificing their anonymity.  And for the group to do something seemingly spontaneous (although this is a bit too hard to believe) and still out-fox the police indicates that this required more than a black hoodie but actual brain power.

As misguided was these actions were, they brought the demonstration and the nature protest to the top of the agenda. Granted, with up to an estimated 500 000 people protesting for such a topical and important cause; it was always going to attract media attention. But rightly or wrongly, to what extent would this have happened without the actions of these alternative movements such as the Black Bloc?  Although for the most part the media was clear that the main demonstration was a success, the debate that lingered was over the nature of the violent protests. What does this say about our society when it is violence and damage that attracts more headlines?  Do you remember the fire-fighter’s protest last September or the recent protests in Germany against nuclear power? These were peaceful protests that didn’t stay in the media spotlight for long, presumably because respectful people protesting in the streets en mass and then going home isn’t sexy media fodder.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to don my balaclava (and in this weather?!) and hoist a paintball gun on my back. I saw the damage done to those shops and the fear these actions inflict on others who have nothing to do with the government. Despite the Black Bloc’s intention to, ‘send a message’ I couldn’t help wonder who they actually thought they were hurting.  Something tells me that Phil Green isn’t about to roll up his sleeves and start scrubbing the paint off the walls of Topshop. It’s the underpaid worker that has to deal with it which only maintains the vertical structures we live in where the ‘poor’ cleans up after the mess of the rich.

But what actually are our alternatives? When nothing in society tells us we have a say worth listening to. With no overall majority during the 2010 elections, the coalition government was formed based on back hand deals and sly manoeuvres we’ll presumably only know about when some backbencher memoir is released years down the line, demonstrations see the police kettling and manipulating protesters, thus stifling their right to protest, tuition fees are soaring thus excluding a good chunk of people in to their right to higher education. The list goes on but the point is, now more than ever, our government is sending out signals that majority has no say over the society we live in.

Politically, on the day of the march we had Ed Miliband as a speaker for the ‘alternative’.  However he compared the anti-cuts struggle to the civil rights movement (let’s just let that one go), didn’t really seem to offer an alternative and just rode the bandwagon placed before him.  When we push Ed’s awkward clichés aside, there doesn’t seem much hope in the Labour party leading the way to genuine change.

March 26 seemed to confirm this new era of protest we are entering based on our frustrations. The rise of groups that pioneer direct action tap into this feeling that to actually gain the attention of the government and wider public alike, you’re going to get your hands dirty. However, how this can and should be interpreted is another question. Groups such as UK Uncut and Climate Rush protest in a way that doesn’t inflict fear on Joe Bloggs walking down the street minding his own business. Instead Joe might even be inclined to watch the theatrical means of protest those groups employ and actually question what the fight is for, as opposed to fleeing from wayward shards of glass from broken windows.

On looking back at the media reaction from the march, I’m left feeling unsure by how much the demonstration would have made the news had the protests ended at Hyde Park with the majority of the other demonstrators. It’s a sad state of affairs when we need to ponder on this, but do we need the tactics of the Black Bloc ilk to push forward our agenda? The idea of this makes me feel uncomfortable and goes against my principles. And yet it seems like while society looks down on this kind of violent action, it readily engages in the necessary debate associated with it. Contrast this against peaceful protests, where coverage remains fleeting and limited.

In light of an age where more people are looking for their voices to be heard and to express their anger against the government, what message does this send out to people wondering how to protest?

 

Review: Hetain Patel’s TEN

Written for the Rich Mix Centre- 8/10/2010

It’s hard to define TEN, by Hetain Patel. It’s not a play and to call it a monologue would unjustly discredit the role of the two drummers, Mark and Dave. A performance might be getting warmer but that doesn’t seem to account for the element of honest- and at times seemingly spontaneous- dialogue that Patel uses. Nor does it give credit to Patel’s ease on stage, his tales of memories from childhood and the questions he asks without the need for immediate answers. Then again, you get the impression Patel doesn’t search to apply such a neat definition to this piece. Much like the red turmeric powder (Kanku), thrown by the fistful in the air during the performance, TEN is just as free and symbolic and very much a mirror on our cultural identity as it is on Patel’s.

There is no real beginning to TEN, just a casual slip into a conversation from Patel, as if we are rediscovered friends in need to hear his story. The most central theme comes from Patel’s discoveries from learning about Indian classical music and how he uses these lessons in his search to feel more of a connection to his culture. Through physical demonstrations from the trio, Hetain, Mark and Dave, we are shown the nature of a ten beat rhythm cycle. The rhythm is off beat, seemingly with no beginning or end. The concept of cycles is key to the performance and we are given the impression that even Patel’s cultural journey follows the same cyclical nature of the ten beat rhythm; his mother tongue being Gujarati, his adolescent shift towards English culture and then eventually coming back to rediscovering his Indian roots some years later. Patel’s exploration paves the way to much wider and deeper themes, such as what it means to be Indian and where our origins and sense of identity truly come from.

Patel uses his own experiences to raise themes that any first generation Briton can relate to. How should we take ownership over our identity in the 21st century? How can we feel a part of our culture; that of our parents and of our current day ? Are saying the right words and going through the motions enough? Is it something that has to be earned or does the answer lie in our blood alone? Again, Patel doesn’t search for neat solutions and, realistic in his cultural journey, offers more questions than answers. However with his no thrills set, contrasted against the vibrancy of the Kanku and original choreography, we are invited on the journey to explore these themes of culturalism and to reflect on how we can pay unique tribute to our own cultural heritage.

Film review: All White in Barking by Marc Issacs

Written for the Rich Mix Centre - 20/10/2010

Director and writer, Marc Issacs, explores the growing levels of contention for the increase of immigrants in Britain. Using Barking, a town with one of the highest levels of immigration and a large BNP following, as his location, Issacs explores the multifaceted attitudes surrounding race and immigration in 21st century Britain.

Issacs portrays his characters with startling honesty and originality. Far from the stock BNP fanatics we have become accustomed to seeing in the media, Issacs’ approach is far more clever than that. His subjects are engaging people dealing with the same issues and living the same lives as everybody else. We are presented with three dimensional, and sometimes contradictory, characters such as the Dave, a BNP activist, with a mixed race grandson who he openly shows love and affection for. Or Sue, who despite her prejudices (which are later challenged) against ‘Africans’, instantly becomes more accessible when mourns over the grave of her son. Through this, we are able to glimpse at the complexity of human nature and the unfounded roots of people’s pre-conceptions.

Issacs explores the concept of ‘otherness’ and the ambiguous and blurry grey lines in which people’s prejudices lie. Dave will happily defend the Italian residents in the area whilst airing unfounded suspicion over the unsuspecting ‘African’ lady passing by on the street. Sue has no qualms about her white Albanian neighbours whilst bringing out tired stereotypical clichés about African culture and her Nigerian neighbours.

What is clear is that these characters are not fundamentally racist, but their attitudes are based on fear of the ‘other’ and an anxiety that a different way of life will somehow dilute their own. All White in Barking feels less about blatant racism and more a modern depiction of the inner psyche of ordinary people and so it becomes impossible to entirely dislike or chastise these characters. Although we may not agree with their views, we can’t hate them as they leave political correctness at the door and discuss the issues that many are afraid to broach on a public platform. How are we supposed to feel about the closure of the butchers shop, a landmark that has had a staple presence in the community for over 40 years? The insinuation made is that the increase in competition has run the local butcher’s out of business, as the new ones seem to better cater for the increase of different cultures of the area. Issacs dangles these issues in front of us without judgement or indication of how these matters can or should be resolved.

Issacs leaves us in an interesting place by the end of the film. Sue and Jeff, after having spoken more to their Nigerian neighbours, are realistically not fundamentally changed, but can see the other side of coin. On the other hand, Dave, in objection to the influx of immigrants in the neighbourhood, moves from the ‘other’ to ‘his own people’ in Canvey Island. The last shot we see of him is him by himself on an isolated beach whilst the couple Sue and Jeff are surrounded by new acquaintances. Despite the non-judgemental stance that Issacs generally adapts throughout the duration, the documentary seems to favour those who have the ability to modify their judgements, leaving those who can’t behind in the shadows.

All White in Barking is an important documentary, combining honest dialogue and dry humour to bring to light the questions raised over the changing face of Britain. Although set in Barking, this is a universal film for the UK, that challenges the future of those who cannot adapt to the new and emerging DNA of modern day Britain.