2017 was a pivotal year for the African and Caribbean diaspora in Britain, with many gains made. The impact of this community, changing the way that mainstream society thinks and demolishing long-held stereotypes, has been profound. By Clayton Goodwin
From the African diaspora angle, there was a welcome sparkle in events towards the end of the year. Well away from the spotlight of the mass media, Africans and Caribbeans made an impact which is changing the way that society behaves and thinks.
Black History Month, too, was more than the stereotypical parade of transatlantic icons which it had developed into over recent years. Relevance to the past, to location and to the future was evident in two celebrations held within a few days of each other.
Black Stock Films, led by community archivist Nia Reynolds, presented a tribute (in Brixton Library) to the late Sam King, an Empire Windrush survivor and the first black Mayor of Southwark in sout-east London. Donald Hinds and Jimmy Fairweather, veterans of the pioneer decades, were on hand to recall events and personalities touching the lives of those present and their grandparents.
Just down the road in Croydon, a couple of evenings later, Donna Fraser, UK Athletics vice-president and its Equality, Diversity and Engagement lead, introduced Coach, a photographic exhibition recognising UK black and Asian track and field coaches.
The project is dedicated to the late Ayo Falola, her own coach, who worked with top UK athletes, many of African heritage, and passed away two years ago, succumbing to cancer, at the age of 47. The photographic exhibition, incidentally, can still be viewed at Dalston CLR James Library, east London until 23 March 2018.
Donna brings a sparkle wherever she is. The Vincentian (by parentage) is very tall, slim and imposing, and has a striking personality while remaining modestly soft-spoken.
She is an amusing raconteuse whose story of how she missed out on a medal in the 400 metres at the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000 – coming a very close fourth – deserves to be heard again. Essentially, having undergone a mastectomy, she was beaten to the line in a tight finish by a rival who was better-endowed physically.
Fraser has worked tirelessly on behalf of athletics and for cancer awareness. Her introductory speech was followed at the microphone by Shirley Williams representing the borough council, leading sports photographer Ernest Simons, and prospect manager David Gorgeous.
Among the coaches there, I was pleased to renew acquaintance with Lorna Boothe, the Jamaica-born former leading hurdler. We had worked together on a “ghosted” newspaper column when she was the Commonwealth Games 100 metres hurdles champion back in the early 1980s.
Those were the days during which Boothe, short and black, struggled unsuccessfully to obtain the commercial/official sponsorship which came more easily to her rival Shirley Strong, tall and blonde. The latter was held to be more marketable! Subsequently, however, Lorna became manager of the British athletics team. She will be speed coach in the forthcoming Commonwealth Games at Brisbane next April.
Opera singer Franz Hepburn brought the formal part of proceedings to a close with a rendition of some popular classics, which was appropriate because the season resounded with music.
Mainstreaming black opera
The Voice of Black Opera 2018 (VOBO), dedicated to finding and nurturing British and Commonwealth BAME (non-white) singing talent, was launched with a gala at St John Smith’s Square. The project was stimulated by a report by Lord Andrew Lloyd-Webber, composer of a seeming myriad of multi-selling musicals, that the UK theatre was “hideously” white; the inevitable follow-up question asked how much Lloyd-Webber himself had done to challenge stereotypes, promote blind casting, or write specifically for characters of colour?
Led by African-American conductor Marlon Daniel, the gala concert included principals of South African, Trinidadian and Jamaican heritage. Soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn, winner of the inaugural edition of the VOBO, has gone on to sing a number of prestigious parts, including the lead role of Mimi in La Bohème with the English National Opera.
Vincent Osborne, founder and director of VOBO, said: “Our aim is to make opera companies – not just the ushers at their performances – as ethnically rich and diverse as Team GB in the Olympics or players in the English Football League, reflecting the nation, not just a small part of it”.
Osborne, who was born in Brixton where he runs an award-winning bar and restaurant, has written drama for television and the theatre. Voice of Black Opera has been launched by the Black British Classical Foundation, whose patrons include politician/diplomat Lord Boateng and the acclaimed American mezzo-soprano Grace Bumbry.
Ever since having the privilege of working on a publication with Rudolph Dunbar in my younger days, I have had an interest, bordering on an obsession, in those musicians, writers and artistes of African heritage who played prominent roles in Europe’s culture in the early part of the 20th century.
Dunbar, a Guyana-born composer and instrumentalist of considerable versatility, played with some of the greatest international entertainers of the era including Josephine Baker, the St. Louis, Missouri-born singer and dancer who captivated Europe, especially France in the 1920 and ’30s. She worked in the French Resistance during World War ll and was highly decorated after the war and given a state funeral when she died in 1975.
Rudolph, himself, was a war-correspondent who participated in the D-Day landings. He – a black man – conducted one of the first concerts in Berlin after the city had been liberated only a few weeks after Wilhelm Furtwaengler had conducted the last concert there for the racist Nazi regime.
Since then African heritage singers, especially female, have become prominent in Western classical music, from the venerable Jessye Norman and more youthful Pretty Yende to Kimi Skota and Angel Blue on the lighter side of the genre.
A new creative force
In the beginning was the word – to paraphrase St John – and few have done more to ensure its continuance as our primary method of communication than TriForce Creative Network.
Unfortunately the highlights of the season – the Triforce Short Film Festival at BAFTA in Piccadilly and the Monologue Slam UK Final at the Theatre Royal Stratford East – coincided with this copy being sent to press.
The initiative to open doors in the theatrical industry to people from all walks of life has penetrated to those sectors of the community which more traditional drama rarely reaches. It has an impressive range of patrons from drama, including top black actors David Harewood and David Oyelowo, and its register of sponsors and official supporters includes Channel 4 television, the Equity actors’ trade union, Spotlight casting and several theatres.
Jimmy Akingbola, born in London to Nigerian parents, is probably the best-known of the trio who run TriForce. He made his name nationally through his part in the Holby hospital TV series and his stage roles include that of hero Jimmy Porter in the landmark Look Back in Anger, a cri de coeur of the English post-war generation. His colleagues are actor, writer, director Fraser Ayres, CEO of the operation, and Minnie Ayres, director of operations, whose innovations include Monologue Slam UK and WriterSlam. Minnie and Fraser set up TriForce Productions, which delivered the TV-broadcast Sorry, I Didn’t Know comedy panel show based on black history.
The demands of space prevent me from including even a few words on the choice of David Adjaye, the Tanzania-born architect of Ghanaian heritage, to design the Holocaust Memorial to be set opposite the Houses of Parliament; and student Lola Olufemi’s challenge to Cambridge University to “decolonise’”its English literature curriculum – which, sadly, drew racist abuse in the social media.
There will be some sad anniversaries in the year ahead and heavy problems are just around the corner. For the moment, however, let us respect the commitment and talent which has brought a sparkle, and inspiration over more than just this festive season. NA