HISTORY: MY INDEPENDENCE: ‘OUT OF MANY LONDONERS, ONE BRITISH JAMAICAN’
As a child of the late 90s born to parents of the early 60s, I grew among the cobblestoned streets of London, but tracing my roots will take you right across the Caribbean sea. I grew up hopping on red buses in and out of the ends when Boris Johnson was neither the Prime Minister nor threatening to zap children’s zips. I triple-beeped my zip card before cotchin’ on the upper deck, at the back, of course. Little Simz penned the realities of my teenage years in ‘101FM’. Its sweet melody puts me in a dream-like state with each bar adding to a crescendo of cherished memories. The life of us grime kids revolved around the painfully slow process of sharing songs via infrared. Crackly recordings were taken from Choice FM and we often risked infection from Limewire viruses just so we could bop to the latest from Kano, Ghetts and Wretch. I’d turn the volume up to the max whenever the video for ‘Black Boys’ came on Channel U because I needed to hear Bashy’s voice loud and clear. I felt seen in those Black boys in baggy jeans who rapped about the intricacies of Black lives in Britain. They represented the fiery spirit at the pit of my stomach. The soothing words sampled from the chorus of ‘O-o-h Child’ by Five Fairsteps offered a glimmer of hope, while acknowledging the adversity indelibly tied to Blackness in Britain.
‘In'a my Air Force one New Era hat, playing PS2, Crash Bandicoot, Mortal Kombat, used to bump train and dip the conductor’ - 101 FM - Little Simz
I belong to my family’s third generation of British citizens, but today I stand here in limbo, still clinging on to my Jamaican heritage as though it were a delicate piece of thread. A thread so fine that it feels like it could unravel my entire existence with just a tug. My identity is shaped by the culture clash between the stiff upper lip and the ‘irie’ philosophy of the Caribbean’s third-largest island. You’ll find me at Notting Hill Carnival every year, soaking up the sweet smells of summer; not afraid to absorb the smoke of jerk-filled oil drums into my afro. Spontaneous head bops of respek’ arise for anyone who wrapped ‘black, gold and green’ around their waist or poking out of a back pocket. I shake my hips to the soca spilling out of floats, where jewelled dancers wave their feathers to stacked sound systems. Come rain or shine, we sway to reggae until the sunset fades into nightfall. In the playground debates, I bellowed ‘Jamaica to di world’ and protested that the kidney beans in our rice were in fact peas. To my dismay, when I went ‘back home’ my Jamaican cousins told me they could see the English spring in my step, so I made a necessary correction, ‘Don’t get it twisted, I’m from London!’
My worldview is imbued with the tales of Anansi Spider, the sounds of Gregory Isaacs’ Night Nurse and Sister Nancy’s Bam Bam. Not to mention the rum or brandy-infused fruit cakes at functions that I never wanted as a child (and still don’t as an adult). As Jeffrey Boakye tells us in ‘Hold Tight’, ‘Spend any time listening to grime and you’ll hear heavy influences of West Indian, specifically Jamaican, culture. Grime’s idiolect is riddled with patois.’ So, while blouse and skirt may be items of clothing to you, for some of us the social cue requires a swift turn of the head and an expectation of shock. At some point, I managed to pick up the Bajan version of the phrase cheese on bread, ignoring my closest friend who tells me that, like ‘fetch’, it’s not going to happen. Like the genre of grime, most of my cultural references are drawn from the island that insists on making a lot of noise in spite of its relatively small size. In 2007, the Jamaican High Commission estimated that there were around 300,000 British Jamaicans. But we don’t just reside in Brixton, you’ll find us throughout the country from St. Paul's in Bristol, Toxteth in Liverpool, Handsworth in Birmingham, to Chapeltown in Leeds.
After docking in Tilbury on 22 June 1948, the HMT Empire Windrush became a symbol of the first generation of Jamaicans invited to Britain in the post-war period. Last Summer, multi-disciplinary artist Zak Ové curated Get Up, Stand Up Now at Somerset House. The exhibition showcased '50 years of Black creativity in Britain and beyond' through traditional artwork, including paintings, photography, and sculptures to other creative forms such as poetry, film and music. Zak Ové said the show was way overdue, ‘especially in light of the recent Windrush scandal, which saw West Indians who had long resided in Britain wrongly classified as illegal immigrants and deported ‘back home’. While it was certainly symbolic, we require more than exhibitions to properly acknowledge the contributions of Black Britons. As Dave put it, ‘We still need support for the Windrush Generation [and] reparations for the time our people spent on plantations.’
This year, the BAME COVID-19 report and Black Lives Matter movement have demonstrated that issues of structural racism need to be addressed as a priority. The ramifications of the hostile environment policy have become impossible to ignore. The outrage at Dave’s performance at the Brits earlier in the year for daring to call out Prime Minister Boris Johnson: ‘It is racist, whether or not it feels racist, the truth is our Prime Minister is a real racist’ and the recent TV drama ‘Sitting in Limbo’ remind us that the disregard for dignity must be accounted for. As I watched the story of Anthony Bryan unfold, my stale grimace turned into unrelenting tears. I struggled to view the man on the television screen as an actor because this British Jamaican lived in the same area where I had grown up. We had ridden the same Greater Anglia trains and quite possibly crossed paths in our local shopping centre. It should come as no surprise that the dramatisation of his distress left me with sleepless nights; it was all far too close to home.
It was the same disregard for dignity that propelled the British to colonial rule in Jamaica for 300 years, until independence was granted on 6 August 1962. As a third generation Brit, I marvel at my Jamaican heritage with beady eyes. I was jealous of my cousins who got to live in the presence of my great-grandmother and learn to swim in the Caribbean sea. The land they walked on wouldn’t be denied with the question ‘where are you really from?’. No one would tell them to ‘go back to your country’ while dwelling in their birthplace. Above all, I envied their grasp of a language passed on from their mothers – the patois that glided effortlessly off their tongues. But while my cousins lived in an independent state, free from being ruled by another country, the process by which independence was gained left a gaping hole in Jamaica’s post-colonial reality. When I read Louis Lindsay’s text on ‘The Myth of Independence’ from 1975, the pettiness of my green eyes withered away into nothingness:
‘[There was] no direct struggle against imperialist control and colonial rule. The period of transition from colonial status to formal independence generated nothing which can properly be labelled as a nationalist movement. And the fact that constitutional independence could be achieved without the help of such a movement means that there was little need for middle-class political leaders to involve the broad masses of the Jamaican people in a quest for real self-determination and political autonomy.’
For years, I have celebrated ‘Jamaican Independence Day’ with a veiled perspective on how it came to be. Maybe we’d gather at my grandma’s house, drink tinned drinks and devour saltfish fritters. My cousins and I would hide out in the front room where photos of us in school uniform hung high. Sometimes we would pretend to play dominoes like the elders, but slam the cards down on the carpet because the real deal would have gotten us in trouble. We would greet ‘Uncle and Aunt So and So’ with beaming smiles though none of us knew how we were related. I have always taken pride in our culture, but fallen short on historical context. I so badly wanted to feel embraced by Jamaica’s motto, ‘Out of Many, One People’, that I dared not to seek an explanation for its ills. Despite Jamaica’s thriving democracy, high rates of violence and poverty persist to this day. In ‘The Confounding Island’, Orlando Patterson examines the post-colonial predicament in its entirety, from Jamaica’s remarkable cultural achievements to the enduring struggles since independence. He explains how reggae music has managed to carry the island’s culture across the globe, in spite of the country’s reputation of being one of the most violent places in the world. In the book’s conclusion, Patterson saves us from despair with one of the most famous of Jamaica’s many wise proverbs, ‘time langa dan rope’.
Of course, it would be entirely un-Jamaican to end with such angst, for resilience is our virtue. As is often said, ‘We likkle but we tallawah’; the tiny island of Jamaica is known for its strong will, and as British Jamaicans, we carry that spirit with us. Kano’s song ‘Can’t Hold We Down’ from the ‘Hoodies All Summer’ album is a British Jamaican response to the patois phrase. His words express what it’s like to make it against the odds; the visuals in episode one uncover old images, memories and trips ‘back home’ before coming together for a big family meal in episode two. Expressions of Black joy dance around the screen so much so that Popcaan and Kano can’t even take a serious photo. For Linton Kwesi Johnson, ‘Writing was a political act and poetry was a cultural weapon.’ Where I’m from, the cultural weapon of my generation is grime and its subsequent offshoots. Poetic verses fired at 140 beats per minute, rhymes layered over drill beats and other forms of expression break outside the box. We can use the arts to tell our stories and honour those who came before us along the way. So rather than using 6 August as an excuse to dare my cousins to drink shots of Wray & Nephew, I’ve written this personal essay as a political act. It now sits within internet archives as an ode to my ancestors and my independence.