Wild how “going viral” once meant racking up about 1,200 star-shaped “favourites” on Twitter. Now, our attention online flickers so quickly from a joke to an infuriating soundbite that something as innocuous as a good dog photo can make hundreds of thousands of people smash like within days. “Doing numbers” is a game where scores are kept in at least the tens of thousands.
But Londoner Marci Phonix barrelled headfirst into the experience of going viral in a different way last month. The grime MC didn’t do so with an RSI-inducing tweet thread or a punchline witty enough for the lazy Twitter and Instagram joke accounts to recycle. His moment didn’t even do huge raw numbers. Instead, he made an impact by bridging the old and new: appearing on actual live television in a Channel 4 news segment, which then picked up a second life online.
In it, Marci spoke plainly alongside journalist Mary Ann Sieghart and Conservative MP Kwasi Kwarteng, as broadcaster Krishnan Guru Murthy tried to facilitate a discussion about the recent Windrush deportation scandal. The news segment landed about a month ago, in mid-April, when that scandal was soaring into its hellish peak. There’s a lot to unpack but as a general summary, mostly elderly people who legally came to the UK as children before 1973 have since discovered their immigration status wasn’t properly logged and noted. And as a result, many are at risk of losing what they thought was their British citizenship, under new immigration laws. The government claims to not hold records of their arrival, and were like ‘hehehe sorry we destroyed your paper landing cards in 2010,’ after The Guardian ran a series of incredible stories bringing these revelations to light.
For several people, that’s led to deportation – and we don’t yet know how many people that entails, since the government say they didn’t keep count. “You wouldn’t know anyone that’s been deported,” Marci calmly said, pointing an ‘I mean business’ flat palm at Kwasi’s face projected over a video link. “You don't represent the same people I represent. You would not know and you don't care." If you’ve not seen his segment yet, I urge you to watch it in full. Marci articulates how isolated we regular people feel from the hot air of Westminster politics, with the sort of clear-eyed plainness you might use when instructing someone on how to take out their phone SIM card: ‘this is how it is. No questions.’ But, as becomes clear when we speak in late April, he’s deeply passionate about not only his music but using it as a vehicle for highlighting the issues that matter to him. The eloquence and exasperation you see in his Channel 4 moment isn’t a fluke – and he already has new music out to prove that.
He’s still spinning in the whirlwind of newfound attention when we talk, though. “Do you know what?” he says, chuckling over the phone. “I would say this last week would be the busiest week in my career. Not only have I been getting endless invites for interviews and whatever else, but the real people – my people – have been hitting me up as well.” He sounds surprisingly level-headed for someone who’s in the middle of organising a quick-turnaround video for “Liberties,” his new Windrush-inspired track. The shoot, he tells me, is due to take place the day after we speak. For now, though, he’s still trying to gain a handle on all the stories and pleas for help that have flooded his phone since he appeared on Channel 4 a week and a half ago.
“Today I had a message from a guy who was a soldier, from Trinidad & Tobago, who got deported. And he can’t come back.” He pauses now, the earlier energy in his voice switching out for concern. “It’s all just mad. I’ve had another girl message me a couple of days ago, saying her father was here for years and that they’ve literally just shipped him back in the past few weeks. He’s gone! People see everything in the news but don’t realise how many people are really affected by this.” There are other stories, more than I assume one musician can keep up with. One theme arises with each one, though: the hypocrisy of a British government that once invited people from its former colonies now chucking those people out.
That idiocy isn’t lost on Marci, either. We speak about the legacy of colonialism, about how little the average Brit is taught in school about what empire really meant for the people in other countries who were forced to live under British rule. To then call on those people to help rebuild the UK, after two world wars, without granting them the privileges and dignity of citizenship is almost a farce. “It’s literally like me saying to you, ‘come with me, we’re gonna go and carry this food shopping for 12 miles’,” Marci begins. “‘We’re both hungry, so when we get back my family will cook you this meal.’ Then we do all of that and when we get to the house, you turn to me. And I tell you, ‘Yeah actually no, there isn’t enough for you to eat. That’s it.’ But we carried it together, right? And you told me were in it together.”
So new song “Liberties” lyrically highlights this gap between Caribbean people’s expectations of life in England, and the harsher realities of what they encountered when they accepted the invitation to move to the so-called “mother country.” Marci raps lines like “I just wanna get to the facts / Cos they keep on lying through their teeth / How you tryna ship us back?” and “Arrested often / Bodies dropped in coffins / We picked their cotton / in the Commonwealth, but the wealth ain't common.” He’s not holding back, and it’s inspiring to see. In the video, a mixed group wear his “NO BLACKS NO DOGS NO IRISH” merch hoodies – a nod to the signs that landlords would allegedly put up in the windows of their properties for rent, as people from outside England came to the country for work in the 1960s.
In the time between our conversation and the mid-May release of “Liberties,” ex-Home Secretary Amber Rudd resigns from her post for mishandling the crisis. Her replacement, Sajid Javid, eventually says that 63 people “could have” been wrongfully sent to the Caribbean. Marci doesn’t buy the idea that the UK government doesn’t know how many have been wrongfully deported. For a country as obsessed with official documentation as this one (having a postcode, for example, determines your voting status, ability to apply for most jobs and where you or your children can attend school) it’s hard to believe no one would have kept track of the people being made to leave. “We’re slated if we lose anything – our passports our birth certificates,” Marci says. “So what they’ve done is spiteful. It’s part of a plan, and it’s really terrible. It’s upsetting because I grew up here.”
As on “Liberties,” Marci speaks from the heart. Yes, it’s earnest, but his thoughts are lit by anger and frustration, too. Going viral is one thing, sure, but he sounds resolute about keeping this momentum up. And, for all the great dog photos circling out there, it means a lot to know other people care about this too.
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