Dave Stormzy "Black" music video screenshot
Dave and Stormzy in the "Black" video

Dave Is Right: Black Britishness Deserves Respect, Not Tokenism

Meaningful representation will only come when Black Brits can tell their own stories, as he did with his powerful “Black” video last week.
February 25, 2019, 10:42am

The word is that it’s a great time to be black and creative creative. From literature to music to visual art to makeup shade ranges, the last year or so has felt like a turning point for blackness being both acknowledged and, inevitably, then seen as a viable commodity. Maybe you were woken from your sleep last year by the chorus of applause that greeted the wave of September issue fashion mags with black cover stars. Perhaps you spotted the reddened executive palms, raw from high-fiving the monetary success of black British music as it’s rightfully pushed its way into the mainstream.

A personal favourite of mine was the sight of a smiling Wiley, shivering slightly in a good suit as the establishment handed him his MBE in 2017. Books like Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinené’s Slay in Your Lane, and What a Time to Be Alone by Chidera Eggerue have shown that there’s a literary appetite for the voices of young black women. Natasha Gordon’s sold out play Nine Night and everything Michaela Coel touches serve as evidence of a demand for black stories in theatre and on the screen, too. Last week, Dave's searing new single "Black" announced not only his upcoming album Psychodrama but an intention to spell out his understanding of blackness in this country with a stunning video (below).

So one level: good times. All this progress illuminates the beautiful kaleidoscope of UK black culture, and everyone involved in these successes ought to feel deservedly proud. Likewise, you should be allowed to enjoy this moment if you’ve waited for it for years. What no one can afford to be, however, is complacent. We’re still in a space where multiple members of creative staff at Gucci thought a Golliwog jumper was bellissimo and where Liam Neeson isn’t scared to publicly declare his past desire to kill any given black man. The problem with a black ‘moment’ is the implicit suggestion that it will end; the sense that you can dabble in blackness for a bit, like you might in Mountain unicycling. What might be practical steps to make sure that black people – who contribute so much to pop culture, vernacular language and an easily commodified sense of ‘cool’ – get to take charge of their own narrative in British public life?

Yomi, of Slay in Your Lane, puts this stuttering progress down to a lack of black people in decision-making positions. “The reason that these things go out in and out of fashion is because white people still – just as ten years ago and ten years before that – get to decide when black people’s stories are allowed to be told, and when they matter. It’s important to have black people in roles that are high enough to systemically change an organisation.” That means doing more than paying lip service. Take British Vogue, where Edward Enninful kicked off his editorship with mixed-ethnicity model Adwoa Aboah on a December 2017 cover, and has since printed covers modelled by Halima Aden (wearing hijab), Adut Akech and Naomi Campbell. This might be a good time to remember that Enninful’s predecessor Alexandra Shulman didn’t have a solo black model on the cover for the 12 years between Campbell in 2002 and Jourdan Dunn in 2014.

So given the UK’s past relationship to blackness in pop culture, you’d probably be wise to cautiously approach this recent ‘trend.’ The British Film Institute are currently running a season called Forgotten Black TV Drama, but you could easily imagine them adding Remember the 90s: When Black Comedy Was a Thing. Back then, you could catch barbershop comedy Desmond’s on Channel 4 plus BBC2’s The Real McCoy sketch show and two-hour black comedy and entertainment show The A Force. And then the drought began. Since, beyond shows like Sky One’s Bulletproof, Top Boy on Channel 4 and even the BBC’s 3 Non-Blondes, we haven’t managed to to shift the dial of black programming from rare event to staple. Similarly, Black UK garage artists entering the singles charts – like DJ Pied Piper’s "Do You Really Like It?" and So Solid Crew’s "21 Seconds", both number 1s – didn’t fully steer the white mainstream towards UK garage in a way that pulled the genre from an ‘urban’ subcategory.

We’ll need some fundamental changes to properly integrate black creatives in our cultural institutions. There has been some improvement in music. Genres that were once ghettoised as “urban” (whatever that’s supposed to mean today) now form the backbone of pop, and are given room to grow at labels like Sony’s Since ‘93 imprint, founded by Glyn Aikins and Riki Bleau. In journalism, the numbers look pretty dire. Black Journalists Collective UK (BJCUK), a group of more than 100 journalists, wrote to UK editors in December 2018 asking that they grow diversity among their staff in order to improve their reporting of race issues and subjects. They highlighted 2015 research by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism that found only 0.2 percent of British journalists are black. Joseph 'JP' Patterson, of Complex UK and founder of youth culture magazine Trench, is also acutely aware of black underrepresentation, pointing to the the small number of black music editors and staff writers. “When it comes to commissioning, we always strive to include young black writers,” he says. “Because there’s such a lack, it’s important for us to take that on our shoulders”.

When companies do step up, there can be a tendency to focus on junior access via internships and work experience rather than looking at how they recruit senior roles. “I don’t think we understand how serious unconscious bias is,” Yomi warns. “They look at some people who are black and can’t imagine us in senior positions.” One solution she proposes is for decision-makers to take a more imaginative approach to assessing talent. For example, not directly comparing the results of someone privately educated with a state school education or looking at candidates who have had less linear paths or direct experience in the industry. Yomi's quick to point out that this is not positive discrimination – rather, she says, “it’s looking at the reality of people’s lived experiences.” JP suggests that the hesitance of creative industries to employ experienced black people fuels caution to apply for the big jobs. “I think people are scared to apply for those big jobs… but you need to know that you’re a don in yourself.”

When you look at some of the data, you start to see how that lack of representation may affect what jobs people even think are possible. A 2017 study by the Chartered Management Institute and the British Academy of Management showed that only 6 percent of management jobs are held by ethnic minorities. If you’re a black, female graduate, research from The Resolution Foundation estimates that on average you will be paid 9 percent less than your white colleagues. Using the odd black face as shorthand to signal diversity, without enacting real transformation internally, can’t cut it anymore.

Finally, this is about language. “We need to stop talking about diversity like it’s a category: romcoms, thrillers… diverse,” Yomi wryly says, before pausing, exasperated. “We’re not a genre.” Overall, she highlights the value of recognising that black visibility could be fleeting. “It’s important to acknowledge that it’s a trend so that we can dismantle the structures that allow us to go in and out of fashion”, she says. As JP predicts, noting more inclusive examples of senior recruitment in music, "we're going to have a lot more of a say. We need to build in a way that can’t ever be broken down; we need to build a strong foundation”.

Blackness is not a phase or a fashion for the black people living it, nor is it a resource for mood boards. There will never come a time where we look back at this moment of significant black cultural contribution and cringe from embarrassment like it was a bad style choice. When the transition from trend to true inclusion really happens, there’ll be no need to pat ourselves on the back. Instead, presence of black people will be ubiquitous, welcome and normal. Imagine that?