Back in the 1990’s when I was working for The Voice newspaper, also working there an older Jamaican man named Milton. I’m not sure what his official job title was but, depending on the time of day, he would fill the role of receptionist, handyman or head of security. But in my view his real role was as the heart and soul of the paper. With his no-nonsense plain-speaking Jamaican manner he would keep us British-born university-graduate journos in touch with the original spirit of The Voice.
By day Milton could be as polite and professional as the best of them, but at night, when most of the staff had gone home, and the rum had come out, his inner ‘Yard Man’ would reveal itself. He would educate and entertain me with his stories of growing up in Jamaica and his youth in England. One of his stories involved him and his pals going for a night out in London. He and his crew would roll up to a nightclub in their sharp suits and winkle-picker shoes, only to be turned away by the bouncers, while the scruffily dressed white men would just saunter in. It was these bitter experiences that led to the formation of the Blues parties and Black-owned nightclubs that were such a feature of the Black-British cultural life in the 70s and 80s. With the advent of hip-hop, house music, and dance-culture that arrived in the late 80s, the race-bar of London nightclubs fell away, as did the need for the Black owned clubs and Blues parties.
Thankfully such blatantly racist door policies are no longer a regular feature of London nightlife, but more a subtle colour-bar still exist in certain professions.
I had a taste of it when trying to move from The Voice into the ‘mainstream media’. So much so, that I abandoned my career in journalism for nearly a decade. My recent return to the field was prompted by the advance of social media which removed the need to negotiate with such gate-keepers. In the last year or so, working with on-line groups like Media Diversity and the TV Collective, this appeal for access to the closed doors of the media are a regular topic. The media, like those nightclubs of old, are exclusive places with a strictly enforced door policy that allows admission only to those who face fits. There is a long-running standing joke in comedy circles, that no Black comedian will be able to get their own show on the BBC until Lenny Henry dies.
They and the other broadcasters seem to operate a ‘one-in, one-out’ policy. The chosen Black faces in favour will vary over time – be it Trevor McDonald, or Darcus Howe, or Richard Blackwood, or Kwame Kwei Armah, or Reggie Yates, or Idris Elba, but only one at a time can gain entry. Like the nightclub bouncers of old, even if the gate-keepers of the media are not actually racist, they seem afraid to let too many of ‘us’ in at once, for fear of scaring away their regular punters.
In just the last month we have seen supermodel Naomi Campbell highlighting racism in the fashion industry; Labour MP Chukka Ummuna discussing ‘lazy racial stereotyping’ on British television; grime artist Dizzee Rascal complaining that Radio 1 don’t playlist his songs; and the general outcry from the Black British population about the stereotypical depiction of Jamaican culture in the Channel 4 documentary My Crazy New Jamaican Life. It’s all very well complaining, but what are we doing about it?
Perhaps we should take a leaf out of the book of those frustrated ravers of the 1960s. They didn’t stand outside those nightclubs and picket, or start petitions demanding equity. They simply moved on and started their own thing. So by the time I started raving in the late 80’s, we had a pick of nightclubs in east London full of people that looked like us, and played the music we liked, all night long. And guess what else happened? When our scene became acknowledged as being more attractive, Black DJs and ravers alike were welcomed into those previously off-limits establishments with open arms.
So perhaps we should follow the example of the pioneers who came before us. Rather than singing the same old song, demanding equality of access and greater diversity, perhaps we should set up our own thing? But one major obstacle stopping us is money. Most of us don’t have rich parents who can financially support us, and we need to get paid. Not many in our community have the money to start up their own TV stations or finance big-budget movies. And none of us can afford to set up a business that runs at a loss for the first year, whilst we wait for blue chip companies to include our outlet in their yearly advertising budgets.
But in the last decade such financial barriers have been removed by one thing – the internet. Thanks to this wonderful invention, journalists like me don’t have to wait for a Fleet Street editor to give me a job, or even a commission. We can start our own blogs and write what we like, immediately we are inspired. And by linking up with writers collectives like Media Diversity can have our copy read around the world. Thanks to Facebook and Twitter we can distribute our work, interact with appreciative readers and increase our profiles. Thanks to YouTube comedians and writers no longer have to convince execs from the BBC or ITV. They can simply film it, upload it, promote it through social media, and watch those views and subscribers multiply.
And perhaps we’d be less fearful of doing it ourselves if we stopped thinking of ourselves as BMEs or Ethnic Minorities, and instead recognised the power of a worldwide diaspora, an international target audience who needs are currently being under-served. Plug into the power of Black twitter!
How backwards do we as a people look when we start campaigns demanding that white-owned radio stations should play more Reggae and Soca? Or when we beg the BBC to bring back an old show like The Real McCoy? Are we really saying that there has been no new Black comedy talent to emerge in the last 20 years? If you really think that, then you’re not paying attention. Would you walk into a white-owned restaurant and demand that they start serving Jerk Chicken? Wouldn’t it be smarter to open-up your own restaurant? Way back in the 1980s Val McCalla didn’t campaign and protest at the lack of Black journalists on Fleet Street – he set up The Voice, and got rich in the process. In the 90s, when Kanya King, like the rest of us, observed that Black artists were getting ignored by the Brit Awards, she didn’t start up a petition, she started the MOBO Awards.
As the film director Spike Lee put it “If you don’t own stuff, you have no power. When Black people start thinking more like entrepreneurs instead of ‘please Mr White man, can you do so and so for me?’ we will call the shots.”
Or to quote Miguel de Cervantes “Never stand begging for that which you have the power to earn.”
And for those who argue that we pay taxes, and we pay licence fee and so we deserve to be represented – well we’ve been arguing that for 40 years now, and where has it got us?
So instead of begging those old media houses to acknowledge our presence, let’s side-step the gate-keepers and build our own thing, or support those that already exist. Begging is SO unattractive, and so last century. If you don’t know where to start here’s a list.
RADIO. If you want to listen to Black music that’s not obsessed with the Rhianna/Chris Brown/Jay-Z/Beyonce carousel of electronic dance music that dominates 1Xtra and Capital Extra try Radio stations Colourful and Solar.
TV. If you want news, discussion and entertainment that doesn’t only feature Black people when we’re selling drugs, try TVstations Oh! TV, VoxAfrica, and The Africa Channel.
Web Coms. Fancy seeing some middle-class Black people in normal monogamous relationships? Try the Web-coms BWNG, Venus vs Mars and Meet the McKenzies.
On-Line Media Outlets. For on-line news, discussion, and debate try the blogs by – The TV Collective, Media Diversity UK, Ms Mad News and The British Black List
Suggestions for other Black-owned media ventures that we should be supporting are most welcome.
So what are you waiting for? Be the change that you want to see.