Here’s another, “It’ll be be a step forward when black people don’t need to flock together to make a point”. This quote comes from the acclaimed writer Zadie Smith. The first, ‘stop talking’ is my contention. Some context is required.
We’re in a warehouse in Central London. Twelve people have flocked together; they’re relatively unknowns except for Ms Smith who’s just released White Teeth.
Her book about of two wartime friends, a Bangladeshi Samad Iqbal and an Englishman Archie Jones and their entwining families has caught fire in the publishing, literature and media world. Ms Smith, a local state school girl graduating from Cambridge has pulled of a first time novel with the aplomb of a seasoned writer. What’s not to like?
My timeline is anything like that, but let me take you back forty eight hours. My agent Jackie Evans called me. The Evening Standard are doing a photo shoot, she said, of young Londoners to watch out for in the 21st century. Are you up for it? It could help you career. Jackie knew best. As my agent our successes were co-joined.
“Course”, I said, dropping anything I had the next day which couldn’t have been major and made myself to the shoot wondering if I’d got the right dress sense. “Why did they agree to me?”, I thought. Jackie can be very persuasive. my own contribution: I’d been a multi-skilled journalist who’d worked the townships of South Africa during the end days of Apartheid freelancing for the BBC World Service and docs for BBC Radio 4, done a stint at BBC Reportage, and been one of the 30 plucked from 3000 applicants to launch something in the UK called Videojournalism.
The Talent Shoot
The shoot was estranged, if not a little awkward. We arrived, stood in our comfortable coordinates and rarely, as I looked around, said anything to each other. Perhaps I would have wished to have said something to Ms Smith about her book and success, but it would have sounded obsequious.
We were here chosen by a newspaper — an editor, perhaps with good intention shinning a light on people of talent, whom you the reader rarely see. Or otherwise, and perhaps a tad cynically, ticking the conscious box, whilst offering a different page spread in ES Magazine to other front pages. One front page shoot in how many editions?
ES may have replicated multi-cast shoots in some guise since, but this front page was something. I bet too it would split readers. You either skimmed through, frustrated your Friday-read featured a group you had little empathy for glaring at you. Or you did that thing lots of black folk did in the 70s and 80s watching TV.
You ran out to tell a friend “have you seen the paper”. You looked, perhaps acknowledging the universality of their story — our story of trying to make it. Then perhaps wondered why it wasn’t you if you worked in the industry, but were glad for us nonetheless. I can truthfully say many, many other people were more deserving of my spot than I was, but that’s the artificiality of, or editorial bias often experienced in publishing and newspaper. It’s like being stopped for a traffic violation when the three cars in front of you have committed the same offence. Someone has to be chosen and the reasons can be complex.
Of course, I’d be the first to say Ms Smith was one to be there, and then the Adebayo brothers, whom I knew ( and spoke to at the event) from interviewing them separately when I worked as a presenter on the BBC’s Black London.
Dotun, a journalist for the Voice Newspaper had published a book that became a must read for the Metropolitan police called Yardie — an insight into Jamaica’s gang culture. He’d also been building a career as a radio host on national BBC Radio 5.
With out any aspersion to others in the line-up, it was a case of “who are you?” I’m certain they did the same to me. I don’t possess any symptomatic reading of Ms Smith’s quote that was emblazoned on the top margins of the paper. It’s very likely she said many things, in the brief interview they conducted with us. but the headline said
“It’ll be be a step forward when black people don’t need to flock together to make a point”. The logical way of seeing this is, black people don’t have to come together to make a point. Black people should be honoured, in the same way others are for what they do and who they are. How many black models is worth a Kate Moss ?
How many black footballers need to grace the cover of a magazine to, in the editors’ eyes, have the same impact as a Gary Linekar. Can’t we be adjudged on our own? I’m sure you’d agree with this. If you’re in publishing, your come back is likely a financial one, but you hide an imperative that says try harder. The talent is there people would like to read about. Digital publishing in the 2000s would prove this.
Change is gonna come
Nearly 20 years on from that photoshoot what’s happened? For one, the shoot did nothing to change my life. My green grocer recognised me, and yes I bought five copies. One that my mum kept and the others that feigned success of sorts alongside presentations to corporations to hire me. I was just about to, unbeknown to me, become one of the many producers to leave Channel 4 News in an event several of the outgoing referred to as “night of the long knives”.
What’s happened? Zadie Smith is a global figure — an English novelist, essayist, and short-story writer, with an armful of books, The Autograph Man (2002), On Beauty (2005), NW (2012), Swing Time (2016), The Fraud (2019, awards, and uncountable written pieces
Dotun has won many award including this, just this week.
His book, Yardies is to be turned into a film by actor, producer and all-time good guy Idris Elba. Here’s my five degrees of separation from Elba. I made a video for a new band called Thabo and the Real Deal, via my colleague Kienda Hoji. Hoji gets Thabo and Idris together. Idris gets Thabo to sing on his last album. Ta daa ( apologies for the self-indulgence!).
In Oxford street recently, Dotun and I ran past each other and shared a moment of past lives.
Me, a couple of international awards, speaking engagements to places I could only dream off ( China, Russia, India and National Press Club in Washington) and a PhD enquiring into the field of journalism storytelling that’s fit for 21st century purpose, cinema journalism, I’m now a university lecturer — challenging the next generation to fly. Life ticks on, but, but in two weeks time we ( a new friend Simone Pennant and I ) are about to take quote ES chose chose from Ms Smith’s interview and put it to the sword.
The TVC Leaders’ List
On December 7th, a line up of some of the UK’s leading black, Asian and Minority Ethnic will be unveiled in our gallery at the University of Westminster. It features Sir Lenny Henry; David Olusoga; Maxine Watson, Head of Content at production company Twenty Twenty; Eloise King, Executive Commissioning Producer at VICE and Pat Younge the previous chief creative officer of the BBC and now CEO of Sugar Film.
It’s been no small feat, deserving of a separate article as the whereabouts of the other 1999 gatherers. Also, in spite of what it aims to do, I have more than a few emails to write to Listers who for complicated reasons this time, didn’t make the event. A shout out is deserved!
Briefly, over the summer a coming together of ideas and endeavour from Ms Pennant — a powerhouse behind @TheTVCollective — and I, both unknowingly seeking a tilt in the diversity debate, produced a moment. The ‘stop talking’ is not unique to me, and perhaps, indeed you.
Ms Pennant, oh go on… Simone and I looking at a diversity industry flourishing from one policy initiative to another, one more training programme or key conference, another oversight model, and more monitoring — in which gatekeepers find new roles as key handlers said, stop taking and just do it.
If the coming together in 1999 seemed transitory, this 2017 one is designed and purposeful. It’s by no mean unusual as there are other events today that celebrate talent in diversity (Oh for another word to supplant this). Screen Nation’s awards by Charles Thompson MBE, and the Powerlist by Michael Eboda— are two of many that serve as powerful anchors to celebrate achievement. In the same breadth I must say, to quote a friend’s mantra “we are on one hand, yet the fingers are not the same” and I in no way wish to compare our small step to what the aforementioned organs have achieved.
The Leaders’ List in two weeks time plays towards that antithetical stance, a pervasive, and I would say necessary one in advancing multiple approaches to de facto fairness and equality. I have been here before working with friends and Channel 4’s Jon Snow, however our success was limited, because…
If in 1999 the world was constrained by newton’s law that space (to do something) and the time ( to get there) were differentiated and separate, now finally Einstein has protruded our social digital conscious. Space and time are one. The space to do something is limitless. Corporations might still be in control driven by shareholders needs and their own 20th century neo-liberalism thinking, and the rest, but the opportunities by crowd sourcing and sharing ideas is immense and bottomless.
Jamal Edwards presents a perfect case in point for digital agents taking matters by the scruff of their digital teeth. The debates around diversity are necessary; they keep the matter alive, but they can work in tandem, if not interdependently with a force movement that also says “stop talking”. It sounds cognitive dissonance. It is. But the idea of stop talking is strategic, in as much as people flocking together is. And when done purposefully may open up other narratives.
On the 7th of December, Co-producer Simone Pennant and I, backed by a selfless core team: photographers David Freeman and Gerald McLean, Graphic designer Wayne McLean would like you to stop taking about talking, and doing.
Dr David Dunkley Gyimah whose background includes BBC Newsnight, leads the digital and interactive storytelling lab at the university of Westminster. He is this year’s University of British Columbia Asper Visiting Professor of Journalism. @viewmagazine www.viewmagazine.tv Simone Pennant, former BBC Producer/ Research and Diversity driver can be found here @TheTVCollective