First published in Representology (1st issue) — the UK new journal on diversity, this article has me looking back on my time heading the BBC radio programme Black London in the early 1990s, in which I interact with several stars. “Where’s the archive of these experiences and why it’s important”, is a question I’m asking in this article. At the end there’s a surprise pre-announcement. To download Representology Issue One and Two go here.
When the taxi door opens, a lithe man, shorter than I’d imagined, wearing tight trousers, an unbuttoned brightly coloured shirt and a purple faux fur collar cape neck warmer, bounds out. I look to his feet. ‘He’s wearing Charlie Wote,’ I murmur, ‘and it’s London weather, chilly!’
‘Hello Fela.’ His reply is ebullient in his gravelly voice: ‘Where are we going man?’ I lead the way. We’re due to go on air in Studio 2 when Nigeria’s most famous and inspiring artist proceeds to light up. It’s not a cigarette and it’s almost the length of my forearm. Pleading, I coax him not to otherwise I’ll get the sack.
On air Fela Kuti is electric. Max Bankole Jarrett, a Liberian-born BBC World Service for Africa producer and presenter, is with me in the studio. Max and I look out for each other, passing on interviews. We’re all howling with laughter in what is a no-holds-barred conversation. Fela talks about taking over a house in Ghana with his 27 wives when he was broke and how each tenant fled because of his antics.
He debunks a story that he belittled Nigeria’s government by defacing his Mercedes-Benz, the preferred car for ministers. ‘I never owned and refused to buy one,’ he says. And then this from the maestro, a bombshell: ‘Oh Afrobeat. It was a gimmick, a gimmick, man! At that time I was fighting wars, man. There was soul music in Nigeria and I had to fight so I give my own music a name too, Afrobeat. Just a gimmick! And now I’ve passed that stage and am playing deeper music, more into Africa. It’s Africa music.’
We record the best part of an hour with Fela but, because of the programme’s format, can only broadcast five minutes. At the end of the show, one of the world’s most revered performers asks firstly when we can get something to eat and secondly where we’re going clubbing.
Imagine that! Imagine that happening with Jay-Z. Imagine getting to the doors of Gossips and quietly convincing the bouncer that the man in the brightly-coloured garments is Fela Kuti, a world superstar. Jarrett, who would go on to work with Kofi Annan as a director of the African Progress Panel, reminds me we all hopped into my Honda Prelude. He vividly recalls the evening’s events with Fela.
The story mainly comes from the archive of Black London, a radio show on BBC Greater London Radio (GLR) serving London’s black listeners. It was 1991, John Major had succeeded Thatcher, a recession was about to take hold of the UK and Britain would soon leave the ERM. The UK’s creative media, particularly youth, had been going through a purple patch: The Big Breakfast, The Word, Def II Reportage, and pirate radio in Kiss, LWR and Horizon were the zeitgeist. Rap, Acid Jazz, and Soul were carving the airwaves.
At GLR, new management was seeking a younger audience which valued a pacy speech and current affairs format with less music. Hence Rough Guides to the World journalist Sheryl Simms and I, a former BBC Reportage reporter, were invited to a meeting to launch a new show. This new slot replaced the brilliant Syde Burke — a stalwart in radio — and his show, Rice and Peas.
My partnership with Sheryl worked well and the programme flourished. Celebrity guests such as singer and actress Eartha Kitt, film-maker Melvin Van Peebles, and novelist Alice Walker were all too happy to come onto the programme.
We interviewed young fashion designer Ozwald Boateng who had just featured in the Independent newspaper for staging an extraordinary fashion shoot in the Ukraine; a former music researcher by the name of Kanya King, who spoke passionately about an her plans to set up the Music of Black Origin (Mobo) awards; journalists turned publishers Steve Pope and Dotun Adebayo of X Press, who had just brought out a book called Yardies that a senior Met officer was requesting all police read; and a versatile acting/comedy team consisting of Brian Bovell, Eddie Nestor, Robbie Gee, Roger Griffiths and Gary McDonald — the Posse — who took over Studio 2 with skits and their trademark sign off ,‘No Justice, No Peace’.
The Voice newspaper called the programme ‘informative, interesting and lively’ as it set out to attract a broad audience both black and white. A rapper, Me Phi Me, who was riding at the height of his fame, wowed us by creating a jingle on the spot using our names. He called the show ‘excellent’. ‘Er, thank you,’ we spluttered on air. And then, that was it! Our time with the show lasted 18 months, before new talent on a rotating chair was brought in, which included David Upshal and Dotun Adebayo. There’s no indexing of those 18 months on the net. No mention, that I can find, in popular academic texts or media programming literature. For the only speech-based programme on the BBC catering for black people, it’s as if it did not exist.
That was until last month when, during lockdown, I rediscovered in my garage recordings of the programme on cassette and quarter-inch reel. One reads ‘Bernie Grant election debate’. As I’m writing this, I’m two hours away from a presentation with an archive specialist to the Fédération Internationale des Archives de Télévision and Save our Archive — organisations involved in retrieving archive . At their online Conference 2020 we’re pitching against Albania Media, Zimbabwe and RTI (Radio et Télévision Ivoirienne). We’re hopeful, but win or lose the obvious question needs answering: So what? Who cares about a programme from 30 years ago?
Celebrated cultural theorist Stuart Hall provides a tangible framework. ‘The most important thing an archive can do,’ he says, ‘is to ask or allow us to interrogate those moments of transition because they are often also the moment of high creativity. We cannot see from our privileged position where those ruptures are most likely to occur or in what direction they are likely to lead.’
It’s long acknowledged how media shapes people’s view of the world yet Ayesha Taylor-Camara, currently a PhD student at the University of Nottingham, says that her research has shown how mainstream media has paid scant regard to publicly available black archives, treating them and their audiences as ‘insignificant’. Alongside her PhD research, she’s launched the online exhibition In Safe Hands — The Voices of Black Britain Project which features Black Radio pioneers from the 1920s to the present. ‘I wanted this project to highlight and celebrate the contributions black people have made to the media and creative industries in Britain, while simultaneously commenting on how their work gets left out of this history,’ she says.
Taylor-Camara features a broad swathe of pioneers and she’s turned out a three-part podcast, the first of which includes historian of black Britons Stephen Bourne and oboist and music educator Uchenna Ngwe speaking on musical heritage. Taylor-Camara asks me about Black London and reflects on my response that, although we had an editor, we generally had carte blanche in what we produced and presented on the show.
As a medium, radio in Britain is particularly interesting, she says, ‘because the BBC had a complete monopoly over the airwaves for 50 years’. The onset of commercial and pirate radio ended that, which has provided new contextual layers to be explored. ‘There is also something about listening to “old” audio that almost allows you to time travel,’ she says. ‘Something that newspapers, TV and other forms of media don’t do as well.’
‘It’s a socio-political issue,’ says Professor David Hendy, a former BBC journalist and widely respected media historian and authority on the BBC, whose critical work includes the book Radio in the Global Age. Hendy says the lack of archive for programmes like Black London is ‘part of a historic bias towards attention to centres of power in BBC, rather than places (wrongly!) seen as marginal’.
Black London circa 1991–93 is by no means alone in this archive anomaly. On Radio 4’s flagship Today programme on 28 October 2020, presenter Martha Kearney cued in a report saying: ‘Of all the interesting people that have worked at the BBC one deserves wider recognition, Una Marson — the first black woman broadcaster at the BBC.’ The ensuing profile by Radio 1 and 6 Music’s Gemma Cairney featured rare archive extracts of Marson’s voice. The little you hear, coupled with Cairney’s narrative, paints an extraordinarily vivid picture of this pioneer.
‘I came across her three or four years ago’, Cairney tells me. ‘It was her poetry that struck me really because when you hear her she doesn’t necessarily sound like all the things she is on paper. When you hear her she doesn’t necessarily sound like a black woman with her RP accent. But it’s her poetry where the truth really speaks, with her sense of ostracisation, and at the same time her yearning and belief of nature and love that I see as very Jamaican.’
Cairney is writing a book about exemplary women such as Marson. I ask her what impact Marson and archive has on her and the media as a whole. ‘It’s a cliché saying but it’s a good saying: You can’t be what you don’t see. I become alarmed when I see how the modern media sets the narrative for people of colour when there’s so much more from what I see. It’s really important that we see ourselves and other people of colour who have trod the path before us. It’s a truth seeking.’
Before Black London
Alex Pascall arrived in Britain from Grenada in 1959. His early career was as a musician, and he went on to manage the Notting Hill carnival. In 1974 he created the BBC radio show Black Londoners. In a September 2020 profile for the Guardian titled ‘Alex Pascall: the broadcaster who gave a voice to black Britain — and is now taking on the BBC’, Pascall told interviewer Joseph Harker that BBC bosses didn’t believe there was an audience for the programme, so at first it only aired once a month.
Four years later it was on every day. Pascall, a versatile performer, interviewed A-listers such as Bob Marley and Muhammad Ali and captured race relations at the time in his 1976 reports from the Notting Hill Carnival. There are smatterings of archive online that give you a sense of Pascall’s velvety smooth presenting style and a show he says he largely spent his own money funding. He’s currently seeking redress from the BBC.
‘We trust as much as we hear as we do what we see,’ says Bernard P Achampong, founder of the innovative indie Unedited and a board member of Audio UK. Achampong, citing the concept of ‘Sankofa’ which in the Twi language of Ghana equates to ‘Go and retrieve from the past’, sees radio’s heritage as emblematic of the oral traditions of how black communities learn about news and storytelling. ‘There’s something in our ownership of that oral tradition and what we’ve reinvented,’ he says, ‘that has a lot more premium, a higher premium than maybe for other communities.’
Achampong sees a link between the dearth of what he refers to as the ‘intelligent black voices of the past’, such as Darcus Howe, raising suspicion among the wider populace, and as a result those conversations invariably happen through the inertness in comedy. ‘It’s important to reclaim this space,’ he says. Importantly too, he adds that archive provides a situatedness to re-create stories from the past and also provide a sense of providence for talent now successful. ‘Once we have these stories, we’re able to link them back to things that have gone on before and how they’ll happen again. If we’re aware of what happened before, we’re more empowered.’
My conversation with Achampong inspires an experiment. Kwame Kwaten and his band are on the retrieved archives from my garage — and he is now one of the UK’s most innovative musicians and music executives, managing Shola Ama and Laura Mvula with writing and production credits including Jay-Z, Mick Jagger, Tom Jones and Seal. With the help of a friend, we’re brought together on a phone call on a Sunday morning and I play him the segment of his interview down the phone. ‘Unbelievable! Wow, wow, wow! It’s amazing!’ is all Kwaten can say for the first few seconds after the playback.
He finds it illuminating how UK artists had to ‘overprove’ themselves back then to get recognition. Kwaten’s band D-Influence was one of a handful of acts signed to US major East West Records in which the band were given full creative license. ‘We were so confident, in the face of craziness too,’ he chuckles. The band held out for months for the right record deal. Then they got the call, which shocks him even now.
‘We were supporting Michael Jackson, whatever we thought of the guy. We were playing in front of 100,000 people every day and then coming back and doing a show at WKD which held 200 people. That’s quite interesting as well, the determination.’
Kwaten cites another reason for the impact the recordings have on him. Band member Steve Marston, who’s on the tape, passed away a decade ago and there are no recordings of this type of interaction with him and band members.
And what about value generally for listeners I delicately ask. ‘Tremendous value,’ Kwaten reflects. The broadcast ( see below) takes him back to club culture of the 90s, such as Fresh and Funky and playing on Kiss FM. That’s ‘proper UK black memory’, he says, assured that there’s relatively little documentation of the 90s, compared with the 80s and 70s. ‘We were all in the moment. The ethics at the time was, “put your camera away man, just dance at a rave”.’ Kwaten has requested the audio which he intends to reproduce with photos from that time.
A week after my evening with Fela, I was at Brixton Academy. One of many highlights, saw the tiny suited figure of Seun Kuti (Fela’s young son) take to the stage and, to a call and response, energise the crowd. Today Afrobeat’s creativity has transitioned into a mega industry and a new crop of artists, not least Seun and his older brother Femi, who continue to push its form, all gimmicks aside. Archive in a sense is living history. It revitalises a sense of the past, while we live in the present.
For Fela’s website got here: https://felakuti.com/
Fela Documentary, BBC Arena: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000pr2n/arena-fela-kuti-father-of-afrobeat
Fela at Glastonbury in 1984: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000xh3n/glastonbury-fela-kuti-at-glastonbury-1984