THE BLACK PERIL TOUR : Reflections on creating art during the pandemic
Note: Soweto Kinch will be taking part in a follow up, online panel discussion and Q&A on Wednesday 15th July at 7pm - Register for free here
The Covid-19 pandemic has bought all sorts of inequalities to the surface. Ostensibly, it’s hard to see what connects toppled slaver statues in Bristol, to George Floyd’s murder, to 60,000 excess deaths and the prospect of the deepest recession in 300 years. However, this moment has forced us to confront the ills of the ‘old normal’ — and ask profound questions about what world we want to emerge into, after lockdown ends.
Not only should artists, promoters and venues adapt to ever changing circumstances, but be prepared to relinquish some of our relative ‘privileges’ to make art with integrity. Art and artists can play an invaluable role in creating visions of what’s possible, but only if we grapple with difficult questions, contradictions and reach out to those who’ve been excluded.
Over the past fortnight, the mood music from politicians and media outlets, has been ‘…get back to work and shopping, be patriotic. Your economic security depends on it.’ However, the insights of quarantine should encourage artists and kindred organisations to challenge inequality, lazy notions of patriotism and culture defined by consumerism.
The Flyover Show and The Black Peril background
Over the past decade, in addition to being a jazz musician and MC, I have curated and organised an annual festival. The Flyover Show takes place beneath a motorway flyover in the middle of inner city Birmingham. It’s free to attend, and proud of attracting some of the very best national and international artists from across the black Diaspora. This ‘Glocal’ model has enabled us to platform established voices such as Maxi Priest, and Ernest Ranglin as well as facilitating debut festival performances for Birmingham based artists such as Laura Mvulka, Shabaka Hutchings and Lady Leshurr. It’s been disruptive to have the highest quality of artistic delivery in one of the most ignored corners of the city, yet it also drew attention to the vibrant traditions of cultural expression within Black British, inner-city communities.
My most recent album The Black Peril, explores the much overlooked race riots of 1919. 101 years ago port cities across Britain were set ablaze during months of racial animus. Glasgow to Barry, Cardiff, Liverpool, Hull, London and Salford experienced months of disturbances as black communities were violently attacked by thousand-strong mobs. Displaced by post-war unemployment and inflamed by stories of white women being dishonoured by black men, white working class Britons were seduced by ‘fake news’ to view potential class allies as enemies — spawning many now familiar notions of foreigners debasing British values.
I found the subject and period fascinating to explore creatively. Not only is there a cornucopia of undervalued early jazz, ragtime, West Indian and African folk music, but it was also a revelation that there were significant Black British communities and autonomous political organising in Edwardian Britain.
The misleading notion that ‘diversity’ only begins after The Windrush, deliberately obscures a much longer and complex Black British presence.
After releasing the album in November 2019 and a sold-out debut performance at the London Jazz Festival, I was as disappointed as many artists and creatives that all spring/summer tour plans, and proposed venue collaborations were blown out of the water by coronavirus.
However, having much more time to ruminate on the significance of the 1919 race riots as well a background in staging Flyover Shows meant that we could embrace new ways to perform, reach audiences and engage more fully with the present moment.
The Black Peril Lockdown Tour
Throughout the last weeks of July and early August this year we are commissioning a number of musicians, dancers and film-makers to create responses to historic sites. British bridges, streets and squares that were the scenes of several violent race riots in 1919 will be transformed into dynamic stages, galleries and plinths to creatively explore this past. We’ll be in Hull, Liverpool, Salford, Cardiff and London throughout July and August creating and recording commissions within the bounds of safe social distancing.
As well as commissioning new performances, we are inviting a number of notable historians and cultural figures to discuss the modern implications of this history. Including Akala, Nicholas Payton, David Olusoga and Kehinde Andrews. Similarly, we’re drawing on local councillors, venues, promoters and cultural leaders to contribute to a lively series of panel discussions.
This content will all be screened in an online festival — September 14–18th www.soweto-kinch.com/BLACKPERIL2020
We intend for this project to stimulate lively discussions about the nature of a ‘British Working Class’, why a Black British presence is often excluded, if these were the scenes of violent racial animus what is to prevent any of it from recurring? Especially in a post Covid-19 deep recession.
This unique moment has also forced us to clarify our motivations behind the Flyover Show, consider how these are still core to The Black Peril sites tour, and evaluate what these principles mean in the context of Covid-19.
When the Flyover Show was started in 2008 it had three guiding principles:
1. To Transform living environment through art
2. Creating a platform to celebrate Black British traditions.
3. Subverting the ‘high’ art/’community’ art paradigm.
Each of these have taken on a different complexion in the light of recent months.
In the weeks after the brutal murder of George Floyd, communities across the world are grappling with the implications of white supremacy. Calls for reparatory justice are being heard from Belgian museums, to Australia — and of course the debate over establishment symbols, and statues has been ferocious in both the US and UK.
I have been reflecting on how easy the ‘performative allyship’ of changing a social media handle, profile pic or taking a knee might be — yet the harder work of challenging inequality, hypocrisy in organisations usually gets overlooked.
I) TRANSFORMING LIVING ENVIRONMENTS
For those blessed with the privilege of not being ‘essential workers’, the relative tranquility of lockdown has afforded us the time to see our surroundings differently. Vibrant dawn and dusk bird song, empty streets and more time to take in local parks and nature. Seeing musicians in Italy serenading and playing across balconies, reminded us of how reassuring art and music in particular can be: it’s comforting to hear something familiar when the present reality is so uncertain.
The Flyover Shows and the rosters have done a great deal to rebrand inner city Birmingham’s communities as capable of much more than gun-crime and unemployment, and to celebrate our cultural traditions. But at an even more visceral level, many attendants remarked that hearing live music in an unexpected location, made a previously forbidding subway feel accessible and safe.
Reflecting on the history that The Black Peril is inspired by, it’s clear that immigrant communities were often associated with the fears of ‘infection.’ After the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918, ideas of ‘aliens’, ‘The Black Peril’ and the associated fear of the Chinese ‘The Yellow Peril’ took on an added layer of meaning. What’s to prevent this xenophobia from proliferating again, after this global pandemic?
Just over a century ago, minority communities were targeted as a proxy for wider fears during massive post-war employment crises, as shorthand for viruses or as a challenge to white male virility.
By creating art which directly confronts this history, we’re seeking to transform the historic sites in which we perform and also to change perceptions of what constitutes ‘British’ history. Similarly, by exploring how the scapegoating immigrants has been a convenient tool for the establishment to evade demands for labour reform or equitable pay and transform the lens through which these debates are still viewed today.
The arts, in particularly music and dance have played a massive role in elevating black people beyond dehumanised, degraded roles usually assigned to them.
It’s harder to hate people, when you’re dancingly to their music (I guess some Skinheads or Teddy Boys might contend, it’s definitely harder but not impossible).
This is an opportune moment for artists to shape the way ‘public’ spaces are seen after lockdown, and to challenge ideas around which environments are the most receptive to art and creativity.
II) CELEBRATING BLACK BRITISH TRADITIONS
Birmingham and particularly Handsworth where I live, have a rich and varied black musical inheritance. From Steel Pulse and Black Symbol, jazz pioneers such as Andy Hamilton and Papa Sax, to the current crop of grime/rap stars such as Lady Leshurr, TrueMendous and Mist.
As as aspiring musician, my awareness of this tradition was invaluable: contextualising my own creativity within a lineage. It exploded myths that Black Britons/Brummies hadn’t built anything of value, could only make headlines for gun crime, rioting, or had to ‘escape’ their circumstances to find success.
It’s so important to challenge the narrative that suggests ‘blackness’ is coterminous with ‘gangs’ and urban decay — particularly when it’s so fallacious. As knife crime statistics from Glasgow would suggest, crime is more a product of poverty than black DNA.
Given the current climate of questioning emblems of white supremacy (Colston, Churchill and more) discussions around history are increasingly polarised or worse still, coopted into an inflammatory culture war. There’s an erroneous idea that a ‘woke’ army are trying to destroy totemic symbols of British greatness — to presumably replace them with twerking, transgender black activists.
Instead, it feels as though a younger, multi-ethnic generation of Britons are just demanding that we confront uncomfortable truths, asking why so much British history is whitewashed. Why have Britain’s crimes and the historic contributions of Black Britains long before The Windrush either been underplayed or obfuscated?
Britain’s working class communities have historically been the most racially diverse in the country — ‘whiteness’ was not automatically conferred on the ‘Cockney’ or Irish people. It took generations of accent camouflage and careful assimilation for the ‘Hooligan’ to be considered a true Briton.
By virtue of the empire pushing and pulling labour from Barbados to Burma, Britain’s port cities and slums have been home to Lascars, Africans, West Indians, Irish, Scandinavians, Chinese and Indian Britons in large numbers for hundreds of years. I’ve often lamented that black and mixed race working class 19th century agitators (such as William Davidson and William Cuffay) are not held aloft, and celebrated for their contributions to working class emancipation. It all reinforces the fallacy that black people are merely recent arrivals. A ‘swamping’ alien hoards, rather than an indigenous presence, part of a centuries old lineage and responsible for much of our ‘British character.’
‘Multiculturalism’ has been a facet of British cities for over 500 years. The notion of a ‘white-working class’ has only been constructed fairly recently (last 40 years) — I believe to create a false identification with privileged elitists such as Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson or Nigel Farage.
Art and artists (especially from working class communities) should confront and debunk these myths.
III) SUBVERTING THE ‘HIGH/LOW’ ART PARADIGM
Lockdown has thrown up all sorts of glaring hypocrisy and inversions of truth that we might have simply ignored otherwise.
We’ve revered billionaires such as Richard Branson, and Tim Martin as ‘captains of industry’, yet quarantine has reduced them to pleading for bailouts or revealing how compassion-less and selfish they are.
The true ‘captains of industry’ are the bus drivers, nurses, teachers and carers the ‘essential workers’ who are usually the lowest paid — bailed out billionaires are in actuality, welfare scroungers.
I was discussing this deceptive framing of language in the context of racism and slavery with activist and musician Toyin Agbetu. West Indian ‘Planters’ euphemistically covered genocidal, human traffickers who worked Africans to death in concentration camps for the extraction of sugar and rum. They never actually did any ‘planting.’
Even in the creative sector, I believe some of the same delusions about ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture have filtered their way in. Well funded venues always view their interactions with neighbouring inner cities communities paternalistically, bestowing art on the less fortunate. Instead the truth is that Britain’s racially diverse communities have been the engines of cultural innovation for decades. Ska, Drum and Bass, Jungle and Grime have transformed the look and style of the nation with a sliver of the funding allotted to British opera, ballet and classical music.
Rather than a philanthropic attitude, bequeathing art to the less fortunate, we should be studying and understand the rich artistic traditions that already exist in working class communities, to conserve and celebrate them.
Traditions breeds excellence. Whilst this might seem like an abstract aphorism, I’m the product of Tomorrow’s Warriors, Handsworth’s black supplementary schools and bookshops, sound system culture, and arts centres such as The Cave and The Drum.
All of it, artistic provision and a cultural legacy that has been eviscerated by years of austerity.
Witnessing the inequity of BAME Covid-19 fatalities, and the predicted shock to the economy, it has laid bare how unequal and fragile our current system is. Surely, we can create a world where being black or brown isn’t premature death sentence, where an entire economy is reliant on us doing zero-hours contract work, or consuming high street disposable fraff.
Having curated the Flyover Show since 2008, the elephant in the room, is that funding for grass roots organisations is arduous. Arts Council and other funders consistently expect outputs which exceed value for money — especially when crudely compared to a number of established RFOs/NPOs. Growing up with a playwright Father and actress Mother, insecurity and impermanence has often defined the ‘black arts’ sector.
On the other hand, it’s created an interesting vantage point. Having to live on relatively little resources has made us able to weather the current storm. A past of having to adapt, or create without any resources has insulated us from some of the panic. Some relatively well funded organisations may face extinction if they are unable to turn around ailing behemoths.
It begs the urgent question, ‘Who is art for?’
Energy is, understandably ploughed into keeping venue lights on, and maintaining management and staff salaries. However, I would urge an equal amount of investment in the arts and artists serving their surrounding communities.
Long before Covid-19, I’ve observed a binaric way of viewing ‘high’ and ‘community’ art as deeply problematic. Community youth workers from relatively affluent middle class backgrounds, have been bussed in and out to deal with ‘disaffected’ communities. ‘Outreach’ programs may often just be a requirement of funders rather than a sincere desire to diversify audiences or challenge inequality. The arts is not immune from gentrification and in many pop-up projects across the country, culture often seem to be its chief engine.
The challenge coronavirus has presented is, can we look beyond the immediate priorities we had under ‘the old normal’ and evaluate what a ‘new normal’ should be? — even if that requires relinquishing some privileges.
This same dichotomy also exists amongst individual artists. Some have throwing themselves into the challenge of responding to the unique moment of quarantine (irrespective of earnings) — others seemingly hamstrung by losing festival gigs, seem only able to focus on what they’ve lost. There isn’t a level playing field in terms of personal savings, music sales and audience reach so the ability to look beyond your own navel is also predicated on a degree of privilege. I’ve definitely toggled between the two outlooks.
However, embracing a new way to tour The Black Peril, preparing to tackle taboo subjects and embedding work in real communities seem the surest path forward.
I) For significant swathes of the country a ‘return to normal’ is not only undesirable, but ‘business as usual’ was actively killing them. 120,000+ deaths due to austerity, disproportionate black deaths in police custody and a generation locked out of a meaningful employment and the housing market. The lockdown has been a rare opportunity to see government ineptitude and the consequences of rampant inequality laid bare.
Artists and organisations should seize this moment to create the world we want to inhabit, not just resume the old corruption as quickly as possible.
II) We should take the opportunity to have many more community lead projects — which centre working class communities rather than trying to cleanse or gentrify them. A reliance on well-funded RFOs, or venues has often meant that ‘community’ projects lack consistency and longevity. We can and must change.
III) We should stop viewing the history of ‘racism’ as ‘black’ history, only studying the topic when it’s handed down by some multicultural diktat. Racism is perhaps more of a British invention than Watt’s steam engine, or fish and chips and it’s probably been it’s most profitable export. Britain has had a significant black presence for centuries and the reasons that is often obfuscated or written out altogether should concern all of us.
Note: Soweto Kinch will be taking part in a follow up, online panel discussion and Q&A on Wednesday 15th July at 7pm — Register for free here
Soweto Kinch is a multi award winning alto-saxophonist, composer, poet, MC, producer and BBC presenter.
Undoubtedly, one of the few artists in either genre with a degree in Modern History from Oxford University he has amassed an impressive list of accolades and awards on both sides of the Atlantic — including a Mercury Music Prize nomination, two UMA Awards and a MOBO for best Jazz Act in 2003. In October 2007, he won his second MOBO Award, at the O2 Arena, London where he was announced as the winner in the Best Jazz Act category.
Soweto Kinch is also the founder and curator of his flagship project The Flyover Show, a groundbreaking daylong, music and arts festival takes place in its unusual setting beneath a motorway flyover in Birmingham.
“Flyover show celebrates Black British cultural traditions and provides an important platform for emerging and established artists alike. But its power lies in affirming positive associations with the local community…”