“You were Africans before you became anything else,” Bose Ogulu, the mother of Burna Boy, reminds us at the end of “Spiritual” on the Nigerian-born, London-taught musician’s African Giant album. But these sentiments expressed in modern music are not new; Peter Tosh of Bob Marley’s The Wailers tells us in his song “African”, “No matter where blacks come from, they are all Africans.” For so long, the diaspora has used music as a way to overcome barriers and form long-standing bonds that fight back against the forces of colonialism and racism.
Louise Owusu-Kwarteng is a Senior Lecturer at Greenwich University, who authored one of the very few studies into recent African and Caribbean relationships in her 2017 paper, ?We All Black Innit??: Analysing Relations Between African and African-Caribbean Groups in Britain. She writes about how we have used a collective struggle to come together, stating that, in the early twentieth century, “the black migrants settlement was regarded by politicians and members of the public as threatening social cohesion, leading to increased surveillance and social control. This resulted in the formation of black resistance movements.”
Though the collective action by these communities was powerful, there was still a tension that kept these two communities from fully embracing each other. The fraught relationship between Africans and Afro-Caribbean people dates back to slavery; there’s still this strong belief amongst Caribbean people that they were betrayed and sold into slavery by other native Africans. These beliefs were disseminated across the Caribbean, internalised by diaspora and used as a barrier to cross-cultural cohesion. In his 1964 book, Towards the African Revolution, Frantz Fanon—a black philosopher—explains that, prior to 1939, a lot of the West Indians that lived in Europe adopted and spouted the same harmful beliefs about Africans as white people in an attempt to ‘escape his colour.’ Contrarily, black Caribbean people often felt as if their African counterparts looked down on them because of the menial jobs they undertook when they moved to the UK. “Some Africans also saw Caribbean people as beneath them because they were separated from slavery and there was this idea that they haven’t got a culture,” Owusu-Kwarteng explains.
Over the past few years, the way black Brits engage with each other, endearingly or out of rage, has changed.
These historic attitudes were then amplified by Britain’s focus on assimilation rather than the integration of black migrants to this country. All of the non-white people that arrived in Britain were automatically labelled as ‘black’, which became a problem when they sought access to most resources. Two equally marginalised and oppressed black communities were pitted against each other due to the laziness of the state. A lot of ‘black’ jobs were overwhelmingly allocated to the West Indians that migrated en masse before Africans, and this further raised tensions. Coping with these major differences without any adequate infrastructure descended into xenophobic name-calling and a brewing hatred between the two groups, which was all on the backdrop of a racist, unwelcoming Britain, with Caribbean people baring the first intense brunt of racism in both everyday life and activism.
But it didn’t just exist in the working-class communities of Britain. In 2006, the UK’s first black female MP, Diane Abbott, wrote a piece for The Jamaican Observer entitled: Think Jamaica is Bad? Try Nigeria. The op-ed piece was originally about political corruption in Nigeria, making light of the pollution in the Niger Delta. Obviously, this did not translate well and was picked up by Lola Ayorinde, former mayor of Wandsworth, who retorted in a BBC interview: “We need, first of all, for the Caribbean blacks to acknowledge that we are not the same group as they are. They need to begin to learn about Africa—to begin to understand that even if they have the African heritage, they are not Africans anymore. Anything that’s supposed to go to us goes to the Caribbeans; the Caribbeans seem to be in charge of any resource that are available.” This in-fighting became a spectacle for white Britain, with The Politics Show hosting a live television debate about the community tensions.
These attitudes may have dissipated, but they still lie behind a lot of the interactions that we dealt with growing up in school in the mid-to-late 2000s. I reminisce over the phone with Jesse Bernard, a music writer and editor from London. “I remember in school it was a diss to be called African, and then there were some people who would call themselves Jamaican even though they weren’t,” he tells me. For Millennials and Gen Z, those relationships are much less fraught. “This generation of young people are much more accepting of each other; I know, because I teach them. They’re not looking at difference,” Owusu-Kwarteng lets me know over the phone. Bernard echos the same sentiments, saying that “a lot of us have now grown up together. We’ve gone to school together; we’ve broken bread together; we’ve got into beef together, and we’ve dated each other. So it’s hard for us to not have a better relationship.”
What it means to be black British today is centered less on Caribbean identity and is much more encompassing of British Africans, who are now shaping culture. Over the past few years, the way black Brits engage with each other, endearingly or out of rage, has changed. The heavy influence of patois on British slang is now giving way and merging with language brought via West African migration. We see phrases such as ‘I cannot come and kill myself’, ‘Look at your head’, ‘At your big age’ and Yourba words like ‘Oyinbo’ pepper and conceal the meaning of our conversations. These have become a collective way to communicate, which keeps tradition alive and strengthens the bonds between black Brits.
The fusion of language has also spilt out into the fusion of sounds. Not only are we seeing fixed UK genres impacted by traditional sounds from Africa and the Caribbean, but we are also seeing traditional Caribbean genres influenced by a global emergence of pan-Africanism. Take Afro-soca, a new hybrid of electronic soca with melodic Afrobeats. “Connections between West Africa and Trinidad happened as early as 2014,” Nicholas Tyrell, writer and host of music podcast Don’t Alert The Stans, tells me via email. “Artists like Timaya seeking a collaboration with Machel Montano to create ‘Shake Yuh Bum Bum’, contributed to the bi-continental connections that followed. Today, artists like Walshy Fire incorporate all of these sounds into their projects and actively try to untie the two regions—despite living in the United States. This can be viewed as a further example of the expansion of Afro-soca to bigger markets.”
Through Afro-soca being lyrically and sonically pro-African and the prominence of sounds like Afro-bashment, these fusions, in their own small way, are a huge feat in overcoming the super-manufactured conflict between these two hugely impactful regions.
Moulded and built on the foundation of reggae, dancehall and sound system culture, grime grew from the cross-collaboration of African and Caribbean diaspora. “Grime is one of the spaces where Africans and Caribbean people were coming together,” says Jesse. “It was the one generation that was growing up in the same space.” I also put this to Dr. Joy White, revered academic and author of the book Urban Music and Entrepreneurship: Beats, Rhymes and Young People’s Enterprise. “All of these people are occupying these spaces at the same time, all on the same blocks, all on the same corners,” she says. “For some, their parents were born elsewhere but they came together in these spaces as a convivial congregation of people with different journeys.” In its own way, grime was one of the earliest signifiers of the power of collaboration. The genre paved the way for new sounds and alliances to come to fruition.
Afro-bashment is one of those sounds built by young British Africans and Caribbeans. Many attribute this sound to a merging of UK rap and UK funky, or to J Hus and the prominence of Common Sense. However, it is also argued to be a follow on from artists like Sneakbo and Naira Marley confidently flowing with thick, Nigerian accents over dancehall productions. Songs like “Marry Juana”—which, in the literal sense, has been labelled as one of the first Afro-bashment songs—opened the floodgates to a variation of sounds that could be defined as Afro-bashment.
The plethora of descriptors that come after the ‘Afro’ suffix are borne out of the strengthening of black British identity, and the way we borrow and share sounds and experiences with each other. Though the music that comes from these fusions are not necessarily political in nature, the fact that two groups which have had a narrative of hate constructed for them—and indoctrinated in them—can come together to write a new, more positive blended history, is truly inspiring.