The Independent, Friday 17 January 2014
A survey of racism from across the centuries reveals a phenomenon that repeats itself
Bulgarian benefit tourists, Romanian criminal gangs, the alleged abduction of a blonde, blue-eyed child by Roma: anti-immigrant hostility is more pronounced in Britain than any time in a generation. With it have come a raft of questions about race and national identity that were once confined to the fringes of public debate. Is Britain full? Is our way of life at breaking point? Is it racist to raise such points? And come to that, what exactly does racism mean in a modern, multicultural nation like Britain anyway?
Answers, especially to the last question, often prove elusive. That’s because racism is often treated as a subject too charged, too sensitive to address head-on. It’s easier to see it instead as an ugly but inescapable fact of life, a failing common to all nations when different groups decide they can’t get along. But history also offers examples of societies where intolerance, unchecked, has triggered horrifying consequences.
Esquire January 2012
In the early Eighties, a breathtakingly original new music genre burst out from the ghettos of the Bronx and captured the world’s imagination. Having achieved an unimaginable success, acclaim and influence, hip-hop’s popularity is now in sharp decline, while its globe-trotting superstars seem ever more removed from their audiences. Is their mid-life crisis nothing more than a blip or is it the beginning of the end for the greatest pop-cultural movement since rock ‘n’ roll?
Thirty years ago two singles were released which marked the end of the beginning for hip-hop. The Message, by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and Planet Rock by Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force came out in 1982. Although both only charted modestly, they set a new standard in artistic ambition for hip-hop that proved hugely influential. For the nascent music form that rose out of the block parties and housing projects of the Bronx and Queens during the 1970s it was a signal moment. Critics had dismissed earlier releases, like the Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight and Kurtis Blow’s Christmas Rappin’, as novelties.
Now came the breakthrough, the first significant steps from ghetto subculture to global cultural force. In the decades since then hip-hop has established itself as the most exhilarating music of modern times with its stars a compelling presence in popular culture, commanding ten-times-platinum record sales (Eminem), marquee name movie celebrity (Will Smith) and fallen rock idol status alongside the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain (2 Pac, Notorious BIG). In tandem, hip-hop has become the lingua franca of urban youth across the world, its sounds and styles adopted by legions of followers in virtually every conceivable location on the planet from Johannesburg and Tokyo to Tehran and Jakarta. more
Last year, only one Afro-Caribbean British student was accepted at any of Oxford‘s 38 colleges to study as an undergraduate. Only 27 British students from any origin defining themselves as black were admitted as undergraduates.
This, along with other similarly disquieting information, has been uncovered by David Lammy MP through a series of freedom of information requests.
Through him, we now know that more than 20 Oxbridge colleges made no undergraduate offers to black British candidates of Afro-Caribbean descent last year and that Merton College has not admitted a black student for the past five years — and just three in the past decade.
The colleges have their own rationale for the figures. Black students apply disproportionately for the three most oversubscribed undergraduate courses — economics and management, medicine and maths — which, says a spokesperson, “goes a very long way” to explaining the stats. This is staggeringly complacent. more
Ekow Eshun understands what it means to be multicultural. Born in Britain but spending part of his childhood in Ghana, he felt caught between two cultures whilst never belonging to either one. In Black Gold of the Sun: Searching for home in England and Africa, he sets out to trace his past in Britain and Africa in the hope of discovering a sense of place in modern life.
The result is an exploration of modern identity that straddles two continents and forces us to understand ourselves in ways that look beyond the colour of our skin. It also proves that we are not always who we think we are.
Black Gold of the Sun was nominated for the Orwell Prize for political writing, 2005.
It was described by The Independent as “ambitious in scope, impressive in execution and wide in appeal, a beautifully written, intellectually vigorous study of belonging.”
The Guardian, Saturday 9 July 2005
Ekow Eshun’s book comes in reaction to the pervasiveness of British racism, his brush with mental ill health – six times more prevalent among black people in Britain than in the white population – the respite he found in hard work and his resulting elevation to editor of Arena magazine, TV pundit and, most recently, artistic director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. He is part of a new and startlingly successful generation of black British personalities in the arts, alongside the Turner prize-winning artist, Chris Ofili, who has designed the jacket for Black Gold of the Sun. more
Review by Diana Evans
That question – ‘Where are you from?’ – has hounded and perplexed the black diaspora for decades and even centuries. It is a question that is asked everywhere, in conversation and inside the head. It has infinite responses at the same time as having no answer. It’s such a simple, obvious, exhausted question, that to use it as a basis for a memoir about black identity becomes an outrageously brave thing to do.
That question – ‘Where are you from?’ – has hounded and perplexed the black diaspora for decades and even centuries. It is a question that is asked everywhere, in conversation and inside the head. It has infinite responses at the same time as having no answer. It’s such a simple, obvious, exhausted question, that to use it as a basis for a memoir about black identity becomes an outrageously brave thing to do. more
Writing a memoir – When Ekow Eshun visited Ghana in search of his roots, he was troubled by what he dug up
The BBC’s recent television series Who Do You Think You Are?, in which famous people explore their family history, has delved into some dark places. David Baddiel traced his grand-parents’ flight from Nazi Germany. Bill Oddie discovered that his mother had been wrongly locked up in a mental institution and his grandfather had contracted throat cancer from working in a cotton mill. Both learned that when you go digging for roots, you often come up with something tangled.
I could have told them as much. For the past two years, I’ve been writing a memoir about searching for belonging in England and Africa. As research, I spent part of 2002 travelling around Ghana, where my family originates. I was born in London and, by returning to my roots, I hoped to find the sense of home that had eluded me while growing up in a white country. more
Ekow Eshun says Michael Jackson presents himself as the victim of a vengeful media
When the world’s most famous pop star stands before a state of California judge in January, he faces the final verdict of a public trial that has lasted for two decades.
The singer is accused of multiple counts of lewd and lascivious conduct with a child under 14. Innocent or guilty, what will be revealed in the courtroom is the real face of Michael Jackson.
For the moment, with the singer out on a bail of £2 million, it’s still hard to say who he truly is. Not that we’re short of choices. Through the tabloids we have become familiar with ‘Wacko Jacko’ who sleeps in a hyperbaric chamber, dangles his baby out of a window, dyes his skin and shares a bed with young boys. Jackson himself would prefer that we saw him as the real-life Peter Pan, at his happiest riding the Ferris wheel in his 2,600-acre version of Never Never Land. more
When I first saw Sonia Boyce’s piece From Tarzan to Rambo, I was aware of a faint itching somewhere at the back of my head. I knew I was trying to remember something but I couldn’t think what. Images from her work stayed in my mind: the Thirties-style pickaninny child; the mohicaned savages in the bush; Boyce’s own face, by turns startled and reflective, sketched on paper and shot on film. A few days later the scratching in my head turned into what felt like a swarm of angry bees buzzing and clamouring for attention. Drawn back to the artwork I started to think about what Boyce had inscribed beneath the surface of the canvas. Two ostensibly disconnected names came to mind: Hegel and Tintin. more
London should stop selling faded pomp and circumstance to tourists and get modern. Ekow Eshun offers his personal itinerary
How is it that London chooses to advertise itself on the basis of its historic monuments rather than its vibrant contemporary culture? Millions of tourists arrive each year only to be herded like dumb cattle in the direction of Madame Tussaud’s, Big Ben and Buckingham Palace. Little wonder that, despite vociferous attempts at rebranding, Britain is still seen from abroad as uptight, insular and tradition-bound. Capital-dwellers know that the London tourist’s visit, with its narratives of pageantry and past empire, bears little relationship to the complex, culturally diverse modern city in which they live and work. So what should be on the map for the discerning 21st-century tourist? more