In life and in death Smiley Culture is a pioneer: Youth for Smiley Culture review
Tuesday, May 10 2011
Exclusive to Lizzie’s Liberation
Saturday night’s Youth for Smiley Culture event in Brixton’s Fridge Bar was one of the best events I have ever been to for a handful of reasons.
While the presence of Smiley and his importance oozed throughout the event, he was spoken about very little. Instead the underlying reasons why Smiley Culture meant so much in life and in death, were brought to the fore.
In life, Smiley was a pioneer, not just musically but politically too. His groundbreaking tunes like Cockney Translation epitomised how non-white communities were shaping English life, while the hit Police Officer showed that as a young black man he would effortlessly outsmart the police during their racially motivated stop and searches and flip the indignity of the experience on to them.
Almost 30 years after the success of those songs, Smiley’s death in police custody, like Kingsley Burrell’s, highlights the fallacy of any notion that England is a post-racial society and why the relevance of the message in Smiley’s music is just as potent.
On average one person a week continues to die in police custody and the vast majority of victims are non-white – so it was fitting that in the heart of London’s black community in Brixton, older members of the community such as Smiley’s nephew Merlin Emmanuel, Lee Jasper, artist Akala and Sons of Malcolm editor Sukant Chandan delivered speeches to the overwhelmingly young black audience about why their life circumstances and prospects continue to be inferior to their white, and even other non-white counterparts.
Akala in particular, in his speech and his new Fire in the Booth freestyle which he performed on Saturday, highlighted that empire’s oldest and surest tactic of divide and rule had been most ruthlessly applied to people of African descent in Britain with the resulting effect of keeping them downtrodden more so than any other community.
Giving the example of the Chinese community, he said the level of solidarity and support amongst Chinese people in England was comparatively impressive, with a wealth of Chinese owned businesses and institutions that ensured that people of that community could thrive in England.
While all non-white communities have been brutalised and oppressed by empire and continue to suffer at its hands, the experience of people of African descent today has been shaped by the Transatlantic Slave Trade which severed millions of African people’s ties with their homelands, families, languages, religions and glorious histories. No other peoples have been robbed of themselves and each other in this way throughout history.
Meanwhile, the negative portrayals of young black people in the media and through institutions such as schools, where teachers have meetings on “how to deal with black pupils”, often falsely fills some of that void of self-knowledge. Combined with the economic conditions of high levels of poverty, unemployment and poor quality employment, the results are increasing competition amongst young people to survive, more and more people turning to gangs (including young females) and rising rates of young black men committing suicide.
Reflecting this, speakers and performers at Youth for Smiley Culture stressed unity in order to build self-sufficiency in the black community so that it is no longer vulnerable to exploitation by the white power structure.
Sukant stressed that a lot had already been done in terms of the black community harnessing a great deal of influence, and thus untapped power, on western life.
While institutional racism continues to be perpetrated by predominantly white people who run and work for the country’s institutions, those very same people still turn on their radios and enjoy music of black origin (which most popular music is), play it to their children and go out and dance to it. And their children and even themselves can be heard saying “fam”, “one love” and the like in their every day discussions – language which has arisen from the black community.
All of these cultural manifestations, have evolved along with and out of black history, and especially the last 500 years of historical struggles for equality and against white supremacy in this era of US-European imperialism.
However, the continued oppression of the black community testifies to the fact that while people are quick to enjoy these cultural manifestations as it suits them but are silent when it comes to righting the historical wrongs that have given rise to them.
Here Grime music could prove to be crucial in forcing its audience to fully take or leave it. The lack of interest by the majors, who “don’t get it” (as Dizzee has said before), has meant that artists like Dizzee and Wiley filled the gap with their own labels and the genre has moved towards self-sufficiency, like Jungle and Dancehall before it.
Dominated by young black artists who have made relaying their daily experiences funky, cool and attractive, Grime’s audience of youngsters spreads across races. So when out of the scene comes artists like Durrty Goodz, Akala, Swiss and young female MC from Birmingham RoxXxan, all of whom performed on Saturday night, Grime’s white audience in particular cannot so easily run away from the roots of what it is they have hitherto obliviously enjoyed.
This is because these artists are proud young black men and women unapologetically and explicitly talking to young black people about their mutual experiences in modern day England, just like Smiley did 30 years ago.
The almost 200 young people last weekend were evidently inspired and some used the space to talk about their own experiences of police harassment.
But it was also a rare opportunity for them to hear from the elders in their community who lived through brutal struggles against white supremacy in their younger years and to hear artists who are closer to their age pay homage to those struggles.
In this way the Campaign for Justice for Smiley could prove to be the crucial bridge between generations. It has been said before that in life Smiley paved the way for today’s Dizzees, Wiley’s, Durrty’s, who are at the top of the grime scene.
This is largely why his death has touched and angered all generations, and events like Youth for Smiley Culture and the public meeting in Lambeth Town Hall before that, where over a thousand people spilled out of the doors, have opened up spaces for a hitherto divided community to unite in recognition that justice for Smiley means justice for all. In life he was a pioneer, in death he could prove to be too.