“Dem Afrikans they done sold us as slaves!!!”
“Well those West Indians are just criminals anyway!!!”
These are a few of the perceptions tackled head on by UK Born Ghanaian Spoken Word Artist, TuggSTAR in his new book, The Secret Relationship Between African & Blacks! Understanding the conflict between Africa & its Diaspora.
Most spoken word artists, are multi-faceted creatives; immersed in various disciplines either through desire or necessity, usually resulting in addressing an issue or having some transformative impact of people’s lives. As far as spoken word in the UK is concerned, the name TuggSTAR has earned international recognition. A poetry slam champion, well-travelled performer, with 2 critically acclaimed EPs (The Africa EP & Season of Lost Love), he became the journalist who brought spoken word to masses through a column in the New Nation Newspaper. Fulfilling the purpose of his moniker, Stay True After Rhyme – Tuggs applied his convictions to work as a Rites of Passage guide and a Gang Intervention Specialist working directly with young black men.
The combination of the above means that Tuggs has always demonstrated the ability to encapsulate the black experience in his words; crystalising the present in a manner relevant to ears of future generations. A talent exemplified in his classic, Tuggstar for President a piece which inspired myself and the rest of the Best Kept Secret spoken word collective to produce our second theatre sell out show of the same title in 2009. Now he is exploring new territory, with the publishing of his first book, providing much needed perspective on the relationships between various peoples of Afrikan heritage, separated and re-imaged by various aspects of the colonial experience, now reunited in the land(s) of the colonisers.
This is no doubt a touchy subject for some. One that evokes all manner of emotive ideas. But this poet is no stranger to controversy. Few Black men would attempt to tackle the issue of black male, female relationships with the level of analysis, emotional honesty and self-reflection present in, Season of Lost Love. By the same token, few have sought to present this hot topic of black intra-identity conflict, in the form of productive discourse, contextualised by history, yet still very much rooted in personal experience.
This is the challenge that TuggS.T.A.R. has set himself. In truth, his critically acclaimed piece, Generation Change lays the ground work for this new offering. Providing much context for a generation, whose culture continues to dominate the popular market, but whose identity remains plagued by much of the same unresolved questions that faced their predecessors. Add a dose of mass commercialisation to the mix and seems that Afrikan / blackness is pervasive in every arena, but lacking the rooted-ness that might make it meaningful as a self-determined force in the world. Somebody has to step into the confusion and try to present some clarity.
What is the difference between “Africans & Blacks”?
I come from the Peter Tosh school of thought. If you are black, then you are an African. But living now in Canada and being a lot closer to the epicentre of American thought I am getting an insight to the bizarre belief that there is a difference in the minds of many, that Black people and Black culture is reflected by those of the diaspora. Those who are the offspring of the enslaved. The Africans are those that directly come from the landmass of Africa. Brother, this is a question I could literally write a book about… but the seed of this book came from the first episode of BLACKISH where Lawrence Fishbourne says “We ain’t African we are black, African people don’t even like us.” It was the “WTF” response that began the journey to this book.
Is the black British experience explored enough in literature?
I once had the pleasure of interviewing Chuck D. He said during the interview that he believes blacks in the UK were better placed to lead the diaspora than black America. He said America is world dumb and black America world dumber. I was confused because of the African-Americans I had been inspired by. Only now do I understand this better. The black British experience is not a glossy sexy advert, whereas the African American experience is almost like a glossy Hollywood movie and everywhere else is the independent film. As a result, people do not seek our view, our opinion, we don’t even do it ourselves. The reason I wrote this book is that I realised my insight as a black person in Britain was unique, I had to assert my experience, I realised a lot of the conversations back and forth I was seeing between black America and Africans was the nonsense that went back and forth in the 80s and 90s between Caribbeans and Africans in the UK.
To what extent is the division between Afrikans & blacks in the UK real or imagined?
Growing up in the UK it was real for me. The African experience in Britain was marginalised. I used to think I was the only African in the UK. Africa was so uncool, we were the butt of jokes, the cheap laugh. A lot of us ran away from that. There were people I went to school with I didn’t realise were African until years after school. The authentic black experience was Caribbean, and a lot of us (Africans) had a complex about this. It was seen as an expectation as a black person to understand Patois, or do a Caribbean accent. I used to go on like I understood ragga, but I had no idea what was being said, which made me feel I wasn’t black enough. Though later on in my school years I would meet more people who were actually African and we would share similar experiences. As I grew older I took my baggage with me as someone that believed the division was still deep.
It wasn’t actually till I had a conversation with you, about my nephew coming to the UK from Ghana and I feared he would be mocked in school because he was an African and you told me that stuff doesn’t really go on anymore. I thought you were romanticising the conflict. Soon after, I began working in a school bordering tower hamlets and Hackney and realised you were right. African and Caribbean kids were totally cool. In some cases, the African children outnumbered the Caribbean kids. It wasn’t based on a great understanding and knowledge of who they were. It was that what they were was not a barrier to them being cool. Caribbeans were able to do African accents, use some words, eat their foods and vice versa in a truly friendly manner.
But now being in north America, we as Africans in Britain need to assert ourselves and our experience on the world stage. In the area of African relations, we are advanced. Think about it, the arrival of Carribeans in Britain preceded the en masse arrival of Africans ten years later. Where else in the world did Africans and descendants of enslavement begin mixing this early en masse. I am not saying Africans were not in America, or France. I am saying that an en mass an ongoing meeting between these distant cousins. A meeting which began somewhat contentiously between people who didn’t really understand each other. Whose children began to mix, form relationships, kinships, brotherhoods, spouses, children. It’s not uncommon to hear, I’m half Jamaican, half Ghanaian, half Bajan, half Nigerian. What insight does that provide us. I am not saying we live in a utopia, but we are a lot better than many other places around the globe and we shouldn’t be afraid to speak on it.
Is there anything about your experience that gives you a unique perspective from which to write such a book?
This is where I sound arrogant, but as a poet, I only began doing poetry because I felt no one was speaking about the things I felt needed to be said. I have a line in my poem that says, “if no one wants to say it, then you know what I’ll say it!” and I swear by that. My parents came to England from Ghana a bit before the influx of African immigration. They came as students, so my birth as an African in Britain felt a little more isolated. My black experience was with predominant Caribbean young people. Though my Black education was from the conscious African-American voices that came through politics, through music and my introduction to Pan-Africanism was through them as well as the Caribbean Pan-African groups that began to sprout up through Britain.
I was deeply influenced by this, and shape my ideas with the culture that was being passed down to me by my parents, grandparents and Ghanaian family. In university, I majored in history and international studies, but by now my perspective on history had already a strong foundation and university just enabled me to build upon it and not be shaped by what they were teaching. Every part of this journey has provided important building blocks into giving me the authority to write this book. Even with that, I do say it’s an introductory guide, I know there is a second edition that needs to be done.
Does being a poet make it easier to write a book?
The experience I mentioned above made it easy writing a book. But having said that perhaps it made me think about the flow more, think about the audience more. I don’t know, many non-poets write books and perhaps not enough poets actually write things other than poetry books. I do hope there is a poetic rhythm that subconsciously helps people read the book to the end. But that was not a conscious endeavour.
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