Jeffrey Boakye is a multi-hyphenated literary activist set on disrupting our perspective on few things.
Alongside co-hosting BBC Radio 4’s ‘Add to Playlist‘ with Cerys Matthews, and being the author of 5 non-fiction books for adults and children, Boakye recently published his debut YA fiction novel Kofi and the Rap Battle Summer.
Kofi and the Rap Battle Summer is a fun and nostalgic, music-fuelled adventure set on a South London estate in the 90s, heavily inspired by Jeffrey’s childhood growing up in Brixton.
We caught up with him to understand why now was the time to write his first fiction book for young people, and how being marginalised is a super power …
Please introduce yourself …
I‘m a Black British Londoner of Ghanaian heritage, now living in East Yorkshire with my wife and two sons. I’m an educator, author, broadcaster, journalist and father. I also train and consult on anti-racism, culture, identity … Having been an English teacher for 15 years, I still spend a lot of time in schools and speaking to people about the central interests of my writing: race, education, masculinity and popular culture.
Describe your life right now in a word or one sentence …
Busier than it could be but as balanced as I can make it.
Tell us about Kofi and the Rap Battle Summer …
Kofi and the Rap Battle Summer is about a boy growing up with his family on an estate in south London. Kofi is full of energy and money making schemes, and he’s used to things going wrong. He starts secondary school and makes a new friend, Kelvin. When he realises that Kelvin has an incredible photographic memory, he has the biggest, most genius idea ever, combining music, lyrics, hiphop, and (if he can find one) a photocopier …
What triggered this story?
I wanted to write a joyful, adventurous and magical story that was set in a very realistic setting. The book is part of a series that takes place in the early 1990s, and my aim was to create a magical world using the very real backdrop of 1990s London. It’s important too, that this is a black family and communities that I didn’t see represented in books when I was growing up. The result is something fresh, magical and properly nostalgic for adults too.
Why specifically target the ‘middle-grade fiction‘ fiction audience?
That time when you’re just about to enter your teens is a magical place to be. The whole world is opening up to you and there’s a spirit of adventure that comes with exploring new ideas and doing new things. I wanted to create something that spoke to these experiences, full of surprises, discoveries, fun, lots of humour and adventure. It’s an age group that understands how the world can be full of opportunity and danger too, so a perfect audience to create an adventure for. Kofi and the Rap Battle Summer is a whole journey, trust me.
Based on your previous works, you’re a Black culture historian and a social
observer through the lens of the experience of a black man … is that a
I think that’s right. Being ‘marginalised’ by race is actually something that gives you a valuable perspective on society. I see it as a vantage point, and that’s what my work is all about; using my perspective to gain new insights that I can share with other people. As it stands, I think there’s so much more for the mainstream to understand about racism, race and how it affects all of us in so many ways. I’ve taken on the responsibility of illuminating
If you could turn all your books into a visual piece of art – film, tv, or theatre what
would that story be and which medium would you choose?
I‘ve already written a number of books that come with a playlist – Hold Tight; Musical Truth and the upcoming Musical World. All of these can be turned into a party just by hitting play. Beyond that, I’m pleased to report that I Heard What You Said, my book about being a black teacher in a white system, has been optioned for the screen, which means that it’s on its way to being adapted into a TV series. Really looking forward to seeing that develop.
What’s your method to writing when you start to have an idea?
Every project evolves in a totally different way. I don’t have a strict routine. I let ideas sit in my head for as long as it takes until the world start to bubble to the surface, then I write as much as my day will let me, when the urge takes me. It’s important to know when to go and when to wait and just think. But that said, I like getting stuff on the page, even if I’m not going to keep it, because that’s all part of the process – the false starts, the random paragraphs.
In getting Kofi and the Rap Battle Summer completed what were some of the Highs,
It’s a journey. One step at a time, one scene at a time, and actually letting the characters lead the story. The highs are when the story starts to fall into place and the plot becomes solid. It’s fully satisfying when the scenes start to fit together. The obstacles are usually internal, when you aren’t sure where to go next or how to progress. In those moments, you just have to let your characters come alive. They have personalities and motivations, so when you put them into situations they’ll react in realistic ways. The editing process is long, but vital. I write quite quickly and freely, and when I think I’ve finished there’s a whole lot more refining to do. It’s where the project really gets finished, so worth sticking out and doing properly.
Favourite moment in the book that you can share without spoilers?
I love the scenes where Kofi and his family are watching TV together in the flat. There’s one bit where Gladiators comes one and the exchange about Shadow is hilarious. Look out for that.
GETTING TO KNOW YOU
What’s your current plan B?
Plan B? Nah, I don’t think like that. I put myself in situations where I have to use all of my skills, and push into new talents, so I’m burning as brightly as I can. Plan B suggests that there’s something else to fall back on, but I’m already using all of my skills across all my projects. That’s why I write, do radio, do public speaking and host events etc. I’m already doing plans A, B, C, D and E.
What’s made you Sad, Mad, Glad this week?
Sad, the suffering created by social injustice. It’s constant. Seeing homelessness up close is always sobering and a reminder of. Mad, the structures that create these injustices. They run deep in modern society and the modern west. I spend a lot of time reading about how and why this came to be. It energises me to work harder. Glad, being healthy and active and having a healthy, happy family. Nothing more valuable than that. Real wealth is health and family. I really believe that.
What are you watching right now?
Nothing at the moment but I’m very tempted to rewatch The Wire. Possibly some of the best long form television ever made.
What are you reading right now?
The Psychosis of Whiteness by Kehinde Andrews. It’s a brilliantly focussed interrogation of whiteness and white supremacy.
What are you listening to right now?
Right this second? ‘Umi Says’ by Mos Def. Glorious music. “I ain’t no perfect man, I’m tryna do, the best that I can, with what it is I have…” Amen to that.
The last thing you saw on stage?
Small Island adapted to the stage from the original novel by Andrea Levy. My wife and I both agreed that we’d watch it again instantly. Wonderful.
What’s on your bucket list?
I don’t believe in bucket lists. Amazing insights hit you every day if you stop looking at what you think you want, believe me.
Celebrate someone else …
So many people. I want to do a big list of writers and thinkers active right now, doing amazing work. I want to big up black and brown women in particular, because society does not readily see them or uphold them – Nova Reid, Kelechi Okafor, Sharmaine Lovegrove, Layla F. Saad, Naomi and Natalie Evans, Aja Barber, Shola Mos-Shogbamimu, Marie-Claire Amuah, Nadine White, Emma Dabiri, A. M. Dassu, Patrice Lawrence, Baroness Doreen
Lawrence … way too many to list here. Salute.
Celebrate yourself …
I’m out here trying to centre honesty, truth and joy, and it’s amazing to have received some recognition for my efforts and work. Getting an honorary doctorate from the University of Leicester this year was a big deal. I had my mum, my sisters, my wife and one of my former tutors, and most of us were crying.
Whose footsteps are you following in?
There’s along legacy of activist and intellectuals who I’m trying to pick up the baton from. Beryl Gilroy, the UK’s first ever black headteacher, is a huge inspiration. I spoke about her book recently with her daughter, Professor Darla Gilroy. It was emotional. I’m also inspired by Claudia Jones, the activist responsible (among other things) for launching the Notting Hill Carnival. She wanted to heal a community after awful racist attacks and social decay. I’d like to think that a lot of my work is doing that too – healing.
Musical World is coming out later this year, which is an exploration of power and politics in modern history through a global playlist of songs. It came out so well – I can’t wait for it to land. Also, I’ve finished the second book in the Kofi series, so that’s on the way. I’m always writing and thinking, so yeah, expect ongoing projects on deck. I promise to keep it interesting.
Where can we find you?
I try to limit my time on social media, but I’m on Twitter and Instagram on @jeffreykboakye.
Where can we read your latest work?
All good bookshops. I also have a Substack called Are You Sitting Comfortably? where I write regular articles about race and racism and my general observations. I’m over-delivering on it for real, so spread the word.
Last thing to say is thank you for this opportunity to reach out and say hello. Appreciated.