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29 November 2022

The quiet revolution in black British identity

Black Britishness used to mean people from Caribbean backgrounds – but now it is more varied than ever.

By Tomiwa Owolade

Bukayo Saka played brilliantly for England in their first World Cup match; Stormzy’s much-anticipated third album was released last week; Little Simz recently won the 2022 Mercury Prize for her fourth album. Black British people of African descent are increasingly dominating British public consciousness. But they have a fascinating history too.

The first sentence of Peter Fryer’s 1984 book Staying Power is unforgettable: “There were Africans in Britain before the English came here.” One of the most acclaimed books on black British history, Staying Power starts with the Africans who were stationed in Britain when it was still a province of the Roman empire, a few centuries before the Anglo-Saxons arrived to establish what became an English identity. 

Those early Africans had a transient presence, and only a very small smattering of black people have lived in it since then – from court musicians in Tudor England to formerly enslaved authors in Georgian Britain. The first substantial population of black people in the country arrived after the end of the Second World War: the Windrush Generation. And most of them came from the islands of the Caribbean. 

The population of black Britain, however, is now more African than West Indian. According to the 2011 census, there were nearly a million people in England and Wales who identified as black African; almost 600,000 identified as black Caribbean. I expect that gap to have widened when we get data from the 2021 census, as immigration to Britain from Africa (even after Brexit) has continued to increase.

This change in the nature of the black British population hasn’t been fully registered in contemporary analysis, and it is too recent to have been comprehensively surveyed in history books. In his landmark 2016 book Black and British, David Olusoga writes that this “second great wave of black migration” has “largely gone unnoticed”. The Evening Standard food critic Jimi Famurewa writes in his account of the African diaspora in Settlers, published last month, that “the increasingly dominant presence of Black Africans” in the UK “hasn’t always been reflected in how we look at race and Britishness today”.

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Reading Famurewa’s fascinating book, I was reminded of how much the demographics of black Britain have changed in the past 30 years. Many of us still associate black British identity with Caribbean culture. There may have been a better case for doing so in the not-too-distant past: in the early 1990s, the most famous black people in Britain included Ian Wright and Paul Ince in football, Frank Bruno in boxing, Diane Abbott in politics, and Lenny Henry in comedy. All of them are of Caribbean descent. There were a few black British celebrities with black African backgrounds – Sade, Seal and Justin Fashanu immediately come to mind – but not as many as today.

[See also: We shouldn’t demonise Winston Churchill – or deify him]

In 2022, as well as Saka, Stormzy and Little Simz, prominent black Britons with African heritage include Kwasi Kwarteng, the former chancellor of the Exchequer and Bernardine Evaristo, the president of the Royal Society of Literature; the Olympian Mo Farah; the Bafta-winning screenwriter and actor Michaela Coel; and young film actors such as Daniel Kaluuya and John Boyega. 

What we know of as contemporary black British identity is a combination of African and Caribbean influences (and some influences from American culture too). But the relationship between Africans and West Indians in Britain has not always been smooth. This is something Famurewa highlights in Settlers that reviews of his book in the press have not touched on. Historically, many Africans have looked down on West Indians as lazy and decadent. Some West Indians, by contrast, have seen Africans as either pompous nerds or crude.

In the 1980s, for instance, Lenny Henry was on television mocking Africans in the show Tiswas. Felix Dexter in the hit 1990s comedy show The Real McCoy was playing a snooty and ridiculous Nigerian accountant called Nathaniel. Famurewa, who comes from a Nigerian family, was born in Britain in 1983, and from his school experiences he writes that “for a long time, to be ‘African’ was many things. But – set against the culturally defining Blackness of, say, Bob Marley – it was never, ever cool.”

Today, there is less of that kind of tension, and more cultural unity. This is embodied, for instance, in the use of Multicultural London English (or MLE), a combination of cockney, Jamaican patois, African intonations and other ethnic minority influences. It is endogenous to Britain. Young black boys and girls in inner-city London use it. But white boys and girls in Somerset use it too – such as the 15-year-old Alex, who rapped alongside the grime artist Dave in the 2019 Glastonbury Festival. In the past, grime music was largely dominated by black Caribbean people through rappers like Wiley, Kano and others; but many of the prominent names now come from a west African background – Stormzy, Dave and Little Simz. 

There are differences between black Africans and black Caribbean people, but there are also overriding similarities. The same is also true of the relationship between black African people and the rest of Britain or, more specifically, England. If Saka continues to carry on his excellent Arsenal form for England, it will be the latest and one of the most striking chapters in the growing connection between black African people and British (English) society.

[See also: Scotland can never be an equal partner with England, in the Union or outside it]

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