Saturday, 17 March 2007

Spreading The Gospel Of Self-empowerment

Opinion piece by Kwaku published in The Voice, Feb. 26-Mar. 4 2007, p.11

As the commemoration of the 200th anniversary of Abolition Of The Slave Trade Act approaches, two issues particularly exercise my mind.

Please allow me to dip into the Wailers’ songbook to make my points. Peter Tosh sang: “No matter where you come from, as long as you’re a black man, you’re an African.” Bob Marley urged us to “emancipate yourselves from mental slavery,” as “none but ourselves can free our minds.”

After the noise regarding coins, postage stamps, conferences, concerts, seminars and other abolition ceremonies has subsided, it is worth reminding ourselves that those we mourn were Africans. Hence, let the significance of the bicentennial anniversary be that black people of African descent reclaim their identity by describing themselves simply as Africans, or as African-British. People of Asian descent born in Britain, or who came from east Africa, call themselves Asians, even though they may never have visited the Indian sub-continent.

In addition, the term black, has become almost meaningless. It was a construct for political expediency and funding reasons, particularly in the ‘60s and ‘70s. But now, one can almost fit any non-Caucasian under the term black!

As an aside, it’s worth pointing out that the said commemoration is not about the abolition of slavery, but rather, the British slave trade. Also, let’s not forget the fact that Africans were at the forefront of the abolition campaign. Men such as Ignatius Sancho and Olaudah Equiano examplify self-empowerment, which can inspire us today.

We seem to live in a world where we’ve forgotten about empowering ourselves, and think it’s all up to ‘them’. Nevertheless, I am encouraged to spread the gospel of not waiting for ‘them’ to do it, but rather what can ‘I’ or ‘we’ do for self.

Recently, I led a Heritage Lottery funded video project for pan-London voluntary organisation BTWSC, which develops potential and promotes social inclusion. Some of the encouraging points from the Brent Black Music History Project (BBMHP) was that although life was harder in the ‘60s and ‘70s, people like Sonny Roberts, founder of the first black owned studio and label, Planetone, and the Palmer brothers, who set up Pama Records (forerunner of Jet Star), built their businesses without any hand outs or infrastructural support.

Perhaps we could empower ourselves by looking at role models who achieved in a much more hostile environment. This year, Pama/Jet Star will celebrate forty years in the music industry.

Forty years ago, it was even more difficult for people of African descent to access finance. Instead of throwing their arms in the air, and saying ‘they’ will not give us finance, our parents and grandparents were resourceful and used the ‘partner’ system to provide finance, which was by us for us. There was no time for victim mentality. They started up businesses and bought houses, albeit often in the poorer neighbourhoods.

I also looked at how the Ruff Cutt band came by their name. Although they did not have the expertise, they pulled together to successfully sound-proof their rehearsal space, so they could practice without disturbing the complaining neighbours. In those days, it seems to me that it was do it yourself or lose the opportunity.

Today, we are to some extent, like elephants in a circus that are unaware of their potential, and think the string round their neck controls them. We need to free our minds and realise that in a sense, ‘they’ control us in as much as we allow them to.

Yes, the educational system and society in general, encourages the erroneous belief that people of African origin have not achieved anything, and encourages anti-intellectualism in our young people. What is the way forward? What should parents do? Merely moaning is insufficient. As we move to have the curriculum reflect the truth, we should teach our children, find books for them to read in order to expand their horizons and self-belief.

In an interview with rising British R&B singer-songwriter Nate James for my website, he was emphatic about some of the reasons for his success. “I don’t wait around for people,” asserted Nate. “I like to make things happen myself! If you rely on others, there’s more chance of being let down. It’s surprising what you can achieve when you put your mind to something!”

As founder of the Black Music Congress, I chaired a debate in January entitled ‘To What Extent Does Music Influence Behaviour?’ A resolution calling for action by taking personal responsibility and campaigning for respectful, responsible radio was passed. I look forward to receiving feedback regarding some of the personal and collective actions taken by participants at our next debate in June.

I will leave you with the AIM mantra offered by Jet Star’s head of business affairs Hugh Francis at the BBMHP DVD launch, which should help empower us all: if you have Ambition, Imagination and Motivation, you should have success.


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