The Repeat Beat Poet is a hip hop and spoken word artist, broadcaster and activist. He talked with Janine Booth from Solidarity; the whole conversation is online here.
On recent events in the USA:
There are shamefully still regularly extrajudicial killings of Black people in the US and across the world, but because of lockdown, the killing [of George Floyd] is a moment of vindication for a lot of activists. The protests are vital in achieving concessions from the oppressive system we’re living in, and show mobilised oppressed peoples how they can bring themselves together and collectivise their power.
On peaceful protests and “rioting”:
I respond by asking about the use of racially coded language, the ways in which the word “rioting” is used, the ways in which non-white protesters are referred to as “thugs” or “lawless”. It’s a way of criminalising civil disobedience.
On US and UK policing:
The framework of how to put down the revolutionary movements that threatened power structures was started by Robert Peel, the Met Police and the English imperial system. In America, the policing system developed on the same tactics that Peel used, applied not only to colonial subjects but to slaves and other non-white peoples. American policing can be far more public, and there are lynchings in all but name going on to this day.
The UK’s un-investigated racism is coded in the legalese. You don’t get America without genocide and slavery; the UK was brilliant at industrialising and exporting genocide and slavery. That’s the link.
On demands to address police brutality:
“ Defunding” allows us to reframe the purpose of how we fund the police. Do we fund them with the purpose of protecting property and protecting the ruling class? Or do we reintegrate an idea of policing back into social cohesion?
Look at the ways in which police are quietly militarised. I agree with disarming the police: a lot of that is about riot control tactics and protest control tactics.
Scrap the police: I agree with the sentiment because it’s the extremity we need to get purposeful reform if that can happen. I’m not sure it can, but it’s the attitude we need.
Making them accountable to elected scrutiny committees means that you don’t get the “thin blue line” police protection where prosecutions of police officers who have killed citizens are remarkably low.
We should reorient the police away from social control. We should do that with society in general, reorient our institutions towards helping vulnerable people and away from the control of the ruling class.
We also need to accurately contextualise the history of British state policing with the imperial and colonial history of the British state. We need to see the through-lines.
On using poetry to fight racism:
I was born in Essex to Ghanaian parents. I’ve been using my poetry as a way to fight racism consistently for as long as I’ve had racist experiences. Outside the UK, poetry has a clearer connection with social activism. In this country poetry has been a bit divorced. I’ve been highlighting and platforming people who follow in the activist tradition of poetry.
As the Colston statue was being torn down in Bristol, the poet Solomon O.B. stood on that plinth and spoke to the people. Aliyah Hasinah was on BBC Newsnight recently; she’s a great poet and curator. George the Poet has been doing a lot of good introductory-level anti-racism and anti-imperialism educating. Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan does incredible work around anti-colonial educating. Kojey Radical: a lot of his music deals with the intersections of oppression. Jelly Cleaver is an activist and musician in London. Liv Winter’s politics are firmly anti-fascist. There’s Lowkey, Boots Riley, …
That’s such a strength of poetry in the activist tradition: to give social unrest effective communicative force, getting across the feeling as well as the truth of a moment. Find your own canon of Black voices that you identify with.
On policing and class:
Police brutality is as classist as this country is. The ruling class, but also a large percentage of middle-class people, had stock in slaves: they owned human beings as property. The British taxpayer only finished paying off the loan to pay these slave owners for the loss of property in 2015! I was born in 1994: for the time I’ve been paying taxes I’ve been paying off slave owner compensation, and that’s an issue of class because where does this money go to? Where is this wealth extracted from? How is this profit leveraged? It is leveraged in the interests of a tiny elite, at the vast expense of the vast majority of people.
The majority of this wealth was created on the back of impoverished and enslaved Black and non-white people. Working-class white people suffer at the hands of a classist system as much as anybody. The system of power discriminates, and you find class right at the core.
Active class struggle is central to anti-racist struggle. Workers taking back the means of their production is crucial to unpicking racism and classism.
On the left and the labour movement:
There was an active colour bar against Black workers in the UK, right up until the 60s and 70s. Bristol had a bus boycott which saw Black people refuse to interact with the municipal transport system to express that you cannot have a workers” movement without Black people. It’s the ideology of “injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere”.
I’ve had countless conversations with avowed Marxists, or communists, or left radicals that haven’t been able to countenance the intersections of the issues. Black people are still severely underrepresented in trade unions, and it’s everyone’s loss that the expertise, the knowledge, the experience of anti-racist struggle isn’t being valued, taught and shared.
Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour Party was making incredible connections with grime culture and building up social movements with younger, working-class, poorer, Black people, but the machinery of the Labour Party could not countenance having a leader who was so anti-imperialist, so anti-racist.
What more could the left do? It could act as if Black lives not only matter, but are to be cherished, treasured, valued, uplifted, centred, and anti-racist discourse taught widely.
On debate and education:
To have effective debate you need debate moderation, and you need a shared idea of what you”re debating. This is why organisations like the Black Panther Party had a political education program before you became a member.
Self-education is important because it’s not on people of colour to be doing all the anti-racist work. It’s incredibly frustrating that independent Black organisations have been fighting for the liberation of oppressed Black people and for years this work has gone unvalued.
We need to ask why we haven’t been educated about anti-racism and police brutality before. I want to debate as a way to achieve radical praxis, as a way to take theory, marry it with action, and give it mobilisation.
Learn about anti-imperialism. Learn about anti-colonialism. Learn about police and prison abolition. Learn about Black Liberation struggles. Learn about independence movements from European colonial powers. Learn how Black and non-white people have shown up in your field of interest. Because whatever you”re into, Black people have been there too.
The first part of anti-racism is self-investigation to acknowledge your own prejudices. Anti-racism is for white people as much as for Black people. It’s not “white” people versus Black people. It’s the racists vs everyone. It’s a racial system vs everyone.
Three recommended books:
Staying Power by Peter Fryer, an incredible history of black people in Britain.
The State of Africa by Martin Meredith, another fantastic book, about African history since independence.
Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century by Kehinde Andrews, a good primer into how we can use an international black radical politics to effectively rebuild the world on a racially just platform.
Any other business?
Find out who’s been doing this work when it wasn’t popular. Find the anti-racist organisations that are close to you. It’s all the more important now that you speak up for Black people, you direct racially-privileged people to Black artists.
I will continue to be a voice for the liberation of Black people wherever and however I can, through my poetry, through my radio shows, through the conversations I have, through who I am and what I do.
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