Listening to your last album, my favourite track on there is “Time to Relax” and it’s weird because I never really realised how much work you put in until I heard that song. In that song you basically are saying that you do too much sometimes and you need to kick back. Was that what you were feeling at that point when you were writing that? How did that come about?
I was actually in Thailand relaxing when I wrote that song. So I wasn’t even really relaxing thinking about it. I go every January to do Muay Thai training and that is how I relax, by doing six hours a week of Muay Thai training. But mentally for me being out of London, being out of a working environment, even being away from some of the activism, being away from music (even though I was writing lyrics) it made me think about how little I actually do relax and how little I just sit down and do nothing on a daily basis and how bad that can be for your health. I am very healthy in general. I am a vegan 99% of the time. I exercise 5 times a week but I don’t sleep very well and I think that leads to the problem that I have. When night times comes my brain is awake and sometimes I just lie in bed all night and don’t nod off at all. Then I just wake up the next morning and just get on with my day, which happens to me regularly. I just realised that I had to calm myself down because I really wasn’t relaxing and that’s a common thing that most people probably go through. So straight away it just came to me that it is time to relax.
You did mention in there as well that when your eyes are open to certain things that are going on in the world that it is difficult for you to go back to sleep.
Sure, I think I have always had that problem. I was someone that was quite fortunate or unfortunate to grow up in a politicised household. My mum played us the Nelson Mandela movie when we were like 4 and in that film kids got killed and all kind of things happened. My godfather’s brother was a political activist and died in very suspicious circumstances. So I was exposed very early to the realities of politics and you can’t shut that off and you can’t pretend that you don’t know what you know. They say ignorance is bliss but I don’t believe that is necessarily true either. People will think you’re serious because you talk about politics but people that know me know that I am a joker. I have a number of friends and we joke around a lot and my personal life is actually quite good, but as a citizen of the world I just don’t believe in saying well I’m good so sod everyone else. I don’t believe in that as a mentality because there are people who helped me throughout life that did not think like that. That is part of the reason why I am where I am today, I don’t feel like I have arrived or I have made it but in some ways I do. A lot of people, even those that support me say “where are you going to blow” and I’m thinking there’s a difference between hype and success, and often in the urban scene we don’t know the difference between the two. This year I would have done two tours and would have sold 15,000 tickets and I have not been on the radio since 2005. So who is successful? There is only a handful of UK artists (ever) that have been able to sell that amount of tickets, less than 10 and I am one of them and I have not been on the radio in 10 years. I don’t have the hype in many ways but I do have the success. So that is my method and I am not saying that I am a rich guy, I am fine, my life is good. I have been to 56 countries in like the last 10 years; I was in Morocco for 10 days and I came back for one day and went to Zimbabwe. I don’t want people despair on my behalf and I also don’t believe in shutting off what you know once you know it.
There are a lot of things going on in the States at the moment, and all these killings and everything. What’s your take on this and why do you think that it is getting to this point?
I don’t think that it is getting to a point. I think America has always been and was always founded on brutality against non-whites and it is consistent. What happens is that when it is in the media, people are like ‘oh my gosh, such and such is happening.’ Killing a lot of black kids, this is what they do, it is inherent and endemic in their culture. That is not to say that America is the only country that does this type of stuff in the world as every country has repression and injustice or has done wrong against somebody. There is no perfect nation on the planet but America was built specifically upon the assumption of white superiority. It was encoded in the law of the society and when it was founded it was built on the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans. A lot of people don’t understand that white Americans didn’t go to America as white people. When they left Europe they were Irish, German, Jewish, Saxon and they became white in America versus other people, because being light-skinned in America gave you a real privilege. For instance, the government would only give land grants to people that were of European descent and this is the way in which they became white and whiteness was specifically associated with and tied to blackness. In a sense that, to be white only meant something if black people were inferior. When Black History Month comes around some people will say to me “you’re always talking about all that black stuff.” I teach Shakespeare and have been doing so for years and I have conducted loads of workshops and not one person has said to me “you’re always teaching that white stuff.” For them, black people having some kind of scientific, special achievement threatens or undermines their identity. It only means something to be white if black people ae less. The moment black people are no longer less whiteness has no meaning. So this brutality is a logical, needed, necessary, endemic part of police and the black body. Realistically, if black people in America have power what do you think they are going to do with it? Forgive years of slavery and apartheid. Maybe right now it would be quite nice because we don’t have the power. However truth be told, if I was a white person in power in America or a black person that is interested in the system, as it is, I would be intelligent enough to know that we have been doing wrong to these people for 4 centuries. What do you think they are going to do if we give them power? “So we have got to maintain the status the way it is” and that is not to say black America would not be exactly the same but I don’t think they would be wonderfully nice and bogle and just forget what the Klu Klux Klan did. So that is the historical context and in terms of current, Obama being in the white house (as much as I’m not really an Obama supporter) it is an insult to a lot of people. Even though he served white power very well being that he is overseeing the of an African country, he has said very little about the brutality that black people are facing in America. Even though he has cussed black artists but has nothing to say about white artists; for me he is like the uncle telling the black people to stop shaming the family, he has nothing to say about the white side of his heritage. When white boys shoot another school he doesn’t say that white people need to discuss their endemic problem with us. This is my opinion and this is not me trying to say that all of Africa is the same because that is also nonsense. The point is until there is equal and opposite black power in the world, racism will exist. I do not really care much for prejudice. You may not like me very much because I have dreadlocks but you do not have the power to do anything about it. Whereas if you were a white power structure and you don’t like the way I look you may have the power to do something about it, that’s all that bothers me. I don’t care about whether people like me or not but what I do care about is the ability that they have to harm our children. Until there are functional, economical and militant, capable black states in the world there will always be racism and how do we know this? Because when there were economically, military equal black societies there was no racism, there was prejudice. When the Portuguese arrived in Africa they didn’t say “these niggas are inferior” they said “we invaded them and then we got our butts kicked.” This reminds me of one of the famous explorers writing about the streets in the kingdom of Benin and how it reminded him of Wardour Street in London. So they did not meet black societies and say that blackness equals inferiority because they met societies all equal to what they had at home. Look at China, 100 years ago Chinese people could not vote in America, they were also depicted as backwards or that they just cooked egg fried rice and were stupid. Does anyone want to depict Chinese people that way today? Not now! So people might not like Chinese individuals, but they’re like it doesn’t matter what you think of us. So I think that is part of why Africa is so demonised in the West, it’s not just about white people because they are travelling to Africa and making money. If you look at a lot of black America, for example Floyd Mayweather, why should I care about Africa? When Oprah built a school in South Africa I remember that she got a lot of stick. People were like how dare she? But it’s her money! If she had spent millions on one diamond they would have made a television programme about it and said Oprah spent such and such on a diamond..baller! Because they saw immediately that it challenged white power with the rich black Americans within the continent and that is not me romanticising Africa. There is classism, sexism, violence, tribalism and there’s warfare. Africa was not paralysed before mighty whitey turned up. We already had different empires that were rivals and that’s calm. I’m not saying that you are going to get utopia, I’m just saying that you are going to get a reduction. Like with China, it’s not a utopia, it’s far from it, but I’m pretty sure Chinese individuals are more comfortable with their position in the world today in comparison to people of African origin. That’s my long war for running but it is about understanding the bigger picture and not focusing on individual cases and thinking ‘oh how did this happen.’ Because it is going to continue to happen but how do we organise ourselves so that we can stem the bleeding. That is the best that we can do in my eyes, we are not going to stop police killing black people in America. We can however lessen the amount, heighten the awareness and try to, where possible, get some form of justice but even then we may not get much because the police are not going to jail anytime soon.
So it is Black History Month now, what are your thoughts on it? A lot of people say why should we just focus on a month but other people say that it is important to..
I think a lot of people are confused! Some people say “I don’t want a Black History Month, when’s white history month?” But white history month is all the time, everyday. I believe it is because they don’t understand who invented Black History Month and what it is for. Black History Month was invented and pioneered by a great African-American scholar called Carter G. Woodson, with his fantastic book called the ‘Mis-Education of the Negro.’ It was being used to correct the mythology that black people have no history. This was one of white racism’s core beliefs, that black people had no history and not just some black people, none! It was a time to highlight and for me we still need that because when I say Africa most individuals think of poverty, war, disease, famine and when I say black people what do people think of? But if those perceptions are still there, then the work is still there to be done to challenge those perceptions. For me, the danger with Black History Month is that every year (even well-meaning) teachers just use it to tell us about Martin Luther King and slavery. As much as we may respect Martin Luther King or even Harriet Tubman (if they’re really radical they’ll tell you about her). The sum total of black people’s history is not resistant to white people’s racism. We are not talking about black people’s contribution to science or technology , I found out some in my research that I am doing for my lectures, some I didn’t even know. The vast majority of West Africans had been inoculated against small pox before they left West Africa by an African vaccine in the 1500’s, that is why small pox didn’t kill us off like it killed off the native Americans because the Africans had already developed a vaccine against it. I didn’t’ know that till I researched. So you can consistently find out new things and be like oh that’s amazing because black people like all other people on this planet have a history of technical innovation of class struggle of bad and good stuff, working our ways to manage human affairs, working out how to build roads, a lot of that was interrupted and destroyed. So we are not talking about 150,000 years of achievements, civilisation or agriculture or all the different civilisations of the continent, and then even when we deal with slavery we need to be talking about the ancient revolution, everything else is just decoration. We are not talking about the only successful slave revolution in human history. Slavery is not new, everyone has been in slavery at one time or another but only once have humans had a successful slave revolution where the slaves overturned the government and that was in Haiti between 1791 and 1804. So when we are teaching Black History Month, and this is what I say every year when I go out, is what we should be teaching and the irony is that people are willing to hear and ears are open because black history is still part of the human story. My dad is Jamaican and my mum is Scottish but I still studied Chinese History because I think that there are some insights that they have that we might not have. What we also have in our community are a lot of apologists, people who think that speaking about your own history somehow constitutes reverse racism but it’s only racialized because white people have made it racialized. Otherwise we would be talking about Yoruba and Igbo and all of the different African ethnic groups and tribes. I think that Black History Month is a very useful tool and should be used to its maximum effect. I think all the about getting rid of it or why do we have it for me comes from people that have misunderstood what its purpose is and are not willing to us it. It’s the only time of the year when I go into a school and there are posters of black people on the wall. If you are a black teacher working in a school, make sure those posters are not Malcom X, Martin Luther King and Harriet Tubman, as much as I love and respect those people, everyone knows who they are, so that’s not new news. Make sure it’s something else and that new things are being discovered.
When we hear all these things that are going on, I kind of have a sense that it is hopeless because it seems like either side is not going to budge. I don’t think the Western world is going to budge and do anything that we ask. Do you think that there is a solution? People always say that we need to have our own economy or that we need to start building up our own things. What is the solution?
The solutions are already happening. One of the reasons why studying history is so important is because feeling is hopeless, which is what a lot of people say comes from not studying history in a way. Colonialism was designed to last hundreds of years but it lasted 70 and why because the West fought itself in World War II and as soon as we saw a gap to get freedom it was like Let’s fight, we’ve got our independence. Is it perfect? Of course not. Did it just magically free the continent from all the problems of oppression and greed and corruption of course not but it is infinitely better than what it was seven years ago and even twenty years ago when if you were in Zimbabwe prior to 1980 90% of the population couldn’t vote because they were black. If you were in South Africa before 1994 all of the black people lived in townships, now lots of them live in townships but lots of them also live in nice houses. History is not just click your fingers and everything fixes but colonialism was designed to last hundreds of years and it lasted for barely a century because of our resistance. Does that mean everything is resolved and wonderful, no but it means that we have moved history forward in a certain way, what is our generation’s task. Me and you are not going to die and then the problems of the world will be solved but what we can do to advance the causes of freedom and justice and equal power in the world in our lifetime, that is what we should be asking. I don’t feel that it is hopeless, I just feel that it is difficult And sometimes the difficulty of the challenge makes us feel hopeless because we can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel in our own lifetime we shouldn’t be thinking there isn’t a point, of course there is because if people never bled before you were born, Ghana would still be British colony. If people had never bled before I was born, I probably wouldn’t have even been born because the Caribbean’s wouldn’t have even come to England but Jamaica would still have been a slave colony. We made it impossible to have slavery anymore after the Baptist war after some people said you know what the slavery thing can’t even work no more, they have destroyed all the infrastructure for slavery and the cost of putting it all back in again is not worth it anymore because actually America is even now more capable of having slavery and selling ships and England was producing most of its sugar in India by this time anyway and this the way the world changes. There was a form of resistance and that is one of the reasons why I can sit here in my nice free clothes and chat to you about these issues. So I feel that it is necessary for us to politicise our community to understand that yes, it is difficult but this is what you can do. You can use your privilege of living in this country here save up some money and start a business in Ghana, I don’t know what it is going to be putting local people at fare rates, it might be a chocolate business. Africa does not have to be dealt with like some poor cousin, who can work for two pence a day and say actually we can do business and I will just pay you the right money. That’s not a problem I’m still making a profit and I’m not even losing anything. People say capitalism is to blame for everything and yes capitalism is built on injustice but that doesn’t mean you have to be a total idiot. If I’m making 14 billion a year, I could just make 12 and pay my workers properly, I don’t have to make that 14 million. Again, if I’m making £200,000 a year I could just make £170,000 and comfortably pay all of the people that work for me a decent wage. But what can you do and what I do to push things to a situation that we would like to see.
I think with the emergence of social media, I have noticed that there has been a lot more awareness and lot of people have awakened to certain issues. How important do you think social media has been to “black twitter”?
Well I think it has been really important, if you follow the right people. Personally I follow loads of really great scholars, thinkers, activists, artists and I have a folder with thousands of articles in it that I have sent myself with things that I have seen and interesting things that I have learnt. Obviously there is a lot of nonsense on there, I write nonsense sometimes and there are levels of it. But I do believe that social media has actually been very very useful. Not just for activism but even for independent artists. Like I was saying to you earlier, I have not been on the radio in ten years, I would have done two UK National tours this year and I am doing a tour in Australia in December. The internet has made it so I don’t..if I get on the radio obviously immediately I would jump up to another level but I don’t need them anymore. I have designed my business in a way that factors in what Radio 1 think of my music or not. If they play it great because then that means I would gain exposure to 15 million people a day but if they don’t I’m still eating and the internet has allowed so many independent businesses to operate them and it has democratised a lot of spaces.
Especially because of what has been going on in America, there has been this idea that America is more racist than England? What can we in England do to bring awareness of how bad it is?
I think America is more extreme. So the ghettos in America are 10 times worse and the brutality in America is 10 times worse but their success is also 10 times greater. I’ve been to Atlanta and have gone to a black university and it is accepted and called HBCU (Historically Black Universities and College). It’s like a whole university run by black people and we could never have that here. So yes the racism is stronger but it the success is also stronger and the racism is more visible only because of numbers. You think if 15% of England was black that you wouldn’t start seeing the brutality we see in America we are like 2% of the country. So it is about recognising the parallels in culture and really just looking at the facts. We have similar disparities in prisons, in mental health institutes, who’s dying suspiciously in police custody etc. Therefore, I believe that it is not about victimhood, it is about facts. If I see injustice does that mean I shouldn’t point it out, why because it makes you middle class white person feel bad. It is about us telling that narrative proudly but part of it is because we have never really been black British, we have been immigrants from our countries and have never had that sense of permanence. We have to make a decision as a community, do intend to stay here or do we intend to get a bit of money and go home or do a bit of both. My argument would be that you do a bit of both, you have a community here like everyone else does. In Zimbabwe they have got a Cypriot community and they are not going anywhere because life is good. We have a task to firmly plant those roots here and say right if we are staying here this is our political agenda and this is what we want to achieve. I don’t think we have made that decision we all have one eye on Ghana or Nigeria or Jamaica and not deciding if we are in or out. If we are in let’s be in and get what is ours, that doesn’t mean we have to lose where we come from and part of that is challenging the racism in society properly. A long term agenda and thinking about what this country should look like for Afro-Caribbean people in 25years etc and how do we go about achieving those things and how do we tell a black British narrative to the globe and it is happening. The internet means that we don’t have to worry about what the BBC is doing anymore. The BBC is doesn’t want to play radical black programmes? So what? Make one yourself and put it on YouTube and eventually the world will see it. I’m seeing this from my own experience, the big festival that I went to in Brooklyn recently called the Afropunk Festival and it was started by two black youths from Hackney. At their festival this year they had Lenny Kravitz, Lauryn Hill, Grace Jones, Gary Clark Jnr and so on. Those successes and those connections are happening and how do we further that agenda as a form for justice. How do we have a global relationship that is based on shared historical experience and based on combating racism. That doesn’t mean I think all black people are wonderful because they are not and this is fine. We are human, you’re going to have uncles that rape their nieces, that happens in every community in the world and there are scumbags in every community. It is not being idealistic and saying that we are all going to get along and be one big happy family and everything is going to work well. It is working together to solve commonly faced problems. To me that is the only intelligent solution and a lot of people are not looking for intelligent solutions. They are either ignoring the problem completely or just complaining. I have been lucky enough to go all around the continent and I just see opportunity after opportunity, I see space after space, that people from China, India and Europe are like cool I see it too and I’m in. While you black Americans and you black British individuals can’t be bothered to go home and do any business, we are in and we are solving problems, we are building roads, we are building hospitals and doing this and that. What are we doing? To be fair to a lot of African footballers they do a lot of good work. Drogba built a big hospital in Ivory Coast, Samuel Eto’o owns one of the main telecommunications companies in Cameroon. So they are building infrastructure particularly in terms of Africa. How do we get those of Caribbean origin to start doing the same? A friend of mine actually does do it and he actually retired back to Grenada. So we are seeing some of it but imagine if a black British footballer decided to retire back to his country of origin. So we are seeing some positive moves but you are never going to see it all because some people believe that white is right and they are always going to believe that, even people with black skin they love that.