“Black is beautiful, Black is excellent”Dave on ‘Black’
It was fitting that Stormzy brought out Dave as he became the first Black British male rapper to headline Glastonbury. Simultaneously, Stormzy also became the second youngest to headline the prestigious festival at 25 with only a 24-year old David Bowie being younger when he headlined the coveted pyramid stage. Stormzy taking the stage in a custom made vest sporting the Union Jack made by Banksy was a powerful image I think many will not forget. For Black Brits, this will definitely not be a moment forgotten as the moment has felt like it’s important for Black British identity as much as it was for Stormzy.
Black Britishness for a long time has felt shallow. It has felt like it was more an exercise in box ticking on forms than it has necessarily felt like a cohesive identity. The reason it has probably felt this way is that, for the vast majority, if not all, Black people in Britain feel strong connections to their respective African and Caribbean heritage and usually associate that with their identity more than with Britishness. For some, it would not be a stretch to see claiming Black Britishness as a rejection of those native heritages in an attempt at assimilation for greater acceptance.
However, I and I assume quite a few other people, don’t feel this way about Black British identity. If we simply break down the terms there is the Black element and the British element. The combination of the two is important and I think the fact that historically the two terms together haven’t worked together is something that is only really seeing a change recently. The reason being demographically Britain has changed. Not to the extent of the scaremongering used in Brexit campaigns and impassioned anti-immigration speech, but there has been change. Socially now more than ever in Britain, all kinds of cultures are interacting with one another.
It is amongst this cultural scene that the term Black Britishness has properly been able to develop. Black Britishness is the amalgamation of African, Caribbean, and British culture coming together as one. One of the easiest places to see this is in slang and patterns of speech. Within slang you can hear several linguistic influences from Jamaican patois, Nigerian Yoruba, Ghanaian Twi, Arabic due to large Muslim populations amongst certain African countries, and of course English to tie them all together. Black Britishness has as such also been seen as other to Britishness – and rightly so. Whilst it would be easy to make the comparison to the term African American, the comparison wouldn’t be accurate. African-American is a term that has been used interchangeably with Black, yet despite having the African in its name seems to pay no homage to that aspect. This is fundamentally where Black Britishness is different as it respects all of the native cultures that make it up as well as the British aspect that has facilitated all of these cultures being able to mix in this way.
Despite this however Black British identity hadn’t really taken off in the mainstream. Black British culture flourished – whether it was music, fashion, tv & film, radio you could see Black culture everywhere. Even when we look at music at the moment we have several strands of Black British music doing well with the likes of grime, drill, afroswing, and UK rap. What is also interesting to note is that though Black Britishness has taken a while to come to fruition as an identity, in music it has seemingly always been around. From the arrival of the Windrush generation, there has always been some form of Black British music going from house and jungle to garage, garage to grime, and now to the plethora of genres we have today. Yet still, Black Britishness seemed to be something marginalised and underground, with its biggest representation being on Twitter as an almost subculture.
So what does Stormzy and Glastonbury have to do with all of this?
Well, everything really. Stormzy is Black Britishness, he neither shies away from his Ghanaian heritage nor does he reject the fact that he’s British. He has in this way managed to capture a fan base that spans most demographics in the UK, in a way that has made him a star. He is one of the most recognisable faces and he has managed to break down doors that artists before him had only been able to dent. His talent and genuine nature made him contagious to his fans and that is the foundation of his success.
Festivals are a British staple. Year round there is some kind of festival going on with the biggest period for them being summer when the vast majority of the larger festivals take place. There has however been a split between festivals that have really been respected and then the festivals which have historically been more “urban”. Now in terms of festivals, in the UK Glastonbury is the epitome of them. It is, without doubt, the biggest event in the British festival calendar. It is also the biggest greenfield festival in the world with 2019 having an estimated attendance of 200,000 people. With past headliners like U2, Coldplay, Oasis, Blur, Rod Stewart and more the reason the festival became so big is been apparent.
To have Stormzy follow in those footsteps is absolutely huge. It shows very publicly that Black Britishness does not just fall into stereotypes typically portrayed across media. On top of that, it shows that you don’t have to compromise yourself as a Black British person to get into the most coveted and safeguarded institutions. To enrapture a crowd that was previously hostile due to the nature of his music, without doing anything other than performing his music is as important as him getting to be on that stage. To have had the Union Jack showing only added to the spectacle, and probably did more for those outside of the Black British demographic for cementing Black British identity than anyone else. As an image Stormzy in that outfit, on that Glastonbury stage, with Dave and Fredo alongside him was a reminder to the general public that the Black British populous is here to stay.