Then and Now: queer Black Britain with Kai-Isaiah Jamal and Lady Phyll Opoku-Gyimah

Partnering with the BBC to celebrate the launch of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology, THE FACE brings together UK Black Pride founder Lady Phyll Opoku-Gyimah and writer and poet Kai-Isaiah Jamal. In conversation with Bridget Minamore, they explore life in the queer Black community.

Small Axe tells the stories – all inspired by real life events – of London’s West Indian community between the​’60s and the​’80s. Steve McQueen’s five-part film series takes its name from an African proverb popularised by Bob Marley and the Wailers in their 1973 song of the same name:​“If you are the big tree, we are the small axe.”

It’s a reminder that even the smallest voice can challenge the status quo. But what is the status quo? And who’s challenging it? In this series of intergenerational conversations, figures at the forefront of Black British culture explore the ins and outs of being Black in a Britain that can lift you up or cut you down. Or both at the same time.

Following the broadcast of the first two films, Mangrove and Lovers Rock (the latter a celebration of Black romance, joy, commune and survival), we tackle the topic of Black queer identity.

For as long as Black people have been in the UK, there have been Black LGBTQ+ people, too. As Black Britishness and queerness have become more visible, the communities have found themselves grappling with inclusivity and the ways they may fall short at including and uplifting voices that sit at the intersections of identity. Yet Black people are doing what they’ve always done: carving out their own spaces and speaking on their own terms.

Below, Bridget Minamore is joined by two brilliantly outspoken members of the queer Black community. Lady Phyll Opoku-Gyimah is, to quote her self-description, a trade unionist, working class girl and out Black African lesbian; she is also a co-founder of UK Black Pride. Kai-Isaiah Jamal is a writer and spoken-word poet. In their quest to widen the lens of visibility, they speak up about their identity as a non-binary trans person of Nigerian and Jamaican heritage.

Bridget Minamore: What did you think of Small Axe?

Lady Phyll: I’m going to start, if you don’t mind. I think Small Axe really describes a sense of relief when [our] stories are being told and amplified. I’m reminded of so many issues that I’ve battled against in terms of growing up, which our communities have battled against for so, so long – and it is still ongoing. So I just thought it was powerful. It was real. It resonated with me. I felt it, I digested it and I absorbed it.

Kai-Isaiah Jamal: I think the most important part of it was seeing our stories through our lens… [W]hen we have Black British history, history” seems to always be the very definitive word – which always feels like it has to be this non-relative information given to us by somebody who’s never experienced what it is to be where we’re from, or navigate the world in that way. This is our honest truth. It had beautiful moments and it had devastating moments. And all of this was sort of like rolled up into something that felt very much ours.

Lady Phyll Opoku-Gyimah

Lady Phyll: I like to say history”, her story” and their story”, because there’s so much richness. It’s about the amplification of stories, but it’s our narrative, right? It’s not shaped by anyone else. It’s our stories. It’s our lived experience. And that is more powerful than anything else.

Kai-Isaiah: It did give an opportunity, especially for me, to be able to look at what was, what is, and where there are still gaps. There’s this moment [in Lover’s Rock] of these two women kissing. And within those two seconds, there’s so much that comes up. There’s so much I wanted to investigate. In that period of time [1980] there was a huge erasure of queerness. There was a huge erasure of Black queerness especially, so that erasure that was referenced then brought up all of these conversations. I think that was a real special part of the films that was relevant to now and relevant to the moment.

Lady Phyll: I always say that our queerness and our Blackness coexist. The interconnectedness of who we are as people. We can’t divorce ourselves from that. I don’t stop being a queer lesbian, Black African woman. I don’t stop being a Black woman when it suits you.

I think that that’s the erasure that you talk about when the Blackness is erased, because it’s not to be spoken about, or when the queerness is not spoken about. There’s that sense of erasure. Where do you fit in? Where do you belong? Where do you see yourself? How do you see yourself?

For me, I think UK Black Pride has done that for so many people because it is by us, and it’s for us. It talks to our experience of being non-binary, being queer, being LGBT, being a person with HIV or AIDS, being a migrant or being a refugee, being an asylum seeker, being so many different things – being trans in an age, in an era which is feeding us so much hate towards our trans siblings. But yet still we manage to make sure that we uphold and support our siblings where we need to, and recognise the unique beauty in who we all are.

Listen now: Then and Now: queer Black Britain with Kai-Isiaih Jamal and Lady Phyll Opoku-Gyimah

Kai-Isaiah: And there are so many versions of Blackness that I feel like often we talk about this Black experience or we talk about British Black experience. But we all have a different narrative. When we look at our white counterparts, there’s this allowance of seeing [them] and all of [their] glory or all of [their] vastness. When we think about Blackness, especially when it’s a visual, it’s almost like there’s one thing that you can look like and there’s one thing that you can be.

UK Black Pride encompasses a space for everyone. It’s knowing that somebody is calling you in from the rain. Whoever you are like, whoever you are, it’s just knowing that somebody [is] saying that you can come in here, you can be, and you don’t have to opt out. For so many of us who have never, ever had an opportunity, this space is for you. It’s knowing that someone someone’s calling you in and someone’s calling you home.

Lady Phyll: I’m bawling my own eyes out… This is why you’re a master with words. I’ve never heard it described in that way: that someone’s calling you in from the rain. Hearing that is powerful. It was created and born out of a necessity, out of a frustration, out of not seeing ourselves in mainstream media, not seeing ourselves in mainstream LGBT activities. And when we don’t see ourselves, you can’t be what you can’t see. And there’s a whole swathe of beautiful people that are just wanting to connect as chosen family.

Kai-Isaiah: When we think about change and action, it is so important for us to both centre and decentre ourselves – in the sense that there’s always some privilege that we are afforded. Even if it is just entering that room and being able to have those conversations, and knowing that conversation could initiate something that could change a group of people’s lives, [that’s] really important. And it is really important [to] do this for a community and not just solely for me. Doing a labour of love, knowing that it will impact other people.

Lady Phyll Opoku-Gyimah

Lady Phyll: Kai, no man, woman, person is an island. So when you enter those spaces, when we start to build unity and connection with our communities, we enter those spaces together. When I sit in front of parliamentarians, I’m bringing a community that has given me permission to speak for them or with them. When I enter into other spaces, I take people with me because I’m not going to be around forever. So you have to make sure that others know how to – whether it’s articulating themselves, or how to use the right diction, or whatever it may be – when entering those spaces. Because it is triggering.

Our bodies are a struggle. And that struggle of violence that is imposed on us time and time again… both mentally and physically. So, yes, it will be triggering. But I’ve always said: have a unified approach. Being a working class girl, I know that it’s about solidarity with each other and supporting each other’s struggles. There’s that saying: your struggle has to be my struggle, and my [chosen] family has to be your struggle. If your solidarity is not rooted in that struggle, then it’s not solidarity at all.

As an older, mature person, I give you a commitment that when you know you’re entering into a space that may feel uncomfortable, that you may feel vulnerable, you’ve got me on speed dial. That’s what we should be doing in this particular time. My phone blows up constantly because I want to be there for people. I want to know that, when I leave this earth, I’ve left it in a little bit more of a better shape than it was before.

Small Axe is streaming now on BBC iPlayer. Stay tuned for Red White and Blue (29th November), Alex Wheatle (6th December) and Education (13th December)

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