Then and Now: Black Britain with Celeste and Harris Elliott

Partnering with the BBC to celebrate the launch of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology, THE FACE brings together musician Celeste and creative director Harris Elliott. In conversation with Bridget Minamore, they explore growing up Black in Britain.

Small Axe tells the stories – four true and one imagined – 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 three films, Mangrove, Lovers Rock and Red, White & Blue, we tackle the topic of Black creativity in an industry where white people remain the gatekeepers.

Jamaica – and its music, culture, food and art – has always had a beautiful, if complex, relationship with Britain for British artists with Jamaican roots. This relationship can influence, and be influenced by, the arts they curate and create. Harris Elliott is a creative director, curator and consultant with more than two decades of experience in the creative industries. Singer-songwriter Celeste won the BBC Sound of 2020 poll and the BRITs Rising Star award. Her much anticipated self-titled album is out next year.

Bridget Minamore: Thank you both for being here with me. We’ve all watched Mangrove, Lover’s Rock and Red, White & Blue. What did you think?

Celeste: I watched Lovers Rock with my boyfriend. We both live in west London and I think you constantly feel [an] essence that remains from that era when you walk in the street. [Lovers Rock] gave me a sense of comfort and familiarity.

It transported [me] to moments [from my] own life. Like, when they’re all in the party dancing, and the music stops, and they start singing… That really moved me because that really reminded me of being in a moment and losing myself with people around me and letting myself go.

Harris Elliott: There’s definitely an intimacy in those moments where everyone’s connected. But as I jumped on the call, you were breaking into song yourself anyway! So there’s that essence that’s almost within you.

Those intimate moments that that you’re talking about, where the food is so integral to the music and the moments and the emotions and the tension, maybe as a kid being at some of those kind of parties and not even fully aware of some of that stuff that’s going on – it’s great to see these things in another context.

Listen now: Then and Now: Black Britain with Celeste and Harris Elliot

Minamore: I wanted to ask you both about the specificities of being Black artists in this industry, working and living in Britain, and the way that might have shaped your attitudes. I can imagine that you’re often asking yourself: am I being asked to compromise because I’m an artist? Or am I being asked to compromise because I’m a Black artist?

Celeste: There are gatekeepers in every industry. Personally speaking, I feel like I’ve been lucky with some of the people that I placed closely around me in that they’ve tried the hardest to understand who I am, what I’m representing, and work with me.

But I think, sadly, in the creative industry, it’s very hard if you come from a low-income family to pursue a career… Something I’ve been thinking a lot myself this year is that certain conversations would be easier if you did see diversity – but not just in the sense of race, but [also] background.

Elliott: I definitely think those power structures need to change. The systemic racism that drenches so many of our industries means that Black people, other people of colour and other nationalities don’t get the opportunities and don’t get the representation.

And as Celeste is saying – or as I’m interpreting what you’re saying – the nuances within culture are rarely understood or encouraged or enforced in any way. So society becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of colonial and capitalist legacies, which don’t ever seem to be dying.

Minamore: We’ve only just got to a point where we’re getting TV shows about what was happening [for the Black community] in Britain in the 50s, ’ 60s and 70s. I’m curious about what the future is going to look like.

Elliott: I’m really excited. I don’t for a single moment believe it’s going to be easier. I feel that the words are now out there. So as opposed to those words being held in, they’re out. But it doesn’t make those words necessarily any easier. Just because I’m able to voice them, that doesn’t reduce the pain I’ve felt up until this point. But that said: I feel more assured and more convicted to be able to be myself.

I know it hasn’t changed. And you can’t rewrite history. You can only create a new future.

I feel convicted to be able to present the various different cultural nuances and identities and references that I share with not only my culture, but other friends, be they Japanese or Irish or whoever. I can hold them all up proud, [and] definitely hold up my Black identity proud without crossing my fingers behind my back.

Celeste: I am hopeful that people of all nationalities can find some power in what is being said and what’s happening this year. And everyone can just feel proud to be who they are.

I think for me, personally, I hope to educate and help the bubble around me to understand things a bit more in depth. I always make the effort to make it known how something may make me feel in the moment.

I don’t really want to hold that resentment for too long. I think when you do that, if people can acknowledge and understand and show that they’re willing to learn, that means a lot, even if they’re making mistakes at first. I don’t want people to become scared to be a part of this conversation from fear that they might say the wrong thing – because how are they going to learn?

I think that is important: that everyone feels like they can be a part of it. We’re all here as one. And if we can help each other to make things better for one another, then why not do that? That’s how I feel.

Small Axe is streaming now on BBC iPlayer. Stay tuned for Alex Wheatle (6th December) and Education (13th December)

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