Keep Your Head High: Bashy's "Black Boys" Remains a Staple of Black British Positivity
Ten years on and his seminal track continues to be a celebratory call.
Image via Wikipedia Commons
One morning, in the summer of 2002, England were set to play Nigeria in the World Cup. Lessons were put on hold, we packed into rows of wooden benches in my school's assembly hall and settled in to watch the game. I was nine and my dad was a proud, patriotic Nigerian who, even after three decades in London, had retained a strong tie to his home – and tried tirelessly to pass those principles on to his two children. So, to the surprise of some of my English friends, I threw my lot in with Nigeria.
Even at that early age, I had never felt English. Though we lived in a nondescript suburb in the backwaters of south London, inside the house it had always been Africa. Fela Kuti filtered through the speakers on Saturday mornings, evenings were spent watching Nigerian DVDs and the air was often stained with the scent of grilled fresh water fish or boiled oxtail stew. West Africa was in my blood. It dictated much of my early life, and yet I had never set foot in Nigeria.
This tussle with identity, though not overwhelming, did leave questions: Could I count myself African without ever having visited? Was it possible to be British if your parents were from elsewhere? These thoughts went mostly unanswered for a while. Then, while in secondary school, I heard "Black Boys" – a 2007 track by British MC Bashy.
An enduring Channel AKA classic, and still his most memorable track, "Black Boys" was a rallying call like Public Enemy's "Fight The Power", James Brown's "Say It Loud – I'm Black and I'm Proud" and Nas' "I Can", only on this occasion, Bashy communicated in a tone native to the British shores. For someone like myself, who had a different accent and first language to my parents, but shared the same surname, "Black Boys" was an important moment in finding an identity of my own. The Black British population, with origins largely in the Caribbean and West Africa, were now being united as one.
The song sets in over a breezy, Naughty Boy instrumental, then Bashy begins: "I love it when I see rich black men like Diddy and Nelly / but was even happier when I seen Dizzee Rascal getting album deals or when he gets his face on the telly" It was an opening line that perhaps said it all, setting the tone for what would go on to become a national anthem of sorts for Black Britain. While the achievements of Black American counterparts still deserved to be recognised, it was the stories closer to home that would be the driver for real change in years following "Black Boys".
Sonically at least, Bashy often fell into a grey space; adept in the art of UK rap, but perhaps more culturally aligned with grime. On the song, he found time to praise the pioneers of both. He could be heard hailing Brit-hop legends Blak Twang and Rodney P in the outro. And, in the first verse, despite them having recently squabbled, he made a point of displaying his admiration for Wiley, telling the world how the Godfather "built a scene, amongst us young black boys he built a dream."
The song had only two verses, both running down some of the significant figures in the black history of Britain. Alongside the creative innovators, these names listed were individuals to take encouragement from: late Labour MP Bernie Grant or the UK's first black peer Lord Learie Constantine, record label directors like Darcus Bease and athletes like Linford Christie and Ian Wright. It wasn't only a swelling of pride and hearts for black men and boys, but for black women too. Woven into the second verse was humble applause for Sade and Ms Dynamite, and a genuine admiration for Beverley Knight and Katie Pearl, legends that felt close to home.
Talking about the track a little while after its release, Bashy, whose mother was Jamaican and his father Dominican, told one writer, "I wanted an inspirational song that people could listen to and feel like they could go out and achieve whatever they want. I also wanted to send a message to black boys to know that there are other routes in life. They don't need to be feeling down like how the media and society want them to feel."
Later that year however, after the visuals had been directed and released, UK broadcast regulator Ofcom began to receive complaints. Some viewers protested that the song, circulating on Channel AKA and MTV Base, Choice FM and BBC 1Xtra, was racist. Shortly after, the video was pulled from TV, but the song's momentum could not be quelled. At the time Bashy was working as a bus driver, hauling red double-deckers from the greens of Harrow to the packed streets of Golders Green, trekking back and forth between city and suburb, being mobbed by his fans whenever he was recognised. Teenagers would ask him for pictures; middle-aged men would dap him up on the street.
Despite the muffling of its broadcast, the track continued to circulate through mobile phones and on YouTube. It was indicative of the new age of media where music could now thrive away from the traditional outlets, surviving through word of mouth, passed on from friend to friend. Five official remix videos followed in 2008, with guest spots from dozens of MCs: Akala to Chip, Skinnyman to Wretch 32. One featured Skepta in traditional Nigerian dress, bringing cultural quirks usually reserved for family hall parties into grime and rap. In another, NoLay praised "black doctors, lawyers and preachers." Other MCs arrived with their sons and their daughters. Over the five videos, there was a sense of real unity and community, that you were witnessing the start of something bigger than yourself.
"Talking positivity and being uplifting musically in the black community wasn't seen as the 'cool' thing to do ten years ago," says Sian Anderson, a BBC Radio 1Xtra DJ and writer. "It was a clear sign that the black community had recognised their issues and wanted to stand in unison to support one another. What's interesting is the artists referenced in it – Wiley, Dizzee, Kano, Mega man, Swiss, Ms Dynamite, Sway – have all continued to be the most positive black men and women in our lives. Bashy called it from early and he himself has gone on to inspire over and over again."
Growing up black in Britain can be something of an obstacle course: a twilight zone, a tug between the country you had been raised in and the villages and towns from which your mother and father may have journeyed. For myself, the song was something to hold onto as my own, and though we had never met, it seemed as if Bashy were speaking to me. I felt like I no longer needed to defend myself when my relatives would label us "British boys," or awkwardly fumble around words whenever strangers asked where I was * really* from. Black History began to mean more to me than brief rundowns on the slave trade in school. Perhaps most importantly, Bashy had shown that black could also mean Britain.
Ten years have passed since the release of "Black Boys", and Black Britain is flourishing in places. Anthony Joshua is World Champion. John Boyega fronts the biggest franchise in film history. Julie Adenuga spearheads Beats 1. There are few writer-actors more talented than Michaela Coel. The grime dream built by Wiley suffered some growing pains but has ultimately endured. Skepta and Stormzy are touring the world, and a sense of subtle optimism and pride seems to be seeping into the collective psyche. To some at least, the idea of success seems more tangible, more real.
As for Bashy, he's an actor now, out in the US and doing well for himself, still dabbling with music every so often. With the official ten-year anniversary of the track upon us, and some of these more recent successes, there have been calls for him to unveil a new, 2017 remix. In truth however, it may not be needed. He and so many others are now leading by example instead. On that seminal record, he said, "black diamonds what a heavenly sight, soon we'll be getting it right." Things aren't perfect yet, but we're well on our way.
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