1981, 2017, 2020
In the 39 years since Menelik Shabazz documented the Black People’s Day of Action in the aftermath of the New Cross massacre, in his seminal documentary ‘Blood ah go Run’, what has changed for Black British people?
Black and brown people still perish by flame; as we witnessed in the abject events of the Grenfell disaster. Black people are still killed in police custody: as Inquest reports, 53 BAME deaths following police contact have occurred in the last decade alone. A chronically underfunded public health service, together with cynical attitudes towards the legitimacy of black suffering, means that when the nation succumbs to a global pandemic, black British people will die at four times the rate of their white counterparts. Hostile state policies compel the mass deportation of Caribbean pensioners who arrived in this country as British subjects.
The contributions by black people to the British economy and cultural landscape — many of whom devoted lifetimes of service to ‘queen and country’ — are simultaneously under-recognised and weaponised against those who are not seen to have contributed. This reveals the logic supporting a state which organises black life via the material gains it can extract.
The ongoing expansion of the Neoliberal territory has produced a widespread commodification of culture and identity. We witness these sanitised cultural products through tokenistic gestures of Corporate Social Responsibility, the use of personal identity in brand marketing, or the corporatisation of cultural events such as Carnival and Pride. By co-opting the imagery, identity, and imagination of marginalised populations, corporations are able to manufacture a false narrative of inclusivity and cultural intrigue. These diversity narratives are central to establishing a brand identity based on liberal ideals and moral standing. Their ultimate purpose is to enrich corporations by advancing consumer reach and enticing external investment. This is clear to see when we examine the processes in which councils and corporate actors engage in ‘selling places’; the marketisation of local governance through schemes such as BIDs and The Brixton Project.
These attempts to appeal to both corporate investors and marginalised communities create a two-speed mode of oppression. Wherein the ruling social class profits from the simulated affirmations of black identity whilst simultaneously disenfranchising black and working-class communities through myriad processes of cultural alienation, dispossession and detention. In effect: the black identity is exploited in the short term, for long term white economic prosperity. The advancing whitewash of black culture, for the benefit of white consumption, becomes more and more grotesque under the current racial emergency.
It is these processes of corporate appropriation which allow an organisation and nationwide landlord such as Network Rail to collaborate with local communities and don the colours of black liberation one day; whilst enforcing a mass eviction of BAME business owners the next. ‘Style and Patan inna Brixton’ is the artwork by RESOLVE collective which decorates Brixton Road railway bridge. It is emblematic of how black artists are deployed as agents in a spatial rebranding campaign which, upon completion, will see to the dislocation of the very communities it claims to represent. Gentrification does not ‘COME IN LOVE’; nor does it ‘STAY IN PEACE’.
On Friday 3rd July, a banner was hung across Brixton Road railway bridge, reigniting a declaration which has been immortalised in Shabazz’s documentary. BLOOD AH GO RUN seeks to disrobe Network Rail of its red, gold and green costume. It does not obscure the work of another black artist, but is instead placed to broaden the scope of black thought and identity on display in the public realm. BLOOD AH GO RUN offers an alternative mode of black expression which is not subservient to the white gaze.
We are tired of the cannibalisation of black identity.
REMEMBER THE NEW CROSS 14.
JUSTICE FOR GRENFELL
… and all those who fall between
BLOOD AH GO RUN; NO JUSTICE AH COME.
To properly scrutinize the terms on which ‘Style and Patan inna Brixton’ parodies the image of the black community, we must become familiar with the concept of selling places. Selling places refers to the various efforts to ‘sell’ both the image and substance of a geographically defined ‘place’ — a neighbourhood, borough, coastline or city — in order to establish it as a desirable location for external investment, visitors, tourists and shoppers.
The sale of a place is conducted by the place marketer. In our present Neoliberal condition, these place marketers appear as public-private partnerships: collaborations between local authorities and private enterprise groups. Through sales, the place marketer will encourage consumer footfall, secure capital investment and facilitate some form of local job creation. Combined, these actions will contribute to a final vision of regeneration. The commissioners of ‘Style and Patan inna Brixton’: Brixton BID, Lambeth Council, and Network Rail, perfectly demonstrate this kind of collaboration.
The manipulation of cultural resources is central to the phenomenon of place marketing. A place must display a certain measure of cultural wealth and intrigue if it is to be attractive in the place market. Subsequently, the cultural resources of a place, its diverse inhabitants, local cuisines, vernacular architecture, must be converted into products which can be exchanged in the marketplace. The trade of cultural goods occurs between the place marketeers, local retailers and visitors to the place in question.
Through the self-conscious display of ‘local’ cultural products, the place marketers are able to engineer a belief that the wellbeing, interest, and material lifestyle of marginalised communities has been uplifted. This subtext of wellbeing and representation belies the social and economic impoverishment of minority communities in increasingly unaffordable urban centres. The inexorable economic fallout from place rebranding — increased rents, increased privatisation, increased surveillance — will further disenfranchise and ultimately erase the BAME and working-class communities whose cultural output is being harvested.
In the case of ‘Style and Patan inna Brixton’, it is specifically the colours, dress and vernacular of the Caribbean community which has been repurposed to decorate a supposed ‘gateway’ into Brixton. The use of red, gold and green, the unmistakable colours a Pan African global diaspora, is undermined by the insipid slogan ‘COME IN LOVE; STAY IN PEACE’. Knowingly or unknowingly, the RESOLVE collective conform to a tedious narrative of the carefree, string vest wearing, ‘peace and love’ Caribbean islander who exists exclusively in the white imagination. By reiterating these pastiches of black identity, ‘Style and Patan inna Brixton’ lends both legitimacy and authenticity to tiresome outfits such as White Men Can’t Jerk: whose daily wage is earned on the bastardisation of Caribbean cuisine, imagery and culture, for white consumers in gentrified establishments.
The harvesting of culture from marginalised communities proceeds through a complex system of reapers, brokers and facilitators. These agents work symbiotically with the contemporary landscape of right wing neoliberal disorder and institutional racism. Larger forces of capital conduct and mask their economic activities through the familiar face of local business. At both scales, business enterprises work together to obscure accountability and provide palatable dress for a nakedly vicious process of wealth accumulation through economic redistribution. The cast who implemented ‘Style and Patan inna Brixton’: the commissioners of the artwork, the competition organisers, and the cultural producers, exemplify these forces at work.
As established, Lambeth Council and Network Rail is a classic example of a public private partnership. The third partner, the Brixton Business Improvement District, or BID, is the hyperlocal incarnation of the public private collaboration. Introduced to UK towns and cities in 2003, BIDs are locally defined districts in which member business owners pay a levy in order to manage, fund and implement projects within the ‘business improvement’ zone. They act as mediators between councils and local business owners. Increasingly, BIDs take responsibility for acts of public service, including street cleaning, signposting and security, which would otherwise be the duty of the local authority. The proliferation of BIDs throughout UK towns and cities is testament to the deliberate decay of local councils through budget cuts and privatisation. The rise of the BID is in direct correlation with the demise of local democracy, and with it the expulsion of all motive which does not act in the direct interest of private wealth accumulation.
The aims of Brixton BID, as illustrated on their website, are in keeping with the conventional rhetoric of local regeneration. The production of ‘clean and safe’ locales optimised for trading. Their intentions are outlined as follows:
‘The BID aims to promote Brixton as a ‘destination’ rather than as somewhere people use the tube to reach other parts of London. The BID intends to share Brixton’s unique story to London and the world. Due to the multicultural socio- demographic of the local area, the BID aims at making strategic links with all communities in order to capitalise on the creativity and unique experience that Brixton has to offer.’
We will struggle to find a more concrete articulation of the place marketer’s singular intention to exploit publicly owned cultural assets for the benefit of private revenues. Consequently, we witness a deliberate realignment of our public spaces along a gradient of private interest. The ‘clean and safe’ trading environment manifests in reality as 24-hour CCTV surveillance, camera based footfall counting, facial recognition software, private security guards and stewards, Secured by Design architecture, police liaison committees and an aggressive campaign of spatial marketing. By facilitating the mechanisms of unconsented law enforcement, the BID is unquestionably complicit in criminogenic systems of policing in poor and minority communities.
BLOOD AH GO RUN is not against the prosperity of local and BAME businesses. Rather, we are opposed to a neoliberal logic which erodes democratic control over the public space by prioritising the interests of private wealth accumulation. So long as a BID presides over the public realm, it is only those members of the community demonstrating a certain economic worthiness who are granted a seat among local decision makers. This entrepreneurial binary perpetuates enduring tropes about the deserving and the undeserving poor. Those who qualify for BID membership will proceed to act in the interest of their own prosperity. Therefore, reproducing the conditions which suppress and exclude the less enriched members of the community.
The Brixton Project
The Brixton BID fund and utilise their own, secondary, instruments of local regeneration by sponsoring local art initiatives. The BID itself is subordinate to the larger forces of national capital — the public private partnerships. Thus, the local art organisation, in being a secondary instrument of the BID, becomes a tertiary function of the oppressing capitalist force. It is the art based organisations, in this case, The Brixton Project, who act directly as cultural brokers between fraternities of private capital and the communities from which they reap.
The Brixton Project hosts competitions, showcases local talent and reproduces cultural products on behalf of their private sponsors. The Brixton Road Railway Bridge competition exemplifies this process. Like their corporate sponsors, art based initiatives champion a narrative of inclusivity. This is illustrated in The Brixton Project’s commitment to the reimagining of the public space through ‘participatory placemaking’. They aspire to:
‘…connect business, citizens and creative networks to bring the positive power of creativity to the heart of local communities.’
The ‘community led’ acts of ‘participatory placemaking’ translate as various sculptures, installations, murals and markings in the public realm. Here, it is imperative to remember that placemaking is a fundamental component in the selling of places. This capitalist reality undercuts their commitment to ‘participatory’ acts of creative expression. The assembly of an environment which would appear carefree and delightful, through randomly placed sculptures, pastel painted benches or brightly coloured pavement doodles, explicitly informs a larger compulsion to position Brixton as a ‘unique experience’ to visitors. It is no coincidence that bodies of community art are only funded in contribution the revival of Brixton as a ‘vibrant’ destination for retail, ticketed experiences and property speculation — all of which is built on the cultural capital of the black community.
‘Style and Patan inna Brixton’ is an apt example of how heritage based expression is given a symbolic public platform. As a ‘gateway’ into the area, the distinctly black imagery on display to visitors at the entrance anticipates the cultural treats to come. Nonetheless, these seemingly innocuous forms of cultural display are akin to a present-day gilding of the ghetto. By manufacturing a sense of ‘delight’, local enterprise groups are able to detract from the increased presence of private security, stewards, law enforcement and CCTV systems which monitor and police the public space. To acknowledge these systems plainly would be to admit to an assault on civil privacy by agents of private security. Thereby undermining the illusion of freedom and spontaneity which make the space both marketable and appealing.
The Brixton Project claims to construct a sense of communal ownership over the cultural products which have been entrusted to them by the local community. This sense of ‘for and by the community’ authenticity is presented to placate long term feelings of anguish from the larger process of cultural appropriation. The espoused narrative of inclusive expression in ‘community led’ projects is both fictional and problematic. This aspirational rhetoric of diversity serves to construct a facade of liberal expression and unity among a community which is in fact, deeply polarised.
An analysis of consumer shopping habits for the 2018–2023 Brixton Market Strategy Plan, describes the ‘unusual’ polarity of visitors to Brixton Market and Brixton Village. The two dominant consumers are delineated as 44% white ‘City Sophisticates’ — from a ‘Rising Prosperity’ category; contrasted with 37% BAME ‘Struggling Estates’ users — from an ‘Urban Adversity’ category. The negative connotations of these user classifications is both racist and classist. The language used in this report demonstrates the inherent cultural disregard of the capitalist forces which analyse and reconstruct public spaces in line with their own prosperity. Whilst they are vilified through damaging rhetoric, BAME residents of the ‘Urban Adversity’ category are simultaneously mined of their cultural assets to generate wealth for the white capitalist class.
The artworks implemented by The Brixton Project may appear to be locally assented displays of culture. Farouk Agoro of RESOLVE collective presents his artwork as a celebratory depiction of black Afro-Caribbean identity. Yet, ‘Style and Patan inna Brixton’ has been positioned as the symbolic entryway into a community that has been disfigured by gentrification, cultural appropriation and excessive policing. The dominance of the neoliberal paradigm makes it extremely difficult for grassroots community groups and local creatives to liberate their cultural expression from the entrenched power of capital. The vision and character of BAME and working-class creatives is routinely subverted by the apparatus which upholds the capitalist order. These subversions proceed toward the eventual erasure of the black identity in the spaces upon which it is built. BLOOD AH GO RUN asserts it is imperative to maintain a critical edge when consuming the cultural narratives which are displayed in our public spaces.
Blood Ah Go Run – WATCH FREE
Photo author’s own.
This text was first published at Blood ah go Run blog.