It’s about the rhythm, not blues: 2023’s Black British trailblazers

Black History Month is a time for honouring Blackness within a society that broadly still questions the legitimacy of doing so. Nadine White writes of her highlights, her heroes – and the pioneering people changing Britain for the better.

Sunday 01 October 2023 11:49 BST

It should be every month – but every October in the UK, we observe Black History Month as an annual space to celebrate Black achievements and reflect on the experiences of African heritage people.

As I’ve said time and again, Black History Month is a time for honouring Blackness within a society that broadly still questions the legitimacy of doing so.

Co-founded by pan-African activist Akyaaba Addai-Sebo in 1987, the occasion takes place at the start of the harvest season and the beginning of the academic school year as an opportunity for resetting and reconciliation.

Speaking of harvest, so much talent has been reaped over the past year and accomplishments made by Black trailblazers – too numerous to mention individually. Here are some of my highlights, heroes – and the pioneering people changing Britain for the better.

Music, publishing, media, TV, architecture and education are a few of the many areas where Black people continue to excel.

Ezra Collective, the propulsive jazz ensemble amplifying the sounds of modern Britain, walked away with the 2023 Mercury Prize a few weeks ago.

This year, Margaret Busby – Britain’s first Black publisher – was appointed president of English PEN, one of the world’s oldest human rights organisations.

Dubbed a “national treasure”, ITV’s Alison Hammond has spent the past two decades dwelling in the hearts and minds of television viewers from her Big Brother launch onwards. Along with Dermott O’Leary, she took over hosting duties on This Morning after the Philip Schofield debacle and the beloved Brummie has just started presenting the much-loved TV show The Great British Bake Off.

Raspect Rebellion

Days ago, an activist known as Raspect Rebellion of the outreach group Forever Family was awarded in light of his advocacy around Black communities at the Charles Gordon Trust Awards at Fairfield Halls in Croydon.

Diane Abbott just celebrated her 70th birthday and 36 years since becoming Britain’s first Black woman MP. Despite battles from detractors and racists, she continues to shine and uplift with poise, as the nation’s longest-serving Black member of parliament.

Muyiwa Oki, the Royal Institute of British Architects’ first Black president, began his role in September and also makes history as the institution’s youngest president in its 189-year history.

Meanwhile, the Film and Television Charity named Marcus Ryder as its new CEO – the first Black man to occupy this position in the organisation’s 100-year history – while The Mirror’s Darren Lewis just started his new gig as president of the influential Sports Journalists’ Association and is the first Black man to this post too.

Ashley Walters, Kane ‘Kano’ Robinson and a stellar cast of actors shone in the final season of Top Boy which was released on Netflix in September, solidifying its place as one of the best street dramas in British television.

Millennials like myself grew up listening to Ashley (formerly of So Solid Crew) and Kano’s music as rappers – and we enjoy witnessing their pivot into acting. That the Netflix show has catapulted homegrown Grime music into the global stratosphere and exposed the genre to more listeners is truly significant.

Llewella Gideon

Speaking of Top Boy, entertainment fans were thrilled to see actor Llewella Gideon, an OG Black British creative luminary, feature in the series.

For at least 30 years, she has been portraying various characters, writing scripts and telling jokes for a living, with credentials from The Real McCoy, Absolutely Fabulous and CBBC’s JoJo and Gran Gran, to Steve McQueen’s Small Axe on the BBC. We’re always going to put some respect on her name.

Angie Le Mar, a pioneering comedian, writer and actor, performs her last stand-up comedy special on 1 October before hanging up her stand-up stilettos for pastures new. This funny woman paved the way for Black woman comedians’ ascension from Gina Yashere and Judi Love to London Hughes and Jocelyn Jee Esien.

Creator of Dreaming Whilst Black, the “delightfully originally and laugh-out-loud funny” drama series, Adjani Salmon also stars as Kwabena in the production. The 34-year-old Jamaican-British writer nurtured the idea from its start as a web show, to its Bafta-winning pilot, to its run on BBC Three as of July and US launch this week. There are whispers of a second season in the pipeline.

In September, Chioma Nnadi was named British Vogue’s editorial director, becoming the first Black woman to run things over at the “fashion bible” HQ. She starts on 9 October.

Debbie Ramsay has just walked through ITN’s doors of Channel 5 as its new editor, becoming the first Black person to head up a leading UK news network.

GUAP Gala returned to the Natural History Museum two weeks ago for its second staging after an impressive inaugural launch.

Jide Adetunji and Ibrahim Kamara attend the GUAP Gala 2023 at Natural History Museum on September 15, 2023 in London, England

Launched by two long-time friends and business partners, Jide Adetunji and Ibrahim Kamara, the extravaganza is the first awards gala that recognises creative talent in the UK. The Independent attended the event and interviewed this dynamic duo; keep your eyes peeled on our October coverage for more.

Pop star Alexandra Burke’s film debut Pretty Red Dress hit cinemas in August. The storyline follows a South London family and how one brightly coloured garment is the centre of their lives.

Over in the literary world, 2023 has also proven to be a breakthrough year for Black writers.

Multi-award-winning journalist and best-selling author Yomi Adegoke released her best-selling debut novel The List to critical acclaim in August.

Dubbed “the book of the summer”, Yomi’s story explores cancel culture and the sinister side of the web. Following an 11-way auction over publishing rights, there was a 17-way battle for The List’s TV rights, which were eventually won by US entities A24 and HBO Max, as well as the BBC.

Meanwhile, Liv Little’s Rosewater hit shelves; Dr Annabel Sowemimo’s book Divided: Racism, Medicine and Why We Need to Decolonise Healthcare landed, Tippa Irie’s autobiography Stick To My Roots was published, Afua Hirsch has released Decolonising My Body and Dr Kehinde Andrews penned The Psychosis of Whiteness.

We know that Jason Okundaye’s Revolutionary Acts: Love & Brotherhood in Black Gay Britain will be published next March 2024 and Aniefiok Ekpoudom is dropping Where We Come From: Rap, Home & Hope in Modern Britain in January.

June saw the Black Writers’ Guild launch the Mary Prince Memorial Award to provide financial support for writers over 35 and of African and African-Caribbean heritage living in Britain

Summer welcomed the UK’s first pop-up school, Akoma Education, which works to empower Black girls.

In July, the Black British Book Festival made history by hosting the first-ever Black Literature panel at the renowned Glastonbury Festival.

Meanwhile, as Black Pound Day (BPD) continues to grow from strength to strength, July saw a new shop dedicated to Black children’s books open in South London, Melanin Magic, to create a “safe space” where young Black people are “inspired to read” and can “see themselves as heroes and problem solvers”.

BPD is an initiative to increase visibility of and spend in Black-owned businesses in UK and Europe.

June saw the Black Writers’ Guild - founded by Sharmaine Lovegrove, Symeon Brown and Nels Abbey - launch the Mary Prince Memorial Award to provide financial support for writers over 35 and of African and African-Caribbean heritage living in Britain.

The grant’s name is apt: Mary Prince was the first Black woman to publish an autobiography of her experience of enslavement, The History of Mary Prince, in 1831. Is this the first grant named after an enslaved Black person? Quite possibly.

In May, it was revealed that Channel 4 is adapting Candice Carty-Williamshit novel Queenie into a new TV series.

Speaking of Black storytellers, Antoine Allen, a journalist with ITV, has consistently delivered groundbreaking news reports around an array of issues including stories within and around Black communities. From Sinai Fleary, Daniel Henry, Ben Hunte, Leah Mahon and Rakeem Omar to Ayshah Tull, Yemisi Adegoke, Shamaan Freeman-Powell and Yolanthe Fawehinmi plus more, Black British journalists, though a minority in the industry, are doing important work in documenting truths and perspectives.

Presenters from Monikah Lee and Will Njobvu to Remel London dazzle in the media sphere, while content creators from UK Black history educator Kayne Kawasaki to podcasters over Blvck Canvas, The Receipts Podcast and Black Gals Livin’, plus more, continue to carve out space for important discussions and learning through Black perspectives.

In March, Jason Arday became the youngest-ever Black professor at the University of Cambridge. The sociologist was unable to read or write until the age of 18, and was working part-time in Sainsbury’s less than eight years ago.

During the same month, the BBC were fortunate to welcome Danielle Scott-Haughton as a commissioning editor in its drama division.

Released in March, Rye Lane warmed the cockles of hearts and reaffirmed my belief in love.

Starring David Jonsson and Vivian Oprah, the film is directed by Raine Allen-Miller and based on a screenplay by Nathan Bryon and Tom Melia. It follows the journey of two youngsters who, reeling from bad breakups, navigate an eventful day on the ends.

It’s rare to see a Black British romantic comedy and even rarer to see a film fronted by two Black people; Oprah’s beauty is refreshingly ethereal, too.

It is a joy to see 14-year-old vegan chef Omari McQueen steadily building an empire, having landed a second show on BBC and another book deal. The kid learned to cook aged seven when his mother was ill. What a feat!

Jessikah Inaba became the UK’s first blind and Black female barrister last November.

Though these achievements are by no means exhaustive, it’s important to recognise – and be inspired by – the wealth of positive feats taking place. After all, Black history is being made every single day.

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