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Interview: Afrikan Simba Part 1 - His Life

Interview: Afrikan Simba Part 1 - His Life

Interview: Afrikan Simba Part 1 - His Life

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"Peace, love and unity are children and their parents are equality and justice"

Sampler

In the summer of 2010 we spoke to the Anglo-Nigerian roots chanter, broadcaster and thinker Afrikan Simba. Born in East London on 11th January 1967, he fell under the influence of sound systems and Rastafari in his teens, first recording for the producer/singer (and now Twinkle Brothers bassist) Dub Judah. He endured the casual racism of the 1980s, and even a spell in prison in the early 2000s, and today is one of the most respected figures on the UK scene. It is impossible to separate a Rasta artist's life and his music, but everything Simba said was so interesting that we thought two shorter interviews, broadly divided into these topics would make more sense. Here is the first, dealing with Simba's upbringing, education and African identity...

Afrikan Simba

Where were you born?

Everybody asks that question because there are so many conflicting stories. "Me born upon the earth" - that's what I tell people now. Some sites say I was born in Nigeria, some sites say I was born in the UK. I was born in Hackney - now referred to as Crackney. Hackney was a beautiful place. Peaceful, nice, friendly. I was born in Hackney, my parents moved to Islington about age one, then moved to Leyton when I was about three, stayed in Leyton til about thirteen. But in between three and thirteen we used to go home to Nigeria and come back and at age thirteen I went to live in Nigeria for a long period of time and came back when I was sixteen. When I was sixteen or seventeen I left my parents house and moved back to Hackney.

Why do you think you gravitated towards reggae music among all the things you were exposed to?

Because reggae music was the only music that sang about and glorified Africa. The only music that spoke about our joys, our fears, our hopes, our dreams. It spoke about African life.

What were the early influences that took you towards Rastafari?

The few Rasta brethrens I had around me. I wasn't one of those people who was inspired to be a Rasta by Bob Marley. It was more about a very personal relationship with a few strong young Rasta brethrens  and we held communion together for a very long period of time. It was in that state that I grew. I had a set of elders around me as well from EWF and RUZ . The headman at RUZ was Jah Bones and those people grounded us. We were youth and we were seeking but they had more information.

What did you learn?

I learned from them that repatriation is a must. That all the things that we are against in the West, all the things we don't like, and all the things we dream about building and developing for ourselves - mean we need to be in Africa. There are many things in the West that are nice and are good but at the time - in the 80s - there were skinheads having a clash between the National Front and the Anti Nazi League. White people were involved as well in fighting racism - most of the Anti Nazi League were white people - but there was this pressure, racial tension, everywhere you'd go. You couldn't even walk down the street and feel happy because if you saw a police van it was just like in the movie Babylon - when Brinsley sees the reflection in the shop window - the next thing is to run because if you don't you'd get fitted up with something anyway. Things may have got better on a social level but we see how the economy of the nation is not just cramping African people, it's cramping anybody and if you're not in the big league then you're going to feel it. So the things that we dream about, the way we want to grow, Africa is the best place for us. That was the main thing they taught me – Repatriation. They also put the relationship between His Imperial Majesty and us, as an African people, into context for me, as well as his relationship with the world, and who His Imperial Majesty really is.

What was your first experience of racism in the UK?

It’s hard to tell because you are young you don’t even know what it is. So when you’re being called a gollywog by adults and you’re only a kid, even they know that you don’t understand. They’re just having some game, “Oh look at that little gollywog” or a man just comes up and pats you on the head and says, “You alright, Sambo?” or even just being very [patronising towards you – but you don’t know it’s racism at the time. But the first I realized I was being treated in a racist manner was in a cookery class in secondary school and after the class dispersed the teacher called be back and told me to look in the bin and said, “What do those remind you of?” and I didn’t see anything of significance apart from some burnt cakes. Then she said, “Don’t you think they remind us of you?” and she laughed! That was when it hit me.

Would you say the UK is less racist now than back then?

I can’t really tell. I know there’s much more of a mixture because music can be used as a very strong unifying force. Everybody loves music, and the more you get into a music, the more you want to know the roots of it. So Teddy Boys who were into Rock’N’Roll, found out it comes mostly from black people like Chuck Berry, Little Richard and all them man there rather than Elvis, who benefitted from it. Elvis is like your Gentleman nowadays.

Or Eminem.

Yeah! But we don’t care about that because everybody should be allowed to feel and enjoy music no matter where it comes from. If I want to play English country dancing music nobody should be able to say, “You shouldn’t do that because you’re a black man”.  And I shouldn’t say to a white man “You can’t play reggae because you’re white”. I might say, “You Cyaan play reggae cos you got the beat wrong!” But if he’s playing it right then bully for him.

I shouldn't say to a white man "You can't play reggae because you're white". I might say, "You Cyaan play reggae cos you got the beat wrong!" But if he's playing it right then bully for him

It took a long time for lots of people to start playing it right.

But they’re doing it now, and it’s hard to tell the difference sometimes with the production – they got it. So it’s unifying us amongst the youth. When I was young black people went to black parties and white people went to white parties. Black people were dealing with reggae and soul and white people were dealing with pop. The thing that merged the two together was Drum ‘n’ Bass or Jungle and Hip Hop – all these underground musics that were using elements of rock and reggae. I think that’s helped to break down a lot of barriers. But racism is sadly still there and it may not go away. It’s hard to change people’s perceptions. I pray for its death. I live for the day when I can say I’ve lived in England for a number of years and I haven’t felt any racism. 

Why did you leave the UK for Nigeria in your teens?

Because of the racism I was experiencing – especially that episode in school – I started to become very rebellious. It had a very negative effect on me to the point where I was becoming a racist. “I don’t like white people” and so on. But the white man who didn’t like me, didn’t like me for no reason whereas I didn’t like white people because I was being persecuted by them. I was a kid. This is what I can’t understand about racism. Down to the little baby they will show you racism – what for??? I was becoming very rebellious but a rebel without a cause. There’s nothing wrong with being a rebel but have a cause. When my parents noticed my attitude and behaviour was changing they decided to ship me out to save my soul.

There's nothing wrong with being a rebel but have a cause

How did being in Africa contribute to your education?

It contributed immensely. Living in the West everything that was primary had a white face and everything secondary had a black face. You’d find a black man driving the bus but you wouldn’t find a black in management in London Transport. When I went to Nigeria I saw African road sweepers and African judges. African bank managers, heads of media corporations – you name it. We were doing the things the top man in Britain was doing and it showed me that not only were we being undermined and used to do lower class work in the West, but also our potential – what we could do if given the liberty, freedom and space to do it.

How did you come back to the UK?

I was still a child and under the control of my parents. I had a choice I could have just visited and gone back but those three years I missed my parents and siblings. Although I had family in Africa that I loved and enjoyed living with I decided to stay. But I always go home regularly. I don’t lose touch. I left for Nigeria when I was thirteen, spent three years in Nigeria, and then, when I was sixteen, came back and started to move with the same brethrens and we started to develop a sound system called Zulu Priest. That was the first Rasta sound system I got involved in, and I got introduced to Dub Judah and started recording.

Afrikan Simba

Your career was interrupted at the beginning of this century by being arrested. What happened?

I went to Jamaica in the year 2000 to promote my new album which had been released on vinyl and on the way back – and it sounds ridiculous when you say to people “Bwoy! They found weed in my case!” – but it was found by customs in the UK and I really didn’t know anything about it! I don’t know whether I’m a mug or what but that was the reality! I’ve now got to the bottom of that. I know how the weed ended up in my case and I now know the intentions of certain people at the time. But I went to jail and did my time and got it out of the way. They gave me eighteen months and you’re supposed to do half your time so call it about nine months. I did seven inside and two with a tag because I wanted to start University. I could go out but I had to be home by seven or the tag would go off and anywhere they are they come and find you!

Had you already decided to study before the trip to Jamaica?

The opportunity came for me while I was in jail. I applied and got a good reference from the education officer while I was there because I was doing some little courses there. I studied Content Creation for Broadcasting and New Media. Basically it was about the principles of Television and professional programme-making for broadcast but I did do a bit of radio as well and since leaving Uni I’ve worked mainly in radio.

I remember going to a girlfriend's door and hearing her dad shout "I hope it's not that dutty dreadlocks bwoy at the gate!" so being a Rasta you faced oppression from the racist white man and your own

How did it feel to finally reach that tertiary stage of education for which your teachers at school saw your potential?

University was a weird place because the biggest thing for me was the community. Because of the effects of racism and because of me being a Rasta from an early age when no one had interest in Rastas unless you were Bob Marley.  Now there’s a lot of interest in Rasta and having dreadlocks but when I was young most black people didn’t want their kids to be Rastas - let alone white people. I remember going to a girlfriend’s door and hearing her dad shout “I hope it’s not that dutty dreadlocks bwoy at the gate!” so being a Rasta you faced oppression from the racist white man and your own. Especially if you were seen as someone with a brain and talent – “Why are you going to waste your life being a Rasta? You know you ain’t going to get a job with them dreadlocks!” So because I’d been mostly amongst black people (because of racism) and mostly amongst Rastas (because of this anti-Rasta thing) when I went to university I knew people of other races but I didn’t sit down with them. And in University you do group projects so you are forced to work together whether you are a Rasta or whether you are gay. And that’s an unusual mix but you could end up on the same project and you couldn’t refuse to work with someone because they are black or gay. When you’re forced into situations you learn so much more about people. That was the biggest learning curve for me – the community of people that make up a University. People come from all parts of the world to learn, and apart from learning they go and drink together -  especially in broadcasting when it’s “a wrap”! I liked what I learned but there was so much more I learned beyond my course. I really value getting the opportunity to go to University and experience that. People have always said I’m a great communicator but it’s made it easier for me to communicate with different people and get on with them.

When did you first travel to Ethiopia and how did you feel when you arrived?

I first went there when I finished university in 2004. I’d just dropped my pen and decided to go home to Nigeria but I thought, “I’ve always wanted to go to Ethiopia” and discovered I could go to Nigeria via Ethiopian Airways which was stopping in Addis Ababa and then continue my journey home. Again that was very important and very special for me and I’m glad I made the move. I remember feeling… peace - because Nigeria is very populated and our cities are swarming with more people than London. Lagos is crazy! So I’d been to Africa and felt African but it was still very fast and Nigerians are very into commerce and business so that aspect of Western culture was still very dominant there. Things were a couple of paces slower in Ethiopia so you have more time to think and to feel your heartbeat. Sometimes when we’re just moving we know our heart is beating but we’re not checking it. When you’re in Ethiopia you can really feel it! (laughs)

This may be a silly question given all you’ve said but is Africa more your home than anywhere else?

Yes. Africa awaits its creators. Everywhere else has been created with the aid of the African. But Africans have been exploited and fooled. Africans in the West have a very big part to play in Africa because we have lived in the West and we know it inside out. We know when the West is being honest and we know when the West is telling lies. It’s much easier for Westerners to fool an African in Africa. It’s not so easy to fool I and I. They say, “I can’t fool that man he knows all my tricks!” (laughs) Therefore we have a lot to show our brothers and sisters in Africa in order to stop them from allowing themselves to be exploited so much.

What do you think of British media coverage of Africa?

I have a question for you – how often have you heard something good about Africa in Western Media?

(Laughs)

Well you’ve answered your own question!

David Attenborough on the BBC shows the wonders of African wildlife I suppose.

Yes, and it’s also all around the World Cup isn’t it? Dimbleby has been going around all these African towns. Why didn’t he do that before the World Cup? Joanna Lumley followed the Nile because of the World Cup. Everyone is focussed on Africa. But Joanna’s a lovely lady. I like the way she stuck up for the Ghurkas. Make sure you put that bit in there! (laughs)

So, based on how you’ve pushed ahead with your music, your life in Britain, your education and your media career despite having to take time out, would you say you’re someone who finishes what they start?

I try to be, especially if it’s something that’s important to me. Right now it’s important to me that Africans have a voice, especially with all the negative media coverage. The media is a propaganda machine and there’s nothing wrong with propaganda per se. Propaganda is just what you propagate. But if your propaganda is negative all the time towards a set of people then those people need to rise up and have their own propaganda machine.

Do you have a final message?

Peace love and unity. But remember that peace, love and unity are children and their parents are equality and justice. There can be no lasting peace love and unity if I’ve got your things and won’t give them back or you’ve got my things and won’t give them back. So let’s have equality and justice so we can have a long lasting peace love and unity. Don’t allow those who have an ulterior motive to divide and rule us. Let’s stay together and be friends.

Look out for Part 2 of this interview coming soon.

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Read comments (1)


Posted by andy jahma on 01.16.2011
HEY SIMBA, GLAD TO SEE YOU STILL KEEPING IT REAL. BEEN A LONG TIME. STAY BLESSED.

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