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Meet Black Friends, Our City's New Creative Platform

22 October 19 words: Golesedi Maguire

A cosy nook at Malt Cross on a wet Friday morning was the perfect setting to catch up with James Denham for insights into his up and coming project, Black Friends...

James Denham

The issue of greatest intrigue to me is the reason behind the name, Black Friends. Mainly, whether James identifies as Black, and if so, why, given his dual heritage as a mixed-race Nottingham chap. I had questions. These were later answered with the explanation that James identifies as mixed-race, although he leans more towards his Blackness, given his appearance and other people’s perception of his otherness, which is seen outside of whiteness.

Ironically, James doesn’t actually have any Black friends, having grown up in predominantly white spaces. This revelation made us both chuckle a great deal. I promise to help him make some great Black friends, as one does.

Black Friends channels James’ passion for communicating, with a peripheral focus on how the Blackness of the creatives he interviews, intersects with their creativity. The platform doesn’t so much focus on the broader issues of race and identity. He believes approaching the project this way will make people susceptible to the endeavour, without making them feel excluded.

“There’s still a long way to go towards representing Black people and other ethnic minorities in creative spaces”, he tells me. Having said this, James concedes he spotted many Black faces at a recent Nottingham Contemporary event - one which I also attended unbeknown to each other. We agreed this a hopeful sign of inclusivity.

Black Friends started in August this year, following James’ Politics degree and volunteering in Nigeria from May to July. This International Citizenship Service, funded by the Department for International Development, required James to raise funds for his trip, and he did so with a Q&A at Malt Cross in March. The Q&A featured prominent Black figures in the Nottingham community and creative scene, such as Rastarella Falade and Khaya Job.

While in Nigeria, James wrote a blog about his experience of living in a country that is predominantly Black, and his previous view of what living there would be like. As a mixed-race person in England, he speaks of often finding himself on the outside because of his appearance, only to have the same experience on his first trip to the previously romanticised African landscape. 

Following the positive responses to James’ Malt Cross Q&A and his blog, he figured there was an avenue to do more with his very personal experience of race and identity politics. So, Black Friends officially launched this month, coinciding with Black History Month UK.  I attended ‘Black Friends: A Celebration of Nottingham’s Black Creatives’, at Rough Trade on Wednesday 9 October.  

During our chat at Malt Cross, James explains that the audience at his first few events will likely be his friends, and as such, the Rough Trade event was mostly white, seconded by a sprinkling of mixed-race faces - the sort of detail one notices at a Black History Month event. This really jarred with me at first, but on reflection, I’m quite heartened that all those people in the room identify as ‘Black friends’, in that, friends of Black people, at least by my estimation.

‘Black Friends: A Celebration of Nottingham’s Black Creatives’ featured Mimm’s Nate Wilson and Harleighblu - two mixed-race panelists who had engaging insight to share. Other than being the owner of the streetwear clothing label, Nate is also a pivotal player at Nottingham Street Food Club. And Harleighblu is a funk-soul singer inspired by Jill Scott, Lauren Hill and D’Angelo.

Both Nate and Harleighblu reiterated the need to take control of one’s creative process, which was questioned by an audience member who raised the issue of the ownership they really had over their outputs, in the face of historic whitewashing of Black music. Harleighblu emphasised that “if you’re an independent, and you have control over what you creative, then no one can recreate it - the real sh*t always gets there in the end, and people can see that.”

On her dreadlocks, Harleighblu shared that they signify strength to her: a crown, although people often question if they’re real, along with unwelcome touching (cue Solange Knowles’ Don’t Touch My Hair, in my head!). This made a segway into cultural appropriation, and the common question of whether it’s OK for white people to wear hair rooted in Black culture, such as dreadlocks. The guest panelists reflected: “Dreads have a strong history not only in West Indian culture, but also in Indian culture. If people aren’t harming anyone, and they’re just expressing love for something, as well as understanding the issues around appropriation, then let people live.” Harleighblu reinforced that sentiment with her love for East Asian culture, and the inspiration she draws from Asian fashion. True to form, she was wearing a gorgeous, velvety Chinese dress adorned with embroidered dragons.

Black Friends’ Hockley Hustle event will be at Cobden Chambers’ THiNK Gallery. James elaborates: “It will be about supporting artists from Black and ethnic minority backgrounds, as well as celebrating music from the global south, outside the Western world. Music is a universal language that builds bridges. For instance, for a white person to take the time to master the djembe, they’re probably someone who really respects West African culture. This requires people to mix, transcending barriers.” During these times exacerbated by a divisive political climate, ventures like Black Friends seem just the antidote to diffuse separatist agendas.

Catch Black Friends presenting a programme at this year's Hockley Hustle on Sunday 27 October.

Get your tickets 

 

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