Interviewed by Kitty Walsh, BA History and World Philosophies
With the publication last month of the best-selling story of grime artist Stormzy’s meteoric rise to fame, Jude Blay Yawson has been everywhere, from Jonathan Ross, BBC1, The Financial Times, Capital to Kiss FM and The Guardian (among others). Here, the ex-SOAS student himself answers some of our questions.
Kitty Walsh: First off, did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
Jude Blay Yawson: No. It was something that I picked up. I’d been writing when I was younger, writing stories but for myself. So, it would be messing around on the computer and making a story on PowerPoint or phone – something like that. Doing something creative. I’ve never really seen it as an opportunity or a career. My parents used to try to tell me to do something like law or politics, stuff like that. Back in the day, they encouraged me to do more – what do you call it? Stable kind of subjects.
I decided to go to university when I was in college, but I also got kicked out of school in year nine. I spent the time in a Pupil Referral Unit until year twelve when I went to college for three years. I only decided to go to university because I felt like I just wanted to study something like philosophy or psychology. I wanted to think about something. I didn’t necessarily have a career in mind. In the first year of uni I just thought, with all of these essays I’m doing at the moment, why can’t I use it in a way to not necessarily profit off of it but to build my own kind of perspective?
“I felt like I didn’t see myself in the subject and I started to write. I just decided I’m going to put what I learn into this.”
But even before that, the reason why I started to write is because I wanted to make films. It felt like you could tell this kind of perspective from a film, of where we’re coming from. What loads of people are saying to me is that the book reads like a movie – I’m not saying it to gas it up or anything. When I’d done the whole process of the book it felt literally like a movie. Every day was a movie for me, it was something different.
“I’ve always felt like – if we captured where we were coming from, like literally from birth, and we were able to put that kind of perspective into society, it would make all of this knowledge, all of this education…we need to apply it to real life.”
If we don’t, what’s the point? You can’t just study this stuff and think about these things, and not try to enter them into real life.
KW: So, what brought you to SOAS?
JBY: Well, my friend suggested it and I felt like looking for a course where I could learn about black British history, how we’re grounded here. It was a funny thing to me that there’s so much knowledge out there. If you ask loads of black people what they consider themselves to be in this country, people would state their actual nationality – they’ll say they’re Jamaican or say they’re Ghanaian or say they’re Nigerian. Not many people would just say they’re black. But when you’re studying those subjects – I learned African and Asian diaspora in Britain, with Cultural Studies as my main course. I wanted to study that kind of content, understand the situation that we found ourselves in, because a lot of our experiences relate whether we like it or not. A lot of things are cast onto us. Loads of people can’t really tell the difference between an African person and a Caribbean person, for instance. They just assume that we all come from…well they know, but the way society is means there’s not really an understanding of all the nationalities that built this country. There’s that whole narrative there. I learned about black poets, musicians, actors. I didn’t even know that the idea of being black here applies to Asian and black people – Asians, Africans, and Caribbeans. It was just a terminology for darker people, people from other ethnicities. Things like that, if it was common knowledge, it would affect the collective consciousness of people and do that much more to help race relations. There would probably be less – you can’t really say less racism because it’s rooted in so many different aspects – but it would help in some way and that’s how we start to change things.
KW: What was your experience like?
JBY: At SOAS, I feel like loads of the students come from backgrounds where their parents are interested in these subjects and they understand what route they’re trying to take for their career path. I’ve never thought of that. I come from a background where mainstream society projects a lot on young, black boys and men. Especially now, with things like the violence going on in London. When you’re attaching all that to someone like Stormzy who, I would say, in terms of popularity, is the most popular black person in the UK at this moment in time, it affects the quality of our lifestyles in these systems, with the police and education. Even at times in lectures, I felt like my perspective may have been undermined, simply because it’s coming from such a different place where so many people can’t relate.
Intellectual property is dominated by one kind of class, one kind of system.
You step into this kind of space, like publishing, where the work of black musicians, things like rapping and grime, are associated with bad things. It’s got a bad image for a lot of people. But this is what it is. It’s actually people who think about these things and wants to change things in our lives.
I also wasn’t too invested in the whole system of education. A lot of people like to study, and study more and not necessarily get to apply it. There’s loads of work they could be doing, and that’s what I’m realizing. What’s really exciting now is that I’m being invited to schools and I’ve never been in a position where kids would really want to listen to me, because really who am I? I know what those kids are thinking. Some old guy. I know that’s what I would have been thinking. After the Barbican [launch party], so many of these kids came up to me and asked me to sign the book. I spoke to so many people. I’ll remember that day. It’s so many different pockets – I was on a panel at an event with American Express and then at the House of Commons.
KW: On that, how have you been finding it since the book came out?
JBY: I’m learning about so many different things every day. I did an interview with a magazine company which also does videos and interview musicians, artists, people of interest, stuff like that. And yeah, and it’s just like a general interview about my influences. And what I’m realizing now is that I’m in so many different pockets. One thing my friend said to me that really got me shook was when he was like, “bruv, do you know you’re going to be the author of this forever?” And I was just like, “Yeah. That is a bit mad.” In a year, I’m still going to be the author of this work. It’s was one of the best sellers on Amazon and yeah, it’s [how to] top that. Not top of the charts, but I was just mad gassed. I went to WH Smith the other day to see a copy, and it was sold out. My friends were sending me pictures of people sitting on trains and reading it.
I feel right now is like a different era where things are much more sudden. If there wasn’t this whole social media world, Stormzy’s career would have never happened. We’d been following each other for time and I was sharing his stuff from early end when I was posting articles and stuff, he would share the content and read it and we’d rate each other’s stuff. And it’s inspiring now seeing him do his thing. One of my friends told me that her mom read my review. She said it’s one of the best she’s ever read, and I was so gassed thinking, yeah. Now it’s different. It’s just different levels. I can’t even articulate that. So many things have been changing. But staying grounded is the most important thing.
If you had to recommend some other books that people should really read, what would they be? “Windrush” by Trevor and Bradley Phillips. It just shows you the kinds of ideas, the amount of pressures there are on these people. In a sense, a lot of that anger and that disgust has been extended onto other people – that’s how it goes into the whole idea of being black British for me. The Windrush project was mainly Caribbean and I’m Ghanaian but I feel like it’s still instrumental for us in how black people exist here. And more in an existential way, “The Stranger” by Albert Camus.
KW: In the jacket of the book you say you’re aiming to be “the best black British writer ever”, and I was wondering if you have any other projects in the pipeline?
JBY: There are loads of projects, but it’s also about how I go about it. Publication is a whole next kind of thing, like I don’t think a majority of people understand getting that first jump. I’ve been writing for a long time, six years now, but obviously, as I said before that, I’ve just been doing things creatively, but when you don’t have the resources or people guiding you it’s hard. And with a project like this is there is a certain amount of pressure, people expect you to have the next thing just there. I’ve got so many different ideas and I’m sure that one of them will work but it’s about putting it in order.
One thing that I can tell you is I’ve written an essay for a black British male anthology. It’s a compilation of different black creatives, mostly writers, with different essays and perspectives, and it’s going to be such an interesting read for people. There’s never been something like that before, and the market right now is amazing. There are so many different people who admire the writers. People will be able to build an idea – a great idea – of black British content and perspectives articulated by people who can really communicate. But there are other forms.
This whole academic space, this educational space, is one form but there’s so many different levels we need to access.
I went to a comedy show hosted by Dave Chapelle a couple of weeks ago and he’s my favourite comedian ever. It was amazing because he hosted a night where there were loads of black British and Asian comedians. They all made jokes from their perspective and made us laugh about it. It taught us a lot about where they’re coming from. Say if this anthology was a white male anthology, there have been thousands out there before. There’s not really a need. Not to say that they have nothing to say, just that people wouldn’t be bursting to invest in that. It’s the same with most different fields and industries. That’s why when black people are supporting each other it’s because they know it’s such a hard market. We’re trying to do things for ourselves. I don’t just want to be grounded in this space, though. Obviously, I’m a black person but there are other things I have in the works that are more to do with fantasy, history, humanity, existentialism and theology, as well.
KW: Any final words?
JBY: Wait. I’m thinking. Oh, no. I’m not really a person that necessarily thinks everything happens for a reason. But in this sense, I feel very blessed that it happened to me.
“Rise Up: The #Merky Story So Far” has been on sale since 1 November, published by Penguin Random House. “SPACE: On Black British Men Reclaiming Space” is out on 7 March 2019.
Photo Credit: Instagram