The Only Thing Black Writers Really Have is Their Relationships
Tobi Kyeremateng: I thought it would be interesting to have this intergenerational dialogue about performance and activism in the UK—I’m a younger and very London-based producer, and you have more years behind you, and a wider sense of the UK, as an internationally renowned poet. What did things look like back when you were starting out, how have they evolved, and what does it look like now?
Roger Robinson: I’m celebrating twenty-five years of performing on a professional level. When I first started, Black writers and performers were literally invisible. People knew you in a small, small scene. You could be very popular there, but on a national and international level, Black writers and performers were invisible.
Somebody could come to the UK from America and they’d be like, “Do they have any Black people here?” Cause you couldn’t tell from the literature or from the shows. And even when Black people had shows, the shows didn’t necessarily represent Black people. Oftentimes they just reiterated the status quo of middle-class white men. Those were the ones that were allowed to trickle in. Not any show that was particularly Black or Black-space oriented or Black-life oriented. Cause nobody twenty-five years ago wanted to hear about Black life. It wasn’t a thing.
Here’s an example. Twenty-five years ago I was trying to look for a mentor. The few people who were Black, who worked in universities, were like: “No, absolutely not. Please don’t contact me again.” That generation before me was hard core! I kind of understand it now, as time has gone on, because they had to fight and struggle for every little thing they got. They didn’t have time to mentor anybody else. It’s not that they hated other Black people, but their concern was: “It’s hard enough for me to be in white society and try to do well.” Like, “I don’t have time.”
It’s not that I blame them. In fact, it definitely gave me—along with some of the other writers I was around, like Malika Booker—a sense of why it was necessary to get some type of creative citizenship. That’s the name we give it now, but back then we weren’t thinking about it. We just wanted to create a community. And if we knew anything, to pass it on to younger writers. That’s something that we did—Malika in particular, me, and some other writers who came under us, like Nick Makoha, Jacob Sam La Roses, and Rachel Long. We passed it on. It was an unwritten pact. Because the only thing Black writers really have is their relationships. The Black writer has never been about major money. It’s always been about relationships and the world.
For the people who were sharing the information, certain communities and bonds were built. That was such a big part of the politics of Black writing and Black success in England, much more so than funding or anything like that. The funding never really promoted anything that was long lasting. You’re a good, young producer, but I bet you can’t name ten Black shows from the eighties.
Roger: It’s not because the work wasn’t good. It’s because it was set up for it not to be resonant. Whereas in your time—the kind of things you’re doing now—you still have to struggle and you still have to fight, because the upper echelons of theatre are run by the same people. Nobody wants to say it, but theatre is built on status quo, and all the audiences are mostly middle-class white people. Middle-class white people who, to be honest, don’t really care about anybody else’s story. How do you break that?
Creative citizenship is looking at how to be a citizen with your art and debunking old state ideas and clichéd ideas of being a success.
Tobi: I want to go back to creative citizenship. Can you expand on that? I find that really interesting.
Roger: Creative citizenship is looking at how to be a citizen with your art and debunking old state ideas and clichéd ideas of being a success. Back in the day, when people wouldn’t put us on, we put ourselves on. All these shows that we used to do—for the first two or three years they were in venues only on Wednesday nights in the West End. We used to use this place called the Spot all the time. We got a mic and everything for free. Some of those shows were the shows that moved theatre forward.
Everybody was really interested in theatre combined with spoken word. We’d have two hundred people and up, all the time, because there was nothing else for them to see in the theatre. That was a form of creative citizenship: “We are going to put ourselves on. We are not gonna wait for anybody to call us. We are gonna provide for the underserved community.”
We always had that type of attitude. There was a point when we were so influential that a white establishment called us because we had crowds of people. We’d sell out all the house three nights in a row.
Two important links in this chain are Bernardine Evaristo and Kwame Dawes. They were a big part in the whole idea of setting up creative citizenship, even though they didn’t call it that. Kwame agreed to mentor me from Nebraska. Bernardine had brought him across to the UK to teach. We would get all the Black writers together and tell them they could come and do workshops at Spread The Word, which was in Brixton at the time, before it moved to Deptford. It was a whole bunch of Black writers, like me, like Malika, and a lot of people who probably don’t write anymore, actually. Bernardine knew that we had talent but didn’t have money to take courses.
Kwame spotted talent, he would say, “Send me the work! How can we help you promote yourself?” and “I just need you to pass it on, so make sure what I teach you, you’re teaching somebody else.” That started influencing Malika’s Poetry Kitchen, a collective of predominantly Black poets, which went on for twenty-one years or so. When we started it, it definitely was something. We never got paid for it or anything like that. From Malika’s Kitchen I started something at Theatre Royal Stratford East in London called Spoke-Lab. Which was again unpaid. I just wanted to get Black people—specifically those who did spoken word—into the theatre. Spoke-Lab ran for about two and a half years, every single week. Inua Ellams came for two years, every week, and the word broke out.
We would meet thirteen or fourteen times a year and hash out how to make this interesting. It was an experimental space. That’s another thing Black people don’t have, especially in theatre. A space where people can try things and fail. Theatre is hard. Lots of people who weren’t serious came and were like “Eh, yeah I’m not sure if I’m cut out for this.”
Tobi: Spoke-Lab and Malika’s Kitchen—did you ever view them as activist groups or groups that were responding to something in an activist way? Or did you literally just think of them as collectives of people coming together to work?
Roger: I definitely talk about them in an activist way. People who get excluded always have to do their own thing. The most interesting art often comes from excluded people. So it’s activism in terms of finding a new way of coming together and making work. Like: This is for people of color. It isn’t for white people.
In the original years of Malika’s Kitchen, if you were white, you had to prove that you didn’t have enough money for access to workshops. This has changed now, because I am no longer in charge of it all, but as far as I know, people of color are still prioritized first. But you don’t have to be working class or poor white to be in.
I probably didn’t call it activism until I ended up creating creative citizenship. We intended to change the face of literature and theatre, and to an extent we did. Lots of people who won awards came up from Malika’s Kitchen. The specific idea was to make Black writers who wanted to write not feel invisible.
The most interesting art often comes from excluded people.
Tobi: Did you see a difference or similarities in the things that were happening in London and the things that were happening outside of London and the other places you lived, like the Caribbean?
Roger: When I was growing up, my mom was a performer. Derek Walcott had started making work at a theatre company called Little Carib Theatre in Trinidad. My uncle used to design sets for displays and stuff like that, and them cats were straight up activists.
It was a revolutionary thing in the Caribbean. That’s my family history, so when I came here, I had that revolutionary history, the idea of: “You, the people, are important and the oppressors will stop.” The school I went to was all about that. It was like self-determination. They were trying to groom leaders, not people who were going to be passive about making change.
Racism is not the only thing that stops people from writing, but it does play a big part. In twenty-five years, you wouldn’t believe how many poets in theatre—real, real talent—got ground down with the anxiety of trying to make a living, of getting stuff on. Constantly hustling. You just get tired. It’s like, “Wow, they don’t want me here, why am I fighting this?” I can count thirty to forty talented writers who stopped because they didn’t get the kind of encouragement their white peers got.
It’s a fairly different time now, even for you. You might be thinking like, “Oh my god this is horrible.” Trust me, Tobi, you have it real good and you’re doing some real good things to let people know that you’re not joking. There’s a certain amount of power that Black artists now have and a certain amount of diversity organizations are expected to have.
Tobi: I’m trying to think of something that exists now that is like Malika’s Kitchen or Spoke-Lab. Apart from maybe Blacktress, I’m not sure I know of these hubs where Black artists can come together and make work and support each other. I think if you’re in it, you know about it. But I’m not actually an artist in that kind of group.
Roger: There was something called Complete Works, an Arts Council development program. When it first started, the first two sections were for Black and South Asian writers. Everybody who was on it was from Malika’s Kitchen, because they had already done the groundwork.
You could not have had a Reni Eddo-Lodge twenty years ago. They wouldn’t have a chance. But there’s so much now that the internet has prevented people from strangling. Black people realized, “Wow, if I’m talented and strong enough, and I put something out there, I can just build up on the internet. If I have a following, they’re gonna have to put me on because they want money.” Like Warsan Shire. When she was coming up, at one point outside of the scene she had sixty-five thousand Twitter followers. Those things couldn’t have happened twenty years ago. People controlled their news in certain ways and didn’t give two shits about Black people. They still don’t.
Tobi: Do you think there is still this activism in the arts now when it comes to people who are making Black literature or poetry or theatre? Do you think that same activist theory is still alive in the same way?
Roger: An interesting thing happened when Trump became president. Not everything I do is about politics and not everything I do is about creative citizenship, but I felt like I needed to double down on politics. A responsibility was placed upon me and I thought a lot of other people would feel the same. But completely the opposite happened. People wanted to escape politics as much as possible.
It’s surprising how few people’s work takes on political action. People who were more political are actually trying not to be as political. People are afraid to say things. Who’s listening? When are they listening? Where are they listening? If I’m traveling to different countries, how will this affect me? I’m aware of these things.
I’ve never called myself an activist in my entire life. I feel like activists do things every single day and that’s their sole goal in life. My main goal in life is being an artist. I have a component of activism and I have a component of spirituality and social change. I think activism is something that people put on other people.
We’ve just arrived at this place, and no one really knows how we got here or how to move forward or what to do with all this stuff.
Tobi: Do you think being an artist and being an activist can be one in the same? Do you think it is a choice? Or do you think naturally you’re just more likely to sway to one side than the other?
Roger: Everything is political. If you decided to only write poems about sexuality, there’s a politic to that. Warsan Shire writing about women’s bodies and being Somali—that’s a political thing, but I don’t think she comes at it in a political way. It’s like Caleb Femi writing about South London’s Peckham: that’s a political thing but I don’t think he thinks it’s particularly political. He’s documenting his life and the lives of a lot of invisible people, and it’s a political choice, because he can do something else. I could be wrong, though. He may be very politicized in terms of that.
Tobi: You’re right about “activist” being a label that people put onto other people rather than something someone self-identifies as. I see you as an activist, but I also know that people see me as an activist and I don’t see myself as an activist.
Roger: Black Ticket Project, which you created in 2018, is one of the most activist things I’ve ever seen in my entire life. It’s for Black kids. Is the child Black? No? There’s not a free ticket. That’s very activist.
Tobi: You could say the same about Spoke-Lab as well.
Roger: For sure.
Tobi: These are things that you just do, you don’t necessarily intend for them to be an activist statement. I said to someone the other day, “I don’t just want to be known as a person who is a diversity champion. I want to make work and be known for doing that as well, or be known for supporting artists in these kinds of ways.” It’s bittersweet because obviously Black Ticket Project is doing well and it’s amazing how far it’s come, but it’s the first thing people think of when they think of me and I don’t want it to be like that forever. Which is quite a selfish self-identifying thing.
Roger: I don’t think you have to worry. The thing about Black Ticket Project, besides activism, is that that element is not the super impressive thing about it. Nobody had been thinking, “You know what, I’m going to mobilize some money so that Black people can see this for free.”
Once you keep on having ideas like that, where people think, “Why didn’t we think of this before?”—as soon as you hit the next one, they’ll forget about Black Ticket Project and you’ll be the ideas person. It’s not the Blackness. It’s the simplicity and cleanness of the idea that makes it spread. Once you have more simple, clean ideas, they’ll be like, “Holy shit, this girl just got ideas.”
You think people are happy that you’re giving away Black tickets? No sir. Nobody happy about that except for Black people.
Tobi: That is true.
Roger: Let me ask you something. When I see you, I see someone who understands, who’s embedded in the communities, and who can also make change from being embedded. How do you find yourself as an artist now dealing with different societies and your activism within it?
Tobi: At the moment, the creative sector as a whole is in this weird limbo where a lot has changed, but I feel that people don’t really know how we got to this point. I don’t think the change was intentional. I don’t think all the new artistic directors, and plays like Misty by Arinzé Kene, Nine Night by Natasha Gordon, and Barber Shop Chronicles by Inua Ellams, was part of a sector-wide strategy to make things better for artists or to make the sector more diverse.
We’ve just arrived at this place, and no one really knows how we got here or how to move forward or what to do with all this stuff. That puts people in a bit of a precarious situation because, on the one hand, the sector is like, “Well, we’ve achieved some of this great stuff now,” and on the other hand, it still doesn’t look at the structural issues. Artists seem to be in a constant state of development. You’re constantly an emerging artist. You’ve got to do this program and then do that program.
I’ve done lots of different kinds of training and leadership programs, and I’ve just completed one I was part of for the last two years. And someone just said, “Oh, you should do this program.” Part of me was like, “Why would I do that program straight after I’ve been in one for two years?!” Surely the next step is for me to have a consistent job I can grow in. I feel the next thing is to actually implement the things I’ve learned, but that job just doesn’t exist.
What do I do? Do I just go freelance, or do I go to a different sector or…?
Everyone’s talking about the future of leadership and no one has said when the future starts.
Roger: A different sector from the arts? Wow.
Tobi: Well, slightly. Anything I do has to be creative in some way, but trying to do the stuff I want to do, make the things I want to make, while there is this structural barrier against young artists or artists of color where we’re constantly emerging and developing—I don’t have time for that. I don’t want to keep jumping through all of these hoops when what I actually need, to truly be nurtured, is to be in one place, or to be in a position I can grow into. Something a little bit beyond me.
I would certainly need a support system to be able to go into it and then understand how I’m able to implement all the different things I’ve learned along the way. That is where the change can come—with these people who have been given this learning and have been trying to figure out what their own leadership looks like, or what the future of the sector looks like, and how to implement these things. But everyone’s talking about the future of leadership and no one has said when the future starts. You’re just kind of waiting.
I find that problematic. A lot of people in similar positions to me are also at this place where we’re like, “All right, how do we now just get in and do the things we want to do and grow in it and hopefully change things?” We could freelance, but that leaves you outside of the institution. It’s back and forth. People have to eat, have rent and bills to pay, and have to live their lives, so it’s just a tug of war at the moment.
Roger: You can’t get anyone to give up power without some type of leverage. The leverage might be you have a million followers. The leverage might be you made a whole heap of money, or, as in your case, you just won a bunch of awards for a great, interesting, and diverse idea.
When you have the leverage, you go in and say, “This is what you are missing in your organization, and you need to set me up to do this,” as if you were an umbrella organization. Sometimes you get into the institution and you realize this is actually more bullshit than being out of it. What you have to do is make sub-institutions or sub-companies or sub-organizations using the institutions’ money. That way they can go ahead with doing their bullshit and you can make some major change without being interfered with. Because the game is for them to check off their diversity box but your game is to get things changed.
As you’re building it with their money, eventually you break off when you have enough money and then you have your own organization. And when you start, they’re going to come to you because you’ve got good ideas and they have none. None of these companies have good ideas. So you can be an idea-making machine, creating think tanks with people who are also thinkers, and letting people know we have all the strong ideas. You can get money from anywhere. What you can’t get is talent and ideas.
And trust me: the ideas and implementation—not everyone can do it. That’s why you’re valuable. That’s your leverage and power.