How The Rise Of British Nigerians Solved My Identity Problem

Words: Yemi Abiade

Black History Month has always served as a period of reflection for me. As well as a celebration of the indelible mark we have left on this world, it also calls for a stern examination of my own sense of self-worth. The fact that I’m of Nigerian descent and born in Britain is inextricably linked with this, and as we continue to make ourselves heard throughout the country and beyond, it calls into question my own personal battles with my identity.

As a youngster, my sense of being Nigerian was shrouded in an acute shame. Being Nigerian gained not one iota of cool growing up in London, where Caribbean culture had the slang, music and style on lock. We were cussed for our big noses and lips and left alienated by a white populace unwilling to identify with us. Skepta summed up this feeling of alienation for a generation perfectly on Nigerian superstar Wizkid’s “Ojuelegba” remix: “When I was in school being African was a diss, sounds like you need help saying my surname, miss.” I thought, maybe my name is weird, it has too many vowels and that’s what’s confusing people. But this did nothing for my self-confidence.

I remember going to Nigeria at the age of 10 and, upon arrival, being appalled by the quality of life; the lack of street lights at night, the backward-looking village in which my mum had grown up, and the scarcity of essential means of living like electricity. The Western snob in me was in full effect even by that age. Consequently, such a culture shock left me disillusioned; I pined not to be from the country of my parents’ origin, begged to have an English name that wasn’t hard to pronounce, and to rid myself of my nationality if it meant more legitimacy among friends and in society, because I believed being Nigerian wasn’t linked with my sense of self-pride, rather, fiercely associated with my lack thereof. My surroundings and its lack of relatable references were alarming signs to me that it was a notion which wasn’t popular. My parents, bless them, had yet to enforce their fierce nationalism upon me, or perhaps I was so young I missed the signs.

There weren’t many within the British-Nigerian community from which to draw inspiration, all I had were the Nigerians from my parents’ generation—the Fela Kutis, King Sunny Ades, the Ebenezer Obeys—as a reference, but I couldn’t relate. Of course, looking back now, I can see the levels of dramatic I was taking my sense of identity to and, as my points of reference grew larger and more Nigerians became beacons of British society, particularly in the music and culture verticals, my pride grew exponentially.

The Adenuga family, home to Skepta, Jme and Julie (not forgetting Jason), have done bits in particular. Skepta especially has done much to elevate his people with the whole world watching. He has always worn his origin on his sleeve at a time when it wasn’t popular—shouting out his nationality in his legendary 2008 collab with Plastician, “Intensive Snare”—and has even gone as far as putting together a number of ‘homecoming’ concerts in Nigeria, where the likes of fellow Nigerians Not3s and Wizkid have performed. Even taking his audience back to Naij in his latest visual for the Wizkid collaboration, “Energy (Stay Far Away)”, Skeppy reminded me of the pure beauty and vibrancy of the land that I had pushed deep into the back of my mind as a youngster. A new generation of musicians born here and over there are now following his path; the aforementioned Not3s, lyrical titan Flohio, born in Lagos), and the prince of UK garage, Conducta to name a few, and it is now plain to see that the younger generation are just as empowered to rep their set as I have become.

In film, Peckham-born John Boyega has been a constant presence in Hollywood since becoming an integral part of the Star Wars franchise and, despite initial vitriol from a white audience unwilling to change with the times, he has carried himself with immense dignity as he takes stride after stride. The likes of Chiwetel Ejiofor and David Oyelowo have also broken down barriers as it were for present-day Nigerian actors, with their leading roles in 12 Years A Slave and Selma respectively, and to see them honoured with awards and acclaim is incredibly satisfying for a young man now comfortable in his own origin. Even in the hyper-local landscape of London, heroes like DontJealousMe, Kayode ‘Roll Safe’ Ewumi and Tom Moutchi (previously Tommy Expensive) have played into the many colourful aspects of Nigerian life to comedic and uplifting effect. They have made me engage with and laugh at the various idiosyncrasies that characterise our people—the sound effects, elongated pronunciations of words and overdramatization of literally any and everything—qualities I used to resent but now wear like a badge of honour.

Great Britain, at large, is now all the more inclusive, diverse and colourful for having the Nigerian imprint laid upon it, and this impact cannot be downplayed. Because I now live my life as a young black Nigerian man proudly carrying the history, culture and identity of the West African nation on my shoulders, something unimaginable to me more than a decade ago.


Posted on October 16, 2018