Race & Drum+Bass: In Conversation With My Dad

“I’m not gonna lie, man: I got a bit emotional a few days ago when I was lying in bed thinking about the Black Lives Matter protests, George Floyd, the shooting of Mark Duggan and how common police brutality is. I just kept thinking: why can’t we be angry?”

When I call my dad, known to the world as Trevor Joseph, on FaceTime, he has his signature headphones on and is peering down at the camera. The first thing he notices is the hoodie I’m wearing—he gave it to me after my aunt’s 30th birthday celebrations. “Erm, that’s my hoodie, ain’t it?” he teases, and we laugh together. My dad is pretty much my best friend. Having young parents can induce an annoying over-familiarity, but at other times the shared experiences are precious. We attended the Black Lives Matter protests together a few weeks ago, and the heaviness rested on us both as we spoke. Police brutality is an issue for all Black people, but I cannot begin to understand how digesting these injustices every day impacts on the psyche of Black men. Sitting down with my dad, we break down his experiences of racism growing up and how his Blackness shaped his life.

“I got it from all angles,” he says of his experience with racism as a youth in North London, “from the police, in school, and even from my peers. I wouldn’t say I was troublesome growing up—I was more scared of having my arse kicked by mum and dad—but when I passed my driving test and got my first car, I was getting stopped by the police nearly every day. It was always ‘you fit the description of someone’, or ‘where are you going to at this time of night?”’ Black people are 40 times more likely to be stopped and searched in Britain, and although the marches in London were sparked by the murder of George Floyd, they also reflected a dissatisfaction with the systemic racism of the Metropolitan Police.

Being the child of Dominican and Jamaican immigrants, who were forced to grin and bear racism and state violence, my dad had to find his own way of dealing with racism. “My parents never spoke to me about racism growing up,” he explains. “I was 5 years old when I first realised I was Black; I remember going to my white friend’s house and saw how different his life was. Going to school, I often felt like I was being treated differently but it was so common that I thought it was normal. It wasn’t until I started hearing my Black friends talk about their experiences that I realised it had to do with the colour of my skin.”

I am the eldest sister of four kids—there are three girls, including myself, and one boy who is the youngest. Conversations about how my Blackness would define my life wasn’t one my dad had with me, but it is one he has to have with his son. Earlier this month, in light of the death of George Floyd, Wretch 32 posted on Twitter that he had the “police talk” with his son. Conversations about how you are brutalised and bullied by the state seem to be a rite of passage into adulthood for Black men. “Micha has autism,” my dad states. “He is both Black with a disability, and that worries me the most. What happens if he gets into a situation with the police? I don’t want him to act out of fear and be seen as a threat.” My dad is right to feel that way: currently, more than a third of Americans killed by police have a disability. In the UK, the situation is also worrying—nearly 70% autistic adults saying they were unhappy with their encounters with the police.

For as long as I can remember, my dad has been a jungle and drum & bass head. Music was his outlet and safe space. My earliest memory of Notting Hill Carnival was walking through swarms of people to the corner of Tavistock and All Saints Road where the jungle soundsystems blasted vibrations through my body. The sound of gruff Jamaican dialects riding the rhythmic chaos of drums and the expressive Cockney emcees flowing on crashing hi-hats felt like home. One of my first raving experiences was actually with my dad. He set up a relatively successful club night with friends on the popular Drum & Bass Arena forum. They all wanted the opportunity to play in clubs but didn’t have access to the right people. “I continuously kept sending out CDs to get bookings, but it was really hard work because everybody was doing it. In the end, I got really fed up and thought the only way I’m going to DJ at a night is if I start my own one.” After years of watching him plan and prepare sets for his club nights, I finally got to go to one of the parties he threw at Brixton Jamm in 2013, and it was definitely an experience.

I was always amazed by my dad’s craft working as a nerdy developer by day and by night, plugged into his home studio head-bobbing while making tracks. He spent long weekends away from home travelling all over the world DJing to packed clubs as Mr Joseph. “Music was always a part of my household growing up,” he says. “My dad loved music; he was even part of a soundsystem. I was always buying records, even before I had my first set of decks.” In a way, music was a saving grace for my dad. It kept him indoors and out of trouble. “All I wanted growing up was turntables of my own, and the only way I could do that was by studying, working and saving.” Much of my dad’s early success as a producer and DJ was because of the Black British presenters and DJs that enjoyed the soulful samples in his songs. “Once I put out my first record, I got interest from Bryan G, LTJ Bukem and other Black DJs,” he explains. “My career in drum & bass started when Fabio, Grooverider and Bailey were playing my tunes on BBC Radio 1, but as soon as they left, my airplay disappeared. The only way I could get plays on big radio stations was through the labels plugging my tunes.”

D&B has a representation and racism issue, especially when it comes to Black DJs and producers. Considering that the sound exists because of the Windrush Generation, there is hardly any recognition of their founding contributions. In a 2018 interview with UKF, Grant Porter, the founder of Drum & Bass Against Racism, stresses that “jungle and drum & bass was a social movement. It couldn’t not be.” He also discusses the collective culture of silence in the genre that lets racism run rampant. “Many artists are warned about what they say now,” he said, “because too much politics can alienate your fanbase. Some people feel they can’t even say racism is wrong because they fear they’ll get challenged.”

In 2018, DJ Mistabishi was dropped by Hospital Records for a racist tirade on social media. “Real Londoners are English,” he wrote on Facebook. “[My] family can be traced back over a thousand years. Just because some cunt wandered off a boat a few decades ago and had a child doesn’t automatically make them from here.” Earlier this month, Hospital Records issued an apology for releasing a reggae and drum & bass remix album that featured two Black producers. “It’s really sad though,” my dad says in reference to the Hospital incident, “and because the genre can be so cliquey, it is hard to get a foot-in so nothing will change.”

As we wrap up our conversation, we reflect on the current situation and what comes next. “In the last two weeks, I’ve had conversations with white friends who have been so apologetic and said how bad they feel,” he shares. “It is strange, though, because growing up and being racialised, when I mentioned these injustices I was told I had a chip on my shoulder and that I should stop starting arguments, so I just stopped talking about it. I do feel like things have changed a lot, which I’m really happy about. I’m hopeful for the future.”

Posted on June 23, 2020