The Writers Behind ‘SAFE’ Discuss Youth Violence, School Exclusions & The Absence Of Black British Men In Literature

Words: Jesse Bernard

In recent years, the publishing industry has responded to the lack of books written by Black British authors with a drive to increasing the presence of minority voices. In 2016, The Bookseller reported that of the top 100 titles of 2016 to date, just one was written by a British writer from an ethnic minority background; and there were six in the top 500. Despite awards such as the Jhalak Prize and 4th Estate’s annual BAME Short Story Prize, the publishing industry is still overwhelmingly white and middle-class.

Derek Owusu, editor of the SAFE anthology, tells me that there is a widely-held belief within the publishing industry that “Black men don’t read”, and that prisoners have no need for books. While Black people only represent 3% of the population, it’s clear that publishing isn’t doing enough to reach Black male readers. Comprised of an array of Black British male voices including journalists Musa Okwongwa, Aniefiok Ekpoudom, poet Yomi Ṣode and actor Derek Oppong, SAFE joins a contemporary canon that includes Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking About Race and The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla (and co.).

The importance of SAFE should not be understated: here we have a book that openly challenges regressive stereotypes that have led Black men to believe there’s no room for them in the world of literature. Through capturing the voices and stories of twenty Black men, all of different ages and backgrounds, SAFE has provided a blueprint for the Black British male anthology. The book’s editor, Derek, was able to locate twenty contemporary Black male voices, suggesting that these stories are out there but publishers still aren’t doing enough to disseminate them. Such beliefs indicate why there’s a lack of Black British men publishing books, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there aren’t stories out there needing to be told and read.

Ahead of the book’s release on March 7 (2019), TRENCH sat with a handful of the anthology’s contributors, including journalist Symeon Brown, author Jude Yawson (Rise Up: The Merky Story So Far), and poet/spoken-word artist Suli Breaks. While each of the essays follows each writer’s personal experiences, many of the issues and themes addressed stem from youth violence and school exclusion to sexuality and navigating the workspace. As youth violence has been a widely discussed issue within the context of music and Black boys for decades, the writers discussed and broke down how censorship, surveillance and state intervention has led to arguments suggesting genres such as drill are violent in themselves.


How do you gauge what is entertainment and real life when you don’t engage with those telling the stories? When it comes to music, how do you prove that?

Symeon: Ultimately, the issue is that the police are increasingly using court orders against people who they know that the burden of proof to get them in the system is far lower. They can’t convict artists for incitement of violence, technically, but if you can introduce a court order which bans you from saying certain things, going to certain places and being around certain people, you’re more likely to breach that. It’s the police using technical ways to criminalise people. That’s the debate.

You spoke with Skengdo and AM regarding the censorship of their music around the time they were handed a 9-month sentencewhat was their mood regarding the situation?

Symeon: They felt as though the song is already out there so if they perform or not, what’s the difference? And if you can’t prove that it’s led to violence then what is the point in using these court orders? Ultimately, they’re saying that they can’t be held responsible for what somebody decides to do next. Addressing and bringing attention to violence shouldn’t be a criminalised act in itself.

Suli: If they introduced something like this in football where if you sing these songs, which lead to violence after games, then there would be a big conversation about censorship. But with us, the general public feels as though it’s justified.

Jude: With drill, compared to grime, it’s a much more realistic and detailed expression of what’s going on so it’s built up more of a culture of violence. Drill is largely adopted so it’s imported and it’s not solution-based; when you listen to the lyrics, it addresses the issues in a very explicit way, but the conversation around intervention is what needs to happen next.

You mentioned intervention there, so at what stage in the lives of young Black boys and men does this happen? There’s a conversation which suggests it begins in schools before permanent exclusion, because after that, young people begin to fall through the cracks.

Jude: Achieving GCSEs is success in those environments. Loads of these kids don’t even have SATs, let alone GCSEs. In a normal classroom, it’s intense to have two nuts youts together, so imagine an environment where a whole setup to contain all of these kids who really need specialist help exists.

Derek: I’ve never understood pupil referral units and they have a solitary confinement vibe to them.

Jude: Prison training, essentially.

Derek: At the same time, I don’t even think we can look to secondary schools for intervention because they’re part of the same institution, so how can we rely on them?

Suli: It’s not necessarily about relying on them. They take it upon themselves to make school obligatory and everybody has to be in school so they have to put in place preventative measures that allow me to nurture and grow myself to the best of my ability. That includes, mental, physical and emotional wellbeing.

Derek: Schools aren’t equipped for that, with all the budgets cuts, especially in a lot of boroughs in London. Most of the pupil referral units are stretched thin as it is.

This is where the lack of youth clubs becomes glaring, even though it’s much like putting a plaster over a bleeding wound.

Jude: A lot of these youth clubs are providing that but not in the best way. What they’re doing is catching all the people who have nowhere to go and localising all of the potential violence. I recently heard of someone getting stabbed at a youth club because he got caught slipping and those are also meant to be the spaces where they’re supposed to get away from that.

Suli: If there are no youth clubs, those things will happen anyway. But with them, you have people in place to counter that and give examples of community.

There aren’t many physical spaces outside of that where Black boys can go, besides the barbershop. There’s sports, but you have to be part of a club.

Symeon: Wherever the space is, what is needed is a place where responsible adults are able to intervene in their lives and engage with them. A few months back, after the girl got shot in Tottenham, I saw a massive fight taking place outside a McDonalds. I called a youth worker friend of mine and told them something was happening and he called some colleagues and they came and intervened. They all knew these young people and realised that this was a result of trauma because of the shooting, and the situation escalated. Because these young people trusted them, this was probably a lot safer than the police turning up. One of the issues is that there’s an absence of collective bodies as to who provides intervention support to families. Families are divided and the schools aren’t necessarily equipped to intervene, so the question is where does that collective ownership of responsibility come from? This feels like a policy issue. But, ultimately, the state is part of the problem.

Derek: It sounds like there’s got to be a total shift, but there’s no easy solution.

Jude: We’re coming from different situations where it’s normalised for us. When I speak to people about my situation in school, some people are shattered; it’s not something they’re used to hearing, so it’s scary but also desensitized because we are Black. I find that expressing what goes on through cultural products and telling our stories helps to normalise the conversation. That’s why books like SAFE are important. We should be getting this book into prisons and schools because this is content that will help counter the perceptions Black people in those environments are internalising. We need to unravel all of these ideas that tells youngers that it’s embarrassing to get a retail job somewhere compared to being on road.

Derek: And there’s a perception that young Black men don’t read. Publishing houses often say that Black men don’t like to read, and it’s something I hear a lot working in this industry.

That’s the thing: I think a big part of that is because there hasn’t been a canon that Black British men are collectively interested in. If we had a range of books, where some were excellent and some not so great, there is still value in that.

Suli: Accessibility is important as well, because are the mandem really going to walk into Waterstones? It needs to be community-driven where the people selling us these books understand and communicate it in a way that’s relatable. That market is still to be explored.

Symeon: Black men in prison read the most because they haven’t got anything else to do. So when it comes to work like this, sometimes it’s the responsibility of the writer to make sure that the content and material is engaging. If you were able to do a book tour where the MoJ [Ministry of Justice] allowed writers to enter, then there’s some exposure to these conversations. Virality does wonders for Black men and books, which is why certain books hold a cult status among us collectively, so writers need to take advantage of that. ‘Hood’ books do very well because at some point in your life, you’ve read a part of it, and if we start creating more books that tell cultural stories, then some of those become cultural classics.

Suli: Book launches are for that community of people who know that world. If you get someone like ImJustBait to promote your book, you’re flying.

Just look at Keisha Da Sket, that was read by everyone because people were reading it on MSN, MySpace, Bebo, BBM and everywhere else. That’s where we were. I’m not saying we need to write books in that format, but imagine if publishers knew back then knew where to find us? Going into schools to do book tours is a part of that, provided that it’s engaging.

Suli: The conversation about content is important as well—a lot of writers aren’t making the sacrifice. There’s a certain standard you have to adhere to and there’s a standard that’s easy and palatable to read, and Black writers have an insecurity when it comes to that.

Did you guys have that issue when writing your essays, that you felt you had to be articulate and write in the most poetic way so it could be perceived to be held to a high standard?

Derek: Because it was a personal essay, I felt that I needed to round off some of the rough edges by using more poetic language. I’ll always aim to use a shorter word where possible because I want my writing to be accessible like that. I think some of the essays may not relate to a 17-year-old but the point of this is that it covers a broad spectrum. Black men exist beyond the age of 30, and there are men out there who will want to read those stories.

Jude: There are twenty different essays in here, with twenty unique life experiences and stories. I wanted to write from a stream of consciousness because a lot of it was coming from my own experience, and I just tried to observe the paradigm shifts; at what moment did I think this way and in which way did it change the way I saw the world?

Derek: Not everyone will enjoy every essay, but what the book stands for will shine through.. It depends on who’s reading the book and what they’re looking to read.

Symeon: When I was writing my essay, I was thinking that there are things happening in our community that aren’t being recorded because these stories haven’t valued. As simple as it sounds, the person I imagined reading it was someone in the community who’s considered to be in the reading minority. The writers have to be the conduit being the book and the reader, even more so in our case.

Suli: I struggled a bit with mine because I’m an orator, so when I feel something, I say it. It was still a good process for me because I haven’t quite found my voice on paper yet, and the format of literature hasn’t been designed for me to communicate. I know how to write, but it’s not my preferred method of communication.

Derek: People say you need to find your voice as a writer but I don’t think that’s always the case. It depends on the story you’re trying to tell and for the mandem, we communicate in ways that are much more expressive and animated.

Posted on February 27, 2019