Initially, I wanted to write two separate reviews for the first two episodes of Steve McQueen's five-part anthology, Small Axe. As is often the case, work deadlines and laziness entered my life so by the time 'Lover's Rock' had aired last night, I was halfway through my review of 'Mangrove'.
So instead of a single review, I've decided to write an essay/review around "Mangrove" and "Lover's Rock" which is also a broader commentary on the multifaceted black experience. Modern problems require modern solutions.
With that short preamble out of the way, let’s get into the first two brilliant episodes of Small Axe which has been airing on BBC.
You can smell and taste the culture of Britain's West Indian community
Although I consider myself British, I am really a British Nigerian given that both my parents are from Nigeria. However, since I am a millennial historian on everything black British, exploring and understanding the West Indian community is essential. I wouldn't have been able to write my debut novel 'A Prophet Who Loved Her' which is set in the same period that McQueen is exploring if I didn't look into the lives of West Indians in Britain during the 50s,60s, 70s and 80s. After all, as we must all know by now, West Indians were the first group of black people to migrate to Britain on the HMT Empire Windrush in 1948.
So, I was excited to see how McQueen would bring this period to life using modern, state-of-the-art cameras. And man, I was not disappointed. From watching the opening scenes of ‘Mangrove,' where we see West Indian men with their untidy afros (men were too busy trying to survive in an unfriendly country to be having razor-sharp trims like we do now), to the establishing shot of Notting Hill in 1968, with Austin Maestro cars lining the streets and men walking acros the road with long, brown trench coats, I immediately felt like I was seeing old pictures of London in high definition colour.
With the rich and rhythmic accent of Frank Crichlow's voiceover (played by Shaun Parkes whose acting is phenomenal in this episode) combined with Bob Marley & The Wailer’s ‘Try me’ soundtrack, within the first minute of Mangrove, McQueen instantly places us in the spirit and feel of the West Indian community. What followers is a powerful account of the real-life incident of the 'Mangrove Nine' when Frank Crichlow and several other black activists were falsely tried for inciting a riot when they staged a protest to bring attention to the brutal and criminal raids happening to Crichlow's restaurant, the eponymous Mangrove.
Everyone on the screen brings their absolute A-game. Letitia Wright, in particular, is a standout as Altheia Jones-LeCointe, the impassioned leader of Britain's Black Panther movement. There is one scene where she passionately berates Crichlow, tears emerging from her eyes, for wanting to plead guilty instead of fight for justice not just for them but the future generation of black Britons. Honestly, Letitia's acting in that scene moved me in a way I did not expect.
The attention to detail in 'Mangrove', from the sounds, the aesthetics, the dialogue, and the music, is used to even greater effect in ‘Lover’s Rock.’ One aspect I am enjoying about Small Axe is each episode, well the first two which have aired anyway, do feel very distinct from each other yet still recognisably from the same canon. 'Mangrove' was basically a brilliant courtroom drama and 'Lover's Rock' is basically one big 80s blues party. With this setup, McQueen utilises music and dance in a way I haven’t seen on television before. It’s absolutely mesmerising. McQueen teases us with this kind of 'musical' continuous shots in one of the first scenes of 'Lover's Rock' where we see three women in the kitchen singing Janet Kay's 1979 classic 'Silly games.'
After we are introduced to the story's love interests, Franklyn (played by a refreshingly reserved Michael Ward, unrecognisable from his role in Top Boy) and Martha (played by impressive newcomer Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn), we are treated to a fantastic scene. The two lovers and the rest of the partygoers start singing a collective acapella of 'Silly games,' totally lost in the high notes and arresting melody of the song. Honestly, seeing black people carried away in the soulful bliss of blues music hit me right at the centre of my own soul.
Even in darkness, there is light
What McQueen has managed to do with both ‘Mangrove’ and ‘Lovers Rock’ is to show two different but co-existing experiences of black Britons in the 80s. In 'Mangrove,' we are shown the discrimination black Britons faced with the police and within the British legal system itself. In 'Lovers Rock,’ we are shown the joy, fun and sometimes aggressive experience of an all-black party.
Why I really appreciate ‘Lovers Rock’ is that it’s the first time, in a long time, where we see black people simply enjoying themselves on national television. Of course, we do feel the hostility from white Britons with their unfriendly stares and racial name-calling in one scene, but these never become a significant plot point. 'Lovers Rock' is mostly concerned with showing us a great house party with black people dancing and falling in love. It's an intimate look at West Indian culture without being tied to any righteous cause about the black struggle. And it was so refreshing and so beautiful to witness.
But McQueen could only get away with such a light and easy-going narrative like ‘Lovers Rock’ because ‘Mangrove’ was so heavy on the police brutality and racial injustice. So often, this is the only story that is ever told about black people – our suffering and fight for justice and equality. Of course, these stories should be told, but it was genius for McQueen to show us the beautiful side of the black experience – drinking, dancing, smoking, and going wild on the dance floor.
Black lives are not just a palette of doom and dread but also of love and dance. There is always a light where there is darkness. Steve McQueen has so far succeeded brilliantly in showing all the colours of the black British experience with the first two episodes of his anthology.
Look out for my reviews for the remaining episodes Red, White, and Blue, Alex Wheatle and Education.
Basic premise: After killing last year with a succession of club and chart bangers such as 'Options' which reached number seven in the UK charts, 'OT Bop' and 'Trust Issues', East London collective finally drop their first complete body of work 'Roots.' But does it bang?
I have a running joke about NSG. If I ever saw any of them on the street, I wouldn't recognise a single one. No individual member stands out visually or lyrically. To be honest, even their individual flow is not distinct from each other. But I guess that's why their group. There is a real synergy between them even if I couldn't pick them out in a rave.
But it is because of this complete alignment as a group that NSG's sound is so refined and so consistent.
When NSG dropped ‘Options’ in the winter of 2018 and then ‘OT Bop’ in the summer of 2019, I knew we were listening to the UK’s best afrobeat/afroswing group. Like J Hus and Geko, NSG has taken the now mainstream afrobeat sound and infused it with rap lyrics and London sensibilities.
'Roots' showcases NSG in complete control of their made-for-the-club sound while also taking some bold but well-calculated risks which surprisingly work.
Take 'Political badness' for example, the first track on the mixtape. I didn't expect the first track from this mixtape to have such a heavy reggae influence, but NSG makes it work without losing their afrobeat sound.
‘Grandad’, ‘MCM’, ‘Porsche’ and ‘Why Stress’ are clearly the heavy hitters of the album. These tracks are where NSG is entirely within their element and have complete mastery of their sound and their image. These tracks represent the essence of who NSG is. I mentioned earlier that they are a music group meld into one and these tracks really hammer home that point.
NSG could have played it safe, and I would still have loved this mixtape. But they surprise me. Take tracks like 'Lupita' and ‘Jorja’ which brings NSG's sound much closer to the afrobeat sound from Nigerian artists like WizKid. In both of these tracks, NSG praise the love they have for black women. These tracks do not have that undercurrent of the inner-London road lifestyle which is usually within all of their tracks. These tracks feel and sound like a return to the roots of afrobeats, which is apt considering the name of the mixtape.
Chip makes a surprise appearance on 'Nonsense', and while I wouldn't think Chip would be able to rap next to NSG, somehow it works. Again, this just shows that NSG are such a master of their sound that they can bring in a wildcard like Chip and effortlessly mesh him into a specific track.
Final verdict: NSG showcase they are the masters of the London-centric afrobeat sound with 'Roots.' While they stay entirely within their lane for most of this mixtape, they are a few surprising curves which demonstrate the versatility and hidden depth of they have. You may not recognise NSG on the street, but you will recognise their superior sound.
Author: Candice Carty-Williams
Genre: Woman fiction
Basic premise: Queenie is basically like the black version of Bridget Jone's Diary. It follows the life of Queenie Jones, a 25-year-old black woman living in London and going through a pretty bad quarter-life crisis. She’s on a break from her white boyfriend, Tom, and is confused about what the break means for their relationship in the long term. On top of that, her job as a journalist is hanging by a thread and made even worse when she has a short fling with one of her colleagues, leading to a disastrous chain of events. At home, she is struggling with her rent, has a strained relationship with her mum and has to deal with her well-meaning but overbearing mother.
Yeah, life is not easy, for Queenie.
Review: Even though I am a 30-year old black man, so I am clearly not the author’s typical audience, I enjoyed Queenie. I do have some issues with it but overall it was an enjoyable read.
My favourite aspect of the book itself was Queenie’s character. Throughout the book, her life unravels as she makes bad decisions with mostly white men she sleeps with and struggles to connect with her emotionally broken mother.
But what I found most interesting is that Queenie is not a loud or angry black woman stereotype. She’s a highly creative and sensitive young black woman and we don’t see that kind of representation of black women in many mediums, let alone books. As much as I liked Queenie, I do have to mention Kyazike, her Ugandan best friend who recounts some hilarious dating stories. Can’t lie, some of us men don’t have any clue what we’re doing when it comes to the dating game.
The weakest part of the novel for me, personally, was the writing. Not that the writing was terrible. Far from it. In fact, there are some witty turns of phrase in this book that made even me, as a man, laugh. But I did find Candice’s writing to be too simple, a little generic and lacking a distinct voice. She is not in same league as Zadie Smith writing-wise but to be fair, not many black authors are, male or female.
Also, there is a major revelation about Queenie’s mother’s past boyfriend, which I won’t spoil, which was quite jarring. It’s quite a dark twist in the book which didn’t quite work for me because before this reveal, the book was more light-hearted.
Queenie is worth the read. The eponymous hero is a breath of fresh air for black female representation as she is not the loud, angry or ghetto black girl stereotype. She feels like a real woman, going thorough unique struggles that only a black female could experence. Whether you’re a male or female, Queenie is endlessly entertaining and thought-provoking.