I have, over the years had a fair amount of punters look at me suspiciously when I discuss my racial background. There has been numerous occasions that enquiries on my ethnicity arises when someone hears me sing for the first time. It has gone something like this;
Punter: (Eyes look around around to deter eavesdroppers) “Has anyone ever told you that *whispers* you sound like a black person when you sing?”
Me: Yes! My mother is black.
Punter: *Laughs uncomfortably*
Punter: “Oh…really? You’re serious?”
Many have looked curiously at me, eyes darting to the sploof of curly hair or my brown eyes. Aware that they are now treading on rough ground and terrified of offending me. Many have backed out of the conversation sharpish and some have battled through, using multiple antique descriptions for mixed-race people (coloured, half caste, etc.) unsure of the appropriate so, to be safe, listing them all. The standard exchange is awkward, the best ends in us both laughing and the worst was being called a “white nigger”. Though these exchanges have decreased significantly over the years, my early memories of gigging in Ireland are littered with these post-gig encounters.
In the early years and with friends, assumptions on my racial declarations have been met with suspicion. Why would I not call myself white? Isn’t that what I am? Lifting up their arm and comparing it with mine and looking at me like they’ve just solved a conspiracy. At the time, I didn’t have the linguistic arsenal to explain why my racial mix was significant. I would get upset and shut-down, at times just shouting “I’m just not white! OK?”, getting red with frustration at my inability to correctly articulate why being white because, “look at me” was not that simple. I also suspected some friends assumed I focused on “not being white” as it tied in nicely to the soul-singer identity. I received many friendly comments, joking about my big arse, which I accepted as a tolerant compromise to their process. Of seeing me as a mixed-race woman and not a white woman holding onto a convenient narrative to make me interesting.
Now I have the capabilities to describe why calling myself “just white” is not that simple. That the chances of a mixed-race, Nigerian-Irish baby surviving and being adopted in the 1950s was slim. My aunty was adopted when she was found in a darkened room after the nuns tried to convince my grandparents, that “there was no point” in adopting her. They were essentially neglecting her to death. My mother and her siblings’ ability to survive and thrive in an Ireland battling with social progression and my subsequent existence (shout out to my beige cousins and sisters too!) was a declaration of strength in regards to my lineage. I would not forget that because my genes decided not to make me darker.
Things are changing and our culture is slowly accepting Black-Irish identities. Recently, I was a bit taken aback to hear a black man explain to me “I’m really white though, I have been here for most of my life” I immediately exclaimed that he was both black and Irish! The intention of course to make him feel he could embrace who he was, fully. Were my friends, back in the day trying to do that as well? To make me feel like whiteness was something I could just be and have a less complicated life? I see now that that wasn’t necessarily my place to say that. Struggling with who we are is a natural way of things and we are all on different journeys. Assuming someone’s identity is not my place.
We are all slowly learning about multitudes of identities that are not mono-racial, heteronormative, cis or mono-national. Although patience is needed, please don’t make the mistake of looking to your minority friends to explain Race to you. It can become exhausting for them. Educate yourself on POC voices before coming to the discussion, it’s a wonderful way to have the most stimulating discussion on identity.
In regards to our music scene now, I recently wept in a room surrounded by black-Irish artists and punters. I thought about my mother who passed away over ten years ago and thought about how happy she would be, not to be the only person in a room with an afro. To see young, black-Irish people experimenting with their look and hair, something she always struggled with due to a mix of low-confidence and lack of inspiration. I approached the legend, Erica-Cody at one of these events, it went something like this:
Me: “Where are you from?”
Erica: (Eyebrow raised) “Baldoyle?”
Me: “Fucking knew you were a fellow northsider! I’m from Artane!”
*More excited chats*
I think I asked her about music schools and stage schools on the Northside, wondering if we went through the same places. Later on we got to work together on a show with the RTE Orchestra, Mo-K and Adam Fogarty called “The Story Of Hip Hop” and we literally killed Electric Picnic. The line-up was Jafaris, Mango, Erica-Cody and myself. An incredibly talented Zim-Irish man, a ginger-haired Finglas legend, a mixed-race, northside goddess and a beige short-arse from Beaumont. The show was one of the most popular that year and the line-up was a perfect example of an Ireland that is, and will be our reality forevermore. I couldn’t be happier to sound like a black person.
Photo by Tara Thomas