Words & illustration by Emily Doyle
It’s the beginning of Birmingham’s short-lived heatwave. Tilt, the pinball bar, has its doors open and the clatter of the machines echoes into the street. The table is laid out with marker pens, various notebooks, and a black coffee. Juice Aleem arrives and orders a stout.
Juice Aleem has been a key figure in the Birmingham hip hop scene since the mid-nineties. He’s fronted Big Dada collective New Flesh, hosted for Ninja Tune, and collaborated with Coldcut, Hexstatic, and Adam Freeland. 2016 saw the release of his album, Voodu Starchild, and a book on Afrofuturism. He is a director of B-Side Hip Hop Festival. This weekend, he joins Sid Peacock’s Surge Orchestra for a performance at mac to launch Surge in Spring II Festival.
“It’s my first time performing with Sid,” tells Aleem. “We’ve done a few things in the past, like me reviewing some of their gigs. I became aware of them around the time they were doing a tribute to Sun Ra, and I’m quite a Sun Ra fan and someone was like ‘Oh they’re doing this and maybe they could use you and you could meet Sid and you might like this…’ So, that was a two or three years ago and since then we’ve kept in contact. This is part of the culmination of that.”
The performance is titled ‘Rivers of Love’. It’s a reflection on Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, delivered fifty years ago this week in Birmingham.
“We thought a lot of people are going to concentrate on the negatives because it wasn’t the exactly most happy time,” explains Aleem, “so instead of that, let’s look at the positives of the time. Some of them are obvious, some are less so. The country that my father came to, and then my mother later, from two different islands in the Caribbean – when they came here, a bell pepper was something that was hard to get hold of. A bell pepper, as innocuous as a bell pepper is – it’s not spicy, but it only grows originally in certain parts of the world. It has to have sun, it has to have certain types of soil – and it wasn’t here in great amounts. I’m not saying people didn’t know what a bell pepper was, but it wasn’t in every meal. Like on a basic level, there’s a Caribbean food shop just there. We’re sitting here drinking beers and coffees and things. These kinds of beers and coffees in general don’t come from this country. But you know, we all drink coffee. We enjoy these things day in day out.”
“In a way though I understand his speech. I understand some of what he was getting at, though it’s very right wing. The funny thing is, it was Enoch Powell that actually made the call to bring people over here, that’s what people don’t understand. He was the main person to say ‘Hey, Nigeria, India, Jamaica, Trinidad, come over here, come help.’ He was important in that call, and afterwards he was like, ‘ah…’ And that’s what the speech actually entails. It wasn’t necessarily saying don’t come, it wasn’t necessarily saying you have to go home now, but it was saying you have to wear a bowler hat. He talks about how people speak, and learning to speak the Queen’s English. I’m paraphrasing here but like, ‘if you’re going to be here, be here like us. Don’t be too… dark’”.
When asked about the value of looking back at Enoch Powell’s speech, Aleem is quick to argue it’s cultural importance. “You have to analyse the past. That should be the reason we have history, not just to pass tests. I’m gonna quote Malcolm X: he says that most of the education we have is not an education, it’s an indoctrination. History especially – especially especially.
I think by now we should have learned some kind of lesson about invasion of people’s land and privacy, ownership, cultural hegemony. I think history is very important, and it’s important to address in it in an artistic manner. It’s incumbent upon artists to do something – you don’t have to be the most knowledgeable. You don’t have to be Public Enemy. You don’t have to be Bob Dylan. You don’t have to get yourself arrested, but at least address certain things within your understanding of the world. Whatever your issue is, whether it’s just being allowed to skateboard in a certain park – that’s your politics.”
Aleem’s own politics are rooted in the Afrofuturist movement. The author of 2016’s Afrofutures and Astro Black Travel: A Passport to a Melanated Future, he is eager to explain the label.
“I think Afrofuturism – let me say straight off, I’m not concerned with that title. It’s just a name for an idea or a concept or an emotion, and we often give things names that we can’t necessarily contain within those letters. It helps people understand… like the film Black Panther. I’ve had people come to me and say, ‘I get what you’re on about now – I’ve just watched Black Panther and I get it’.
Why did Picasso become a better artist by studying what they call primitivism and cubism, by going into African culture? The standard of European cultural so-called superiority is all based on African precepts. Mathematics, archaeology, language; it’s all from a dark skinned person somewhere, usually a dark skinned woman, funnily enough. So, then feminism features in, and intersectional feminism.”
While we talk, I’ve been making sketches for a portrait of Aleem. He looks over at what I’m working on and asks if he can sketch me too. Producing a case of markers, he gets to work. Aleem’s art style is a reflection of him – bold, unapologetic, but always endearing. It echoes eighties comic books, a recurring topic in our conversation. I ask why he feels drawn to the medium.
“I love Stan Lee and Jack Kirby,” tells Aleem. “Marvel not only made superheroes, they also took existing heroes because these aren’t owned by any copyright anymore, so you’ve got thousands of years of stories that you don’t have to pay for. You put Thor, the god of thunder from Norse mythology, you put him in to the premier superhero group of the sixties Marvel Comic Company, and this is perfect.
Superheroes already exist in mythology. One of the first heroes in East African mythology, where some people speculate we get the word ‘hero’, is Heru, or Horus. He’s already a superhero by virtue: ‘Oh my parents are kind of like gods, and I did this and I conquered that and I came back from death…’ Well, you’re a superhero. If you explain an angel to somebody without using the word, it would sound like a superhero. In west African mythology you have things called the orishas which are like gods, spirits, but lesser than the supreme. They have different attributes, this one can control the water, this one can do that. We would call those beings superheroes.
Since we’ve started calling superheroes ‘superheroes’, there’s been a lot of wars. Comics came to the fore particularly in the forties and fifties, times of world war. There’s a need in the human psyche to be saved. And as we’re, in a general, less religious, in the Judeo-Christian monotheistic sense, we might not call for Jesus anymore or Jehovah… we may call for Superman. We may call for Spiderman. And again, these archetypes already exist. Spiderman, Anansi, you know where I’m going. Superman is Kal-El – in Hebrew, ‘of god’. They’re already there.”
Juice Aleem is a font of knowledge on the lineage of the superhero archetype throughout civilisation. I ask him if it’s role within the Afrofuturist movement is a healthy one – does African/African Diaspora culture deserve a more varied representation in the future?
“I think Luke Cage is a representation of the black everyman,” answers Aleem. “Obviously, the everyman that got put through a chemical process that gives him bullet proof skin and super strong muscle strength, which obviously happens to most people… Actually, as much as I down it a little bit, I think that’s what Black Lightning’s good for. He’s got powers, but he’s very much a school teacher. I think that’s the problem with the programme. All the crescendos of the story are based in almost too normal a storyline for an African-American family. For me, personally, I’m happy to escape that. Do I need another story about black gangs, black-on-black violence, drug dealing? I think I might have seen that already.
That’s why Afrofuturism is important to me, more interesting, because it flips a different switch in your brain. Even if we consciously want to be friends with everybody, we are subconsciously going to be sexist. We are subconsciously going to be misogynist. We are subconsciously going to be homophobic, or racist. There’s certain things in our upbringing, in our society that are going to trigger us. And that’s why I think it’s important to do things that are going to challenge us, not only in our documentation but in our experimentation.”
Juice Aleem and Surge Orchestra present ‘Rivers of Love’ at mac on Saturday 21st April. Doors open for the mac Theatre at 1pm, with ticket priced at £10 / £9.10 – for direct event information and online ticket sales, visit www.macbirmingham.co.uk/event/surge-in-spring-ii-juice-aleem-and-surge-orchestra
For more on Juice Aleem, visit www.juicealeem.co.uk
For more on Sid Peacock and Surge Orchestra, visit www.surgeorchestra.com
For more from the mac, including full event listings and online ticket sales, visit www.macbirmingham.co.uk