Spotlight: Anthony Joseph

Trinidadian musician Anthony Joseph tells Subi Shah about how important it is for his children to know about Windrush.

There’s a problem on the London Underground and I’m late. Emerging onto Leicester Square, into heavy rain, I see people rushing to find shelter from the downpour. A bus has broken down, causing chaos, the cars behind blaring their horns. Then I spot him, wearing his signature natty hat, standing quite still, cool as you please, just liming.*

Born to a teenage mother in Trinidad, Anthony Joseph was raised from seven months by his grandparents, whom he describes as ‘country people, strict and loving’. It’s difficult to describe him as neatly. Poet, academic, musician, novelist? I ask him how he’d describe himself.

‘I’m just a person feeling my way around, trying to make sense of the world.’

He tells me he began writing because of the trauma of being separated from his mother.

‘I was the only child in my grandparents’ house. Having no-one to play with, I got in to writing poetry. It helped me figure things out. There was always Calypso playing and I listened to people like The Mighty Sparrow and Lord Kitchener, and I thought “Wow! How these people are using language, to say one thing and mean another!”’

Originating in Trinidad, Calypso, with its distinctive steel drums and double entendres, is a form of storytelling. I ask Joseph what story he’d most like to tell and to whom?

‘I’d tell my daughters about the experiences of the women of the Windrush. Often reports say “500 men arrived”, but there were 300 women on board too. They were adventurers, making an epic journey to England, who would eventually make a huge contribution to British life, and their virtual exclusion from that history is a political issue.

‘I think everything is political because everything is about power. Take the #MeToo Movement, which is big in Trinidad now. It’s about the rights and power of the woman, but it’s also about the obligations of those already in a place of power towards that woman.’

Joseph has collaborated with many respected names in music, including Me’shell Ndegeocello, and has written in praise of Malala Yousafzai. Still, he has faced some criticism about ‘objectifying women’ in some of his music videos. I ask him for a response to this.

‘We need space to be able to compliment. That’s not the same as harassment. If you take the sexual element away from Calypso, you lose such a huge part of it.’

We discuss Joseph’s new book, Kitch, a fictional biography of Calypsonian musician Lord Kitchener, who, as the Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury in 1948, serenaded those waiting with a song he had written on board, entitled ‘London is the place for me’.

‘The usual way of biography is one person’s account of another and that’s not what we are; no-one is the sum total of what someone else thinks of them. Not much is known about Kitch, so I sort of filled in the gaps with fictional accounts of “characters” in his life.’

I wonder what Kitch himself would have made of it – would he have authorized it? He laughs. ‘No way! It’s not very flattering. There’s stuff in there which is ridiculous. I mean his attitude towards Africa and Africans was just so negative! He thought they were savages and refused to even visit.’

‘London is the place for me’ is such a hopeful song, but later pieces by Kitch describe loneliness, cold weather, racism, poor housing, lack of work. Was he a disillusioned ingenu? Anthony thinks not. ‘He was a charming man of 26 years, trying to sweeten up the English.’

I ask him his thoughts on the current political climate across Europe – particularly in terms of cultural identity – and whether anything much has changed since Lord Kitchener arrived.

‘There has been a political turn to the Right, yes, but history is long! This is a bad chapter in a long book. I travel a lot around Europe, lecturing and performing, and in some of the more rural places I’ve visited, the racism is so overt it’s shocking. I was in Spain last weekend and I noticed shops selling sweeties with golliwogs on the wrappers! It worries me that in 2019 that sort of caricature is still acceptable. I wonder where the challenge will come from because there are no people of colour living in those villages, no universities in those small towns. But then, I think the debate around Brexit has woken young people up about what it means to be European. All those kids who go travelling and on exchange trips and backpacking around Europe are suddenly asking “What the hell is going on?”’

* Trinidadian slang for ‘chilling out’.

Anthony Joseph’s latest music album is People of the Sun (Heavenly Sweetness, 2018), and his most recent book is Kitch: A fictional biography (Peepal Tree Press, 2018).

You can see him perform at: