With open season on activism, whistle blowers and descent on any level worldwide, now more than ever it is compelling and crucial to recognise the sentiment of activism – particularly through art or storytelling.
I first met Tayo Aluko as I was leaving the venue where I had attended the conference for the Resist movement last October, with the proposal to the movement becoming a political party and Tayo had been one of the acts of the previous Saturday night’s entertainment. He asked if I’d like to join his online presentation of a radio play, he produced and of course I was interested. Turns out the play was staged and produced by him, with actors from America and was of the quality and calibre fit for any BBC radio programme. Later I asked if he would be interested in an interview and so it happened. It wasn’t one of those conversations putting the world to rights – it was more sussing and sounding it out from two slightly different, but similar perspectives.
On a sunny May afternoon via Zoom, we talked about everything from his career in architecture, to reverse-racism, and a lot of politics in between. Above all, Paul Robeson and his influence was never far from Tayo’s projected views, as a pivotal figure in his life.
D: “Tell me how you went from your architecture into writing/singing/acting?”
T: “The singing and acting had been something I had always done as a child in Nigeria. I became an architect and carried on singing and acting as an amateur and happened upon the story of Paul Robeson in 1995 and I was so blown away by that story, I decided someone needed to tell the story. Ten years later, I started writing a play about him with myself acting him as a one-man play. So, 2 years later, I took it to the Edinburgh fringe and Brighton fringe and started getting 1 or 2 performances here and there, while being an architect and property developer which, never happened – I got frustrated and sabotaged. In 2008 I wound up my development company, lost a lot of money – becoming very frustrated and sad about everything. I took the play on the road and to Lagos, at an invitation by the U.S embassy. My father, who was 90, having seen it – finally understood me. Having a conversation outside the next day, he said, ‘if you’re going to do this, you have my blessing’.”
“This was October of 2008 – come January and time for me to renew my professional indemnity insurance – I didn’t have the money. So, I said, sod this, I’ll just give it up now and do something I like.”
D: “Going back to before you became an architect, when did you actually come to the UK?”
T: “I came to the UK in 1978 at the age of 16 and went to a boarding school to get what was then called my A-levels. Three years after that, I started studying architecture at Bath University.”
He carries on describing studying at Canterbury College of Art, spending a year in the industry and completing a Masters in London in design in developing countries. He eventually moved to Liverpool in 1989, where he was accepted to complete his final degree – setting up in business in 1993.
D: “What is your affinity with Paul Robeson?”
T: “Coming across Paul Robeson’s life, made me understand the world a lot better, because this is a man whose father had been born into slavery.” Tayo describes Robeson’s father escaped from slavery in North Carolina, in the mid-19th century. Robeson’s father, having 5 children, taught them pre-slavery African history.
T: “This son of a slave, coming from that background, had become one of the most famous people on the planet, in his time. Because of his politics, he had become a target of the American, British and Canadian establishments.”
D: “He was very ahead of his time – I don’t know much about him, but he seemed really ahead of his time.”
T: ” Very, very much so. In the 1930s, he and others formed the Council on African Affairs – addressing apartheid, which was to campaign for independence of African colonies. This is the 1930s! The apartheid movement we are more familiar with, is in the 70s and 80s.”
Tayo emphasises how Robeson could be considered the first true internationalist. Due to his Socialism, campaigning for the rights of African Americans and African independence – this could not be divorced from the struggles of working-class people everywhere or Jews.
T: “Because of his awareness of the inequality and exploitation of capitalism, because of the large crowds he drew with his singing and success – he was seen as particularly dangerous. He would make speeches on the concert platform on American hypocrisy, so he got himself into a lot of trouble with the authorities. He was one of the more well-known of the McCarthy witch hunt.”
D: “Was he ever thrown in jail?”
T: “He was never thrown in jail but was put under house arrest – he wasn’t confined to his home, but there was a time between 1950-58 where his passport was cancelled, and he couldn’t travel.”
Tayo cites how Robeson had been ‘watched’ from as early as the 30s, as he had visited the Soviet Union. As the Soviet Union had first been an ally to the U.S against fascist Germany – with the onslaught of the Cold War and the U.S and Soviet Union becoming adversaries, Robeson had been considered a threat, as he didn’t go along with the given narrative.
T: “The irony, is before that, he was one of the most popular artists in America – having come out with The Balid for Americans; which was extremely patriotic – talking about how America was made up of so many different people – working people, tailors…”
D: “So would you say he’s, not really a role model, but…”
T: “Very much a role model, a teacher, a guide – I learned so much about the world through him, that’s no exaggeration and I definitely feel that if his thoughts and beliefs had been adopted the world would be very much more, a peaceful and equal place. But because in every country in the world practically, the powers that be find such people, such people conflict with the powers that be, therefore he was suppressed, misrepresented and misunderstood, deliberately.”
D: “He was a threat to people, to the establishment and that kind of brings me to my next question. You’re right to point out in your blog I read this morning , the situation you had with the Facebook group, and facing this wall of silence etc and then next thing you knew you were kicked out and that microcosm of a situation and the more macro situation where whistle blowers and journalists like Julian Assange and Craig Murray are being put in jail for basically revealing the truth – things that the mainstream media, politicians and the government don’t want you to know. This is a very broad question – what do you think could turn the tide, at macro level, because people keep voting in these corrupt, not just politicians but the whole system. I was watching the French elections recently and Macron got in again, I thought he would, and it’s going to be more of the same, more of the same. The left-wing guy barely made the second round. What do you think will break the trend? It’s a hard thing because I know the left has been fragmented, particularly in the last ten years, it’s quite frustrating. What do you think it’s going to take, I mean for everyday people that are facing inequality, the cost-of-living crises, all of it? What do you think it’s actually going to take to turn things on its head?”
T: “I think a number of things, the first thing that comes to mind is the removal of the media from the hands of the ruling class, the billionaire class because practically all of the news we get from mainstream, even BBC, but let’s talk about newspapers.”
D: “Especially the BBC.”
T: “Yeah, but you can’t identify the ownership of the BBC with billionaires, I mean I can’t, but you know the leadership of the BBC, the chairman of the board and so on, are certainly from ruling classes. But if you go to the United States, all the bigger media channels MSNBC, CNN are owned by this small group of people, in whose interest it is to keep the public ignorant. Therefore, one of the big things that is necessary is for A: somehow the public to become aware of it – how they’re being duped and B: for the left-wing media to receive a lot more support. How that happens, I don’t know.”
D: “Yeah, the left-wing media is really struggling. Two online magazines have just folded, quite established.”
T: “Which ones?”
D: “One was called Bitch Media an online feminist magazine out of the US and one was Roar, who I’d heard of, but never seen. I used to read things out of BITCH media. They would actually really provoke me – I didn’t always like their angle but they covered good things. I think they had all the best intentions but that after 25 years has gone.”
T: “Another thing I think is necessary for the strangle hold in politics to be loosened where there are often two parties which are, as someone I admire quite a bit, George Galloway, refers to as two cheeks of the same arse.”
D: “The Democrats and Republicans, Labour and Conservatives.”
T: “And the same in France for instance as we’ve just seen. Somehow the system has been rigged or developed in such a way that this two-party system is what operates and sort of feeds us a diet of reactionism, conservatism. So, in the UK for instance, it is widely acknowledged by people on the left that the Labour party is not fit for purpose and there needs to be a movement outside of parliament that may get a new party to parliament, a new left-wing party or transform Labour into what it’s really meant to be.”
D: “We were talking about people being aware they’re being lied to with the way the establishment have a stranglehold on the media, with the internet particularly in the last 20 years, people have realised how much they’re being lied to – how 9/11 was an inside story, I followed that, that was a real eye opener for me on a personal level as an American. That’s why more and more people have realised and why they’re taking to the streets in record numbers. For example, the Stop the War Coalition with the Iraq war – record numbers. So, people do realise they’re being lied to but the government, the media is so strong and left-wing media is very much weak and alternative because they’re not relying on big donors. People are realising they’re being lied to, but people are also going to the polls. For example, on Thursday we have the local elections, my thought is they’re all going to go out and vote Labour, because they’re so used to either or. There was a thing I read this morning that a lot of people will be voting green which is great, but people tend to vote for other parties as a protest vote, not because they are really for that particular party. People know they’re being lied to but parties like the Tories are still in power, they’ve been in power for twelve years.”
T: “They know they’re being lied to, but they also have short memories because they forget the lies, they’ve been told within a year or two. They knew for instance; Boris Johnson is a pathological liar and they still voted for him in droves because of the threats that had been whipped up – the fear that had been whipped up by the media against Jeremy Corbyn and Labour. Media manipulation and political manipulation is very very alive and well everywhere. I think when the orange man got elected, I tried to see a positive in that, that things would get so bad people would rise up – it didn’t really happen. Now here in the UK, with the cost-of-living prices and the complete bankruptcy not just of the Tory party or Labour, this will also galvanise some kind of uprising. Except we’ve had uprisings in France for instance, they’ve had those constantly, but look who they’ve re-elected, but at least if we get some uprisings here, hopefully that will increase.”
D: “How bad do things really have to get before people say enough’ s enough and take to the streets – where we see a 1926 uprising for example, general strike, a real proper shake up.”
T: “That would be nice but I’m not optimistic about it, because of a lack of unity on the left really and a lack of support for trade unions for instance and a lack of political education, but even if uprisings happen without people being that politically aware at least it has a chance of shaking the system which is certainly needed, definitely.”
D: “After George Floyd got killed and several others, in the States, which kicked started Black Lives Matter and that rippled throughout the world and the UK as well as the legacy of slavery and rightfully so; and how people of colour have been treated for decades and decades/hundreds of years, which I fully support and have marched in favour etc. I was so chuffed when the Colson statue got torn down in Bristol, but do you think BLM has possibly drowned out the plight of other protected characteristics? For example, LGBT, people with additional needs, because that’s like a bandwagon. You had the day everyone put black squares on social media then a lot of people took it down from their profile, everyone jumping on the bandwagon so to speak. So, what are your thoughts on that?”
T: “I have heard that argument before, very recently and this was a South Asian person saying that BLM has drowned out other oppressed groups shall we say and I can understand that argument with regard to LGBT and whatever, but I think the lesson we have to keep reminding ourselves of, is there isn’t a single oppressed minority or majority that can win its battles without being in solidarity with all other oppressed groups. That’s why and how the civil rights movements in the United States for instance was successful because it involved people of all races and that’s why apartheid in South Africa was eventually overcome, because people of all races inside and especially outside of South Africa stood in solidarity with the black South Africans. So yes, the BLM movement was probably, I gather, has been hijacked by corporate entities and some of the leaders of the BLM movement are now multimillionaires somehow or the other. But then there’s always another way of looking at it. I come from Nigeria and in Oct 2020 there was a big uprising to end SARS movement. The army ordered to fire on the protestors and several people got killed. Now, that’s state brutality – black people being killed by their black state operators, so the point is you cannot look at it just in terms of race, it’s about who has power and who abuses power.”
D: “I had a conversation with a guy of colour once, he was a performer I watched in Exeter, and I spoke to him after. I said, ‘what do you think, as a journalist who has written quite extensively on people with additional needs – having our human rights taken and being treated as a bit of an underclass, so I often call it the other racism.’ He got my argument but said don’t call it ‘the other racism’ because I compared it to what people of colour go through. I can’t remember why he said not to call it that.”
T: “I don’t feel it is my place to tell people what to call things they feel apply to them. So, if you want to call it the other racism, if it helps you and whoever to understand it then by all means go ahead, I can’t object to that.”
D: “BLM movement: I read a lot of stuff, mainstream and otherwise – even in indie media, it’s always, ‘let’s talk about whiteness’ lets ‘talk about the fragility of whiteness.’ so, it seems to be this reverse reactionary/reverse racism if you like, what are your comments on that? It’s as if people are trying to personify being white as opposed to people that are oppressed. Bitch Media came out about this a lot, a lot about black artists, and that’s all well and great, they would say, well let’s talk about whiteness. I just thought, am I supposed to be offended? – I felt offended.”
T: “I think the knowledge of the history of oppression of Europeans, European people of the rest of the world is necessary but not sufficiently understood. And for the same reasons as I was arguing earlier it is quite easy to look at all white people and see them as oppressors – forgetting the fact white people are always exploited by other white people, white working-class people, white disabled people, white women are generally victims of the same system, of capitalist exploitation.”
D: “Exactly! That’s what I thought – it’s a very ignorant way to point out the issue of racism and how people of colour are treated, to talk about whiteness as if you’re a bad person, you miss the point, or don’t understand the argument if they’re white. Like saying all white people are middle class and privileged. I thought it was ignorant coming from a so-called progressive magazine.”
T: “There is a privilege I as a man have just by being a man. In any situation, just because that’s where society is, but at least I try to acknowledge and understand that and you cannot get away from the fact that if you see a white person or a black person, even if the black person is upper middle class and the white person is working class and has a hidden disability for instance, in many people’s eyes they may assume the opposite, just because of the way we’ve been conditioned to look at the world. So, there is an existing privilege of whiteness. But the question is whether you understand it or whether you use it in a way to equalise society.”
D: “Lastly, with your singing and acting how are you intending to communicate through that, as you were obviously quite moved by the story of Paul Robeson.”
T: “My second play is about Britain’s first black judge who was also a singer, he was not a political person, and I gave him the thought process that he doesn’t want to get involved with politics, he’s just an ordinary lawyer, which is the title of the play. Even though the judge is not political it is a very progressive Socialist story. What I plan to do is try to find historical stories and tell them in a way that basically helps people of all backgrounds to understand the world better and understand why protest and activism are necessary, have always been necessary and always will remain necessary – even more so now than ever. But with so little avenues for correct political education available through the current media and education system at least art is one way of joining that fight – that’s my contribution.”
What a right on statement and end to such an enlightening conversation! Certainly, on the last few points, Tayo at the very least, put into context what I was trying to conceptualise in a messy, awkward, bumbling way, which didn’t do me any favours as a journalist, so apologies to such a patient interviewee and contributor. That said, I’m not above humility and always appreciate the wisdom or insight of others.
At the end of the day, it’s easy enough to just lap up what you’re handed, go with the flow and keep shopping for crap you don’t need on Saturday morning. Not to mention, model your life to the tune of convenience – learning to drive despite climate change or congestion, but making a stand for truth against a tied of corporate lies or interests; to put one’s self on the line for the masses, for justice, fairness or equality as Paul Robeson, Martin Luther King Jr., Jeremy Corbyn, Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, Reality Winner and countless others have – whether through politics, art or journalism, we have simply got to keep applauding activism, keep up the momentum and fight, because if we get lazy, tired or demoralised – especially by those with few morals, our lives and minds are no longer our own.