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Kwesi Owusu

Born in Ghana, date unknown

Kwesi Owusu is a Ghana-born musician, writer, and editor. In the early 1980s he was a member of African Dawn, a pioneering London-based group of musicians drawn from across the African continent, who fused musical forms with assertive messages of Pan-Africanism and liberation. African Dawn was in essence a collective of urban griots, whose sensibilities reflected the emergent diasporic positioning of the time. In 1986, Owusu was responsible for a then ground-breaking collection of his essays brought together in the volume Struggle for Black Arts in Britain: What Can We Consider Better Than Freedom? Published by Comedia, the book was wide-ranging in its content, though it primarily focused on the performing arts (particularly carnival) that were very much Owusu’s first love. It did though touch on different aspects of the visual arts, including Lubaina Himid’s then-recent exhibition, curated for the ICA, The Thin Black Line. A very useful chapter in the book focussed on the attention paid by the Greater London Council (GLC) to Black artists. The chapter’s title likened the GLC to a lame duck suffenly ready to fly.

In his writing, Owusu had a tendency towards hyperbole. He pointed to the then-recent The Thin Black Line exhibition as establishing “the essential unity of the two main components of the Black community, the Afro-Caribbean and the Asian, a unity steeped in the struggles of resistance to Imperialism and the British state”. In his book The Struggle for Black Arts in Britain, Owusu wrote “we celebrate and affirm this unity”.

Since that particular publication’s release, Owusu’s principle contributions have been as a writer and an editor. To this end, he has been responsible for several anthologies of writings reflecting on the multifaceted arts and culture of those new British peoples who have come from a plurality of diasporic backgrounds. The first of such volumes was Storms of the Heart: Anthology of Black Arts and Culture, published by Camden Press in 1988. Just over a decade later, Owusu was responsible for another (and larger) publication, Black British Culture and Society, A Text Reader, published by Taylor and Francis (Routledge) in 1999. Reflective of one particular Black British artists continuing and ever-increasing good fortune, the book’s cover illustration was a painting by Chris Ofili. In some ways, Black British Culture and Society, A Text Reader was very much a product of the moment. The year before its publication, 1998, had been the 50th anniversary of the landing at Tilbury Docks of the Empire Windrush, the ocean vessel that brought with it 500 or so Caribbean immigrants who would henceforth be regarded as benchmarking the start of an epoch-making period of Black migration to Britain. The anniversary had been marked in a number of ways, including the publication of a number of books that reflected on the changes resulting from, and events occurring within, that 50 year period. This latest book edited by Owusu could be counted amongst these.

The book’s synopsis, from its back cover, was as follows: “From the Windrush immigration of the 1950s to contemporary multicultural Britain, Black British Culture and Society examines the Afro-Caribbean diaspora in post-war Britain. Black British Culture and Society brings together in one indispensable volume key writings on the Black community in Britain, from the ‘Windrush’ immigrations of the late 1940s and 1950s to contemporary multicultural Britain. Combining classic writings on Black British life with new, specially commissioned articles, Black British Culture and Society records the history of the post-war African and Caribbean diaspora, tracing the transformations of Black culture in British society. Black British Culture and Society explores key facets of the Black experience, charting Black Britons’ struggles to carve out their own identity and place in an often hostile society. The articles reflect the rich diversity of the Black British experience, addressing economic and social issues such as health, religion, education, feminism, old age, community and race relations, as well as Black culture and the arts, with discussions of performance, carnival, sport, style, literature, theatre, art and film-making. The contributors examine the often tense relationship between successful Black public figures and the media, and address the role of the Black intellectual in public life. Featuring interviews with noted Black artists and writers such as Aubrey Williams, Mustapha Matura and Caryl Phillips, and including articles from key contemporary thinkers, such as Stuart Hall, A. Sivanandan, Paul Gilroy and Henry Louis Gates, Black British Culture and Society provides a rich resource of analysis, critique and comment on the Black community’s distinctive contribution to cultural life in Britain today.”

Amongst Owusu’s authoured works is Behind the Masquerade - The Story of Notting Hill Carnival, published by Central Books/Arts Media Group in 1988 (written with Jacob Ross). As mentioned earlier, Owusu had a particular attachment to carnival. Witness the following extract from one of his texts, reproduced in the volume Struggle for Black Arts in Britain: What Can We Consider Better Than Freedom? “That these events should develop into an open street celebration in Notting Hill was no accident. Notting Hill had a large black community. More significantly, ‘it was the closest to being liberated territory’. In the now famous riots of 1958, the black community successfully defeated a major wave of extreme right-wing attacks after the murder of Kelso Cochrane. Carnival built on this victory, and drew confidence from its significance. When people converged on Notting Hill they did not come merely to enjoy themselves. They came to meet old friends and make new ones, to visit family and relatives, (sic) and chat freely on the streets as they did back home in the Caribbean. It was an annual mecca, and the revelers came to re-enact a powerful cultural and political symbolism which was essential to daily black existence, survival and struggle.” So wrote Owusu in Notting Hill Carnival: De Road is de Stage de Stage is de Road in 1986, amply reflecting the writer’s ability and determination to infuse cultural commentary with pronounced and forthright political perspectives.


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