Photograph of a banner in Peckham written in Yoruba
MOVE: Subcultures, Movements, Aesthetics is a series of documentation, a critical-collective output of the “Researching Subcultures and Aesthetics Postgraduate Symposium” that took place at National University of Galway Ireland in September 2019. This event was organized as part of the Punk Scholars Network event series, with the aim of bringing students and early career researchers who work on subcultural movements and arts together and offering a space to connect sociological studies on resistance with the more Humanities-oriented discussions around countercultural aesthetics.
The three episodic clusters in the series are designed to reflect the gaps and connections between disciplines, aiming to demonstrate the necessity of re-conceptualizations and how each paper can be thought as both specific to itself and part of a story, an episode of a collective research chapter. Topics ranged from neglected subjects and refusals in the literary world to the politics of independent music and punk subculture, from experimental filmmaking practices that blur the borders of American video art and cinema to the occupy, diasporic and subcultural movements in Romania, Brazil and the UK.
MOVE will run the course of autumn 2020 while the covid-19 is fluctuating in different time-spaces, gesturing towards new ways of moving under restrictions. Thanks to all the contributors, Moore Institute at NUI Galway and Punk Scholars Network for support and special thanks to Abram Foley, editor of ASAP/J. You can access all MOVE essays here.
– Temmuz Süreyya Gürbüz (Editor)
This essay presents a brief overview of the diasporic experience and subcultural practices of the first and second generation Nigerian diaspora in Peckham, London. Grounded on the findings of a seven-month ethnographic participant observation and semi-structured interviews with demographically diverse participants across the two generations of Nigerians, my research, which is summarized in this piece, enumerates how both generations use this diasporic space in navigating everyday diasporic experience. The social, cultural and symbolic practices centered around food, music, media and religious gatherings of the Nigerian diaspora in Peckham, or ‘Little Lagos’, show how these two groups of Nigerians are reordering and recontextualizing objects and practices from the ‘original homeland’ in order to communicate fresh meanings in a new context (Clark 177). In the process, negotiating ‘belonging’ and social inclusion in the mainstream British society becomes a form of distinction between this particular cultural social group and the larger collectivity that has been positioned as normal and average within the dominant mainstream. Thus, as a minority with its attendant consciousness of being the ‘other’, music and symbolic practices become both a stylized form of resistance to a hegemonic culture (Thornton 2-4) because of their outsider status on one hand, and of negotiating everyday diasporic experiences on the other. These visible subcultural practices serve not only as expressions of a collective identity but also navigate this expression of difference from, yet identification with, the parent culture in the mainstream British society.
Peckham, as a space for enacting subcultures through music such as Afrobeats from the parents’ culture, has produced a United Kingdom counterpart, Afroswing or Afrowave; the latter being an amalgamation of African Rhythm (mostly associated with Nigerian and Ghanaian music) and Jamaican Dancehall. The ‘new’ form of cultural meanings that emerge from this amalgamation blur the limitations of existing boundaries and call to question the established categorisation of culture and identity. In the process, the diasporic space of Peckham becomes the site of a deviant culture in renegotiating each generation’s position, and in building a space for diasporic imaginings that serves a magical solution to living in an arguably hostile environment which is a key feature of the diasporic spaces in general (Cohen 3, 17).
Music and social cultural practices originating from the homeland of the diasporic communities address the issues of inclusion and exclusion which is noted by William Safran as the result of a troubled relationship between the diasporic and the host societies. This suggests a lack of acceptance in the hosting space, a lack of empathy with the members of the ethnic group perceived as the “other”, and this results in the absence of the possibility of a distinctive, creative, and enriching life for the diaspora in the host context (Safran 83-84).
The various social and cultural practices of the first and second generation Nigerian migrants in ‘Little Lagos’ have become fluid in terms of their coping strategies in navigating social exclusion in the British mainstream. The de-territorialisation of the group (Cohen 17) and their integration into the host that considers ‘them’ as ‘outsiders’, led to the emergence of Peckham as an ethnic enclave with attendant subcultural practices that are unique to the community. The newly emergent Afroswing is, for example, a creative hybrid music genre that has been enabled by commodification and homogenization of youth culture in the transnational space of globalization; the result of what Huq terms as “postsubculture” that features a more fluid and plural form of cultural formation (Huq 20).
Subcultures and the Performance of Diasporic Consciousness
Migrants, as displaced and relocated people, navigate through a diasporic consciousness that includes multiple locations. This multiple attachment takes on a new significance in relation to reterritorialistion, as both contexts of homeland and the new land continue to feature in the imagination of the diaspora (Alakija). Peckham in London is a site of such relocation. According to the participants of this research, the location is very designated because of the prominence of Yoruba language. Although it is highly different from the original Lagos being Nigeria’s most cosmopolitan city that is populated by 250 ethnic groups and is centrally located in the south western part of Nigeria (Ogala), Peckham is known as Little Lagos and still considered a major Yoruba city.
The social and symbolic practices of Nigerian migrants who live, work, shop and socialize in the same space relate these two separate locations, Lagos and Little Lagos, in the diasporic contexts of both generations of the Nigerian diaspora. Some of these practices are found at parties such as asoebi (“like dressings; dressed alike” [Botticello 143]) which is a Nigerian custom of family members and friends wearing same clothes at social events. This practice coupled with other practices of food, music, media, and religious gatherings link each generation to their essential identity and create a ‘new’ identity in the host context. Peckham becomes the melting pot, a ‘home away from home’ where the narration of identity and discourses of ‘home’ shift between ‘here’ and ‘there’, through various practices, by both the first and second generation of Nigerians (Alakija).
Peckham provides an enriching site in the host for Nigerians: a space where ‘authentic’ group culture is negotiated in contrast to arguably an ‘inauthentic’ mass produced dominant culture (Barker 451). In this space, Nigerian styled naming ceremonies, music, social parties, food, clothing, religious gatherings are specific identity markers that are symbolic of diasporic ‘politicking’ in the country of residence.
The subcultural negotiations within Little Lagos are exemplified in an interview with the British Reverend of a Church of England in Peckham. According to the Reverend, it is not the custom of the church to organise ceremonies such as the naming of a new baby on the eight day. It is, however, a cultural practice that must be acknowledged given its importance in the lives of one of its major congregation. Subsequently, the church adapted the practice by establishing a short service to meet the cultural needs of his parishioners. This recognition added ‘new’ vibrancy to his church while his counterpart churches in the South East are almost folding up. The presence of a set of drums in a corner donated by Nigerians that are deployed for special thanksgiving is an attestation to this mixing (Gilroy 1993, 15), a core element in the 20th and 21st century diasporic groups. In this case, the social practice of the naming ceremony transformed the symbolic and the different through creating a subculture within the dominant British church.
Nigerian Aesthetics in Little Lagos, London
Nigerian practices in Peckham have provided an aesthetic of ‘homeland’ in the ‘host’ context, where identity politics is enacted as part of everyday diasporic experiences of these two generations of Nigerians, both as ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ within the British mainstream. In addition to the ‘new’ hybrid practice in the religious context mentioned above, the practices emerging from the melting pot with the array of Nigerian food shops, restaurants, churches, home video stores, Nigerian music, remittances, and tailoring services further strengthen the position of Peckham as Little Lagos. The prominence of Yoruba language heard in public transportation, specifically buses, and Nigerians clad in the flamboyant African traditional dressing are everyday features of Peckham. This has led to the designation of Peckham not only as ‘Little Lagos’, also a ‘Yoruba heartland’ (White, Ogundamisi). Yoruba people form the largest population of the Nigerian diaspora in London, and Yoruba language is one of the three subcultural languages that is commonly spoken on the streets of Peckham more than any other Nigerian language. This is substantiated by the inscription “Mo feran Peckham” (I love Peckham) in front of Aylesham Centre on Rye Lane (Figure 1).
A lot of people in Little Lagos speak in Yoruba and pidgin, a version of English that is similar to the Jamaican patois with code switching, between Yoruba and English. Churches in the neighbourhood have Nigerian pastors operating a typical Nigerian style of worship, characterised by theatrics, clapping, singing, dancing, drumming and lengthy services. Other rituals associated with religious worship in a traditional Nigerian setting, irrespective of the cold weather, are barefoot women and men in flowing white garments who are members of the Celestial Church of Christ, one of Nigeria’s white garment churches. Adding to this is the blasting of stereo music from Nigerian films and home-video vendors selling in stalls, on the streets, and playing the record of a Nigerian musician, Ayefele. Suzanne Hall notes the uniqueness of ‘Little Lagos’ as a “super-diverse street” because of the prominence of these Nigerian related enterprises, assorted Nigerian restaurants, clubs, internet cafes, and grocery stores, managed by Asians, Nigerians and other ethnicities (Hall). Grassroots community organizations, social, political, cultural and professional associations form the hub and hybridity of Rye Lane, and Peckham in general.
Figure 1: Photograph of a banner in Peckham written in Yoruba
Nigerian Diaspora, Music: Diasporic Politics of ‘Blackness’
The British youth culture has often been read as a succession of differential responses to black immigrant’s presence in Britain. Subsequently, reggae sound system culture and Rastafarianism have been resources used in resisting white culture and racial subordination (Barker 440). The musical politics of the black youth culture has invariably impacted on other British white subcultures that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s such as the teddy boys, skinheads and punk subculture. This shows the interrelationship among various cultures and the influences of minority groups within the British popular culture.
This interrelationship plays out in two ways with the second generation Nigerians in Peckham in terms of intermingling of music genres that combine both the transgressive features of black speech and African rhythms in its recent form through the mixing of Nigerian Afrobeats and Jamaican dancehall that produced a UK Afroswing that is trending across the African Diaspora. As noted by Paul Gilroy, although biological and racial essence has connected the Jamaican and Nigerian groups to the “Black Atlantic”, a power dynamic had separated the Yoruba first generation migrants from the African–Caribbean counterpart in Britain during the late 1960s and early 1970s (Harris 36-37). Despite the shared culture and history (Gilroy 1993b), there was a sense of deep divergences in the cultures encompassed under the term ‘black’. Today, however, irrespective of the racial discourses that generated conflict between the first generation offspring in the 1960s and 1970s, the shared ‘sameness’ has been a source of identification for the second generation as they celebrate a declared pride in the popularity of Afrobeats music and the various Ankara fabric clothing styles1 in the British fashion as well as the global mainstream as a source of reclaiming a Nigerian identity. At the same time, they celebrate the fusion of Afroswing in a way that contributes to the diasporic politics of ‘blackness’.
These post-colonial creative hybrid and fusion of cultures birthed an African subculture in the diasporic space of the UK that cuts across social categorisation and diasporic groupings. As of 2014, Afrobeats gained a position of popularity in the British mainstream, being played on major radio stations, parties and dance halls, and in 2017 to present, it is considered as a popular genre (Adegoke). One of the second generation Nigerians I interviewed, Tos who is a 25 years old woman, describes this creative hybrid as follows:
Consisting of an amalgamation of Afrobeats and Jamaican dancehall created in the UK, leading to what has been touted a unique black British genre… UK Afrobeats maintains same composition with West African counterpart, Afroswing /Afrowave is sung or rapped in British accent using black British slang which has a very strong Jamaican influence. Furthermore, the beat is a mixture of Caribbean and African influence (Interview 13/05/2019).
With this ‘new’ amalgamation, Afrobeats in the UK within the diaspora witnessed a decline due to the commercial success of Afroswing being played more on mainstream radios, such as Capital Xtra, Planet Radio, BBC Radio 1Xtra, than other types of Afrobeats genres, and also its success is visible in music charts.
According to the second generation interviewees, the reason for this success has been linked to the fact that ‘Afroswing permeates through the cultural divide that many feel Afrobeats has not’ (Tos). She stresses that though it is listened to by many groups, Afrobeats is still mainly an ‘African thing’. While Jamaican subculture has a dominant stronghold in the diaspora, it is not surprising to see why it has happened: despite the threat that the new genre poses, Afrobeats still maintains a great level of success in the UK. This is evident in the high level of concerts, mostly in the form of Nigerian and Ghanaian dance frenzies that have taken over as well as Afrobeats still being played in many UK clubs.
Significant also is the fact that Afroswing listeners in contrast to its parent Afrobeats, consist of the younger generation between the ages of 19-23, while the latter cuts across young, old and homeland locals. Comparably, Afroswing is fairly new; time will reveal its full impact on the diaspora. As the UK derived-Afrobeats declines within the diaspora, Afrobeats coming directly from Nigeria is still in full force and is mainly celebrated by those of African heritage. It may not be as influencing as Afroswing; it is definitely not going away anytime soon.
The Nigerian diaspora has created an enriching diasporic subculture in relation to music and social life within the British mainstream as well as the diasporic space of Peckham. A creative hybrid youth subculture has emerged that is ‘African’ and ‘black’ which is producing a diasporic consciousness in the dominant culture. In the past several Afro-Caribbean cultures were rooted in Jamaican Caribbean culture; now together with African diversity and the Nigerian diaspora counterparts, they have been able to carve out what could be referred to as a unique Black British genre that creatively affirms the hybrid and syncretic nature of identities and cultural practices; a consequence of the continuous interactions between the global and the local in our contemporary time. This creative hybrid cultures and subcultures have been jointly enabled by the trio efforts of diaspora consciousness, commodification and homogenization of youth culture in the transnational space of globalization which has extended the debate of subculture to a post subcultural epoch.
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