Saturday 9 May 2020

Ty – A Work of Heart (Liner Notes)

I've been trying to write something about Ty  - but the words aren't coming out right now. Or rather, there are too many words, too many thoughts,  too many feelings. 

He asked me to write liner notes for A Work of Heart.  The album artwork was beautiful; photography by Benji Reid, graphics by JM. 

My words were edited for space. Seeing them on the gatefold LP was a special moment for me. Here are the full liner notes:

Ty – A Work of Heart

On album number 5, Mercury-nominated hip-hop artist Ty, celebrates the highs and lows of 20 years as a recording artist. A Work Of Heart is a testament to the independent artist, to staying true to an artistic vision and to the mix of creativity and sheer bloody-mindedness required to stay successful in the midst of comments like “you’re not from the right country, you don’t have the right accent, skin and bone no you’re too fat, don’t have the right skin tone, who produced that?” 

Following the WorkingtroTy opens the album on Eyes Open acknowledging that we’re “In a place where sometimes you can’t even interact with the people you know” and implores us to keep our eyes, ears, mind open. In a genre where “keeping it real” is a term used more than demonstrated, Ty resists the pressures to dumb down or to play gangsta: “I’m not from the gutter but I’m from my Mum’s yard” he comments before giving way to Iman Rootz (fka Durrty Goodz).

Somewhere Somehow begins in the live jam, a place where Ty is most at home. From “Ghetto Grammar” in the ‘90s to the hugely successful  “The Bridge” jam on the Southbank each summer, Ty is an MC in the truest sense of the word, conducting a crowd, knowing when to raise the energy levels and when to make space for the music to do its thing. “Coming from a tribe popularized by the DJ” he considers what hip-hop means to him and others like him: “It’s kind of spiritual but we don’t need a vicar... How the spirit moves you, some kind of Ju Ju”. Here, as in other joints, Ty plays with creative tension of tradition and innovation as he offers respect to his musical ancestors – Umar Bin Hassan of the legendary The Last Poets guests - but doesn’t wish to merely replicate them: “I don’t follow the code or the Yellow Brick Road”. A pioneer of rap and the Mercury nominated MC are united in their “commitment to communicate or suffer insanity”.

Along with “African made Brixton raised” Mpho, Ty offers an ode to the village that raised them in Brixton Baby. The most locally specific song on the album still manages to joins the dots of the diaspora by echoing Roy Ayer’s “We live in Brooklyn Baby, adding power to the line “The relationship with po po is so so.”

The title trackWork of Heart sees Ty reflecting on what it means to be an MC: 
“This is not a game it’s a calling, that’s why I write furiously in the morning”. Whilst he does not shy away from connecting his art with a higher power - “It’s never coincidental it’s divine” – he remains humble and doesn’t claim to have all the answers: “Scribbling to find my own religion”.

The challenge of getting by is the topic of Marathon, where Ty announces,  “I bang the drum for many who just rub pennies together”. How to ‘keep the anger in check’ and maintain hope in a society when you’re ‘intending to stay black’ and where ‘the miseducation is key’? Having posed such pressing questions, he offers no pat answers, and the there are only glimmers of hope to be found here. The sound is hip-hop, the mood is blues. The theme of Marathon is extended into the reggae-tinged No Place To Hide. Ty is joined by genre-defying singer Julie Dexter and Jazz Warriors legend Jason Yarde to lament ‘these hard times’ where education cutbacks and police harassment mean there’s “No safe haven for our children”.

You Gave Me is Ty at his most personal. It seems fitting that he name drops Spike Lee (check his Instagram for photos of the two of them) whilst offering a vivid slice of the joy and pain of family life that evokes CrooklynHarper’s Revenge is a move to more upbeat territory musically and lyrically, justified by Ty in the verse, “Before you feel the wows you must feel the woes”. Indeed “Every breath I breathe is a world premier’ can be heard as standard rapper braggadocio but following Marathon’s “Sometimes when I wake up, I don’t wish to carry on” we should perhaps recognize it as an affirmation. By Folks Say, People Saya classic beat plays backdrop to Ty welcoming us to his arena and leading his people through a call and response where General Levy and Nat King Cole get mentions in successive bars - ‘Fist up in the air if you’re unsure.’

On World of Flaws, Ty meditates on broken relationships, family trees and roots, over the funkiest of basslines, “Trying to live good but there’s dirt on my halo”. John Robinson adds a guest verse and the song plays out with an excerpt from the film  ‘The Color of Fear’ – another song that offers no easy assurances. More funk with the subtlest of vocal samples provides the backdrop to Raindrops as Ty declares, “My mic sounds nice, tasty like jerk chicken and ground rice”. The often-thin line between success and failure is beautifully captured in the line, “I found life/hard”.  On The Raspberry NFA and Remi join Ty. On the hook he raps, “Destiny called, didn’t budge, she wore a raspberry beret and bore a grudge” with a nod to one of his musical heroes. The album closes with As The Smoke Clears, one of the darkest joints lyrically, but one that keeps true to a central theme of the album, survival. Ty and Malik from MD7 trade tale of potentially life-changing events.

All of this is has been about the lyrics. But Ty’s skills on the MPC and as a producer are deserving of a great deal more attention. Props must also go to long-time collaborator co-producer Drew Horley as well as the many guest artists featured. It is testament to Ty’s musical vision that by collaborating with so many people he has created a coherent work of (he)art.   Funk, Soul, Jazz, Reggae and Afrobeat are all in the mix but this is a hip hop album - one that takes production seriously and is at home in the dance as it is played at home. Just as the musical influences are varied, Ty’s lyrical references come thick and fast and are equally broad ranging. 

Listen out for references to: 

Carl Douglas, Public Enemy, Maya Angelou, Randy Crawford, The Avengers, Prince, The Matrix, Bill Withers, Jimmy Cliff, Maybelline, Barack Obama, The Dalai Lama, Vivienne Westwood, Samantha Fox, Linda Lusardi, Slick Rick, MC Lyte, When Harry Met Sally, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, South Park, Lidl, Smokey Robinson, Horus, Jesus, Murder She Wrote, EPMD, General Levy, Nat King Cole, Penelope Pitstop, Ming the Merciless, Maya Angelou, Billie Holiday, Fela Kuti, Rakim, Yazz, James Brown, Cinderella, Redman, and Spike Lee.

Or better still, given the visual nature of so many of these songs, try to picture them all in a collage, like the covers of Sergeant Pepper or Electric Circus. Add in the many guest artists on this album. And there in the foreground picture Ben Chijioke aka Ty, the Brixton local-boy whose music has made him a global artist. An arm across his chest and a palm on his heart. On his face, a look of stoicism, perhaps defiance, with just the hint of a smile... 

Darren Chetty
September 2017

Monday 23 March 2020

What's The Best Vegan Sausage? (With podcast and photos)

I've barely left the house in over a week. Teaching at my university went online last week. Adam Ferner and I were due to do an event last Thursday for our new book 'How To Disagree', with Gary Younge and Nesrine Malik kindly agreeing to join us for a conversation at Amnesty in London. But, of course, it didn't happen.

The Sunday before, Adam and I were due to go to Vegan Life Live at Alexandra Palace. This was also cancelled. So Adam had the idea of having our own vegan taste test round my house. He brought over a pile of different brands of vegan sausages- and his audio recorder - and we set to work.

Below is a 15 minute edit of our conversation as we cooked in my kitchen. I've listened to it a couple of times and think it's worth sharing.

Our conversation was unplanned but ends up being largely about my experience of working in an abattoir at the age of 14 and ideas of masculinity. Towards the end Rageshri comes home from the hospital. My light-hearted comment about the coronavirus are partly an attempt to lift her spirits - but they already sounds like words from a different time. And I do wonder if part of the reason I enjoyed listening to this is because I don't know when I'll see Adam in person again.


And here are the all-important results of our research:

                                                 BBQ Jackfruit rolls (plant menu) πŸ’₯πŸ’₯

                                    Chorizo style bangers (Wicked kitchen)πŸ’₯πŸ’₯πŸ’₯πŸ’₯πŸ’₯

Cumberland style bangers (Tesco Plant Chef) πŸ’₯πŸ’₯πŸ’₯πŸ’₯

Red Pepper and Butternut Squash Sausages (Plant Menu) πŸ’₯πŸ’₯πŸ’₯

                                               Bollywood Bangers (Heck) πŸ’₯πŸ’₯πŸ’₯

Masala Roast Cauliflower Sausages (Plant Menu) πŸ’₯πŸ’₯πŸ’₯

Smoky Ham Free slices (Quorn) πŸ’₯

Monday 11 February 2019

Kick The Moon - Muhammad Khan

It's been a long time...

So my last blog was about World Book Day. I've never thought WBD itself is a problem but rather I've pointed out that the practice of dressing up as characters from children's books has the effect of making the lack of Black and Asian characters kids encounter very clear to anyone who is willing to look.

Muhammad Khan's new book, Kick The Moon starts with 'Year 5: World Book Day'. The chapter ends with Ilyas Mian deciding,

"I'm making my own superhero, and he's going to be AMAZING. He'll have light brown skin, love lamb biryani, and pray at the mosque every Friday. he's going to be British and Pakistani. His name will be... PakCore ."

When I met Muhammad last year, he told me that World Book Day idea came from my writing on the subject. This delighted me. I've not yet finished the book but I'm already getting the sense that Muhammad Khan is part of a new generation of Black and Asian heritage writers in the UK who are crafting stories that broaden the reading experience of young readers. Ilyas is bringing PakCore to life - thanks to Muhammad Khan for bringing Ilyas to life.

Below is an interview with Muhammad, conducted via email, about his debut book I Am Thunder.

1.     Did you have concerns about your first book being about religious extremism and terrorism?

Yes I did. I’d been working on a fantasy story featuring a Muslim protagonist when the sad news broke of 3 students from Bethnal Green who were radicalised by ISIS. I was baffled, shocked and hurt. Young people were being duped from all over the world. Islam is my faith and seeing it dragged through the mud was unbearable. I remember my students feeling frustrated because they wanted to discuss what was happening but the Muslim students were afraid they might be misinterpreted and end up in trouble or down at a police station (as some newspapers reported), and my non-Muslim students were afraid their questions would be viewed as insensitive or even racist.

Then came the spike in Islamophobia. It was bad enough having to face it myself but I couldn’t comprehend why random people on public transport would verbally abuse, spit at, or even in one case rip the hijab off one of my students. I felt compelled to speak out, to anonymously bring some of my students’ voices to the table. I hoped writing I Am Thunder might facilitate classroom debate across the country which many felt was stifled by the government’s Prevent Strategy. I always felt religious extremism and terrorism were being looked at as if they existed in a vacuum. Due consideration was not being given to the equally toxic rise of the Far Right and endemic Islamophobia.

2.     It felt to me that you were interested in exploring the idea of a generation gap. Muzna’s parents seem to think of themselves as Pakistani first and foremost, whereas for Muzna being Muslim becomes her point of identification. This seems to echo trends where people who perhaps once identified as ‘Asian’ or Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi often tend to identify in terms of religion. Do you have a view on this?

There was a time when I sought refuge in Islam as an escape from both Pakistani and British cultures. I felt neither one accepted me. My peers would tell me I wasn’t a true Brit unless I supported the wars in the Middle East or went ‘clubbing or pubbing’ with them. My Pakistani relatives would mock me for “acting like a gora” (white person) and thought I was only pretending not to be able to speak Urdu properly. When I went to the mosque, I would meet people from all walks of life and ethnicities, all of us trying to find our way. I found the environment to be incredibly supportive.

Now I’m older, I’m able to navigate and appreciate every aspect of being a British Pakistani Muslim. My identity is my own and I make no apologies for it.

3.     You describe a range of ways of being Muslim in the book. Was this something that you consciously worked at or did it just emerge out of the plot and characters? (On reflection, I’m not sure that that is a clear distinction!)

Right from the start I wanted Muzna to explore what it means to be a British Muslim and for her to encounter a rich tapestry of multiple and intersecting identities. I soon realised I’d given myself an impossible task! Religion is very personal and people have different interpretations and degrees of devotion. Factor in intersectionality and variables such as cultural background, social status and gender, and the task quickly becomes a tangled web. In the end I had to content myself with trying to convey to readers that Muslims are not a homogenous group and Islam does not promote extremism.

4.     I particularly enjoyed the classroom conversations. I felt there was a hopeful theme of solidarity, for instance, the solidarity shown by Muzna and the other students towards their teacher, Mr Dunthorpe, who is gay and out. Is this influenced by your experiences as a teacher or was this based more on how you hoped things would go in the UK?

I’ve always believed the default for children, no matter where they are from, is to be good and kind. I’m not trying to pretend racism, homophobia and Islamophobia don’t exist, but nine times out of ten a child with such views is simply emulating their parents as opposed to expressing a deeply held belief. At my school there was this general sense of camaraderie which I wanted to reflect in Muzna’s world. I am hopeful the next generation will do better. You have to ask yourself: how on earth did we allow such huge race and gender disparities to exist in the workplace in the first place in? It is inexcusable.

I was adamant that if a student in I Am Thunder was going to be unpleasant or bigoted, they should have a reason for it. It wasn’t about making excuses for them but too often I see teenagers in books being portrayed as evil for the sake of it. In my experience this is rarely the case. Tallulah, Sade and Gary all fall into the antagonist category but each one had a backstory for the way they acted. Occasionally even Muzna is shown to be unkind (when she gives Sarabi the proverbial cold shoulder) because none of us is perfect or right all the time. Sometimes I feel people of colour – particularly females - often get judged to a higher standard.

5.     You have written a main character who is female, Asian and Muslim and who fancies boys. Have you read other children’s books that depict a character that fits that description?

No, sadly not. In all honesty, I didn’t think Muslim teenagers dated. I certainly didn’t. But in the last few years I see things changing for some. I knew of four Muslim hijabi girls who had boyfriends: three of them kept it a secret from their parents, one of them was going to get married to him after her A Levels with her parents’ blessings. I definitely feel this is an underrepresented area in YA fiction.

Sunday 19 February 2017

World Book Day Again

I've written about World Book Day before and about children's literature more broadly in The Good Immigrant and here but a text from a colleague asking for ideas for Black characters from children's books reminded me it's coming up again.

I replied to the text as follows (I posted this on twitter but have now corrected the typos) :

I think the dressing up thing is played out. Focus on books - reading them, writing them, discussing them, reviewing them.

Hold a book competition where they need to rate the top ten kids' books - get them to justify their selections referring to what makes it a compelling story. 

If you want to bring in critical perspectives, introduce categories; themes, protagonists, authors to see who and what is represented and who and what is not. 

Ultimately, extend their horizons and deepen their engagement with the written word in all its forms. 

I wonder if any of this is controversial.

Sunday 8 January 2017

TES feature written with Karen Sands O'Connor

This appeared as a feature in the TES last term. The TES chose the headline:

Why diversity should start at story time

Teachers need to introduce their classes to a rich and varied diet of literature to avoid denying children key knowledge about themselves, their cultural heritage and the wider world, argues Darren Chetty

A few years ago, I was teaching a Year 2 class in East London. We had been working on writing stories. When it came to sharing what they had written, one boy, who had recently arrived from Nigeria, was eager to read his work to the class.
As he read out his protagonist's name - I had suggested that children might use the names of people in their family - another boy, who was born in Britain and identified as Congolese, interrupted him.
"You can't do that! Stories have to be about white people," he said. This is not an isolated incident.
More than 25 years ago, Verna Wilkins founded Tamarind Press because her child believed that characters had to be white "to be in a book". And the award-winning author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recalls her childhood in Nigeria where, "because all I had read were books in which characters were foreign, I had become convinced that books by their very nature had to have foreigners in them and had to be about things with which I could not personally identify".
Many primary school children have encountered only books with white human characters. Often when they do encounter characters racialised as other than white, it is tied in with the celebration of a holiday such as Diwali, or in connection with Black History Month.
Yet it seems reasonable to wish that children see people of all backgrounds as an ordinary part of everyday literature.
If children do not encounter a rich diet of literature at school, they are being denied key knowledge about themselves and the world. If children are not taught that they can draw on first-hand experiences when they write fiction, then they are being denied key knowledge about what it means to be a writer.
We should teach and read and interact with the living cultural heritage of the young people who make up Britain today - not to the exclusion of "classic" literature, but rather as part of the process of opening up of the world of literature for children. Stories often deal with universal themes but it is the writer's ability to capture the particularities of a story that brings it to life and makes it resonate with readers. In The Art of Fiction, Henry James calls this "solidity of specification", adding that it is "the supreme virtue of a novel".
Writers of colour have been publishing in Britain for British audiences for more than 50 years now, but often these books have gone out of print, with publishers citing lack of audience.
But the audience is there, because all children are (or should be) the audience for good literature. The problem is getting those books into children's hands, especially when the few physical book shops left in any given town often don't stock a wide variety (if any) books by or about people of colour.
Teachers and other adults involved with children have to seek books out, often through internet-based booksellers, and the time this takes - not to mention the difficulty of evaluating a book's appropriateness without being able to page through it - can seem like one burden too many for already-overtaxed teachers.
However, there are resources that can help: Letterbox Library has been providing multicultural books to schools for more than 30 years, and they allow teachers to order books "on approval", so they have time to evaluate them. There are several blogs written by experts in the field, which offer their own suggestions for teachers who don't know where to start.
The effort is worth it, because when kids start seeing themselves and their classmates in books, they learn that they all have a role to play - in the classroom, in books and in Britain's literary heritage.
This role can extend children's own writing. After reflecting on my experience with my Year 2 class, the following year, while teaching Year 5, I was emboldened to experiment. What would happen if, for just one lesson, I encouraged them to write about a character from a similar ethnic, religious and linguistic background to their own - just as I sometimes insist that they try to include a fronted adverbial, a moral dilemma or a tricolon?
Having collected a range of passages where authors describe a character, we discussed ourselves in terms of various attributes: language, family migration, physical appearance including skin and hair, religion, hobbies and clothes. Then I asked the children to write a character who was similar in some but not necessarily all of these aspects.
As I modelled this process for them, I realised that previously I, too, often defaulted to "traditional" English names and white characters when writing in class. Now, I tried to draw on my own experience, creating composite characters from family members and applying some of the writing techniques we'd noted in our class reading.
Then they wrote. Clearly, many of them enjoyed the lesson and many produced their best piece of writing to date.
Here's one example by a pupil called Nabila: "Maryam Patel was a 12-year-old girl, whose parents were Indian, but she was born in Britain. She was a fairly religious person. However, Maryam thought, one does not have to wear a headscarf to be religious. She loved her red, straight hair. Her hair was as red as blood. She had decided to dye her hair as she hated her dark brown hair. She loved football and the club she supported was Liverpool. One day I'll play for the Liverpool women, she thought."
I want to avoid making huge claims here. However, I do sense the beginnings of an authorial voice in Nabila's character description. Her character is not a stereotype of Muslim girls - in recognising her life experience as a valuable resource for fiction, she is developing the "solidity of specification" and avoiding what Adichie terms "the danger of the single story". There is some genuine characterisation and insight in the paragraph rather than the short list of features that I often encounter in children's writing.
I think this is precisely because she is using her own life as inspiration for her creativity while drawing on her reading of fiction. Her descriptive paragraph comes after a lesson looking closely at descriptions by a range of children's authors, which is where the idea of including a protagonist's thought, as well as a simple physical description, emerged. As well as writing a better story - richer in detail, and combining her knowledge gained from reading with knowledge gained from experience, Nabila was demonstrating an understanding that people from her background can indeed be main characters rather than minor characters.
Nabila told me that she had never written about an Indian heritage or Muslim character before. Nobody had ever told her she shouldn't but, at the same time, nobody had ever explicitly given her permission. Subsequently, she wrote two further full stories about her character Maryam Patel. In part three, Maryam visited India.
Trust me, it was a great read.
Darren Chetty taught in inner-London primary schools for almost 20 years. He is currently completing a PhD at the UCL Institute of Education. He is a contributor to Media Diversified and The Good Immigrant, a collection of 21 essays by black, Asian and minority ethnic writers, edited by Nikesh Shukla and published by Unbound. He tweets @rapclassroom
Suggested texts to help diversify your classroom literature
Karen Sands-O'Connor is a professor of children's literature specialising in black British children's literature. She recently completed a year as Leverhulme Visiting Professor, at Newcastle University and the Seven Stories National Centre for Children's Books.
While there, she researched British publishing efforts for diverse audiences. Here's her book list to get you started on diversifying your library of texts for students:
Picture Books for Babies and Toddlers
Wriggle Piggy Toes - John Agard
Ackee, Breadfruit, Callaloo - Valerie Bloom
So Much! - Trish Cooke
No, Baby, No! - Grace Nichols
Let's Feed the Ducks - Pamela Venus
Bring back into print:
Sean's Red Bike - Petronella Breinburg
Nini at Carnival - Errol Lloyd
Beginning readers
My Two Grannies - Floella Benjamin
Giant Hiccups - Jacqui Farley
Lucy's Rabbit - Jennifer Northway
Ramadan Moon - Na'ima Robert
Farmer Falgu Goes to the Market - Chitra Soundar
Dave and the Tooth Fairy - Verna Wilkins
J is for Jamaica - Benjamin Zephaniah
Bring back into print:
Mermaid Janine - Iolette Thomas
Shorter-chapter books
Pig-Heart Boy - Malorie Blackman
Blackberry Blue and Other Fairy Tales - Jamila Gavin
A Hen in the Wardrobe - Wendy Meddour
LibertΓ©: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan - Jackie Ould (edited by)
Nina and the Travelling Spice Shed - Mahdvi Ramani
Don't Wear It On Your Head, Don't Stick It Down Your Pants - John Siddique
Bring back into print:
Kamla and Kate - Jamila Gavin
Birds in the Wilderness - Kate Elizabeth Ernest
Longer-chapter books
Tall Story - Candy Gourlay
The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo - Catherine Johnson
Dream On - Bali Rai
She Wore Red Trainers - Na'ima B Robert
Hurricane - Andrew Salkey
Crongton Knights - Alex Wheatle
Bring back into print:
East End at Your Feet - Farrukh Dhondy
Age 14-18 books
Chasing the Stars - Malorie Blackman
Travel Light, Travel Dark - John Agard
Midnight Robber - Nalo Hopkinson
Red Dust Road - Jackie Kay
(Un)arranged Marriage - Bali Rai
Refugee Boy - Benjamin Zephaniah
Bring back into print:
Touch Mi! Tell Mi! - Valerie Bloom
Karen's weekly blogs on issues of diversity in children's literature can be found at

Sunday 9 October 2016

The Good Immigrant

The Good Immigrant – Media Coverage

Here's a non-exhaustive overview of media coverage of The Good Immigrant, edited by Nikesh Shukla:

TV & Video