The sound of identity

The producer of a BBC podcast on West African identity in Britain discusses her experience making, and the impetus for creating the series.

The London African Gospel Choir perform during the Jubilee Family Festival in Hyde Park, 2012. Photo by Adam Gasson for the Commonwealth Secretariat via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

We all know music can talk to us. In the most literal sense, it does this through lyrics, whether the words are as emotionally complex as “I don’t hate you, though I have tried” or as direct as “If Young Metro don’t trust you, Imma shoot you.” However, it also speaks to us through melodies, hooks, rhythms, chord progressions, tempo, key changes, and silence. 

I’d venture that no one knows this better than Africans, who have used music as a form of storytelling for centuries. In West Africa, the talking drum is the preferred vehicle to do this. There are many types of talking drum. Popular types are known as gángan by the Yorubas, atumpan by the Asante, and tama by the Wolof. In Yorubaland, popular talking drums are shaped like an hourglass and surrounded by leather strings. The drum is held under an armpit, and its face is hit with a stick. The way the drummer squeezes the drum strings affects the drum’s pitch and, therefore, how it speaks. The tone of the drum is such that it “speaks” in a way that mimics Yoruba.

Such drums have been used for centuries by West African storytellers to spread important stories about the past, the present, and future. So, when presented with the opportunity to produce a BBC podcast series, I decided to name it Talking Drum. I’m a British Nigerian and recognized that, through this podcast, I would be continuing the West African tradition of sharing stories. 

I wanted to create a series that unpicked differences between Black groups in Britain. So often, when Black Britons are brought up in public discussions, we are talked about as though we are one homogenous Black blob. On the rare occasion where difference is discussed, media figures and government officials suggest we can be packaged into two neat groups, “Caribbean” or “African,” seemingly unaware there are 13 countries in the Caribbean and 54 (or 55, depending on who you ask) in Africa, many of which are well represented in Britain. 

My initial idea was for the podcast to focus on diverse African histories in Britain. I was inspired by books I had read while pursuing a history masters, like Marc Matera’s Black London, which detailed how 20th century African and Caribbean immigrants fought for civil rights and decolonization at home and abroad, highlighting how indelibly international Black British life is. I was told this idea was too “woolly” and that listeners would prefer something more personal. 

So, I went back to the drawing board and decided to focus the podcast on British West African identity.

Most Africans in Britain today are West African and have roots primarily in Nigeria and Ghana. Although I was advised to make the series more “tabloidy,” (because that, apparently, would make it more accessible to under 30s), I worked with my team to ensure the podcast tackled serious issues while maintaining a joyful tone. I was inspired by the Peabody Award–winning Have You Heard George’s Podcast? Hosted by British Ugandan writer and activist George the Poet, the series effortlessly weaves complex histories alongside compelling sound design and impactful archive clips.

Across five episodes, my series looks at everything from “jollof rice wars” (Nigeria has the best, argue with your mum) and hall parties to different patterns of migration and how the identity of someone whose Sierra Leonean ancestor came over as a seafarer in the 1800s differs from the British West Africans of my generation, whose parents and grandparents came over more recently as university graduates. From Pitt Street to Granby by fourth-generation Black Brit Professor Michael Boyle was incredibly helpful.

Also, inspired by the increasing number of gen-Z and millennial entrepreneurs setting up West African language businesses in London, I took a look at why West Africans appear less likely to teach their children their languages than other immigrant groups. A PhD researcher at Essex University found that while languages like Albanian and Italian were regularly passed down, Yoruba and Twi were not.

Of all the slices of British West African life I highlight in the series, I’m most proud of the time I spent on private fostering (which is sometimes referred to as “farming”). Between the 1950s and ’90s tens of thousands of West African children were privately fostered in Britain. While many of us have connections to people who were “farmed,” the topic is underdiscussed among British West Africans. Our elders seem to think it wasn’t a big deal. It was just something that happened. I first became aware of “farming” in 2019 after I watched British Nigerian actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s directorial debut Farming. I told some relatives about it, and they said, “Oh yeah, that happened to your aunt too.”

“Farming” was an unregulated practice, meaning that some children were abused and some even died. I visited the archives of a popular magazine where fostering adverts were placed and saw pages and pages of West African names—a Mrs. Agyepong was looking for a carer for her baby, as was a Mrs. Sesay and a Mrs. Adeogun. I interviewed Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka and discovered that even he had placed a child in private foster care in Britain.

The series came out in late February and has received positive feedback so far. When relistening, I remember much of the good that came out of the production process, as well as some of the bad (when thinking about how to promote the series, a colleague sent an email with the header “African magazines” and the subject “are there any?”). But my internal monologue washes away whenever I hear the music—the theme tune composed by British Nigerian talking drummer Richard Ọlatunde Baker. For reasons that were never fully explained to me, some in my team felt strongly that the series didn’t need composed music. I’m glad I pushed back. When I hear the drums, I’m brought back to the community I made the podcast for. I remember the work this series is doing to celebrate the beauty and importance of Black life and West African life.

There’s just something about music. It can speak to you in a way no human can.

Further Reading

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