Stormzy’s commitment to social activism, black empowerment and backing a generation of new voices is a far cry from the fruitless Instagram posts and woke hashtags we’ve come to expect from liberal-minded millennial celebrities and influencers. The British grime artist actually cares – and puts his money where his mouth is.
2018 has been a big year for the Stormzy social enterprise – in July, the 25-year-old announced his own book imprint with Penguin Random House, #Merky Books, to platform fiction, nonfiction and poetry by new talent, and just a month later it emerged he’d founded a scholarship to send two black students to study at the University of Cambridge this year and next to increase BAME representation, a notoriously sore point for Oxbridge.
Far from cynical PR ploys to garner adulatory headlines, both of this year’s initiatives were passion projects dreamed up by the south Londoner, with him approaching each establishment with the idea. Coming from a man who’s rapped about his mental health, backed hardworking nurses, supported Jeremy Corbyn’s left-wing agenda and famously slammed Theresa May’s response to the Grenfell tragedy at the Brit Awards, his new commitments to lifting up other young black people may not be surprising, but they’re groundbreaking nevertheless.
Two young people to benefit are 21-year-olds Chelsea Kwakye and Ore Ogunbiyi, co-authors of the first book set to be published by #Merky Books after his own release, Rise Up, this month. The pair, both of whom graduated from Cambridge University this summer, have penned Taking Up Space, a “black girls’ guide to university”, due to be released next summer. With chapters tackling everything from white-dominated curricula to self-care and dating, it’s aimed at the future generations of young women who’ll likely encounter some of the same overt racism and micro-aggressions they faced.
Kwakye, who now studies law in London, and Ogunbiyi, a journalism master’s student in New York, met at a careers fair just before Cambridge and forged a friendship that has survived countless dire student nights out and now, co-writing a 60,000-word book together. Refinery29 sat down with the pair to discuss micro-agressions, white boyfriends and being surrogate “big sisters” to other black girls.
Why did you want to go to Cambridge in the first place, as opposed to any other university? And what did you make of the application process?
Chelsea: I went to a state school in Chingford [northeast London] and actually didn’t want to go to Cambridge originally. I had to be dragged through the application process. In my eyes Oxbridge was for politicians or people who wanted to go into government. But when I sat down to think about it properly, I realised I was capable and thought, Why not? It was the best university for the subject I wanted to do, history. The support I received from school was limited: one mock interview. At the time I was really grateful, I didn’t know any different. I was the only one who ended up getting in.
Ore: I was at a private Catholic girls’ boarding school in Surrey and was in an ‘Oxbridge club’ of about 20 students who were interested in applying to Oxbridge but I would say, flat out, that no one put their money on me, although I did get support from school. When I spent some time in Cambridge for a summer course, my first thought was, Oh my god, it’s so cute, with their little bikes and cobbled streets. I now try to help other black girls who don’t have that same support that I did.
What were your preconceptions of Cambridge before you arrived, and did you fear being treated differently from other students because you were black (and therefore in the minority)?
C: Looking back, I was really naive. When you go to university you think, This is a fresh start, a clean slate, but it was actually when I started Cambridge that I learned a lot about race and how others view me, which affected how I viewed myself. One white boy told me I was the first black person he’d ever spoken to. As a black student, you don’t get the luxury of just being a student – every day you have to fight your corner and talk about race.
O: I think I was equally naive. My boarding school had a diverse student population and I assumed everywhere would be like that. That wasn’t the case, and my natural reflex was to think, I need to find all the black people, wherever they are, and stick with them. It was like, oh my goodness, everyone’s got to be just as shocked as me and we need to stick together because this is awful and this is horrible and I don’t know how to deal with this.
Ore, in 2016 you were involved in a campaign to take down and repatriate a bronze cockerel owned by the university that was looted from Africa in the 19th century. Were either of you at all aware of the university’s often problematic history before you applied?
O: I can’t say I was. Just before I got to university I became aware of ideas and concepts like whiteness, neocolonialism and the ways that colonial power dynamics still exist in the UK and across the world, but seeing that personified at university was novel and unexpected. I wasn’t aware of how it would be personified at Cambridge until I saw the cockerel.
C: My family’s perception of Cambridge clouded my judgement. They came to the UK from Ghana and see Oxbridge as the pinnacle of education, which I’d guess is the same for a lot of parents. From them I’d internalised that it was the best university and I should be proud to get in. When you go to a university like that, you then start to think, Should I criticise the best university in the world? My mum sat me down and said something like, “Be careful because you might jeopardise your place and we wouldn’t want that.”
O: Yeah, also my dad was so set on me getting into Cambridge that he was telling people I was going there before I even had my interview. This made me not want to tell him, “Dad, actually, I’m kind of struggling.” This meant I kept a lot of things in at the beginning. Everyone was rooting for me and I didn’t want to disappoint them by saying I was unhappy.
C: It comes back to the responsibility of becoming the representative of a whole community as a black student. Not only are you the only black person in a room, you’re also the only black person who goes to Cambridge from the community.
How would you describe the cultural side of student life at Cambridge? What did you make of the nights out, food options and everything else you might want that would be quite easy to find in London?
C: We made our own spaces. When everyone went to Cindies, we would have a house party and play music that we would vibe to, and Ore lived in a house so she was able to cook things and bake. But we did go to some club nights and I wanted to make friends with everyone.
O: Yeah, we did try. Some people who were like, “I’m not going to that night because they’re not going to play any music I like.” Sometimes I wish I’d made that decision earlier on, because often I wasn’t enjoying myself or meeting people I liked. I tried the ‘out of your comfort zone’ thing and it didn’t always work, I wasn’t being myself.
Did other students make an effort with you, particularly white students?
C: Yes, a lot of my friends, even to this day, are white. It was only once I started getting more involved with ACS [the African Caribbean Society] that I started meeting black people. For example, my boyfriend is white and that was never a big friction point. It happened naturally, we were friends and then he became my long-term boyfriend. My experience was positive but that definitely wasn’t the experience for a lot of people.
O: I tried a lot with them but it got to a point where if I’d died in my room, I don’t think they would have checked on me. They all seemed to gel really well and liked going out together, and it took me a while to find my group. But I don’t think that’s because they were white, we just didn’t have a connection.
In your book you seek to prepare black girls for the “ignorant white students who might touch and smell their braids in freshers’ week”. Did you expect any overt racism at Cambridge yourselves?
C: Micro-aggressions like someone asking to touch your hair were so normalised that that didn’t even spring to mind when you said “racism”. I was very lucky to not have been the victim of any overt racist attacks, but I heard a lot of stories.
O: I wrote an article for a student paper titled “A letter to my fresher self: Surviving Cambridge as a black girl” and the accompanying photo is of me with a group of white students touching my hair. People think the picture was staged but it actually happened and someone took a picture of it. I wrote the piece during the Christmas holidays and when I came back to uni, people didn’t look at me in the same way. I felt like I couldn’t walk into college because people were looking at me and thinking, She wrote that article, who does she think she is?
Also, when I’d talk to other students about Cambridge-specific things, people would sometimes assume I went to [neighbouring] Anglia Ruskin University rather than Cambridge. This happened to me twice in a week. I’d said nothing to make them think I was at ARU. They couldn’t possibly conceive that I might go to Cambridge, which wasn’t overt racism but a racist prejudice of what I can and can’t do.
The emotional, mental health side of university can be tough for any student, and the Oxbridge environment can be particularly cutthroat, with everyone comparing themselves to each other. How did you deal with this on top of the micro-aggressions you constantly came up against?
C: Sometimes I’d have to literally isolate myself. One time I was sitting in my room working and I could hear a group of students talking about how they’d spent £600 that month and one girl joked that it’s because she was “going to brunch too often”. I was sitting there fuming because I was living off £200 and had to go home and work in between vacations. There are loads of different caveats that make it harder for black students, like not being able to make friends or talk about race because no one looks like you.
There’s a chapter in the book about dating as a black woman and your experience, Chelsea, of being in an interracial relationship with your white boyfriend for the last three years. How would you describe this?
C: I don’t think our relationship would work if these were swept under the carpet. We’re frank when we talk about it. I won’t hesitate to pull him up if I think he has done something and he won’t hesitate to do the same. Obviously I’m more likely to do it. We have honest conversations and he’s really open-minded and curious. The other day we were talking about history and he asked me: “What history do you relate to?” In my first year of university it was tough because I was learning so much about race and whiteness and stressing about the paradox that my boyfriend was white. Initially there was a lot of internal conflict but then I realised, I’m not with him because he’s white, I’m with him because this is someone I like and he likes me, but that’s not an excuse to sweep these issues under the carpet.
Finally, what are you hoping to achieve with the book?
C: I want it to act as a hug to black girls and to say that you can go to university, you can have a really good time but these are the things to be aware of, and this book will be here to help you through those times.
O: I want it to prepare black girls better, so that a black girl somewhere will know how to approach a situation because we told her about it. I want black girls to feel like they have big sisters in us through this book, in case they end up in spaces where they don’t find mentors or support systems.
-Taking Up Space will be published by #Merky Books in June 2019 and is available for pre-order now.
––Culled from www.refinery29.com