Sheffield writer journeys through black Europe
The phrase Afropean was coined in the early Nineties to describe the interplay of black and European cultures in music and fashion but Johny Pitts felt it had wider application.
He saw it as “a utopian alternative to all the doom and gloom that has surrounded the black image in Europe in recent years”.
Afropean is the title of the just-published book by the award-winning writer and photographer chronicling a five-month trip exploring black culture and identity in Europe today.
He talks to various Europeans of African descent he encounters in Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, Berlin, Stockholm, Moscow, Marseille and Lisbon.
He meets Marie Daulne, the lead singer of Belgian world music outfit Zap Mama, who with Talking Heads’ David Byrne came up with the term, Afropean. Almany Konoute, a political activist in the Clichy-sous-Bois, the notorious banlieue outside Paris, who spells out what has really changed for black people in Paris since the 2005 riots.
But the first chapter is devoted to where it all started for Pitts – Firth Park in Sheffield.
“Originally it was going to be more photographic and a celebration of black Europeans but then I realised it had to be deeper than that and it would be disingenuous to leave out my own story,” he explains.
“I wanted readers to know where I was coming from because at the beginning I was really looking to find the Firth Parks of Europe, spaces where blackness and Europeaness is living side by side and challenging reductive national identities.”:
And so we learn his mother from Burngreave met his American dad at Peter Stringfellow’s Mojo Club. Richie Pitts was touring with a band called The Fantastic Temptations trading on the fame of Motown group The Temptations until they were threatened with legal action and hastily became The Fantastics. They even managed a top ten hit, Something Old, Something New in the early Seventies.
In 2006 Johny Pitts left Sheffield for London and found work as a music journalist. “I started writing for Blues & Soul magazine and then MTV got in touch. But almost as soon as I got into it music on TV was destroyed. I ended up going down a route of doing anything to pay the bills.Eventually I made the decision to do something that had integrity.”
That has been photography and writing. “I see them as the same things really, when you write you are trying to make pictures and when you take a photography you are trying to tell stories,” he suggests.
It ties in with that idea central to the book of liminality, the sense of being between places. “I felt like that growing up as someone black in Sheffield. I felt connected to both but not wholly a part of either. I also spent a lot of time in London because my dad went on to be an actor. When he was in work he would be in a musical in the West End. So I have a US and a UK passport.
“There is a real disconnect in America but black Europeans always look up to America as a way forward whereas I am a little bit more sceptical about America having grown up with an Afro-American father and seen issues first hand. I think there is a history in Europe – and black history - which I think black communities can find.
“Firth Park was very much an multi-cultural enclave,” he continues. “Next door was a Yemeni family and Jamaicans across the road and Somalis but I grew up predominantly with my white Sheffield working class family Up until adolescence I identified with everything white and then you get to the age where you are looking at your own path and I started getting into the American canon, writers like Richard Wright, Malcolm X’s autobiography and Alex Halley, all that stuff.
“What I found in my twenties was that I needed to find a middle ground which didn’t deny the existence of either.”
For several years he has been settled in London with his partner and three-year-old daughter but decided to relocate to Marseille. “It has parallels with Sheffield,” he . In the book he quotes Picasso: “I want to live like a pauper with lots of money” and believes Marseille offers that prospect.
“t has a bit of Harlem in the 20s, Sheffield in the 90s, splashes of Rio and Marrakesh with Arabic, Italian, Corsican, African and French culture intertwined in the lifestyle.”
Is the move connected to Brexit? “The travels the book is based on were back in 2012 and even then I was sensing something was up in the UK and I began wanting to write this book as a celebration of a new Europe and how black Europeans were so interwoven into the fabric of Europe to be wanting to go anywhere else. That changed as I wrote the book but one of the places I did find as a bit of a gem was Marseille.”
“I will probably have to make frequent trips to London. What supplements my work is voiceover work.”,
Johny Pitts is something of a Renaissance Man. He is the founder of Afropean.com, an online user generated journal and in recent months has written an article on football and race for The Guardian and presented Radio 4’s Pick of the Week.
His earlier broadcasting career was perhaps less elevated, presenting on MTV, CBBC and ITV’s CD:UK. “When I was in an ice bath with Jedward – don’t ask – I knew this wasn’t what I wanted to do.” Afropean: Notes from Black Europe, Allen Lane (£20).