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For Black History Month this week, we have been celebrating and honouring our music, arts, and literature heroes. Here, TPP’s Diane Duberry and Leighton Davy speak about just a few of these inspirational figures:
I first heard Donald Byrd in my late teens and have been hooked ever since. “You and Music” is, and will always remain, one of my favourite tunes and will lift my spirits each time I hear it. His music has been sampled on over 200 records and is the go-to sample source for hip-hop artists thanks to his hybrid jazz / soul / funk sound. What I only discovered a few years ago was what a huge advocate he was of education, the influence he had on the music education system in America, and how hundreds of Black musicians have flourished due to his teachings, inspiration, and support. He taught at and helped develop music curriculum across a variety of American universities and schools and even set up a scholarship in his name, helping young Black musicians reach their potential.
“Study, get the best damn teacher you can find and be open-minded. What I’m doing now is an outgrowth of all my training. If I’d waited for people to give me the green light, I’d still be way back there.” Donald Byrd 1932 - 2013
I’m an avid reader and absolutely love Andrea Levy’s books. I first read “Fruit of the Lemon” in the early noughties and devoured her other 2 novels soon after. Her first three novels explore, in both a heartfelt and humorous way, the problems faced by Black British-born children of Jamaican emigrants. Levy clearly writes from some of her own experiences. The brilliant “Small Island” came in 2004, a fictional story of the Empire Windrush generation, which is a deeply moving book I have read countless times. Small Island has won numerous awards and was selected by the BBC as one of its '100 Novels That Shaped Our World'. Levy’s fifth and final novel, the eagerly awaited “The Long Way Home” came in 2010 to much critical acclaim.
Sadly, Levy died in 2019, aged just 62, after a long battle with cancer. For me, she is one of the finest writers of her generation, and her work will continue to educate and inspire for decades to come.
Modern/contemporary art has always been a genre that I’ve struggled to find inspiration from or interest in compared to others, but as I wandered around the Tate Modern back in 2015, looking at all the contemporary art on show, one painting stood out. Initially drawn to the bold colours and then upon closer inspection, the actual content of the painting. “Untitled” was a heavily populated canvas with human beings confronted with mystical figures, several of whom have blood oozing from prominently protruding fangs that I was intrigued by.
What I found out was that the artist was Malangatana Valente Ngwenya, who was a national hero in his home country Mozambique. He was one of the few African artists to gain substantial worldwide recognition while staying in Africa. As one of Africa’s most celebrated contemporary artists, he found influence in the politics of his native Mozambique as he portrayed the country’s decades-long break from colonialism to independence in his paintings. He draws on his indigenous heritage and at the same time embraces symbols of progress while combining art and politics.
Showing how important Malangatana was to the art world, he won the 1997 UNESCO Artist for Peace award, with the then Director-General noting that Malangatana is "much more than a creator, much more than an artist - someone who demonstrates that there is a universal language, the language of art, which allows us to communicate a message of peace, of refusal of war."
This sentiment was expressed again by another Director-General of UNESCO after his death in 2011: “With the death of Malangatana, African art has lost one of its greatest talents. He was not only a wonderful artist but also an ardent defender of peace.”