Warum Afropäisch?

Essay Vor einigen Jahren verwechselte mich ein Fremder im Abendzug nach Frankfurt mit jemandem, den er in der Vorwoche gesehen hatte. Der Augenblick dauerte nur Sekunden, aber er sollte als Katalysator für eine Reise der (Selbst-)Entdeckung dienen
Warum Afropäisch?
„I hadn’t found a sense of self in my corner of black Britain, so I started to wonder if there was a collective consciousness on the continent“

Foto: Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images

Der nachfolgende Text ist ein Ausschnitt aus einem Essay von Johny Pitts, welches er im Jahr 2013 nach einer Reise durch Europa schrieb. Er veröffentlichte den Text auf der Seite Afropean, welche sich mit der Kultur Schwarzer Menschen in Europa beschäftigt. Das Essay ist auf Englisch erschienen:

A few years ago, on a snowy January evening, a stranger mistook me for someone they had seen the previous week, aboard an evening train heading to Frankfurt. The moment lasted seconds, but our brief encounter would serve as a catalyst for what became a lifelong journey of (self) discovery.

As a mixed race teenager growing up on a council estate in the north of England, it was the first time I contemplated a self-image tied with any sort of elegance. Who knows what this other mixed race guy with an afro was like, or why he was going to Frankfurt, or where he came from. For me it was the notion that a stranger stopped me on the street that day, because they thought it was plausible I was a black European traveller. One minute racing through the wintry German evening on a train, the next walking down a street in Sheffield. It seemed to offer a glimmer of a new, positive identity, and ever since I’ve been searching for that person on the 7.30 train to Frankfurt, within and without.

Until that moment I’d spent much of my teenage years divided, existing in the strange liminal terrain between the parochial white, working class north of England, and ghettoised African American Hip-Hop culture.

Growing up in Sheffield, England’s third largest district, I got the sense that Britain had just about come to terms with calling black people British, and a lot of the racism I witnessed was now being directed towards Asian communities. Inevitably though, I knew I was always on the fringes of British national identity. If there was an argument or a fight in the school playground, words like nigger or wog would rear their ugly heads again. I sensed that prejudice still lurked in the white British subconscious.

Things became more subtle: I was sort of English, almost British, kind of European and because of this, I started to seek out answers about my European identity in relation to my black experience. The problem was that nothing around me resonated, really. Black Britain was still largely seen as Caribbean, despite the fact that the mixed race community was the fastest growing ethnic group in the country, and African migrants began their steady rise to becoming the predominant black presence in Britain by 2011. More than that though, where I grew up it seemed the black community used the aesthetics of gangsta rap as a way of glamorising the destitution, the alienation, and the ugliness of their reality.

I dabbled for a while too. I would dream of getting shot like 2pac, and then surviving, wearing my bullet scars as a badge of honour. It was no surprise to me when Sheffield, and other cities across the UK, witnessed what became known as ‘post-code wars’ which seemed to mimic the geographic East Coast / West Coast Hip-Hop feud that would ultimately claim two of the genre’s biggest stars. My area, S5, was at war with the nearby S3 district, and a lot of my childhood friends got caught up in it; either murdered, or put in jail. Very often these street wars started because somebody looked at someone else in the wrong way and things would spiral out of control. It wasn’t always about drugs and yet it was very definitely a tribal issue of territory.

Long before this all happened I knew I wanted to transcend this territory, and expand my horizons. Initially I thought the way to do this would be to get versed in civil rights literature and African American culture – I read Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and so on. It was an enriching experience, but at some point I started to realise that my reality wasn’t America in the 1960s, but Europe, now. That’s why this imagery of the man with the Afro on a train to Frankfurt was so powerful to me – it was the first time it occurred to me to look for an identity outside the boundaries of my council estate, outside of a Black Britain still so heavily geared towards its colonial Caribbean heritage and also of notions of blackness that America was forcing down my neck. I wanted to be part of a network of individuals who, in the words of Caryl Phillips, felt of, and not of Europe.

I hadn’t found a sense of self in my corner of black Britain, so I started to wonder if there was a collective consciousness on the continent.

With the birth of the single currency and the Eurozone in the late ‘90s, Continental black Europeans had very real, economic reasons for understanding themselves as just that – black Europeans, rather than simply black French, or Afro German. But as someone from the UK – a small island both physically and spiritually adrift from mainland Europe – I simply found comfort in the idea of diasporic unity, and being able to connect with other pockets of black communities facing similar issues of identity and alienation. I wondered if, perhaps, we might attempt to stamp out a unifying identity together on this old, stubborn continent: strength in numbers, so to speak.

I first started to search for the person on the 7.30 to Frankfurt in the arts, particularly music, later becoming a music journalist. It would be through music that I would have my first encounter with the word ‘Afropean’.

If you listen to black music emanating out of Europe in the ‘90s and ‘00s, you can hear the sounds of the last wave of generation x coming of age; of true multiculturalism. There was a subtle shift into an age of fusion, of Acid Jazz, Jungle, Drum N Bass, Trip-Hop, UK Hip-Hop, Garage and Grime, of French Hip-Hop, Swedish Soul and German reggae. These are styles that really are a musical melange of influences and experiences, that aren’t merely referencing either black or white culture, but had been born out of an organic union of the two.

There were mixtures before of course – Mods found new meaning in Ska, working class northerners connected with soul. I myself am a Northern Soul child- my mum, a white Sheffielder, met my African American father when he was on tour with his group The Fantastics. But these unions seemed to be about celebrating difference, rather than being amalgamations.

That’s why I chose to use this rather new word that was born in the early ‘90s when these musical mixtures were being born. Afropean is a term that I felt reflected new identities on the continent and seemed appropriate for a number of reasons. Firstly it hints at cultural influence, rather than simply racial identification, and secondly, for the first time in my life it is a word I’ve been able to use to describe myself that sounds cohesive and whole – isn’t mixed this or half that or hyphenated in any way. Rather, it’s a portmanteau – something whole but born of duality.

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12:49 09.09.2020

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Eine Reise durch Europa

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Leseprobe In Paris folgt Pitts den Spuren Baldwins, in Berlin trifft er Rastafarians, in Moskau besucht er die einstige Patrice-Lumumba-Universität. Dabei wird deutlich, dass Europas Gegenwart stark von seiner kolonialen Vergangenheit gezeichnet ist
Europäische Identität

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Biografie Johny Pitts, geboren in Sheffield, ist Autor, Fotograf und Journalist. Für sein Engagement für eine afropäische Identität wurde er vielfach ausgezeichnet. 2020 erhielt er den Jhalak Prize für sein neues Buch „Afropäisch“
Ein wichtiges Buch

Ein wichtiges Buch

Netzschau „Mit Afropäisch betritt ein leidenschaftlicher Autor die Bühne, der eine schwarze Welt sichtbar macht, die sonst vielen verborgen geblieben wäre“

Afropäisch | Trailer

Video Afropean is an on-the-ground documentary of areas where Europeans of African descent are juggling their multiple allegiances and forging new identities


Afropäisch | Trailer

Video Growing up in Sheffield to a white working-class mother and African-American father, author Johny Pitts found it difficult to relate with those around him


Afropäisch | Vortrag

Video Johny Pitts is the founder of Afropean.com, an online user-generated journal which is part of the Guardian’s ‘Africa Network’. In October 2018, Pitts organised the Looking B(l)ack Symposium at the Bozar cultural centre in Brussels


Afropäisch | Lesung

Video Johny Pitts reads from his insightful book, Afropean: Notes from Black Europe. This genre-defying nonfiction book is on the shortlist for the Jhalak Prize 2020