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Melanin Box Festival
initiative.dkf (DK Fashola + Wofai)Courtesy of Melanin Box Festival

Melanin Box Festival is putting black British voices first

This year, the festival has curated performances incorporating dance, music, and drag, with topics ranging from gender and sexuality, family life, and witchcraft

While black British actors such as Naomie Harris, John Boyega, and Daniel Kaluuya have earned their Hollywood stripes in huge US blockbusters such as Moonlight, Star Wars, and Get Outthe stories they tell are not often their own. That is, they are not speaking about the black British experience, but rather the black American one.

It would be negligent not to mention the homegrown talent breaking ground for black British television; Michaela Coel’s Chewing Gum, Kayode Ewumi’s (better known to many as R.S of #HoodDocumentary) series Enterprice, and The Big Narstie Show, co-hosted with Mo the Comedian – which upends all the formalities of UK comedy chat shows.

But while the visibility of black British stories has been growing in the UK media over the past decade or so, the narratives have remained limited.

Crime dramas such as the Kidulthood trilogy and Top Boy, as well as the recent wave of TV comedies, offer only a selective range of black British culture to the mainstream. Despite their success – and popularity – these often perpetuate incorrect stereotypes: black people are either cool, criminal or comedians – and that’s it.

“How many times are we going to see the same story? I want to see more. I just want balance” – DK Fashola

Working to counteract this is Initiative.dkf – a collective made up of multidisciplinary artists Wofai, DK Fashola, and Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu.

Together, they share a vision of nurturing a community of black British writers, performers, and filmmakers who are actively using their voices to push the parameters of black British narratives.

Four years ago, this vision culminated in the Melanin Box Festival – an annual showcase of performing arts by young, black Brits, which returns to the stage on 4th and 5th of August at Theatre Peckham.

Speaking with Fashola and Fynn-Aiduenu, the need for alternative black British narratives for both black and non-minority audiences is clear.

Fashola talks about her first day at drama school in Essex back in 2008: “I walked in, and one of the actors there said I was the second black person they had ever seen in their life, not on TV. People don’t realise that there are places, even just on the outskirts of London, where the only black narrative they know is what’s on TV. So if all they’re seeing is The Big Narstie Show or Top Boy, they expect you to behave in a certain way. People would say things to me like, ‘Wagwan’ and it’s like, ‘cool, but I’m not actually Jamaican’...”

As well as diversifying the stories being told, through Melanin Box Festival, the collective wants to showcase different ways of telling them. This year, they’ve curated performances incorporating movement, dance, music, and drag, with topics ranging from gender and sexuality, family life, and witchcraft.

“I’m really excited to see Lasana Shabazz, who is a multidisciplinary drag artist,” Fynn-Aiduenu reveals. “She’s going to put a brand new piece in the festival, which is about breaking and redefining what gender is, and questioning our ideas of sexuality which is really important.”

There will also be performances by screenwriter, playwright, and Laurence Olivier award-winner Bola Agbaje, as well as Babirye Bukilwa of Sistren – a collective carving out spaces in the media for women of colour – along with screenings of short films across both days.

“It's about giving us the opportunity to tell our own stories – that's Melanin Box. Normalising black British narratives means going on Channels 1 to 5, and seeing various shades of what we look like,” explains Fashola, when asked what needs to be done to balance representations of black British experiences and how the festival makes a step towards that.  “Although living on an estate and wearing hoodies is life, and it's real – I want to see that too, those stories are valid. But it's not the only narrative. How many times are we going to see the same story? I want to see more. I just want balance.”

Melanin Box Festival runs 4 – 5 August, click here for information and tickets