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Black Joy

How Black joy remained resilient and defiant in 2020

Whether it’s Bolu Babalola’s Love in Colour or the iconic Verzuz battle between Jill Scott and Erykah Badu, Black creators have helped people find joy and community throughout this dumpster fire year

This year has been categorically awful. It constantly felt like the moment in the movie where the protagonist loudly proclaims: “well, it can’t get any worse than this?!” while it does, indeed, get worse. Unsurprisingly, the word ‘unprecedented’ reached peak search popularity on Google this March because... how else do we describe the horrors of a life-altering pandemic? It wasn’t enough that people were getting sick, but the virus further entrenched inequality and deprivation with Black people four times more likely to die from COVID-19 compared to white people due to inequalities in housing, health care and being low paid frontline workers. It felt as if all we did this year was unsuccessfully put out fires. When people weren’t locked down, they were on the streets protesting police brutality – because not even the racists took a day off during the global crises; how very precedented of them. Though we took to the streets in pain and anguish, we also danced and cautiously embraced one another. The story of 2020 was not solely one of sadness. From Trafalgar Square to Harlem, Black people, placards in hand, danced the electric slide while demanding an end to racism. Those moments of song and dance at a heavy protest embodied the ways that Black people find joy and community in even the most difficult of times.

“Black joy is audacity, it is hope, it is swagger in your skin, bold with our beauty, loud with our voice, it’s our movement when we’re together, a rhythm amplified when we stand together,” Bolu Babalola, Romcomoisseur and author shares over email. Her debut novel, Love in Colour, lit a fire in our hearts and provided warmth in an otherwise calamitous year through her rounded and inclusive storytelling. What would Black joy be without the celebration of Black love? “The world only amplifies our pain, but never the ways we carve out joy and hope within it,” Babalola says, “in centring one of the many ways we love (romance), I am celebrating us, and our power – we deserve it. Black women especially, deserve it.” Babalola’s book has not only brought endless joy but also helped many women including myself imagine the kind of love we want, not what I feel I should settle for.

“I get messages from all over the world about how Love in Colour has emphasised the kind of romance that (Black women) deserve, the one that they can not only hope for but demand.”

“The world only amplifies our pain, but never the ways we carve out joy and hope within it. In centring one of the many ways we love (romance), I am celebrating us, and our power – we deserve it. Black women especially, deserve it” – Bolu Babalola

Travis Alabanza, writer and theatre-maker whose new show, Overflow, opened at Bush Theatre this month, speaks to me about Joy via Instagram voicenotes. “Black joy to me – especially as someone that is Black, queer, and gender non-conforming – is to find moments of ease, celebration, and abundance in a world that is really determined to strip that away from all of us,” their poetic voice explains. “My friends have brought me joy in abundance. Art has brought me joy in abundance. Watching Danielle Brathwaite Shirley create a whole trans video game that takes people through a Black trans world, in the midst of a pandemic, has brought me joy.”

Like many, Alabanza’s favourite moment of this year was the rapidly iconic Verzuz battle of the aunties Jill Scott and Erykah Badu. “That for me is the highlight of my motherfucking life,” they tell me. “I am the biggest Jill Scott fan in the world and a huge fan of Erykah Badu, obviously. Partaking in that conversation with everyone, that was it for me. That was the moment!” The Verzuz webseries, founded by Timbaland and Swizz Beatz, kicked off in March during the first pandemic wave. The battles invite two icons from the hip hop and R&B worlds to discuss their discographies, and quickly gained a passionate following. It is just one element that reflects how the world of music and creativity has been a uniting force and a lifeline for so many this year. Those viral moments of congregation have alleviated the ever-present sadness we collectively felt.

Mahaneela Choudhury, a multidisciplinary artist from London with roots in Ghana, India, and Jamaica, shares the same sentiments, describing the launch and stratospheric rise of London radio station No Signal as a particular highlight. The London station, lovingly known as #BlackRadio by fans, was born in the time of global crisis. It platforms homegrown talent on its airwaves, hosts political segments, and fundraises for grassroots organisations. Now, the team hopes to be a bedrock for Black people in the media landscape with big 2021 plans. “It was really wonderful to see it grow from its inception to really becoming a movement.” Choudhury also cites the Verzuz battles, like Alabanza. “It's so beautiful to see the Black community celebrate our icons while they’re still alive, and I always love the unique joy of nostalgia,” she continues over email.

Choudhury’s photography and videography has brought many scroll-pausing moments this year. Her ability to capture Black people and artistry is evocative and joyous. Most recently, she released her photobook Through My Lens, exploring themes of diasporic connection, and most importantly, centring Black and Brown joy. Choudhury’s images are love letters to the countries she’s visited and most importantly Black joy. Her style of photography is brightly coloured portraiture and the book captures the vulnerability of many Black stars such as Kojey Radical, FKA twigs, and Enam Asiama. “I try to capture Black joy through the stories I tell. Whether it’s a photo series, a documentary, or a music video, my work’s themes are always joyful, jubilant and expressive of the kind of joy I feel is not always widely represented in our media landscape,” she says.

Also generating visceral joy is Munya Chawawa, a British-Zimbabwean comedian, whose rapid-response skits to news and current affairs kept us finding new reasons to smile at the height of summer. If he wasn’t daggering his carpet as Jonny Oliver – Jamie Oliver’s Jamaica-obsessed cousin – he was hilariously calling out the hypocrisy of Black Lives Matter news coverage as reporter Barty Crease.  “It’s been tricky to find things to smile about this year unless you love Zoom meetings or Joe Wicks,” he says, “but saying that, there have been some moments of Black joy and excellence that have really made me smile; Mo Gilligan winning his BAFTA, Clara Amfo gracing the cover of Vogue, (Marcus) Rashford securing those extra Turkey Twizzlers over half term… the list goes on! Our kings and queens have really shone through this year!”

2020 threw everything it had at us, we barely made it out in one piece; it was the joy and community that kept us going. Black creators did not take their foot of the gas and despite it all found ways to bring us memorable moments that we will retell to our children’s children when they ask us what it was like to live through the dumpster fire year of 2020.