Lives are lived forever in a state of flux as we constantly redefine ourselves. Hair is cut and dyed, once-loved kicks are left in the bottom of wardrobes only to be triumphantly rediscovered years later. Friends become lovers then one day strangers. The biggest changes often happen slowly, subconsciously, as the way in which we view the world shifts from the black and white of childhood into the technicolour of a life fully lived.
BORN INTO AN AFRO-CARIBBEAN,
HETEROSEXUAL, CHRISTIAN WORLD.
Growing up as a Seventh-Day Adventist, observing the Sabbath and rejecting alcohol and tobacco ‘seemed normal’ within a framework where ‘everyone else was doing the same thing’. ‘I was very very very religious’, James tells me, ‘As right wing as you can get’. At school James discovered his route into poetry, working on written adaptations of ‘The Tempest’ and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, yet it was at church that he gave his first spoken word performance. At an informal gathering to celebrate the coming of the new year, James stood up and recited a piece that began: ‘Help us Lord like you have before, Through to the year 2004’, ‘the rest’, he smiles, ‘is history’.
Performing at increasingly large church events and conferences, his confidence in performance was solidified, yet religious beliefs that had seemed concrete began to splinter into shards of doubt. ‘I was around a lot of black people — white people were outsiders. And it got to a point where I thought this isn’t right, this picture. If we are all God’s children why am I only seeing black faces?’ Questioning the authenticity of the bible and the idea of authorship, James began to look beyond the rigid doctrines held by the church.
HAD BEEN ABOUT CONVENTIONS,
STEREOTYPES, RULES AND DOGMA’.
But there is no conventional anything. ‘You have all these conventions but then when you actually get out there into the real world you meet people who break these stereotypes’. Sipping on a Disaranno and Coke, James laughingly tells me ‘I need something that’s watertight. I cannot be turning down opportunities to party and fornicate on the basis of something that’s not watertight’.
In 2009 James discovered London’s East End, and the cultural implications of the swiftly mutating area. ‘It was an alternative to what I’d been presented with thus far, socially and culturally. And it was so much more exciting’.
I don’t know when or where or how James and I first met, but it can only have been in one basement club or another somewhere along the Kingsland Road, where he was forever holding court caped in one his mystical black coats. We were both at university then, but whilst I was skim reading literature deemed by Penguin to be ‘classic’, James had started performing again, this time on the Brunel Spoken Word circuit. Yet the ethnic lines drawn within the church community became clear here too as James was continually performing at black history events. ‘I become bored of university, bored of the segregation. I was like ‘I don’t want to perform for just black people anymore.’ Even moving to open mic nights and events outside of university, race, it seemed, was emphasised in performance. ‘I got to a point where I realised that when I got up and talked about being a black boy in the city, struggling, trying to break out the system … They loved that shit! They lapped it up! And I thought ‘This is just too easy, I can’t do this.’ Transcending simplistic definitions, James established ‘the intention to perform a colourless, genderless poetry’.
‘My world for a great part of my life was black, Afro-Caribbean, heterosexual… that was my world. I didn’t choose these things, these things shouldn’t define me. What should define me is how I respond to the world around me. Let me not be loved or hated on account of the things that I didn’t choose but by the things I do choose. Hate me because of the football team I support, but not because I’m gay or straight or black or white.’
‘THE A AND THE E’, JAMES AIMS TO BRING PEOPLE
TOGETHER IN THE NAME OF ART AND EQUALITY.
He has worked with ISYS and NTS on ‘Paved With Gold’ at Tanks. He has been commissioned for Nike, the BBC, the Tate Modern and the Tate Britain. ‘I’m doing loads, why doesn’t the world know yet? But at the moment it’s like this. Last night wasn’t filmed, it wasn’t televised, it didn’t go on 1Extra, Dazed weren’t there but it touched people and people enjoyed it. We danced, we listened, and we went home with a sense of satisfaction.’