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Practicing activism doesn't just mean waving protest signs on the street (though, obviously, that is incredibly important too). Practicing activism can be however you feel to express yourself -- and with this expression, comes cultural change. For Cheraine Donalea Scott, it's her love of London's black underground music called grime and her national British identity that fuses together to inspire her activism through research and writing. Originally from Britain, she's now a PhD candidate inside New York University's Media, Cultural, and Communication studies program in New York City. Her dissertation, currently in the works, will explore issues of race, class and national identity in Brexit Britain through an analysis of Grime music.
Before her time at NYU, Cheraine worked in the fashion industry for 10 years. She sat down with us to talk the importance of black bodies in academia, the influence of grime and what the future holds for her work. You can follow the visual portion of her research project called Get a Perspective on Instagram.
First of all, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us. For the sake of what we’re all going through right now, how are you feeling?!
CDS: I’m managing through these extremely trying times. For me, prioritizing my wellbeing means I can be of better service to my family, friends and community.
I appreciate your work so much. Can you tell us how you got started as a PhD candidate studying London’s black underground music scene?
CDS: I have been both fascinated and proud of the cultural impact Black people in Britain have made for as long as I can remember. It inspired me to create and contribute to its legacy which is why I began my journey pursuing fashion design. Though, somewhere between finishing my undergrad degree and working in the fashion industry (for 10 years) I became compelled to readjust ambitions. Tired of seeing Black and brown bodies exploited for their style and labor, I chose to return to school and take up a writing practice which would bear witness to and document black style within its socio-political context, as opposed to reducing it to just its aesthetics. Music, I’ve come to realize, acts as a Black cultural nexus, so I decided to start there.
When did you first hear about grime music?
CDS: Being a teenager in London, around the turn of the millennium grime was inescapable! Though, back then it wasn’t called grime yet. Grime originated from London and is the sound of the lived experiences of working-class urban youth. I used to listen to it till my taste tapered off. Though, I would become increasingly aware, as I got older, how its popularity caused contentions within mainstream British culture. With British politicians and media correspondents eager to attack it.
So, what was most surprising to you about studying at NYU?
CDS: Having studied up to that point in the UK where less than 1% of university professors are Black, taking classes led by Black academics and learning from syllabi filled with Black authors was an extraordinary experience! Though, it wasn’t exactly a surprise, it was a large part of why I made the move. Maybe, what I could say I found surprising, though this isn’t limited to my experiences at NYU, is how unfamiliar many people I’ve met have been with Black people coming from Britain and having an established history there.
Tell us about your visual project Get a Perspective. Why have you chosen the platform of instagram to bring out this visual archive?
The Get Perspective IG project is a space for me to simultaneously explore Black quotidian life through photography as well as commit to digital memory the names and work of Black artists (though not exclusively). I’m interested in how everyday Black life is seen and documented in images. Time and place is irrelevant, the IG feed can jump from the 2010s to 1970s, or from London to Lagos. I’m more invested in exploring the continuities in the black experience, as well as rooting out the discontinuities. As a Black Brit, the project is the perfect space for me to explore the work of Black British artists as their work often gets overlooked and to place it in a diasporic conversation on Blackness.
You used to work in fashion, what was that like?
CDS: It was ok, not half as glamorous as people assume! What stands out when I think about my time in the industry was the connections I was able to make with people all around the world. I was fortunate enough to travel with the job, visiting factories and overseeing production runs. I got to see countries from a niche perspective. The experience taught me so much about international business it also opened my eyes to the workings of the capitalist system.
What do you really look for in your own personal style?
CDS: My fashion background has made me aware of the power and importance of dress. The assemblage of clothes and accessories we wear conveys a social message about who we are —our class, culture, education, occupation, etc. My personal style definitely tries to reckon with this as well as challenge it. I choose to celebrate my Afro-Caribbean heritage combining it with my affinity for monotones and minimalist aesthetics. I used to be really into designer clothes but now favor indie or artisan brands, especially those that embrace ethical and sustainable practices. I’m also interested in items that can last a test of time as I don’t shop much.
What are you currently reading right now?
CDS: I just finished reading an amazingly poignant book called Terraformed: Young Black Lives in the Inner City by Dr. Joy White. It looks at the violent effect British neoliberal policies have had on the lives of young people living in the East London borough of Newham. It highlights how this ethnically diverse borough has been consistently underfunded for decades making the living conditions and opportunities dire and few. It also documents the area’s gentrification and the not so subtle attempts to displace Black bodies.
If you had to choose one artist to suggest and why, who’s your all-time fav?
Music or art? That is super hard!!
These are only some, I could list so many more! Why did I choose these names, because they use different mediums —graphic art, painting, photography collage— and create vibrant work that centers the Black body as their subject in a way that is totally awe inspiring.
Our chat with Cheraine is the first of many posts featuring community leaders who inspire us to make a difference. We are strong supporters of the knowledge they share.
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