Ajamu X is an internationally acclaimed fine art photographer, community archivist and the co –founder of rukus! Federation Ltd an arts company dedicated to celebrating and showcasing the best in challenging, provocative works by black lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-gender artists nationally and internationally.
Ajamu is the currently the Archive Manager of The Black LGBT Archive Project, which seeks to collect, preserve, exhibit public, cultural, and artistic materials related to the Black Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans-Gender heritage, history and lived experience in the UK.
Ajamu was born in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire in 1963 and moved to London in January 1987.
Below is an abridged version of Ajamu's interview:
00:00 Ajamu talks about his background, educational qualifications and current occupation.
02:07 I first identified with being bisexual. I started to use the word "gay" in my 20's when living in London. Now I don't identify as being "gay", I prefer to use the word "queer". My family are very close-knit and are very supportive of my life. I got a lot of hassle from other black men in Huddersfield when I was 18/19 years old. I was in to rock music and punk so I stood out in the way that I dressed and acted. People told me that black men don't behave that way, don't dress that way. People told me about my sexuality before I identified with it. Huddersfield is a small town and everyone knew each other so I had issues around that.
04:43 I felt angry and frustrated. When someone tells you that you are not a black man because of the way you behave or dress it raises identity questions. I started on a journey asking questions about identity, race in particular and sexuality. I did not identify with any white gay men on TV. I could not identify with black cultural role models either. My family was always the same, never shifted their opinion of me. My mum always said that as long as you have manners and respect it doesn't matter who you are. Outside of my family there was a tension so I moved to a larger city - Leeds for 4 years. At this time I was moving between being gay and bisexual. I didn't identify with the label of "gay" until I moved to London.
07:19 The BLGBT (Black, lesbian and gay, bisexual, trans-gender community). I am part of it in terms of sexual orientation, racial background and the politics that I identify with. It is a diverse community within society and this is an umbrella term that provides a frame of reference for many people, including those who may be actively LGBT but do not identify with the labels "lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans-gender".
09:17 There have been lots of important events that have happened in my life. When I was living in Leeds with my girlfriend in 1987 I came across an advert in the Caribbean Times for the first National Black Gay Man's Conference. I came down to London in October 1987 for the conference. It was the first time I had met a whole group of black gay men. We talked about heritage, history and safer sex, the black community and issues with homophobia, and racism in terms of the wider gay community. By January I had moved to London to be around this political community. The previous year I was working on a publication that we started called Black. I met a group of poets called Turbo working with Martin Glynn. That was the first time I came across black men talking about black politics. It opened my eyes to people like Malcolm X and Angela Davis These two events coming together had a major impact on me in terms of my politics surrounding my sexual identity. My name Ajamu X is a reference to Malcolm X who was my first key role model. Changing my name to an African one was very significant.
12:58 The main idea that has affected my life is the idea of multiple identities and what that means. Too often these identities are caged within this either/or paradigm. You are either male or female, black or white, straight or gay, night or day. We have very fixed notions of who and what we are that come from family, society, culture, the wider black community and the wider gay community. We have to challenge these identity questions. I am interested in how people inhabit their many identities and what that means in terms of family, community and the world.
14:31 "Youth" is such a broad term. My nieces and nephews are part of "youth" and they are wonderful people who I have a fantastic relationship with. I think there are issues at the moment around young black men. The media talks about gun crime and stabbings. I personally don't see youth as a threat and have never had any problems with them. It is hard for any group of young people to try and grow up within this society and culture at this moment in time. Instead of blaming young people we need to look at what is actually going on for them. Too often people talk about what should be done. But organisations rarely bring young people to the start of those discussions and debates. They need to look at what the real issues are, what young people actually want and need, what are the real issues for them. I do a lot of work with young lesbian and gay people. There are issues of self esteem, identity and self empowerment. Within the framework of "youth" this work can include additional issues such as bullying at school. The government and local groups need to think about creative and innovative ways to solve some of these issues. Our culture sends out mixed signals for young people and they, and their families, often don't have the tools to work it through, so it is understandable that they go off the rails. Each generation has it's own stuff to work through. Personally I think that the issue of identity is central to black men and women. They don't create their own sense of identity. It normally comes from outside and they have to define what it means to them. This is key to what some youth have to think about and work through.
20:18 I am not sure that I have a message for young people. I would like to say that I think young black men need spaces where they can talk about their emotions and feelings. So many young black men get caught up in being hard and rough. Somehow there might be issues around a fear of being sensitive. A fear of talking about who they are and what they are. They need the space to be able to talk about what it means to be a young black male living in Brixton in 2008. It is core to their identity. Some of the things we are seeing out on the streets is actually because some men don't have the tools to work through that kind of internal landscape. Those spaces need to be created somewhere, somehow. Black men need to talk and share without fear of being attacked or abused by their peers. Without fear of their family saying they can't do it. They need to keep on challenging ideas of what it means to be black and male within this society.
24:10 Ajamu repeats his message for young people, looking straight at the camera: He states that young black men and women need the space to be able to talk about who and what they are. Young men need to be able to talk about what it means to be young, black and male in 2008. They need to be able to talk about emotions and feelings without being ridiculed or having their sexual identity questioned. They need to be able to challenge very fixed notions of what it means to be black and male, and create those identities without fear of being attacked for it.