Writer Spotlight: Jeffrey Boakye

Writer Spotlight: Jeffrey Boakye

With the Writer Spotlight Series, we create a positive image for Black girls to refer to, by having conversations with different writers and illustrators. This month we have been doing Q&As with many writers, to get to know more about them and their work. Here, we are showcasing all the questions we have asked Jeffrey Boakye the author of Musical Truth - A Musical History of Modern Black Britain in 28 Songs. 

Our latest Issue The Music Edition features an extract from Jeffery's new book. 

Buy our latest issue here


Musical Truth - A Musical History of Modern Black Britain in 28 Songs.

Congratulations on the launch of your new book Musical Truth. How long did it take you to do the research for your book?

Very good question. For me, writing a book is something which is almost a bit of a research project. You have the idea, and then you sketch out how it might work. But then as you go into the writing of it, you realise what you don't know. So actually, that research adds to the book whilst you're writing it. Which makes it really exciting for me, to be completely honest, because I'm finding things out, as well as confirming the things I already knew. But the entire process, like start to finish from having the first idea to this point, took probably a couple of years. And I spent most of that time researching, writing and then editing. And in the editing process, there's still some research because you have to check things and read widely.

When did you realise that language had power? What was the experience like?

I suppose, for me personally, is when I saw the way some of my teachers responded to some of my writing when I was younger. I really liked books when I was younger. I would copy the content, for example poems. I remember copying poems and making minor changes here and there. My teachers read it, and the reaction that I saw from them was really transformational. Just putting words together in interesting and unique ways can really affect people, and it can really add something to the world. So from that point on, and I must have been really little, about five years old or something, I kind of thought, okay, writing is something which is important, and it can do something. 

Beyond that, I suppose anything that I'd read as a child that really made me think, and opened my world up to other narratives and other people, other stories and other things. This kind of experience has been really important, because you realise that language and telling stories is basically how you grow. 

Image: Jeffrey Boakye © Antonio Olmos
Image: Jeffrey Boakye © Antonio Olmos

What was it like planning for Musical Truth? How did it feel?

To be honest, it was very exciting. There's a bit of a celebration, because even though a lot of the subject in the book is quite heavy, it's called Musical Truth for a reason, I'm not shying away from difficult truths in British Black history, which is narrative in the experiences of Black communities. And a lot of that information is very difficult. However, there's always a lot to celebrate. The one reason I chose music was because music is something which can be so joyous and so joyful, even in the middle of really dark times. If you look at history, there's been a lot of traumas at different points in Black Britain. But, artists have been creating art that we can celebrate within the Black community, that's always been really important. So a lot of my predominant feeling was the celebration side. 

I didn't want this book to be depressing; I wanted it to be something which you could listen to with joy in your heart, also to enjoy with your family and friends. I felt like a DJ at a party, getting people on the dance floor while saying serious things about what was going on in society. I felt a sense of responsibility. If I'm being really honest, because I wanted to represent stories which are not fully represented within mainstream publishing and schools. The key features within this book are just basic truths about what happened. They did not teach these subjects to me at school. A few adults today will have never heard of these stories, so I felt a responsibility, actually to make sure that they heard those narratives, as well as celebrating the communities that we come from.

Sade’s dad has a few favourite songs from the book which are ‘Electric Avenue’ by Eddy Grant, and ‘Black’ by Dave. When you were putting the playlist together for the book, did you find it difficult to pick the songs? And did you add and remove some songs?

Your dad has great taste, two great tracks, especially Electric Avenue.
It was kind of easy at first, because I knew that the songs that had affected me were songs I was going to talk about. So I spent a whole life exploring music. So it wasn't easy. The difficult thing was to kind of make sure that I was doing justice to a range of different genres and areas. I really love music. So I've got quite a broad taste. So thankfully, I was already thinking in terms of everything from the UK Garage, to reggae, to soul, to Hip Hop and R&B. So that was easy enough. I didn't want to miss any genres, I really wanted to make sure that it told a consistent history, I just had to do one from every year to make sure that I've covered it. There were a few songs in the 90s when I was a teenager, and maybe fewer songs from the 50s when I wasn't even alive. But, I had to learn to think about those areas where there were gaps; I think what was happening in Britain in the 50s. It was easy, however difficult in some areas. 


Ngadi Smart’s illustrations for the book are amazing and really bring the book to life. What was the creative experience like and do you have plans on working on more projects together?

I've actually never met Ngadi, because of COVID-19. There were several potential artists, however Ngadi illustrations really jumped out, so vibrant. I loved that about the illustrations because music is something which is always alive, no matter how old the song is, it feels like right now. So that kind of immediacy is something which I love to see in her work. You never know what the future will hold in terms of future projects. 

Quick Fire Questions

What's on your current playlist?
Little Simz, She had a project out recently, which is mind blowing, amazing lyricist a lot to say very thoughtful. I listened to a lot of 80s Soul, Luther Vandross, Gwen McCrae and George Benson. Some UK Garage.  

Describe yourself in one word?

What is your hidden talent?
Well, this is really cool. I’m very good at rollerblading! I'm great at Yo-Yo tricks. 
I wasted years learning how to get good at it!

Musical Truth by Jeffrey Boakye | Faber & Faber |
Available from bookshop.org

About the Writer

Jeffrey Boakye is an author, educator and teacher with a particular interest in issues surrounding education, race, masculinity and popular culture. Jeffrey has written 3 books and Musical Truth - A Musical History of Modern Black Britain in 28 Songs is his latest book.
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