Idris Elba, Adrian Lester and Ozwald Boateng. They’re black, British, male and exceptionally talented. And there are many more like them, hot on their heels, ready to take the world by storm. The UK has a plethora of burgeoning black male talent – writers, journalists, actors, singers, sports stars – but they tend to be our best kept secret. No longer. Meet the new (and not-so-new) breed of hot talent making its way across the Atlantic and into your newspapers and on to your radios, small screens and big screens now.
Ashley Walters, Actor and Rapper
Asher D. Walters was a leading member of the So Solid Crew, a controversial 30-piece rap band that took the UK charts by storm in the early noughties. But Walters first made a name for himself as a child actor, showcasing formidable depth and character that belied his years. He is widely considered one of the UK’s most promising young performers, starring in small independent films like Love and Lyrics and Sugarhouse, blockbusters like Get Rich or Die Tryin’ and hit BBC drama series Hustle. Walters has been through and survived hard times. He served a prison sentence for firearms possession and five of his So Solid band members subsequently ended up in prison, one of them on a murder charge (later cleared). “There was a lot of fast living and I was doing things to be accepted by my peers rather than doing what I really wanted to. This resulted in me going to prison,” says Walters. “Behind bars I was so depressed because I thought everything was over. I think in some ways it was meant to happen. It was a positive experience because I learnt from it. Ego. It almost destroyed me once. I won’t let it again.”
Gary Younge, Journalist and Author
Journalist Gary Younge has been a leading light in British journalism for over a decade, producing the kind of incisive commentary that informs, and does so eloquently. Younge is a feature writer on race politics in America and a columnist for the Guardian newspaper, the UK’s leading left of centre broadsheet. He’s written extensively on Obama’s election and continues to provide insight in to modern American society and culture. Younge moved to America seven years ago after marrying an African-American and lives in New York with his wife and son. He writes a regular column for The Nation called “Beneath the Radar” and is the Alfred Knobler Journalism Fellow at The Nation Institute. His book No Place Like Home, in which he retraced the route of the civil rights Freedom Riders, was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award in 1999 and he followed this up with Stranger in a Strange Land: Encounters in the Disunited States. His newest book “Who Are We and Does It Matter in the 21st Century?” is out next year. Younge is currently a visiting scholar at Brooklyn College, where he teaches classes on media and politics.
Roy Williams, Playwright
London born playwright Roy Williams has written some the UK’s most hard-hitting and respected plays over the last ten years, usually set in the multicultural metropolis that is the city of his birth. It was in 1999 that Williams really grabbed the public’s attention by winning three major awards: the 31st John Whiting Award and the EMMA Award for Best Play for Starstruck and the George Devine Award for Lift Off. These were followed by The Gift, Local Boy and Clubland which, in 2001, won Williams the Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright. He has been commissioned to write plays for the National and the Royal Court theatres among others in addition to developing one of his plays as a feature film and working on a BBC television drama. He also won the South Bank Show / Arts Council England Decibel Award, recognizing work that contributes to the development and promotion of the black and Asian arts sector, or an artist whose ethnicity directly influences their work. “I’ve never been bothered if people want to label me as a “black playwright” as long as I can get on with writing,” he said. Williams was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by the Queen in 2008 in recognition of his services to British theatre.
Theo Walcott, Soccer Player
Arsenal and England soccer player Theo Walcott, 20, was born in London to a black Jamaican father and white English mother. At the age of 10 Walcott started playing soccer with local club AFC Newbury and he scored 100 goals in 35 games for the club’s under-11 team and in 2000 won the Peter Houseman League Cup after his side beat Down Grange 4-2 in the final. From there he was offered a schoolboy contract to join Swindon Town’s Centre of Excellence, but soon left to join Southampton. Nike agreed to a sponsorship deal with the youngster when he was just fourteen years old. It wasn’t long before Walcott went from playing Championship football with Southampton to join top Premiership club Arsenal, who signed him for approximately $8m, and to top that, he went on to play on the biggest soccer stage – the World Cup – with England at age 17. He has since become an integral part of the Arsenal side, one of the UK’s top soccer clubs, scoring many important goals for both club and country, and becoming one of the most exciting young prospects in world soccer.
Dizzee Rascal, Rapper
Once you’ve seen and heard rapper Dizzee Rascal perform it’s unlikely you’ll forget him. His energy and focus have turned the grime artist from an underground hit to a mainstream star, scoring number one singles and albums in the UK charts. Dizzee grew up in East London on a council estate, raised by his single mother, a Ghanaian immigrant. He attributes his musical development to a school teacher who allowed him to skip regular classes and spend time working on music on the school computers. Dizzee’s distinctive sound is a blend of garage MCing, conventional rap, grime, ragga, and electronic music, with extremely eclectic samples and more exotic styles. His debut album, Boy in da Corner, won him the 2003 Mercury Prize while follow-ups Showtime, Maths + English and Tongue N’ Cheek have all been critically acclaimed and certified gold. Unlike many rappers, Dizzee doesn’t glorify gun culture in his music, but reflects it along with other grim realities of urban life. He has been described as “the vital unvarnished voice of modern-day inner-city London”, and a social element is usually to be found in most of his tracks.
World champion triple jumper Phillips Idowu’s flamboyant style is almost as recognizable as his athletic skills and is reminiscent of basketball player Dennis Rodman’s minus the ego. Idowu was born in East London 31 years ago to Nigerian parents and was a strong basketball and American football player at school, but decided to focus on the triple jump. While for so long it looked like he would fail to fulfill his potential the talented Brit proved his credentials outdoors throughout a fantastic year in 2009 when he got the better of Portuguese nemesis Nelson Évora to take the IAAF World Championships Triple Jump gold in Berlin in August with a world-leading leap and personal best of 17.73m. Idowu was already a silver medal winner having just missed out on gold in the 2008 Beijing Olympics and last month, in recognition of his achievement, he was voted men’s European Athlete of the Year.
David Lammy, Politician
Once feted as a future prime minister, David Lammy has steadily risen through the political ranks. Ivy League educated, Lammy was the first black Briton to go to Harvard, where he studied law and came in to contact with the future US president, Barack Obama. Lammy became an MP in 2000 at the age of 27, following the death of prominent black politician Bernie Grant and has since served as a Minister in various high-profile departments including Health, Constitutional Affairs, Culture and most recently Minister for Skills with responsibility for the Commission for Employment and Skills. He is currently the Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property.
Wale Adeyemi, Designer and Stylist
Walé Adeyemi combines youth culture and fashion with his now instantly recognised trademark graffiti print. Adeyemi has been working as a designer under his own name for more than eight years and lists Alicia Keys, Mos Def, Beyonce and Missy Elliot as clients of his bespoke collection ‘Walé Adeyemi’. Yet in spite of the high profile that his work has attained him, Walé has always maintained a relaxed attitude towards his achievements. He is an ambassador for the Princes’ Trust, Prince Charles’ charity to help young disadvantaged people start up in business.
Taio Cruz, Singer and Producer
Chart-topping singer and in demand producer, Taio Cruz is doing big things on the UK music scene. The award-winning half Nigerian, half Brazilian music maestro released his self-produced debut album, Departure, in 2008 to critical acclaim. His follow up long player, Rokstarr was released last month on his own label, Rokstarr Music London. Cruz launched his fashion and accessories brand earlier this year and it has already become popular with celebrities such as Kanye West and Keri Hilson. The 24-year-old has written, arranged and produced new music for a diverse range of artists including LeToya Luckett, Brandy, Justin Timberlake and The Pussycat Dolls and Britney Spears. He even gets the Simon Cowell seal of approval, having been hired by the American Idol judge to write and produce tracks for his protégée, Leona Lewis.