Oral History Interview - Toyin Agbetu

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Oral History Interview - Toyin Agbetu

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Audio recording of an oral history interview with Toyin Agbetu, who was born in Hackney 1967.

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Photograph copyright Emma Davies.



I’m a Pan Africanist. Throughout world history African people have been dispersed across the Earth. My parents were born in Africa, my wife has Caribbean heritage so because of our roots, my children, according to the census, are ‘mixed race’. That’s nonsense. We are all Africans belonging to a global Pan African family.

My primary identity is that of being an African. When anyone looks at me, that’s the first thing they see. Fully embracing my identity links me to the Motherland, to history and traditions that go back to the beginnings of human kind. After that I would say I’m Yoruba. I’m a man who is a human rights activist. I’m also a Hackneyite. I was born here, I work here. I’m not planning to leave until I’ve done my best to challenge inequality and prejudice. If, through education and culture we can offer social justice and freedom for all in Hackney, then I believe we can replicate those ideas as solutions elsewhere.

My culture is not a separate part of me. It’s what I breathe; it forms the very essence of who I am. Traditions and rituals are engrained in my everyday life. When I was growing up we ate traditional foods, listened to African music. My father taught us that a good life was about family and collaboration with others, not individualism and competition. We were a bicultural entity in a world with different values and often that entity faced attacks creating pressure on it to become hidden in order to survive.

Language remains the key. It transports culture, cements communities. It’s an island of our Ancestors, of our achievements, our ideas, our dreams but also our tales of woe. I speak a little Yoruba to my children but I struggle to speak it fluently. African enslavement and colonisation meant that we were taught that African languages were inferior to others. Even in today’s Britain there’s sometimes hostility towards those who choose to speak their mother tongues in favour of English. Yet despite this it remains my ambition to learn at least three African languages – Yoruba, Kiswahili and perhaps the ancient Kemetic tongue.

I think we often underestimate the influence of music in our lives. Whilst growing up I remember how every Sunday my father used to play Fela Kuti records. I had no true understanding of the astute political observations present in the lyrics but loved singing and dancing to them. The infectious Afrobeat rhythms always brought Nigeria to our little home in Hackney and as I struggled to mimic the pidgin language which fused English with Yoruba it provided a strong reminder that although African people weren’t ever accurately represented on the television, in the musical world beyond the radio we existed, culturally intact.

Prince Nico Mbarga’s song ‘Sweet Mother’ was distinct because it became an anthem that crossed cultural barriers. Back in the days there was the occasional conflict between West Africans and so called ‘West Indians’ who were largely Africans who involuntarily travelled here via the Caribbean. Yet this infectious song with beats similar to those of calypso and high life rhythms sang the praises of all our mothers. It quickly became universally accepted by all of us as a cross cultural anthem. A fact that remains true to this very day as it remains a potent symbol of our shared heritage and spiritual unity.

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