It's one a.m. and the street outside is heaving with people, black and white. A multiracial clientele is packed into The Soul Of Black Folk bookshop and the cappucino machine is working overtime. By the big window looking out onto the street is a tiny stage. Here a young black man has just finished a set of variations on alto sax and a woman from Compton, Los Angeles, is reading a long poem about her local police.
This is not twenties Harlem or fifties Greenwich Village but Coldharbour Lane, Brixton on a Friday night in 1999 and the feeling is unmistakeable. Something special is going on here. You can see it in the bemused, smiley-face clubbers who peer in at the traffic-stalled bus whose every window frames a staring passenger. Even the unsmiling men on the corner with the mountain bikes and the mobile phones spare an occasional glance in this direction.
The Soul Of Black Folk is one of the very few bookshops in the UK devoted exclusively to the work of black writers. Robert Beckford, who came here from Jamaica at the age of six, started off selling books from a market stall and moved into these premises just a few months ago. During the day The Soul Of Black Folk is a blend of coffee house and bookshop familiar in the US with locals and tourists sitting around tables or lounging on sofas between book-toppling walls.
On a Friday night he hosts poetry and performance sessions which are drawing in black celebrities from far and wide. "American performers come down here for a warm-up slot before their West End shows. Coolio arrived this summer in his limousine, complete with entourage. People started screaming in the shop, the cameras were flashing. Skip Gates, the Harvard academic, has been down here. Mike Phillips who did the Windrush series, Darcus Howe the broadcaster, the actor Abdul Malik. They're all frequent visitors."
Robert Beckford and Michael Groce
MCs at some performance venues encourage heckling. Robert, a genial but authoritarian host, does not. "Show some respect. Shut the fuck up." Don't even thumb through one of his books if someone is performing. If you leave early, he'll ask you where you're going and if he doesn't buy your excuse, he'll let you know. If one of the mobile toting crew strays into the doorway, Robert will ask him politely to move along and he will do so, without fuss.
The undoubted star this evening is Cold Seduction, a young American rap artist here to promote his new CD. A drum and bass loop begins and, wearing the sharpest suit anywhere south of the river tonight, he drawls "if you'd like to lend me your imagination a moment..." and begins an erotic poem that makes Marvin Gaye sound like a particularly repressed T.S. Eliot. The rapt, hungry stares of the female half of his audience suggest that both Cold Seduction and his suit might suffer the same fate as Orpheus at the hands of the Maenads.
Sitting in The Soul Of Black Folk on a Friday night, it's easy to believe that a new, inclusive Brixton has arrived, talented, confident, ready to take on the new millennium. And there is no doubt that Brixton is booming at the moment. New pubs and bars are opening by the week and still there are not enough venues to meet the sheer numbers of young, mainly white, people who throng the area every weekend.
However when riots swept the area four years ago, following the death of a young black man in police custody, the regeneration of Brixton seemed built on sand. A deeper cause of the riots was seen to be the belief of many in the black community that Brixton was not being regenerated but gentrified and that business grants were going not to black locals but to white outsiders. On the issue of funding, a contentious issue in Brixton since the first riots in 1981, Robert Beckford is characteristically forthright, stating "I refuse to take funding from anyone. You get lackadaisical. You get dependent."
This might surprise Conservative councillors who regularly complain that money is being pumped into Brixton at the expense of other areas, code for black people getting money at the expense of whites. However, if they were to read more closely their W.E.B. DuBois, the black American writer after whose most famous book Robert has named his shop, they would discover that this ethic of entrepreneurial self help has historically been strong in the black community. For Robert the issue is clear. Brixton is being gentrified and the black community has to get on board. "When an area is gentrified there will be winners and losers. In East London, going through a similar process, the white working class are going through the same thing."
The most high profile business to burn down in the 1995 riots was The Dogstar, a little way down Coldharbour Lane. This was formerly The Atlantic, Brixton's most visible black pub, and at the time recently refurbished for a white clientele with a £200,000 grant. Some say it was singled out for just that reason. An illustration of the new inclusive Brixton, and Robert's own hard-headed business pragmatism, is that The Soul Of Black Folk is now open on a Saturday night and selling books until five in the morning. Homeward bound clubbers from The Dogstar or The Fridge on Brixton Hill can rest their feet, drink cappucino, read the early Sunday papers and take a rest from repetitive beats with that Richard Wright omnibus on the middle shelf or that elusive collection of speeches by Michael Manley
As Robert says, "Because I don't get funding, I'm always under pressure to come up with new ideas to create income. I'm doing something as a result of the customers and what they want.." He adds drily "People who have overspent can hang on till the first tube at 5 a.m."
The cafe bar feel of Soul Of Black Folk is no attempt at a soft focus Heritage Black Britain or, despite Robert's avowed admiration for Langston Hughes and Claude McKay, to recreate a bygone African American bohemia. It is based on firm commercial imperatives. "I couldn't raise the money to pay the rent. That's how the poetry evenings started. I'm doing something as a result of the customers and what they want."
Tonight a man is reading a long gentle poem about bathing his little boy. He gets everyone in the shop to join in on the chorus, that long sigh of contentment familiar to all parents, and for a few magical moments this becomes the soundtrack to the late night crowds and traffic on the other side of the window. This man is Michael Groce, whose own history is inextricably linked with the trials and tribulations of Brixton's black community. When police came to arrest him at his home in Loughborough Road in 1985 they shot his mother, Cherry, who has been confined to a wheelchair ever since, so sparking off the 1985 Brixton riots.
Doubtless Michael Groce, who more than anyone else can claim to speak from the Brixton grassroots, will agree that the black community is being squeezed out by trendy white arrivistes? Actually, no. "They've done a good job at The Dogstar. One of the problems with Brixton in the past was they were throwing money at people and we were wasting it. We've got to get the chip off our shoulder. It's an opportunity we never had in the past. Look at me. Who would have dreamed I would be a poet?"
Once a Brixton bad boy and career criminal, Michael won the prestigious Cheltenham Poetry Prize last year and his first collection of poems is out soon. A regular performer at The Soul Of Black Folk, he has his own performance club in nearby Stockwell Road and runs poetry workshops in schools. Michael is as upbeat about the changing face of Brixton as he is about his own personal rennaissance. "I just love the dream of it all, the bookshop, the poetry, to know it's in the heart of Brixton. I just like being part of it all.."
But surely Brixton, with its enormous historic and symbolic importance to Britain's black community, should be more than just the Camden Town of South London, one more late night zone where the pleasure seekers flood in while the spirit that attracted them in the first place is killed off? "I don't think they can ever kill off the community of Brixton" says Michael Groce. "It's got a great history. Brixton hasn't changed, people are just beginning to see what it's all about."
Could Brixton then become a cultural centre for the black diaspora to rival Harlem in the twenties, bringing in black cultural tourists from around the world? A Brixton Renaissance for the new millennium? Michael Groce agrees. "Black tourists are coming here now. We need an industry to cater for that influx."
Robert Beckford is also looking to the future, to a restaurant and members' club on the premises, to regular academic seminars, art and photography exhibitions, even to opening a second bookshop in Holland where "there's a large black community and they already have the cafe-bar mentality."
Unlike an earlier generation of black Brixtonians who looked back to the Caribbean, both men indentify themselves as black British while determinedly internatinalist in their outlook. Says Michael Groce "I don't have a strong link with Jamaica. This is my country and I grew up here," while Robert Beckford comments "I'm not British, I'm not totally African. I have a new soul. We've created something unique."
In the end, perhaps the past can never be more than a partial guide to the future. Something exciting is happening down in Brixton and where it will go, nobody knows. Time longer than rope, as might have said those pioneers from Jamaica who stepped off The Windrush fifty years ago. They could not know to what profound changes their willingness to take a risk would lead, any more than Robert Beckford and Michael Groce can know today.
This article previously appeared in "Untold" magazine and is the strict copyright of Geoff Parker