Giving Afro-Caribbean people a proper voice

It’s been an institution in South London for decades. In the week a plaque was unveiled at the Brixton offices of The Voice, FRANK PACHAS looks at its history and the part it has played in the lives of its readers.

It has been 38 years since The Voice’s first edition as the only national weekly newspaper aimed at British-born Afro-Caribbean people was published.

It was founded a year after the 1981 Brixton uprising by Jamaican accountant Val McCalla, who had volunteered part-time on a left-wing newspaper in the 1970s,

The Voice rose from idea into reality in 1982.

Its Stockwell Road offices have been the training ground for some of the country’s top journalists; former Commission for Racial Equality chairman Trevor Phillips, former BBC and currently ITV newsman Rageh Omaar, the BBC’s most controversial former reporter Martin Bashir, novelist Vanessa Walters, broadcasters Jasmine Dotiwala, Henry Bonsu, Dotun Adebayo, Onyekachi Wambu, Joel Kibazo and educationalist Tony Sewell.

Previously, Afro-Caribbean people who were born in Britain did not have a British newspaper that spoke for them or represented them.

The only newspapers available for the young Afro-Caribbean community addressed their parents, who came to Britain as immigrants and relayed news from their countries.

But they didn’t go any further than that. Many of those newspapers such as The West Indian Gazette, West Indian World, The Caribbean Time, very popular among their communities back then, have not survived.

Many thought the idea of launching a newspaper addressing the emerging British black community – the children of those immigrants – was simply not going to pay off. But the newspaper bug had already taken a grip on Val who had realised Afro Caribbean people born in Britain needed a voice.

He appointed first editor Flip Fraser who, leading a team of young journalists, focused on reporting on the issues affecting British-born Afro Caribbean people.

Most importantly, they wanted a newspaper that did not vilify them for being British people of colour.

The Voice started selling only 4,000 copies a week covering human interest stories, sports coverage, fashion, entertainment, hard news and investigative reporting.

Eight years later it was selling more than 53,000 copies weekly.

The fledgling paper became, against all odds, the mouthpiece of Britain’s black community and turned out to be a huge success – it became a small fortune job in recruitment advertising and made Val a multi-millionaire.

Now almost 40 years later, it has positioned itself as the most successful Afro-Caribbean newspaper in Britain.

It has also outlived competitors like New Nation, which ran from 1996 to 2016.

The Voice’s first issue was in August 1982, the same month of the 16th annual Notting Hill Carnival, and after two turbulent years for black communities in Britain.

British newspapers gave scant coverage to black issues until then – and when they did it was usually negative.

And after the 1981 Brixton riots, especially after April 10 and 12 , the national newspapers were full of racial stereotyping against thousands of activists, most of them black.

They were vilified for taking part in demonstrations following the deaths of 13 young black Britons in the New Cross Fire, weeks before.

Before that, hundreds participated in the St Pauls riot in Bristol in 1980, amid increasing racial tension, poor housing and alienation of black youth.

The unveiling of the plaque to Val McCalla at the original site of the newspaper office included Mayor of Lambeth, Councillor Annie Gallop, His Excellency Seth Ramocan, CD Jamaica High Commissioner to the UK, and Dawn Hill, trustee, Black Cultural Archives. The ceremony took place at Blue Star House in Brixton.

The Brixton riots were replicated in at least 25 other places hit hard by increasing crime rate, unemployment and recessions.

Val saw the emerging culture of his community and decided to establish a voice for a new niche market.

He did it by launching The Voice in a tabloid form. That led to some criticism branding the paper “the black Sun” for being controversial and sensationalist.

Val’s experiences as an educated immigrant who arrived in Britain in 1959 may have contributed to his progressive ideas.

Born in Jamaica in 1943 and trained as an accountant there, he moved to Britain when he was 15.

He joined the RAF where a perforated eardrum forced him to give up on his dreams of becoming a pilot in the mid 1960s.

He moved to London in the 1970s and settled in Bethnal Green, where he worked as an accountant, and bookkeeper.

There, his first paper was just double page spread called The Voice, aimed at the black community.

By 1982, he wanted to expand to a weekly paper – but he needed funding. Luckily for him, businesses and the Government granted loans to Afro-Caribbean businesses after the riots.

Barclays Bank gave the paper a £62,000 loan and the Loan Guarantee Scheme from the Conservative government also helped the paper’s initial steps with an affordable repayment plan.

Without this funding support, The Voice, whose first office was based in Hackney, would probably have struggled to quickly establish itself as an important campaigner against all forms of racism.

Now The Voice is a monthly publication published on the last Thursday each month and it is also an online newspaper.

Following Val’s death in 2002, it was owned by the Jamaican Gleaner Company.

Six of its managing directors were or are based in South London, where approximately 20 per cent of Black Caribbean people live.

To mark its importance, a plaque was unveiled in Val’s memory at BlueStar House, Stockwell Road, Brixton, on Tuesday.

 


 

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