South West MC and spoken word poet Rider Shafique is unveiling a new photography exhibition at Trinity Centre tomorrow in line with the first public performance of his I-Dentity, which has been created in collaboration with friend and local photographer Khali Ackford.

LOC’S is a photographic series celebrating and showcasing the diversity of dreadlock culture. The exhibition hopes to readdress the balance in a predominantly white media landscape with a collection of between 20-30 portraits of people with locs of all shapes and sizes. 

The free exhibition will be on display at Trinity Centre for six days between 28 April–3 May, so don’t waste any time getting down there.

The project is another branch of Rider’s ever-growing IDentity series, which began as spoken word poem and has grown into a 45-minute piece of theatre, as well as a making up part of a two-track EP, in which his original poem is set to the dark, atmospheric soundscapes of fellow Young Echo member Sam Kidel (read our interview with the Young Echo collective here).

Rider explains: ‘I was asked to do a piece of theatre – I’ve never done theatre before, music is what I’ve always done – so I decided to do the piece based on my strengths. I based it on myself and my experience of making sense of my identity. Growing up, I’d never seen anybody that looked like me, or I’d never seen a film with a family where there’s a black mother and a white father.

‘I’d never seen a cartoon where they have a mixed character or I’d never had a mixed figure or toy. So it was about creating something from my perspective.

‘I’m not the only mixed person in the world, there’s lots of us, so it was about valuing my story, valuing my voice, and providing inspiration for other people from a similar background. Although everyone can relate to parts of it, it’s also about creating a wider understanding.

‘But I didn’t want to end it there. Many of the things that I addressed, like not seeing black characters in films and things, I thought – why should I wait for somebody else to do it for me?’

I’m not the only mixed person in the world, there’s lots of us, so it was about valuing my story, valuing my voice, and providing inspiration for other people from a similar background

Khali explains how he first became involved in the project: ‘We did a few shoots together and, because I’m mixed race as well, we started talking about our experiences and we related a lot. Because we are both artists, we started talking about what we could do and how we wanted to express ourselves.

‘It’s something I used to be quite passionate about, but I kind of forgot about it and just started doing work that was paying. But Rider has got me back into doing art and stuff that I can really get passionate about. And we just made it happen…

We want to show a diversity in the whole range of people who have got locs

‘I used to have locs,’ says Khali. ‘Without my locs a lot of people don’t realise that I’m mixed race, but when I had my locs I experienced these things – experienced racism and being segregated or having an opinion put onto you because of your hair. So it’s a celebration of a culture and breaking down stereotypes.’

‘We want to show a diversity in the whole range of people who have got locs,’ says Rider.

From LOC's by Rider Shafique and Khali Ackford
From LOC’s by Rider Shafique and Khali Ackford

‘About two years ago, two of my aunties died a few days apart. The first auntie used to have locs, but she cut them off. My second auntie was a devout Rastafarian. So I wanted to create something in their memory.

‘Also there’s a lot of curiosity around dreadlocks – it’s still illegal to have locs in the US army, a lot of people with locs don’t get jobs because of their hair – there’s a lot of culture around locs that I don’t think has been captured or celebrated, so I wanted to do something around that.

‘I think it’s important to document history and things that happen in the community. In the South West, the first generation of West Indians that came over here are dying out. Where’s the documentation? Where’s the celebration?

‘When my aunties passed away, so much has been lost. It’s important for young black people growing up to understand their Caribbean or African roots, understanding why they do certain things – once you understand you can take it wherever you want or make of it whatever you want, but it’s about having that understanding and that celebration.’

Although locs are being seen more and more frequently on people from other cultures, as an aesthetic choice or otherwise (including on an almost all-white model lineup at Marc Jacobs’ controversy-surrounded Spring ‘17 runway show), LOC’S is a celebration of dreadlocks as part of a cultural heritage and, at this time, only includes people who are black or identify as black.

‘There’s a difference in texture of hair between a white person and a black person,’ says Rider. ‘African hair naturally locs, a white person’s hair mats. So there’s a different texture of the hair, there’s also a significance of whether it’s religious. A Rasta believes it’s the Nazarite vow – the vow that was given to the Nazarites that they would never cut their hair.

‘Also, it was an important sign of rebellion around the 60s and 70s. A lot of people were put into prison in Jamaica for having locs, or having their hair cut. People couldn’t get jobs working in certain places because of their hair. If your hair grows a certain way and locs naturally, why are we stopping people from working or judging people for something that is natural to them?’

‘The way that individual people’s locs form is meant to show who you are,’ Khali adds. ‘For example, I had little curls in my locs. People believe it shows your character and that your locs grow with your personality. If you create them, it kind of takes away from that. White hair – you have to train it.’

If your hair grows a certain way and locs naturally, why are we stopping people from working or judging people for something that is natural to them?

In the same way that Rider’s I-Dentity was written to empower young black people, a major part of his and Khali’s LOC’s project is about giving people a positive physical image of themselves that might be lacking in mainstream media.

‘It’s about celebration, but it’s also about showing young people with locs to be confident about it,’ says Khali. ‘There was one young guy we photographed and at the end of the shoot he turned to us and thanked us. He said he was feeling so negative about his locs that he was actually thinking about cutting them off, but at the end of that shoot he said he now really appreciates them. It’s been quite cool in that sense as well.’

‘You don’t really see dark-skinned black women represented in fashion,’ says Rider. ‘It’s not an image of beauty to the Western eye, nor with locs, so when a young black girl has got dreadlocks, it’s important to show that she is beautiful and sees herself as beautiful – to see herself in storybooks, in films, in cartoons, in magazines; that’s why I created this thing.

when a young black girl has got dreadlocks, it’s important to show that she is beautiful and sees herself as beautiful

‘It’s not to not include white people, because the gallery is there for everyone, but it’s just to readdress the balance because it’s always so heavily over in this white world. I want to create something for black to people to enjoy and feel empowered by.  But it’s not closed off from everybody else and everybody should learn from it.’

From LOC's by Rider Shafique and Khali Ackford
From LOC’s by Rider Shafique and Khali Ackford

Talking about the BBC’s attempt at a diverse character offering with Rasta Mouse, unsurprisingly, Rider doesn’t think this is a step in the right direction for a culturally inclusive media.

‘Rasta Mouse doesn’t talk about Rasta culture, just makes a mockery of it, I feel.  And we don’t just need one character – there needs to be a range. Which is how I feel about Locs.

‘I’m sure you knew that there’s some old, orthodox Rastafarian with some big long locs, but there’s also a young person with the side of his head shaved and some funkier dreads. We don’t all fit into one box. To be black doesn’t mean you’re one way, we’re very diverse.

‘That’s my problem with black films – it’s all the same narrative. It’s all about being from the ghetto and being poor, or being a gangster. We don’t all live that life, we can be anything. Look at The Cosby Show – a doctor and an accountant, and all their children are in university. That’s really powerful, instead of seeing ghetto images of coming up from the struggle and selling drugs, and gangs. Why don’t we have a black film that’s a science fiction set in space? There’s so much we can do – think outside the box!’

Why don’t we have a black film that’s a science fiction set in space?

Education, alongside celebration, is a consistent theme within this body of work, from I-Dentity through to LOC’S, and both Rider and Khali are clear that they’re coming from a progressive place, where the focus of this body of work is not in criticising, assigning blame or inciting guilt for the representation or, importantly, lack of representation of black people; but in trying to take action to address the balance and engage young people who see themselves very much as a minority within Western culture.

‘I took I-Dentity to a school in Bristol that was all black students and that’s the most nervous I’ve been. Because if the generation below me don’t see it as relevant and think I’m talking a load of rubbish, why am I doing this? Is it me just ranting? But when they all spoke up afterwards and said they felt empowered, that really lifted me and made me feel like it was all worth it.

‘When I was a child learning history at school and I’m seeing white men as cavemen, Egyptians, Romans, Vikings – I don’t ever see a black person in that timeline. It doesn’t relate to me, so I subliminally switch off.

‘And then we learn black history and I’m shown my people are just slaves. There’s pictures of black people strung up and whipped, and I’m in a class full of white boys and they’re all laughing. You get defensive and start to fight or argue. We’re taught about Shakespeare and Van Gough, we’re never taught about a black poet or artist. A ginger man with his ear cut off – that don’t look like me. You can’t relate to it, so you switch off.’

‘That’s why I got locs,’ says Khali. It was: “two fingers up to you guys, this is me.” I grew up with a Jamaican mum and an Indian stepdad.  We moved from London to Plymouth and it was such a contrast [in terms of diversity], but I rebelled and decided I was going to wear my locs and be proud of it. Every time I had a racist interaction, it sucked obviously, but it empowered me a bit more to realise that these people were idiots to have that opinion. So I grew them longer!

This is just the beginning. This is phase one of Locs

‘This project is leading on to many more,’ Khali continues. ‘This is just the beginning. This is phase one of Locs. Since starting the project, I’ve experienced things on the street that I haven’t experienced in a long time, and maybe it’s me being more conscious of it, I don’t know.’

‘I woke him up!’ Rider laughs. ‘To be pro-black, is never anti-white. I have no problem with white culture, but I have to represent myself – I can’t wait for somebody else to speak what I want to say – I’ve got to do it. This is who I am. I can speak the loudest in my own voice.

‘I’m aware that I get certain privilege through my lighter skin – I’m more acceptable to the palate, so to speak. But I don’t feel guilt over that, I’m just aware of it. I’m aware that I get more privilege as a male than a female does. I can’t take that and be overly guilty about it, but I can take that privilege and use it not to oppress women or dark-skinned people. If somebody says something about somebody being dark skinned, I can tell them it’s not funny or it’s wrong to say that. If you’re a female, you’ve got the best voice to talk about female issues, but I can support you. I shouldn’t try and speak over you.’

28 April – I-Dentity by Rider Shafique, Trinity Centre
Facebook event // tickets

28 April – 3 May – Rider Shafique & Khali Ackford present LOC’S, Trinity Centre
Facebook event // free entry

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