A Conversation With Malik Al Nasir
Letters to Gil is Malik Al Nasir’s profound coming of age memoir – the story of surviving physical and racial abuse and discovering a sense of self-worth under the wing of the great artist, poet and civil rights activist Gil Scott-Heron.
Born in Liverpool, Malik was taken into care at the age of nine after his seafaring father became paralysed. He would spend his adolescence in a system that proved violent, neglectful, exploitative, traumatising, and mired in abuse and racism. Aged eighteen, he emerged semi-literate and penniless with no connections or sense of where he was going – until a chance meeting with Gil Scott-Heron turned everything around.
‘A searing, triumphant story. A testament to the tenacity of the human spirit as well as a beautiful ode to an iconic figure’ IRENOSEN OKOJIE
Malik Al Nasir is an author, performance poet and filmmaker from Liverpool. He has produced and appeared in several documentaries with artists such as Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Poets, Benjamin Zephaniah and Public Enemy, as well as footballer Mark Walters and many other luminaries. Malik started tracing his roots back through slavery over 15 years ago and his pioneering research has been recognised by Sir Hilary Beckles (Chair CARICOM Commission for slavery reparations), historian David Olusoga, and The University of Cambridge, where Malik is reading a PhD in history with a full scholarship in recognition of the significance of his research.
His band Malik & The O.G’s have performed exclusive UK shows of ‘The Revolution Will Be Live!’ – a 10th anniversary celebration of Gil’s musical influence – at Wilderness Festival, The Jazz Café, London, and Blues Kitchen, Manchester, in honour of Gil Scott-Heron’s memory and coinciding with the September release of Letters To Gil.
[Photo credit Peter Chin]
It is an absolute honour and pleasure to welcome Malik to Care Experience & Culture Digital Archive. We’d like to thank Malik for taking time to talk to Rosie Canning about his writing journey, Gil Scott-Heron and his heritage research. Letters to Gil is a fantastic contribution to care experienced literature.
Tell us of your journey as a writer.
My journey as a writer really started when I left the care system and had a very low level of literacy because of years of being left out of the normal school system. I was in care institutions that had education on the premises, but there were no milestones, there were no exams to be set, there were no qualifications to be obtained. There was no expectation of any qualifications. We were doing more manual labour than schooling. I would describe myself at the age of eighteen when I left the care system as being semi-literate, although at the age of ten I had decided that what I wanted to do, was to one day write a book and tell everyone how I was treated and what they did to us in the care system. So, I kind of made that promise if you like, to my ten-year-old self and I wanted to keep that promise. That's really where the story starts. But at eighteen, I didn’t have the required literacy to be able to do that. However, I was fortunate to meet a great poet and civil rights activist from America called Gil Scott-Heron, who was performing in my town - Liverpool - and having met him, he took a shine to me, and we had conversation.
The following day I cooked a meal for the whole band. At the time I was living in a hostel for homeless black youths. Social services left me there and gave me £100 and told me never to come back for any more money and made me sign a form. They completely abandoned me at eighteen. Having nowhere to host these guys, I borrowed a friend’s flat - cashed my Giro cheque, (which is how they used to pay us dole money in those days) and cooked a meal for these guys. Gil tried to give me some money at the end of it, I refused. So he decided “We'll take him on tour with us.” He offered me the opportunity to tour with the band, which I did and that was the beginning of a great friendship that led to me being mentored by Gil Scott-Heron over a period of twenty-seven years.
Gil had a Master's degree in English and he was also a published author. He'd written two books and he’d produced a lot of music. He’d also taught English at one point. He was highly literate and was always reading books. When he discovered my literacy levels were so rudimentary, he suggested that I should address my literacy problems through poetry. I started to read and write poetry. I found it was a lot easier than prose because when you're reading stanzas, they're so much shorter than trying to read paragraphs and chapters. So I started breaking words down into syllables and saying them phonetically and then trying to memorise them, so that I could become more and more fluent.
It would take me six months to read one book. I would use my finger and then go across all the words - syllable by syllable. When I got to the end of a sentence, I'd read the whole sentence again. When I got to the end of the paragraph, I'd read the whole paragraph again and so on until I got to the end of a book and read the whole book again. I'd read for six hours a night, seven nights a week and it took me six months to read one book. That's how I developed literacy skills. I would use the words that I was coming across in a poetic fashion, to learn how to utilise the nuances of language and see how best to deploy words to convey meaning.
That was the beginning of my segue into poetry. That's what started me off as a writer.
You and Gil both had disrupted childhoods; do you think that this gave you a connection with each other and was it important to you? Do you think it was important to Gil?
Yes, I think there was a connection, and the reason why is because there was a poem that Gil had been writing when we were on tour in America in 1988. I would sit and pour out my heart and tell him all the stuff they did to me in the care system. One day Gil said to me, “you know, you’re not the only one who had a tough life” and then he said, listen to this, and he pulled out a piece of paper with a poem he had just finished writing. He read it to me. The poem was: On coming from a broken home. It featured on his last album ‘I’m New Here’, where he described his experience of being brought up by his grandmother, after his father-Gil Heron had left the country to go to Scotland to play for Celtic. He was the first black footballer at Celtic; they called him ‘The Black Arrow’ in the 1950s. Gil’s mother was working in Chicago, and she couldn’t look after him, so she took him down South to his grandmother in Jackson, Tennessee and his grandmother - Lilly Scott - raised him. He was supposed to be there for a short period and then it got longer and longer and longer, and he describes it in this poem:
Gil Scott Heron reciting On Coming From A Broken Home)
Gil Scott-Heron XL Recordings 2010.
It’s a powerful description, so there’s a connection between Gil and I. I don’t know if me talking to him about my experiences encouraged him to write that poem or not, but I was with him when he wrote it and he recited it to me. That was in 1988. He didn’t release it on the album until 2010.
You’ve invested a lot of time and energy in finding out about your background through doing your family history and using the archive that you acquired, would you recommend this to others who don’t know their heritage? Is this a way to find some sense of belonging?
I think it’s essential to know who you are and that can only really be complete, if you know from whence you came. What happened in the case of many black people with slavery and colonialism in their family history, their historical roots were cut off because they were taken from their homelands, their names were changed, and their culture was annihilated. They were assimilated into a foreign culture. They were dismembered from their families. They were bought and sold, shackled, misused, and abused, forbidden to read and write, forbidden to even marry.
All the normal things that would maintain a sense of an historic reference were erased - the transfer of land or property from one generation to the next, the name passed down from your ancestors, the cultural heritage and practices, the language, the beliefs, - all of that was wiped out through slavery and colonialism. Even their dates of birth were not accurately recorded. If you look at slave registers, you see ‘born about’ this year or about that year. Most of them have first names with no surnames, and the names often don't denote anything to do with their family. Sometimes the names are of things rather than people. They would give them the name of an animal, or they would give them the name of a place, or they would give them a name of a thing - an object. So, these kinds of things were all deliberately designed to remove any sense of who they were, so that these people could be utilized as property. The result is that historically, black people in the diaspora, have arrived there as a result of slavery and colonialism, as was my case in Britain and my fathers case in British Guiana (Demerara and Berbice), South America.
We have no cultural reference points. We have no historic backdrop, against which to be able to understand where we come from and therefore, who we are. So for me, that necessitated a journey to find that out, which was also juxtaposed against a backdrop of racism, where I’m constantly being told from childhood, from my earliest childhood memories to ‘go back to where you came from’, and I don't even know where that is.
People look at your black skin and assume you're from somewhere else. ‘You're not from here. You don't belong here. Go back!’ And they don't even know that the place they want you to go back to, is a place that you also don't belong, because you were taken there by their ancestors and they know who their ancestors were, because their records were documented meticulously. They kept birth, death, marriage, divorce, probate, wills and transfer of land and baptism records and so on. So, there are these meticulous records that have been kept for the slave masters, and the white people brought the black people and others whom they enslaved or indentured.
For people like me descended of those enslaved, it's like becoming a tree with no roots, because you'll never be able to galvanise any sense of community or any sense of belonging because you don't have any roots. And then when you take all of that and you add to it being taken into the care system and being removed from what family you do have and being a ward of the state, at that point you've got like multiple layers of obstacles to understanding who you are, where you belong and your sense of identity. And then you're maligned in a different way by society, because everyone then says; ‘Oh, he's from the naughty boys home’, so they would also automatically assume you were one of the so-called ‘naughty boys’.
I was put in amongst criminals, so there was no distinction between the ones who’d committed crimes and those who came from broken homes. Because of that, we were all dubbed ‘the naughty boys.’ Then we were told that - ‘society is being protected’ - from us. We were ‘products of our environment’. We were ‘maladjusted’. And then a whole set of rules were applied to us, in respect of our education and our maintenance, that meant that we would be taught practical skills, not academia. Also we would be corralled into churches, but we would have to sit at the back. We couldn't mix with the congregation. There were a lot of things. Everything was done in such a way as to make you feel that you were distinct and different - we were ‘othered’ at every opportunity within the care system. But then when you add the racial dimension to being ‘othered’, on the basis that society as a whole, sees you as not belonging and then when you take your socioeconomic parameters into account, you're being ‘othered’ over and over again, even on the basis that you’re socially deprived.
In my case at the point when my father was in hospital, my mother was looking after four kids on her own on a council estate. We were poor. So I had poverty, social deprivation, racial discrimination and then care on top of that, so it was layer upon layer upon layer and then historically, the legacy of slavery and colonialism formed the context. When my father had a stroke and became a quadriplegic, they were happy to have him out of the equation because the social workers at the time had come and told my white mother; ‘Why don't you just let us take all these black kids and go find yourself a white man and have a proper family?’ They ended up taking two of us, myself and my brother. This was the nature of what was going on at the time because of the way that racism and the whole notion of black inferiority and white supremacy was ingrained into the very fabric of British society.
Britain had been a colonial power up until the 1970s, when they were just emerging from colonialism. Its demise probably started in 1956-57 when some of the African nations started to become independent. When I was a boy, we were not far removed from the days of empire, so the mentality of white supremacy was still very much alive and kicking and no one questioned racism. It was quite normal to be racist. And it was considered something of an anomaly if you decided to question it, like you had ‘a chip on your shoulder’.
How do you feel having slaves and slaveowners in your heritage?
In the mid 1950s, Britain had started to grant independence to some of the African nations and this carried on until 1970s. India got its independence 1947 – I was born in 1966 so that’s only 19 years since India’s independence and the end of the British Raj. Turmoil was happening around that time; the Biafran war in Nigeria as a consequence of trying to get their independence too and things happening in the colonies, these were very turbulent times. The British were losing their empire, and they were caustic about it. There was no longer the great British empire, so there was this feeling of hostility towards the former colonial subjects. In 1989 Margaret Thatcher made law that colonial subjects could no longer have automatic rights of British citizenship. Prior to that, they could. People from the colonies could come to Britain and settle and didn’t need to be naturalised.
I felt the need to really understand all this, so I started to trace my ancestry back through Demerara in Guyana. Once I hit the 1850s, I was coming into the period of enslavement, because it was still alive and kicking in Brazil until 1880, America until 1867, informally happening in Demerara until 1854. So when I hit slavery, I started to find black ancestors having children with white slave masters; mixed raced offspring of those living in British Guiana. Some came to the UK or other places throughout the empire. I started to try and track down who these white slave-masters were. Some names kept popping up, which got me started on the genealogy – like a black footballer from the 1880s, called Andrew Watson, - namesake of my father. There were images of this guy and he looked identical to me, but he was born in 1856. He was educated at the top end of British society and played football for Scotland and a lot of clubs throughout England. I started to look at that history and traced his father - who was a sugar planter, - Peter Miller Watson and then discovered, - when I went to Guyana in 2008, - that his brother William Robertson Watson, was a plantation overseer, who had left black children in Guiana, from whom I descend. This made me and Andrew Watson ancestral cousins. Having done the initial research and discovered the connection to Andrew Watson through his uncle, William, I started to acquire some letters that were written, and were being traded by stamp collectors, to and from the company that Andrews white father belonged to. Initially, I got about a dozen or so of those letters and started to piece together a picture of a mercantile operation, but it was very limited at first. Then suddenly, some years later, a whole cache of these papers came up for sale. I purchased the whole job lot and it turned out to be the slave owners financial accounts. It included a lot of correspondences, plantation records, shipping inventories for the firm Sandbach Tinne & Co., the company that owned my ancestors. That’s when I realised the level of mixing of the slave owners and the slaves and their black offspring from which I’m also descended.
I had to contend with the awkward reality, that I descended not only from enslaved Africans but also their white slave owners. When I started to look at slavery as a thing – I found narrative that stated that ‘once a Negro woman was purchased, she was considered sexually available to any white man’ so it was considered no sin for a white man to take a black woman and rape her, it was not even considered as rape – there were no cases of rape against black women by white men. Enslaved women were ‘property’ and there to be used however the owner of that ‘property’ deemed fit to use them.
Warning: The following two paragraphs contain material readers may find upsetting
One case involved a white slave owner who summoned a black woman for sex. The woman was heavily pregnant, and she refused. She was charged with insubordination. If an enslaved person was found insubordinate, they could be lashed with a ‘cat o’ nine tails’ which had nine leather knotted strands.
You could lash an enslaved person legally with 39 lashes. The only reason we know about this case, is because the woman claimed she was lashed more than 39 times. They stripped her naked, hung her from a tree and the slave master lashed her repeatedly – the lashes were so brutal they broke every bone in the unborn baby’s body, yet the baby was born alive. The slave owner was charged with having lashed her more than 39 times but because she was so traumatised by the experience, she was unable to say how many times she was lashed and because he was the only witness, and he claimed he only lashed her 39 times he was completely exonerated. That was the end of the case.
So, for the family of slave traders and those whom they enslaved that I descended from, this was the backdrop. The climate within which they operated, the way in which those they enslaved were treated.
Many people of colour from the Caribbean, the Americas, the colonies where slavery took place were also descended from white slave owners and have that blood coursing through their veins. That was the history I found when I started looking back through the archive and it was that history that helped to contextualise what in fact, was really the reason why there was a notion of white supremacy and black inferiority, that had permeated down through the empire, from slavery and colonialism, into the social fabric of society that we have today.
How did you deal with the trauma associated with reading such upsetting information?
I grappled with the issue of secondary trauma when I was dealing with my care experience. I spent ten years in litigation against the local authority and during that period, I had to research my own life, in order to make a legal case, because the lawyers representing me were actually acting against my best interests. They were acting more in the interest of the local authority than they were in the interests of the client, because very many of them were cosy with the local authority. There appeared to be a certain quid pro quo going on between some of the lawyers representing the victims and some of those representing the local authority. Deals were being struck behind the scenes and a lot of people were denied justice.
I decided to investigate my own case, so I went to college and university, learned research methods, and then used my own methodological and research skills, to research my own case.
I went to the archives at Liverpool City Library. After 20 years, a lot of stuff became available in the public domain. I literally went through everything from 1975, when I went into care through to of 1984 when I came out. I found every committee; Social Services committee, adoption special subcommittee, juvenile panel etc., - anything that related to the institutions that I was in, and I went through those documents meticulously. City Council chambers, minutes and whatever I found that referenced the children’s homes.
I spent three months cross referencing material - plans and budgets for the institutions, recruitment procedures, everything I could find - with markers and then compiled a 42,000-word report on my case. I presented it to my QC Alan Levy, who was the chair of the ‘Staffordshire Pin-Down Public Inquiry’ and one of the most senior judges. I managed to get him as my QC after my own solicitor told me that the document I’d produced was ‘inadmissible’. I put it as an addendum, like an appendix to my statement. I said ‘let the QC decide’ - we had a conference in chambers with the QC just before we were ready to go to court, and the QC said to me: “I read your appendix to your statement. Do you realize what you've done here?”
I thought, “oh **** I have inadvertently done something to undermine the case 'cause I don't know what I'm doing legally. “What have I done?”
He said, “I chair public enquiries and you have single-handedly conducted a competent public inquiry”.
He offered me a pupillage in his chambers if I wanted to convert my degree into a law degree. My barrister who was instructing the QC, also offered me a pupillage in his chambers on the King's Bench Walk in London, and my solicitor who was representing me in Manchester, offered me a training contract with his firm.
I then won the case, got the compensation, and then used compensation money to go to the Chester College of Law to start my GDR -Graduate Diploma in Law. I walk in the college and there's people from Oxford, Cambridge, Durham and Trinity and all these places. Some of whom had a pupillage, some of whom had a training contract. Some had neither and were speculating that they might get one when they were trained.
I had two pupillages and a training contract. I started in my first term, and I was sitting there, and I had to do an essay on the rules of construction. The golden rule and all of that. So I'm sitting there and I'm thinking to myself, “yeah, I gotta do this essay” and someone said to me “if you really could do anything you wanted right now, what would it be?” I thought to myself, “I'd sit down and write a book of poetry.” So they said to me, “Well, tell the college that you're not coming back. And go and write your book of poetry”.
And that's what I did. I thanked them and I said I'm not going back. I sat down and I compiled all the poetry that I'd written when I was learning to read and write with Gil, transcribed it all and compiled a book called Ordinary Guy by Mark T. Watson - which was my name when I met Gil and before I changed my name to Malik Al Nasir - after I’d converted to Islam. I set up my own publishing company, Fore-Word Press Ltd., in 2004. I published the book as a collection of poetry and prose. I also recorded the book, which became an album and Gil recorded one of the songs on the album, as did others. That came out in 2015 called ‘Rhythms of the Diaspora Vol’s 1 & 2 by Malik and the O.G’s whichbecame my performance band. I also made a film ‘Word Up – From Ghetto To Mecca’, which was screened on Picture House cinemas up and down the UK and then I toured Canada with the film.
So me not finishing law school became the rationale for the production of the book, which became the film, which became the album, which launched the band, which became the kind of mainstay of what I now do. My activism and academia is still interspersed with the poetry.
Would you like to hear a poem about being in care?
This was about being powerless to do anything and not knowing who was in power and not knowing a single person to write to, to tell them about my plight in care. But basically, being forced to submit to this impersonal entity that was in power whilst I had none. I wrote the poem in the form of a letter and addressed it to power themselves:
Can you tell me who's responsible for the economic blight that plagues my hometown?
See, I've spent half a life asking why the streets run down.
Where children play, corruption reigns and broken dreams of wall to wall in Council house and racist school.
Mother of youth naïve and true.
She stands faceless thin on employment queue.
She's low on pharmaceutical dope 'cause you stole her kids said you'd help her cope.
You had all the answers when she signed the sheet.
You just borrowed the kids ‘till she was back on her feet.
But when she came to take them back, oh we're terribly sorry you can't do that.
The children ask what have we done?
The system says ‘we’re overrun’.
The social workers on commission: You're on the books, kid. There's no remission.
The children striving to be free, the system lying, dreams of dying, mothers crying, the systems thriving.
“Cast your vote” politicians say.
To ghetto youth, they’re all the same,
He asks “what have they done for me it's still the same and I'm 23?
I try to work - who’ll take me on, if I’m from the ghetto my skin is brown?
So I move away to where it’s - where they’ll take your soul, if that's all you've got?
See, there's always a market for a tender soul, from a broken home, with a dream that's bold.
Where they'll make you up like a living doll,
then break you down when you discover what's wrong.
Then groom your mane and comfort your pain.
With false emotion exploit you devotion.
When they burned you out, your hearts ragged and torn,
and you're cursing yourself and the day you were born
they just throw you back to the gutters of strife
at the end of the day – hey! Iit's only your life.
So you're back on the streets, but who wants you around?
You traded your soul they say, pound-for-pound.
You're not the same guy you used to be.
You're no longer welcome, as you can see,
so pack your things, why don't you go?
Don't call on people you used to know.
So you're back at the start,
potential fodder for jail.
See the systems laughing if they make on your bail.
'cause it don't really matter if you win or you lose,
the solicitor and the barrister too.
Then the judge will decide just how long you'll be used.
'cause the wardens make money, the judge does too.
And society’s protected from the threat that you pose
and the system will thrive as their industry grows,
in a guise of free enterprise and justice, - indeed!
See I'm no longer deceived
'cause I know you power, and I want a reprieve.
Ó Malik Al Nasir. All Rights Reserved.
What one piece of advice would you give young people leaving a care system?
To the young people who are leaving the care system today, I would say;
“Don't allow yourself to be defined by what happened to you. Decide who you want to be, and then strive to achieve that. If you allow yourself to be defined by what happened to you, it will continue to keep happening. Then, after you've gone from the care system because of that which was done to you, you will then do that to yourself by proxy.
Whereas if you make the decision within yourself, that you're not going to be defined by that what happened to you, then you are freeing yourself to start looking at what it is that you want to be, and then you can strive towards that and in a sense, your success would not then be dictated by everything that they did to you but rather by what you yourself aspire to.
It’s about taking back control of your own mind, after having years of having your mind manicured and manipulated by the system. You need to think for yourself. If you're just regurgitating what's been instilled in you by them, then you will only ever be able to be what they wanted you to be. And you'll never be able to find yourself.”
Letters to Gil is published by William Collins
You can follow Malik on Twitter: @MalikAndTheOGs