It was great having my husband’s steady income after I left the music business six years ago, but I never thought that I would fall into the traditional role of homemaker ― something I enjoyed at first but eventually found myself stifled by. With two young children, an incessant school run and constantly nursing, I felt like I was losing sight of myself.
The artist the world once knew as VV Brown was dead.
Inevitably I began to reconnect with my musical roots. Whenever I found myself in the kitchen making some sort of broccoli muffin for my family, I would call upon Alexa’s endless library of neo-soul tracks — songs by artists like Erykah Badu, J Dilla, Common, Kim Burrell, Thug Village — which took me right back to my 15-year-old self, when I spent hours listening to these tapes on my Walkman.
Suddenly I remembered why music had become such an integral part of me in the first place: It allowed me to access and explore so many different facets of my identity.
I had spent the previous two years too busy to write music, so I slowly began to create again by penduluming between producing my own work on my laptop and noodling melodies over tracks from a music library. There was no real intention of making a new album. My emotional state at the time was compromised: Postnatal depression had taken over. Music had very little to do with the old trappings of my life ― business, vanity, commercial success. This was all about staying alive.
In the midst of all of this, a mutual friend introduced me to an incredible producer called J Sensible. We connected through our shared love of old-school hip-hop and neo-soul, and the rest was history. It felt oddly cosmic for two unknown people to be asked without warning what our favorite hip-hop album of all time was and then to recite the same title at the same time. He lived in Australia and I had moved to a small remote village outside Milton Keynes, but despite the mileage between us, it was like we were in the room together.
The next day Sensible J sent me 40 tracks, which I immediately began to play. I blasted them at full volume in my car as I waited for my daughter at the school gates. I remember feeling incredibly self-conscious around those perfect parents who watched me dancing manically as they walked past with their middle-class hiking jackets and middle-class smiles.
As I continued to listen throughout the next day, something began to stir within me. All I could envision was my grandmother and grandfather’s old Jamaican blues parties, where all their nieces and nephews were running around without supervision. I could smell the fried fish and curry goat in the corridors, and I could see the black berets, the dominoes and the church choir on Sunday.
It was at this moment that the melody and words of “Black British,” the first single from my new album of the same name, came spilling out of me onto the dining table and I started to write music again.
I looked at my watch and realized I would be late picking up my daughter Effie from school, and as always, I left with messy hair and paint-stained crocs but I felt alive in a way I hadn’t for some time. There was a deep sense of elation pulsing through my body.
I began to see the way forward as both a creative person and a wife and mother. I never had to face this combination before, but I opened my laptop, ready to wrap myself up in music again. Time evaporated, and I felt a profound sense of rediscovery, as if I was tapping into an unexplored level of my identity.
“Black British” was written and vocaled within an hour, but, to be honest, I didn’t know what I was supposed to do with it.
I struggle with ADHD and anxiety, which is why I left the competition of the music industry to find peace in the countryside. However, despite locating some form of calm and being grateful for the love of my family I had created after stepping back from my career, I realized that there was something missing: the power of music.
I could feel my internal rebel roaring like a fierce lion in me as I created the artwork that accompanied the “Black British” single. Inevitably, this spark stirred a terrifying realization that I had been drawn back into dangerous depths, as I knew I was creating work that was different ― more honest and confrontational ― than anything I’d ever made before.
As we sent “Black British” into the world, there were feelings of the past stirring within me, yet it was a new era and I was not the same artist I had been the last time I released music. I knew I no longer needed to be fearful, hold my tongue or withhold my truth.
The “Black British” artwork instantly proved to be contentious: It accrued millions of views on Twitter but also many thousands of racist comments. This only further confirmed why I always held back from expressing myself fully before then. But drawing on my newfound strength, I understood at long last that hiding was what caused my fear all along. Thus emboldened, I felt ready to confidently breathe my fire — my truth — across the earth.
I had no idea that the image would be such an accurate reflection of the deep social divisions in our country. The internet has a marvelous way of presenting data that is both beautiful and informative. I knew it would get attention, but I never anticipated it would spark a raging firestorm among right-wing trolls and racists. This one image, posted on my tiny Twitter account, ignited plenty of narrow-minded thinking.
The immediate reaction I encountered was that I, as a Black woman, had such disdain for Britain that I wished to vomit on it. And while there have been moments when I have not understood this nation — like when my father was stopped and searched by police or when two Black men were blamed for losing the World Cup and received racist abuse by so many of my fellow citizens — I can, on the other hand, recognize many good things about it, like our humor and positive charm, not to mention the fish and chips.
So, to the millions of people who have wondered what the artwork for “Black British” means, let me explain:
Being Black British is a fascinating roller coaster of emotions, so I wanted to portray this disruption, conflict and feeling in some visual form.
The Black woman in the image plunged into the tumultuous ocean of her political reality and is surrounded by a sea of red, blue and white. Her heart is filled with dread. Her mind is burdened by a vast unknown expanse that holds untold mysteries and terrors.
Ultimately, it is about my sickness towards the Union Jack. I am trying to ingest the culture, to take everything in — the history, culture, nutrients and flavors — as if I am gorging on a smorgasbord of knowledge. It is an attempt to fully appreciate and truly understand my country from all sides.
However, no matter how captivating it is, I cannot. I retch because I am unable to swallow what it provides people like me. Despite my desire to be accepted, seen and acknowledged within the atomic structure of British society, I am compelled to vomit out of necessity rather than choice.
It is almost impossible for many people to truly comprehend the turmoil this nation inflicts upon us Black individuals. We are forever straddling the line between acceptance and contempt. It is a plague of exclusion, prejudice, self-hatred and subjugation that we must persevere through — and if we can, I believe our strength will be born from our suffering. But it is a high price to pay.
This flag is an emblem of a societal paradox with much to answer for. Our roads are paved with the blood of so many. There is an odorless smoke burning atop a mountain composed of countless bodies, all victims of colonialism still trapped in some form of servitude as our ancestors’ cries for justice evaporate.
I’m a Black woman living in the U.K., and even though I was born here, I have always struggled to feel as though I truly belong.
King Charles’ recent coronation meant nothing to me. That night my husband held me as I cried. As Britain’s future was laid out before us, I struggled to decide what my future should be. I felt I must choose between having a larger purpose — to be an active member of society making meaningful art and music that challenged the listener but may come with discomfort or even danger — or succumbing to the warmth and safety of domesticity.
My thoughts eventually ushered me to my own lyrics, for in them lies the full spectrum of my experience of being a Black Briton. It is a perilous journey, yet not one without grace or discovery or meaning. As I sing on “Black British,” I am “navigating through the beautiful and terrifying,” and I have decided there is value in pursuing both.
I want to make broccoli muffins and take country walks with my family and create artwork that makes people ask questions. Though it may not be easy — though there may be more controversy and struggle ahead — I think I may have finally found my truest self after all: to be Black, to be British, to be me.
After a six-year break from music, VV Brown returns with “Black British,” an album that is testament to the time she has spent finding out exactly who she is as a storyteller, swerving the obstacles of an industry that isn’t always kind. Exploring the racial pressures, identity conflicts and triumphant joys of multi-platinum artistry, this sociological record sees Brown at her strongest, a far cry from the moment when she nearly gave it all up. For more information, visit her official website, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.
This essay is an excerpt from an in-depth study into the making of VV Brown’s upcoming album, “Black British,” as well as the meaning of her songs and artwork, and the journey of her present life. It will be released alongside her new album in October.
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