Ralph Ellison, in his 1952 classic Invisible Man, may have best captured a sense of blackness not as a racial absolute but as a process in culture – the darkness of lives rendered obscure by what his eponymous narrator dubs “Monopolated Light & Power”. It’s a dynamic reflected deeply in the history of UK publishing, where black voices, from Olaudah Equiano to Sam Selvon, have been so devalued that we are forever reaching back into the archives to re-establish the crucial texts of a black British canon.
It’s within this context that we should locate Repeater’s republication of Junglist by Two Fingas (Andrew Green) and James T Kirk (Eddie Otchere). Back in print after more than 20 years, the novel, written as a stream-of-consciousness reflection of a single weekend, is the contemporary account of two young black men coming of age in and around the rave scene of south London in 1994, where temperatures were soaring and jungle was staging a cultural takeover among working-class kids of many racial backgrounds, powered by an engine of drum and bass that, as the authors write, “overrides the heartbeat, that interrupts its normal pattern, its normal rhythm and makes it move”.
The writing is grounded firmly in the experience and emotion of working-class black life, out of which Green (now a broadcast director) and Otchere (a visual journalist) both emerged. Of life on the housing estates of south London, they ask: “Whoever thought to put communities in these needles in the sky? These prisons of concrete and steel. These estates that were designed for vandalism, for holding your neighbours in contempt. That conduct sound. The doors that keep out no one. The windows that let in light but let out heat.”
Junglist deals with the machinations of a “fashion industrial complex” that feeds on the energy and authenticity of youth culture, the toxicity of racist policing and, crucially, the contradictions of race and racialisation, both across the city at large and within the microcosm of the music scene that the authors love – “as if you can tell how Black a person is just by looking at their complexion”. In this way, the book establishes the context against which jungle became a transcendent and unifying force in the 1990s, as a new generation of inner-city Londoners emerged from the wreckage of the Thatcher era.
“Jungle,” they write, “is and always will be a multicultural thing, but it is also about a Black identity, Black attitude, Black style and outlook. It’s about giving voice to the urban generation left to rot in council estates, ghettoised neighbourhoods and schools that ain’t providing an education for shit. Jungle kickin ass and taking names. It runs things, seen.”
In the introduction to this new edition, critic Sukhdev Sandhu (whose 2003 publication, London Calling: How Black and Asian Writers Imagined a City, still makes an essential contribution to the restoration of invisibilised black British literature) writes about how “Junglist’s prose vibrates as much as it documents”. It’s a fitting description of a text that speaks to the soul of what was nothing less than a revolutionary moment in the unfolding of British multiculturalism.