At over 800 years old, the University of Cambridge is older than the United States of America. This is more than enough time for certain outdated conventions, institutional, structural problems and attitudes to become entrenched within the system. During this time, it has operated like many other elite institutions have done – closed off to the outside world.
On Saturday 20 October 2018, the Cambridge African-Caribbean Society (ACS) held its first ever ‘Motherland Conference‘, a conference celebrating ‘black excellence in the professional and creative space’, in collaboration with the prestigious Cambridge Union. The event, which was open to all, drew a diverse crowd from all over the country and further afield. Attracting a number of high profile speakers, such as partners at law firms and political leaders – the usual suspects for such a platform.
There was also a creative context to the conference, an angle driven by ACS President, Toni Fola-Alade and conference co-collaborator, Daniel Afolabi, following criticism that such events often do not do enough to cater to people within the creative space. The event ended with a keynote speech from powerhouse Fashion Designer and Tailor Ozwald Boateng OBE, followed by a fireside-type chat between grime Artist and Author Stormzy, whose debut album ‘Gang Signs and Prayer’ won British Album of the Year at the 2018 Brit Awards, and Toni himself.
A reluctant activist and academic at heart, Stormzy responded to questions about his stance on UK politics, and spoke about how life-changing his engineering apprenticeship and leaving college was. In addition to this, he spoke about how we believes that ‘foresight’ is important and less conceptual than ‘vision’ stating how viewing things through the foresight lens has benefit his career.
What, on paper, may have looked like a mishmash of speakers – Stormzy and the Vice President of Malawi on the same line-up – just seemed to work. By inviting two of the most influential creatives of African heritage in recent times to share a stage, that have hosted presidents alongside other world leaders within the same conference, this Cambridge ACS managed to do something that had not been managed before at the university.
The other creative keynote speaker, Ozwald Boateng, is someone that is well known, well-regarded and highly respected, but truly slept on. The ‘King of Saville Row’, Ozwald’s illustrious career has seen him occupy the role of Creative Director of Givenchy and costume design for films such as James Bond: Tomorrow Never Dies. Ozwald’s style and approach to design has had a transformational effect on menswear and British tailoring, popularising the slim fit suit and attracting a more youthful demographic to Saville Row.
As a designer of tailored clothing myself, Ozwald is someone whose success influenced and inspired me to start my own brand (something that I told Ozwald himself when I bumped into him a few days later). As I am sure that there are many more designers and/or tailors whose lives that he has positively impacted.
This is not the first potentially culture-shaping move that this ACS has made. Earlier this year, in collaboration with ‘reluctant activist’ Stormzy, the ACS played a part in helping to facilitate and launch the ‘Stormzy Scholarship’, opening up Cambridge’s doors to more Black students by providing full funding of tuition fees and a maintenance grant for up to four years to two Black undergraduate students of African and Caribbean descent.
At the conference, Ozwald spoke with class about the importance of ‘timing’, speaking to his decision to use his show at Lagos’ Arise Fashion Week as an opportunity to showcase his first full womenswear range, as modelled by his daughter and by Naomi Campbell, amongst others. With the impact of the Stormzy Scholarship as context, if there was ever a year for a conference like Motherland Conference to happen, this would be that year. In the words of Jake Bediako, a friend of mine and Ghana’s Youth Ambassador for Diaspora Affairs, Motherland is the “spark that is about to ignite the light of Black excellence at Cambridge”.
As important as it is for there to be a focus on legacy-building following an event like this, it is important to not allow events like this to become self-fulfilling prophecies. There is a nuanced risk that if such events do not continue to be as accessible as the Motherland Conference. If only ‘elite blacks’ are afforded access to the opportunity to connect with and hear from other high achieving Black people, we can play into the very problem that we are looking to eradicate. As long as that access does remain, and as long as the relevant platforms continue to be provided, this ACS can continue to play a significant part in helping to shape our culture. That – is real legacy.
You can read more about the Motherland Conference here.