Archive for Poetry

On being exhausted as an artist.

I had a chat with a friend recently, a very talented fellow artist, who said that he was exhausted at the thought of making new work. He has been putting new work out there and it’s not getting much of a response, positive or otherwise. He seemed a bit despondent and I told him: that’s completely normal. You’d be deluded if you felt any different. The majority of my work as an artist has been met with indifference or hatred at the time that I released it. People often didn’t care at best, or despised it at worst. When I published my first poems about football they were so hated that I didn’t write a poem about football for almost two years. And I mean, hated. As in – don’t-come-near-our-football-club-ever-again hated. Don’t bring your posh poetry around our working-class game. And that’s just the poetry I have put out. Whichever field I have worked in – fiction, music, journalism, whatever – there’s not a moment where I haven’t thought “my God, you are just some weird narcissistic alien putting out work no-one wants”. (And the benefit of working in several different areas is that you have multiple opportunities for often humiliating rejection.) One day when I have time and am completely free of those traumas I will list some of the examples.

My point, as I told him, is basically this – that it’s fine to be overwhelmed by this stuff at times. That you’ve always got people in your life who would love you utterly even if you never wrote another line. Go and spend time with them and hopefully after a while you will fall back in love with your art again, and the desire to create new work will become greater than the fear of that work being rejected. That’s basically what making art is for many people, I think – you’ve got to want it more than you are afraid, and it’s absolutely fine to acknowledge that you’re drained and maybe even scared. Hopefully, in time, you will get your energy back.

“Optimism is your greatest weapon”: a talk for the Institute for Philosophical Progress.

On 14 January 2017, I was very kindly invited by the Institute for Philosophical Progress in Würzburg, Germany, to give a talk about how we might make music in response to the current political climate. The text of my talk, “Optimism is your greatest weapon”, is below; I hope that you find it of interest. If so, please share; and thank you for reading.



It is the job of musicians and other artists to create, but there are times when this task seems more difficult than others.  Times like now, for example.  I find that the world is in such a troubling place that making music can sometimes feel like a futile act. I am a journalist, and so a part of my job is to keep aware of whatever is happening in the news — this also means that my music has a political dimension. And there are often times when I am not sure what sort of art I should make in response. Every morning, the headlines hit you with the fury of a January snowstorm. You read that refugees are freezing to death on their way through Europe, and that in Germany last year there were 900 attacks on refugees and their shelters. You read that Syria is suffering even more than you thought possible, that the Pentagon has just successfully tested an army of drones, and that each year for the last few years has been the hottest one yet. And that’s before you read that several species are going extinct every month, and that America’s next president seems likely to start a new round of international tension by using Twitter.  Put simply, I think that we are in a mess, and heading for a larger one. The only thing that I can control is how I react. In the style of a referendum, I have given myself two choices: I can either be immobilised by despair, or I can create more and better work than ever before. I have chosen the latter. The only question I must now answer is how.


The first thing I have done is to decide upon a philosophy behind my music. When, at the end of this year, I listen back to all the lyrics that I have written, I want them to have a common theme. I always try to have some kind of thread running through my music – I think that’s because, at heart, I will always be a storyteller. I did this with my last release, an EP called “The Nomadic” – you can find a stream of it on the Okayafrica website, it was produced by Greg Surmacz. The four-track EP dealt with the subject of migration, and was written at a time when I was caught between four cities. I had just returned from Rio, where I had been covering the World Cup as a journalist for the BBC; I was living in London, and planning to move to Berlin; and I was recording the music at Greg’s house in Leeds. It was a time of so much change for me – it was my own period of flux, which the world is experiencing now. In that moment, I felt the need to do two things – to capture the moment, and to have a positive attitude about my circumstances.

It was during this period that I came up with my favourite, and probably my best, lyric to date: “optimism is your greatest weapon”. The only thing that we can hope to influence at any point are the seconds which still lie before us. As long as we have the future, we have hope. It is with this philosophy that I am making all of my music this year.


It’s hard to describe what kind of music I make. I don’t make beats, and I don’t rap; I very occasionally sing, but most of the time I talk over electronic music. I guess the closest artists, in terms of what I do, are people like Tricky, Roots Manuva, Scroobius Pip and The Streets. This means that I have to work with a very particular type of producer – someone who listens to every type of music, and who makes tunes that are a little unconventional. I love plenty of bass in my music – maybe that’s because I spent many years as a Londoner – and so whoever I work with has to love that too. Looking for the right collaborator is hard, but exciting – it’s almost like dating before the days of Tinder.


These days, it is thankfully easier for me to find people to work with. A few months ago, I had a piece of very good news – I was offered a publishing deal by Bosworth Music, a publishing house based in Berlin, who have signed a series of excellent producers. After ten years of putting out my own music, I am now working on four new projects, which I hope to share with you soon enough. Each of the artists I am collaborating with are very different, but the one thing I will try to do with each of them is to make sure that each song is a journey – beginning at a place of negativity, and ending on a path towards happiness.


For a long time as an artist, I was afraid of writing happy endings. I found them cheesy. The world was a big serious place and so I thought that it needed big serious work in response. The problem with that, though, is that people already know how frightening life can be. More often than not, they need hope. This, I think, explains why gospel music has re-emerged as such an explicit influence of hip-hop in the USA. I can safely say that my own writing has changed over the years. I no longer write songs of doom, describing the growing threat of climate change. Instead, I try to craft songs which have broad appeal, which are accessible and upbeat.


To give an example of what I mean, we can look at possibly the best piece of music I have written so far, a tune called “Ring The Bells”. It’s from that EP I mentioned, The Nomadic, and it’s the last song I wrote for that project. The reason I think these lyrics are effective is that I didn’t overthink them – I wrote them pretty much as a single draft, during a two-hour train journey to my producer’s studio. The best thing about working to a deadline, as I was in this case, is that it forces you to be direct in your language, to use only the images which are the most vivid in your mind. I also find that it stops me from being too forceful with a particular political message. I’m so busy trying to get the thing finished that I don’t have time to elaborate. In fact, writing lyrics is a little like my mother would cook for us when I was young. She would come home from work and cook a meal with whatever she found in the fridge, throwing everything together with a mix of experience, creativity and urgency. And she got it right, every time.


So I guess what I’m saying is that “Ring The Bells” is the closest I have ever got to cooking like my mother. I drew upon all the ingredients that were lying around in my life at the time. My fear as I sat at the train platform, preparing for my new life in Berlin – but also my growing anticipation at the new adventure. The sound of the bell in the thirty-second beat I’d been sent, which was so subtle and insistent that it had to be the song’s chorus. My memories of my trip to the World Cup in Brazil, and of the film Interstellar, whose trailers were some of the most inspiring art I had seen in years. As I put pen to paper, I began to realise something important about songwriting – that most of the songs that had moved me most, like Radiohead’s “Idioteque”, didn’t point their figures at me. Instead, they painted scenarios – they showed, they didn’t tell. And so when I wrote that simple chorus, “Ring The Bells”, I made sure that it was the most gentle of commands. Very few people will respond well if a complete stranger scolds them, telling them to shape up and fix their life. They tend to prefer it if that person seems to care about them, to want to go on that journey with them. And that’s the music I want to make now – music which accompanies people. Those tunes you listen to at the weekend when you’re travelling to see your partner in another city. That track that seeks you out when you’re feeling isolated. I want to make music that feels like that tiny light on the hillside when you’re driving up through the darkness.


I don’t normally publish lyrics from songs that aren’t yet recorded, but it feels right to do so. Late last year, I noticed that several of my female friends were going through some particularly hard times – they are the kindest, gentlest people, who the world always seems to hit the hardest. And so I wrote a track called “Glaciers”, to describe how they still somehow manage to find a way forward. They are my heroes, and so this song is for them. This is the opening verse:


The greyest skies and coldest seas

Remember the sun, eventually:

She will find her way upright

Though life has her on bended knee

Is this how it’s meant to be? –

Ever so, the cycle goes;

This world serves her a defeat,

She counterattacks, then repeat:

Indomitable thief,

She seizes happiness and flees;

She knows well that life is brief

So woe can kindly take a seat

It proceeds evermore,

Each time the ice before her thaws,

And so the glacier retreats,

Her will, her heart, provides the heat.


This is how each of my songs will be this year – an attempt to join the listener in whichever bleak place they may be, and hopefully to leave them feeling warmer by the end. I will keep the work coming, and I hope that it resonates with you.

The next time Sandra Bland

The next time Sandra Bland

Should drive through a particularly bigoted town,

She should make sure she does so

with her windows rolled right down,

so the officer can see her hands, and is reassured

she’s not storing an assault rifle in her lap.

She should also – I don’t know – try being polite;

That is to say, female and white –

For when a white policeman is in pursuit,

A black woman is only acceptable if mute.

Still, Sandra fell silent in the end,

So it’s doubtful anything she now says can offend.

The usual will happen:

People will loudly gawp at the injustice

But quietly conclude her temper was not to be trusted.

Sandra’s crime was simply that:

Smoking a cigarette while black –

Another heinous vice to add to the list,

Such as attending Bible class in Charleston,

Or simply daring to exist.

“Danger: The Role of the Poet” – my talk at Mikrofestiwal, Wroclaw, 26 June 2015.

Recently, I was very kindly invited to speak in Wroclaw, Poland, at the town’s Mikrofestiwal; below is a copy of the short talk that I gave on Friday 26 June.


I have been asked to say some words today about the political potential of contemporary poetry and spoken word in the UK. And so I thought I would give my short talk the title “Danger: The Role of the Poet”.

Why am I saying that it should be the role of the poet to create a sense of danger? Well, I’m probably being a little dramatic. After all, poetry can just be about describing nice countrysides, and flowers swaying in the breeze. But it can also do so much more. Poetry is dangerous because, in a world where we are so often encouraged not to feel, poetry makes us connect with the people and the society around us. It makes us pause through its perception, through its beauty: and, most frighteningly of all, it makes us think.

Authorities are well aware of the threat posed by poets. Just a year and a half ago, in Qatar, a court upheld the prison sentence of the poet Mohamed Rashid al-Ajami, who was jailed for insulting the emir and spreading incendiary material. Al-Ajami had been arrested late in 2011 for his poem, “Jasmine”, in which he appeared to look forward to the prospect of political revolution in Qatar. “I hope”, he wrote, “that change will come in countries whose ignorant leaders believe that glory lies in US forces”. By Western standards, this might have seemed relatively tame – after all, it was alleged that Al-Ajami did not even perform the poem – but the authorities had seen enough danger in his words, and consigned him to fifteen years in prison.

Fifteen years. Qatar clearly understand the danger of the poet. Al-Ajami was speaking at a time when the “Arab Spring” looked as though it would sweep away a succession of governments. “We are all Tunisia”, wrote Al-Ajami, referring to the first country where an authoritarian leader had fallen. Shortly after the publication of these words, in what was perhaps the ultimate sign of his potential influence, he was deprived of his freedom.

British poets have a far easier time of things. For the most part, we are able to speak as we please. If I would have to name the UK poets who, in recent months, have been particularly effective on the political stage, I would have to identify five people: Hollie McNish, Michael Rosen, Kate Tempest, Inua Ellams and Raymond Antrobus. I will discuss those poets each briefly in turn, but first I must explain what I mean by “effective”. By that, I simply mean that they have, through their skill with words, enabled many people to reflect upon what it means to be human, and to celebrate our common humanity.

That may not sound like much, but we are currently in a political climate where we are being encouraged daily by our media and our elected leaders to think less of “The Other”. Just last Friday, in Berlin, I attended the funeral of an unnamed Syrian man who had died whilst crossing the Mediterranean. His burial, with the consent of his family, was carried out in a cemetery in the German capital by a group called the Center for Political Beauty. The Center’s aim, in their words, is to “tear down the walls surrounding Europe’s sense of compassion”. They seek to do this by reminding us that these dead migrants are people, by making us grieve for them.

This is why the work of the five poets that I have mentioned is political, and therefore dangerous. Each of them examine the lives of those whom we would regard as marginalised, and they do so with a sympathy that is not helpful to the powerful. The first of those poets, Hollie McNish, published a poem on YouTube in February 2013 called “Mathematics”. In this poem McNish, who studied development and economics at university, challenged the assumption that immigrants merely came to the UK to take the country’s jobs. This poem has now been viewed almost two million times, and has seen McNish tour the nation with its message. “Your maths is stuck in primary”, she recites, “and most times immigrants bring more than minuses”.

Alongside McNish is Michael Rosen, whom you can follow on Twitter as @MichaelRosenYes: he uses this platform to write poems and open letters critical of institutional excess and corruption. Kate Tempest, a poet, playwright and musician, is fearless in her examination of the struggles faced by everyday people. Inua Ellams, like Kate a poet and playwright, writes and performs work with nuanced portrayals of black life. Raymond Antrobus, meanwhile, is one of the country’s first graduates of a programme where poets are trained as educators. He now teaches poetry at a school in East London, and performs his best-selling poetry collection to audiences at various festivals.

What do these poets have in common? Well, they recognise the tremendous power of the spoken and the written word. We arguably now live in an age that is better for poets than any other. The poet, after all, is gifted at one thing above all, which is to distil an image or an emotion into just a few lines, just a few words. In a world where attention spans are shortening all the time, where many of us – including me – are constantly staring at our smartphones, poets still have the ability to capture us, to captivate us. There is a reason why, when advertising agencies are looking to launch their campaigns, they come looking for the expertise of poets. It is because they know that we have an eye for a slogan, for a quick catchphrase.

This skill – to condense a complex situation into just a few lines – also lends itself well, I have found, to a career in journalism. I would encourage any poet who thinks keenly about the world around them to blog more, to report more, to comment more. When leading UK poets are called upon to provide their view to the media, they are frequently very impressive. Benjamin Zephaniah, for example, has been an outstanding advocate for social change for many years. Many other poets are actively involved in fundraising for political causes, and can be found joining marches for progressive causes.

I have spoken of the danger of poets, but I should also speak of the danger for poets. Speaking frankly, most poets will never make that much money or gain that much visibility, which can make many of us susceptible to flattery by the powerful. In that desire for publicity, celebrity or attention, we must be wary of lessening the severity of what we wish to say in order to be acceptable to a wider audience. This is, I think, a temptation. At such times, we poets need to remember that we can amplify the voices of the marginalised partly because, as a genre of artists, we are often marginalised ourselves. We poets must remember that we can promote the cause of the Other because, in so many ways, we are Other.

I don’t mean to congratulate myself and my peers too much, but I am proud of one thing. I am proud that, though the poetry world is by no means perfect, it at has at least managed to provide spaces for self-expression that many other art-forms have not. Some of the most compelling voices in the genre right now are women, or women of colour: Sabrina Mahfouz, Jessica Horn, Warsan Shire, Rosie Knight, Chimene Suleyman, Vanessa Kisuule. Poetry has also been something of a refuge for black people, for queer people. And that, I think, is because – despite the conservatism of the institutions that sometimes surround it – poetry represents freedom. It represents, at its best, the ability to speak from the heart with a carefully-honed craft.

That is poetry’s danger, and its power within the political context. Whether using YouTube or Vine, using microphones or speaking in front of a classroom, we have the ability to humanise, to inspire. That is a skill that those on our society’s fringes – the disabled, the poor, the carers, the unemployed – need us to use more than ever; and, at the risk of preaching, we must not fail them.

My debut poetry collection, “Eating Roses For Dinner”

Musa on the stairs (6)

UPDATE: you can now purchase my collection by clicking this link, for anyone using Google in order to find the book. Thank you very much for your kind support of my work.


So, as some of you already know: I am self-publishing my debut poetry collection this summer, “Eating Roses For Dinner”, to mark my first 10 years as a poet. The cover of the book is the photo above, taken by Naomi Woddis; and the book features a foreword from Scroobius Pip, and other very kind words from artists whose work I greatly respect. It will be just under 150 pages in length.

I am charging £10 per copy, plus postage to wherever you may live; I will also sign the book with whatever dedication you would like me to include.

I am printing a very short run of books now, just to gauge initial interest, and if that goes well then I will print some more in time for Christmas. (Please share this post with anyone who might find it of interest – I have included some recommendations below from other artists, for those who do not know my work.) Thanks very much for reading everyone, and have a fantastic day.


About my poetry:

Ed Sheeran, musician:

“I’ve known Musa for many years and I’ve always found him a very honest, poignant wordsmith. He writes from the heart with no filter, and that’s what the best lyricists do. I’m a fan.”

Kate Tempest, poet, playwright and musician:

“Musa is precise and all-encompassing in the same line. His poetry is intimate and erudite, passionate and beautiful.”

Cerys Matthews, musician and broadcaster:

“From the first time I heard Musa’s work, at a launch event in Old Street, I found it to be lyrical, heartfelt and compelling, and I have enjoyed collaborating with him since then. His work is warm, engaging and reflective, and I hope you enjoy this collection.”

Nikesh Shukla, author and playwright:

“Musa Okwonga’s work is often about space – distance travelled, loneliness, the terse relationships between people, cities, digital lives impacting our analogue sense of being in the moment, actual outer space – and it’s these landscapes that give his poetry the gravitas of someone who plays the part of social commentator in the trenches as well as alien observing our peculiarities from afar. I never fail to be moved, astonished, surprised and humoured by his warmth and deep understanding of what it means to be human, and what it means to be other.”

Steven Camden (“Polarbear”), writer, spoken word artist and playwright:

“Musa dances between worlds and circles that many others can only stumble into. He writes importance and compassion and homage and love. I think of him as a disciple of beauty, in all its forms.”

The opening line of a poem is like a first date.

The opening line of a poem is like a first date: if it isn’t any good, then people are unlikely to hang around for the second. I’ve been thinking a lot about opening lines recently, and their importance in setting the tone for the rest of the work. The literary establishment doesn’t often refer to rappers as poets, but starting a verse with aplomb is an artform all of its own.

I can say this from wearily personal experience. When writing a poem, I would say that I spend the bulk of my time working out how to begin it. It’s a little like making an incision at the beginning of the most delicate of operations – with each poem, you are attempting to make the reader or the listener sense the world around them in a slightly new way (well, I am at least). If that first line is right, then everything else flows naturally from there.

That’s a difficult enough task without music; when you are working with a beat, the entire enterprise becomes more complex. This is why, at some level, I revere artists like Lauryn Hill and Method Man, whose opening lines at their very best are spectacular statements of intent. Witness Lauryn Hill coming in on “Lost Ones” – “It’s funny how money changes situations”. It’s clear from the outset that she is coming for conquest, a warrior not to be denied.  And then you have Method Man, who so often stole the show on other people’s tracks that he should have been arrested for burglary. On “Shadowboxin’”, he enters in typically formidable fashion: “I breaks it down to the bone gristle; ill-speaking, Scud-missile-heatseeking, Johnny Blazin’”. (Of course, he didn’t steal this particular show from GZA, but that is only a mark of his fellow artist’s genius.)

Yes: the opening line is everything. This was my introduction to the Wu-Tang, and began a twenty-year-odd fandom which continues to this day (of course, I am listening to them even as I type this). Hip-hop fans will each have their favourites – yesterday, when I asked on Twitter, I heard plenty of shouts for Busta Rhymes on “Scenario”, and DOOM on, well, everything – but I will always be grateful to Method Man, as both a fan and a poet, for teaching me the value of the intro.


On my first ten years as an artist.

“The words will come. They always have, and they always will.”

I love writing, I always have. But wow. Sometimes it gives you days that truly surprise you, and not necessarily for the best.

Today was one of them. Last night, I caught the train to the town centre and picked up a very expensive voice recorder, with which I aim to start recording my first ever podcast. This morning, I sat and put together a to-do list of all the projects I have planned for this year. This year, I wrote proudly in blue ink on a fresh sheet of blank white paper, I will launch my first solo EP, “The Nomadic”, inspired by my move to Berlin just after the World Cup last summer. I will self-release my first ever collection of poems, “Eating Roses for Dinner”. I will start my first podcast, which currently has a working title so embarrassingly pompous that I cannot bring myself to type it, which probably means that it is the wrong title. I will self-release the best thing that I have ever written, an illustrated poem called “I Had a Dream”, which is a deeply personal story that I did not even know was heartbreaking until I began to write it six years ago.

– You see? There it goes again. Just as I typed those final lines, I felt it again – that fish-leap of optimism at the base of my gut. That hope that, of the above projects, one of them would strike creative gold, would be widely acclaimed. That fish-leap is cruelly deceptive. It accompanies every piece of work that I put out into the world. And, recently, it has seemed more mocking than ever.

I have been writing and performing poetry for ten years now, and there was a time when I would jump at any gig that I was offered. Now, though, I find myself wearier than ever. That isn’t just the saunter of age: it is the grim familiarity of the over-excitement that accompanies the beginning of every new artistic adventure. As I began to put together my collection, I thought about the care with which each of the pieces were written, and when I wrote them. It has been such a journey, such a long and often lonely walk. From hundreds of poems, I trimmed the list down to a few dozen, pieces ranging over topics from climate change to city life to lost loves and my other merciful escapism aside from writing, which of course is football.

Ten years. I left the corporate world a decade ago to pursue the artistic dream, and every now and then I am reminded of the starkness of my choices, financial and otherwise. Many of my friends – most of them, in fact – continued on to excellent careers in the City, and while I do not remotely envy them their wealth – because, my God, they worked all the hours their bosses could send them, years on end – I sometimes wonder why I had to be the odd one out, why I felt compelled to chase such a dangerously elusive sense of creative fulfilment. I wonder why I was motivated by a desire that sometimes feels as futile as trying to stare out the sun.

Because, though I love writing, there are days when it unexpectedly feels like a burden. You’re not supposed to admit to feeling a sense of failure as an artist, but, then again,  taboos are there to be shattered. So let me admit it: after ten years of writing, I can safely confess that I feel that I am a failure. That is not for want of trying, at least not in the early years. When I was 27, I wrote my first book, completing the final 63,000 words in three months whilst working a four-day week. I even wrote a great deal of that on Christmas Day. It was nominated for a Sports Book of the Year award, and I thought I was on the verge of something: yet I was not. When I was 30, I wrote my second book, from start to finish in just six months: I did that whilst doing a day job too, and the experience was so stressful that, even as I sit and type this, I cannot bring myself to write another.

I hope that this feeling is temporary. At the same time, it is something that extends to other areas of my work. I look at my music career, and the three bands that I was a part of: all of them had their beautiful moments, but (whilst I was in them, at least) never reached the level they should have, never reached the stages I wanted them to. I look at my poetry career, which has again had great moments, but I have still been unable to write defining work, that reaches a significant number of people beyond my niche. Perhaps the problem, as Warren Ellis recently wrote in a stunningly candid newsletter, is that artists like me are simply not good enough.

And I think that is why I had a slower day than usual. It is because, having filed one article and finished the bulk of another poem, I sat and looked at my four new projects and thought: but seriously, who beyond a narrow group of people is actually going to like any of them. And that is a pretty profound thing to think about something to which you have devoted most of your recent life, your soul. I think what happened today was that I looked back over it, and thought: I am not sure that I have made anything more than a passing impression in the fields that I care about.

Since the above paragraph might seem spectacularly lacking in perspective, perhaps even narcissistic, I should add that I recognise that my life in comparison to many others is far from tragic. My Twitter feed, filled daily with the suffering of the Rohingya and the West Papuans and the Syrians and women, my god, the black women, is reminder enough of that. I guess what I am expressing here is a weariness that I will never truly shift the burden of expectation that I and others have placed upon myself from such a young age – that I will never really be as good a writer as promised back in my teens, when my ego was propelled forward by awards. I still have not written that novel, with the most recent attempt abandoned after a few thousand words. I still have not made that music, or that – actually, God knows, I never will, and I don’t mean to repeat myself yet again. 

What I am beginning to realise is that I am simultaneously fortunate and unfortunate as a writer. I am fortunate because I am just good enough at it to earn a living: but I am unfortunate because I am not good enough at it to be celebrated. And being celebrated isn’t just about the pride of people telling you how good you are – it would be the vindication of my gamble that, when I truly began to care about my writing in my early teens, I would be someone who could make a difference. It would be the vindication for going through those boarding-schools as one of the only black people there, where for years on end you felt as though you were representing your entire race. It would be the end of a truly exhausting walk, but as I assess my career so far I must conclude that this walk is far from over.

So here I go, again. I will start the next ten years of my artistic career by putting out these four pieces of work, and I will somehow drag myself forward. At times like these I remind myself of a phrase I say to myself whenever I have writer’s block, whenever I am approaching a wedding or funeral and have been asked to compose a poem that will appropriately mark the occasion:

“The words will come. They always have, and they always will.”


How To Get Respect, Should You Die In The Public Eye.

Don’t be Syrian,

Don’t be a working-class black teen;

Be a middle-class kid, preferably white, from a two-parent home.

Don’t live within reach of a drone.

Don’t be pictured with a joint while alive,

Don’t let your fingers be seen anywhere near a gang sign.

Don’t date a man who hates you with all the breath in his breast

Since, when he eventually kills you, they’ll just say

“You should have left”.

(On which note,

Don’t die at the hands of a male celebrity –

that never ends well.)

Don’t be Syrian –

you heard us the first time.

If you’re Syrian,

Your problem is that you may die in a conflict too complex for people to understand,

Or so monotonous in its gore

That they’ll merely throw up their hands.

Don’t die a dull Third World death,

Failed by healthcare,

In a land where diarrhoea is lethal as Ebola.

Don’t die a death that fascinates people,

Or your existence will be chopped up and podcasted,

Fed back to us as pop culture.

Don’t die a death where we risk getting distracted

By the fact your suspected killers

Are particularly attractive.

When you die,

Make sure we can relate to you.

Do some charity or some public service.

We’re busy. We need to know quickly

That you weren’t worthless.

If you don’t die how we like

Then you’ll be killed twice:

The first time, when you lose your life

And the second time, when the world destroys your memory as well –

You see, our affections abandon nothing more swiftly

Than a story that’s not easy to tell.

“Searching for Walter Tull.”

A head and shoulders portrait of Walter Tull

Last December, as part of an event held by Philosophy Football to mark the role that football played during the Christmas truce in World War One, I performed the poem below.  “Searching for Walter Tull”, which I was commissioned to write for that event, reflects on the life of one of the first black professional footballers in the UK (for Clapton FC, Northampton Town and Spurs), and the first black man in the British Army ever to lead his white peers into battle. As the day of my reading drew closer, I found myself more and more moved by his story, and the reality that the best and the bravest of human beings too rarely get the lives that they deserve. The title of this piece refers to the fact that his body was never found; but, despite that, he still left a remarkable legacy behind.


“Searching for Walter Tull”

Walter Tull.

His life was the ink that stands out on history’s page.
The orphan, this mixed-race grandson of a slave,
The footballer slow in stride but swift of thought,
The soldier who survived the Somme
But who died in World War One’s injury time.
A few weeks from the end of that churning conflict,
In no-man’s land, as he was leading a charge,
Life handed him the red card.
Months earlier, in Italy, he had been the maker of history,
Going where no person of colour or Negro had been allowed to go before,
A black officer leading his white peers into the hungry mouth of War.
So loved was he by his men, that they risked their lives to recover his body after his death.
But Walter Tull‘s slumbering form was never found;
And, a century after his death, we are still looking for him now.
Known for his calm when the world was aflame,
We need his memory at this time
When the humanity of Britain’s immigrants is being so furiously denied.
So sleep well, Walter Tull, and we’ll do what it takes
To ensure that, to your story,
The world remains awake.


A Philosophy Football Christmas Night Out to Remember. An evening of comedy, ideas, live music and comedy inspired by this historic moment when football stopped a war.

Opened by Musa Okwonga, performing a specially commissioned poem in tribute to Walter Tull, one of the first Black British footballers, in 1914 he joined up, was made an officer and lost his life serving his country in 1918. With comedy from Kate Smurthwaite and Simon Munnery. Headlining set from Grace Petrie and her band The Benefits Culture. Folk legends Finlay Allison and Jimmy Ross play a specially commissioned set of 1914-8 songs of peace and resistance ‘ Its Never Over by Christmas’. A night of ideas too with acclaimed US sportswriter Dave Zirin who will be joined by David Goldblatt author of the football book of the year The Game of Our Lives, with football writers from Germany. Plus dance-floor filling set from our house DJ Melstars Soundsystem.

Doors open 6pm, show starts 7pm at the superb Rich Mix Arts Venue in East London. Tickets just £9.99, from