1990. ‘Malcolm X Fever’ is at fever pitch.
There is a plethora of Malcolm X iconography inspired primarily through the music of legendary, afrocentric and conscious rap/hip hop groups such as, Public Enemy and the X-Clan who had just dropped their debut album, ‘To the East Blackwards’; the films and merchandising of Spike Lee through his newly opened store in Brooklyn, Spike’s Joint; and the bold, fresh and funky fashion of Cross Colours.
These were ‘X-citing’ times. But as with any popular cultural movement, it can reach its point of overload and for many people, like myself who were into Malcolm-X for more historical and political reasons, the seeming reduction of him to that of purely a fashion icon was a bridge too far.
That point of overload was to literally hit home to me, in my locale of East Sheen in south-west London, when suddenly I’d see all these white middle and upper class kids in the local high street, rocking their Malcolm X and Public Enemy t-shirts.
In hindsight, I wish I could maybe have viewed it less cynically and accepted it for what it was, which whatever the reasons, was a mainstream, multi-cultural adoption of Malcolm X, which would have been utterly inconceivable in his lifetime.
Instead, to be honest, I was more consumed with mixed feelings of cultural appropriation and a desire to push a more meaningful adoption of Malcolm X, his teachings, his politics and his philosophies.
However, these feelings inspired me to design one of my first ever t-shirt designs, which I created to recognise the 25th anniversary of Malcolm’s death in 1965.
I deliberately took a less populist approach, using his muslim name of ‘El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz’. And a typographic rather than image-led visual treatment, using an excerpt from the eulogy read at Malcolm’s funeral by the Black actor and civil rights activist, Ossie Davis.
The design, which I initially sold on the street at the Notting Hill Carnival in 1990, and then afterwards at a few select stores around London, also proved to be a powerful creative catalyst.
It forged within me a new mindset to use design and creativity as a tool to promote the rich historical legacy of Black heroes and heroines from the African diaspora, and to take a progressive and pro-active stance to issues that affected the Black community.