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Oscar Abrams

Born, 1937. Died, 1996

Oscar Abrams (10/3/37 - 15/2/96) was a thatre designer, community activist and community organiser who was best known for his work establishing and directing the Keskidee Centre in Caledonian Road, North London. It was Britain’s first Black arts centre; that is, an arts centre for the Black community, which combined theatre, grassroots activism and cultural education. The centre took its name from a Caribbean bird, found in Trinidad and Tobago, a small bird with a bright yellow underbelly. Its wings and back are black with small white markings. Keskidee Centre was established in the early 1970s (1971) and created a new model for grassroots creativity in the Black community, simultaneously providing a meeting space for disaffected Black youth and others, at a time when a new generation of Black British youngsters were coming of age. Simultaneously, the centre served as a venue and meeting place for Caribbean Artists Movement members and activities. Dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson was for a time the educational officer at the Keskidee and his work at the centre was memorably chronicled in Franco Rosso’s documentary Dread, Beat and Blood. Dread, Beat an’ Blood (Franco Rosso, UK/1979/colour/45 mins/documentary)

Dread, Beat an’ Blood was a BBC documentary made by Franco Rosso, the Italian filmmaker responsible for Babylon. Named after Linton Kwesi Johnson’s debut recording of poetry, it introduces us to the work, the life and the world of this Jamaica-born, Brixton-based poet whose work quickly came to echo the sentiments and the frustrations of emerging Black Britain. The film is an engaging and sympathetic portrait of an extraordinary poet, who was determined to give status to Jamaican ‘patois’, the folk oral expression of the poorer people. Through the documentary we learn much about the ways in which LKJ approaches his craft, and about the trials, tribulations, challenges and achievements of his life. He was, at the time of the film’s making, a mere 27 years old, but had already been accepted as the founder of ‘dub poetry’, a new, raw and dynamic form of poetry that overturned much of the ways in which ‘poetry’ was traditionally defined and practiced. Dread, Beat an’ Blood reflected much of the emerging existence of young Black Britain. As such, it was on Rosso’s part a profoundly multilayered and deeply empathetic work.

Bob Marley shot the music video for Is This Love? at the Keskidee Centre. Other luminaries associated with the centre included Walter Rodney, Edward Brathwaite, and Angela Davis.

The Centre, and the building in which it was housed, was the feature of a BBC Radio 4 documentary in May 2009 presented by oral historian Alan Dein. The online trailer for the documentary stated that the Keskidee Centre “had its own drama company, artists in residence and was a hub for African and Afro-Caribbean politics and arts, as well as a creative nursery for homegrown talent. It also catered for the needs of local youth and gave a generation of black teenagers a space of their own.”

Tunde Jegede, the composer and multi-instrumentalist whose work is a fusion of traditional African music, contemporary classical music, and pop music is one of the illustrious artists whose appreciation of African diasporic culture was apparently initiated and nurtured through his contact with Keskidee during his youth. Born in 1972, Tunde Jegede is a prolific producer and songwriter who has gained proficiency in several musical instruments and forms, namely cello, kora, piano and percussion.