An award-winning writer, photographer, broadcaster, musician, poet and former children’s TV presenter, Johny Pitts founded the online platform Afropean.com in 2013. Following the Brexit vote, he set out on a self- funded journey across the continent to write a non-fiction travel narrative, recently published in book form by Penguin, titled Afropean: Notes from Black Europe
I’m still a proud Firth Parker. My mum’s terrace house remains the closest thing I have to home. Firth Park is in Sheffield, but it’s not ‘Sheffield’ – or at least what the city likes to export. It’s multicultural, rough yet friendly, and working class.
Friends get frustrated with my depiction of the city. They think I buy into Full Monty stereotypes. The Sheffield they know is one of climbers, nice pubs and galleries that make arty icons out of brutalist estates. My friends and I actually inhabited those traditionally working-class, psychic landscapes when we grew up, when there was no nostalgia for mid-century architecture.
I arrived at Afropean through the music and fashion I was exposed to as a child. The mash-ups of sounds, cultures and aesthetics brought forth by people like Neneh Cherry, Claude Grunitzky and his Trace publication, and the Belgian Congolese vocal group Zap Mama, who originally coined the term. They all transmitted a coherent plurality through their art.
Afropean suggests the possibility of a trans-local network of solidarity. It’s a way of being proud of where I grew up while also being able to transcend its less empowering dynamics – namely a crushing parochialism and insularity – by connecting the history and experiences of its community to other such places across Europe.
It’s linking places with a history of high immigration. Places that juggle multiple allegiances, grappling with the legacy of Western imperialism, shunted out on the periphery, not included in travel guides or national mythologies.
I began to get frustrated by how exclusive it seemed. Did you have to be beautiful to be Afropean? There’s a Mos Def lyric: “We either niggas or kings, we either bitches or queens”. I wanted to search for an everydayness – the beauty in black banality.
We construct people in our minds who we ‘act’ for. People who sum up who we’re trying to be. When I wrote Afropean, I had imaginary arguments with Paul Gilroy, Gary Younge and Caryl Phillips. They were the people for whom I wanted the book to resonate.
I got drunk with a group of friends recently. Many were elite photographers, and they were all moaning about how difficult it was for white middle-class men at the moment. They said I was lucky to be black and poor because that is in fashion now. Mad-heads! I just looked at them all and said, ‘When you’re used to privilege, equality feels like oppression’.
I spent a decade working in children’s television. It’s the last corner of broadcasting where you can be surreal. Kids are so much more imaginative than adults.
I discovered photography like I discovered writing. As an autodidact. I remember quitting college and spending a couple of years dossing around, working a part-time job in a warehouse and spending all my money on watching films at the Showroom Cinema – a Sheffield institution.
People harp on about vinyl, but I’m from the CD generation. In the jewel cases, you’d often find a booklet of photographs, sometimes a great photoessay. They set the tone for the music. I use photography in a similar way for my prose; as little moments to shroud the text in a particular mood. It’s a way of creating an atmosphere I can’t do justice to with words alone.
In the early 2000s, the Soulquarians collective created a series of stunning albums. They were produced by an elite group of generation-defining artists like Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, Questlove, Q-Tip and J Dilla. The albums all had weird matte paper stock for the cover and inlays, and I loved the way the ink was absorbed and dimmed by the paper, producing a sort of organic, tactile quality. I tried to evoke that quality with Afropean, because I knew I’d be working with paper stock that was designed for text, not photos.
Craig Atkinson published some of my photographs as a Café Royal book. That was formative for me in terms of working out how to make photographs look great on paper that isn’t necessarily of the highest quality – embracing a rawness. That being said, I love photobooks and would very much like to produce something dedicated to the medium. I’m working on a project about 1980s Japan that will be full colour, and really deserves to be an elegantly realised, high-quality photobook.