It’s time to change the narrative for black men in the UK. That’s what Cephas Williams thought when he decided to pursue a hard-hitting photography series that would become 56 Black Men: a campaign that pushes back against the racist portrayal of black men in the media and in the context of growing knife crime. The founder is on a mission to spotlight the achievements of black men “while they are alive, not just when they’re murder victims or suspects”.
Williams, 28, grew up in South-East London and developed an interest in architecture at a young age. He studied it at university, but eventually Williams quit to focus full-time on a derelict building on Peckham High Street that he was determined to turn into a creative space for the surrounding community, calling it Drummer Boy Studios. He sunk his savings into it to turn it into a photography and recording hub. “Lots of creative people in the black community don’t have access to somewhere they could express their talents,” he explains.
But he felt pushback from the council and others in the area. Williams couldn’t understand why a project like that wasn’t being supported, and seemed totally shut out from any available funding streams. At times he was forced to sleep in the studio, with nowhere else to go. “I felt frustrated,” he tells The Big Issue. “I very much got the impression that the reason we weren’t getting support was because we were young black men.”
At the same time, a rise in knife crime around London in particular was making headlines – a time when “young black men were always being singled out,” Williams says.
In the past year, the photoseries has been exhibited regularly, including in the US Embassy
Then, he says, the idea came to him in a dream. Fifty-six black men – the number of people in the local black community who had been killed in 2018 – in hoodies, alongside outlines of their stereotype-defying lives.
In August last year, Williams floated the idea with his friends. Almost all of them discouraged him from pursuing the idea. “I was told don’t launch it before Christmas, because nobody wants to talk about black people problems on Christmas Day,” he says. “One guy I approached, in a very respectable job, said he was scared. He said ‘I don’t know what the media would do if they got a picture of me in a hoodie.’”
But soon a network of men came together, and Williams spent the next few months taking their portraits. The campaign launched a year ago this month, and took off quicker than he could have imagined.
That was thanks, in part, to a piece Labour politician David Lammy agreed to write for The Guardian when he got wind of the campaign. The project, championing the black community and featuring men in finance, the arts, business, the law and medicine, was propelled forward by the fear that “young black boys who continually see themselves represented in a negative way will have a harder time changing the trajectory of their lives, when they’re already often disadvantaged”. After this 56 Black Men – Lammy now one of them – was picked up right across the media, drawing the attention of 300,000 in just one day.
In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.
“We’ve built a movement of people who can mobilise when the government or the media puts something out about black people that’s wrong or misjudged. All the people we’ve brought together, they push back and they’re heard. I’m hopeful that now all our voices are together, we can really make changes to how we’re treated.”
In the past year, the photoseries has been exhibited regularly, including in the US Embassy, while Williams has been invited to speak about the cause at events by everyone from Somerset House to advertisers Clear Channel to a range of FTSE 100 companies. But the founder is most touched by the personal stories he has heard from people who feel impacted and represented by the campaign. “I heard from a black woman who thanked me because she said what I had created helped her believe she could bring a black boy into this world with some kind of hope.”
Now Williams is looking for funding to help roll out the programmes he has planned for the 56 Black Men project. One is a ‘live’ initiative, storytelling and performance “which will put black men at the forefront of our conversation”. He’s also planning a corporate scheme that bridges the gap between black communities and firms to help make those workplaces more accessible.
“Even if a black man works within a company, does he feel comfortable?” Williams says. “Can he be authentic? How do we work with corporations to help shift the prejudices that are there? Because they’re always there.” Until then, Williams and his team will mark the first anniversary with an event on December 17, where they’ll celebrate changing the narrative for life.
The 56 Black Men include
Tunde Abdulazeez, an exercise practitioner for the NHS,
caring for patients with chronic lung diseases.
Carl Konadu, co-founder of 2-3 Degrees, a company that delivers personal development training to young people.
Buba Sahop, a project officer with housing services and a trustee for the Ruff Sqwad.
Ajibola Ayorinde, creative director for tailored clothing brand MIA London and a legal consultant for start-up companies.
Illustration: Matthew Brazier