Zerritha Brown, Brent's Windrush queen

By Howard Campbell
Observer senior writer

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

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This is the 70th year since the Empire Windrush docked in the United Kingdom, carrying hundreds of West Indians seeking work to bolster that country's war-torn economy. Most of them were Jamaicans who settled in communities in London, the Midlands, Nottingham, and Bristol. The Jamaica Observer presents the third in a 10-part series featuring Jamaican entertainment personalities who were either born in the UK or grew up there, and how living in that country impacted their lives.

As cultural operations manager at the Library at Willesden Green in Brent, Zerritha Brown has an intimate connection with the West Indian experience in the United Kingdom.

This year, with that country's Government commemorating the 70th anniversary of West Indians arriving there on the Empire Windrush, the organization recognises those trailblazers with a series of events.

They include Windrush 70, an exhibition focusing on West Indians who settled in Brent, a borough in north-west London. According to Brown, whose father is Jamaican and mother Trinidadian, it comprises “photographic portraits, stories collected from residents, historic objects, and unique artist commissions”.

Brown has worked on the 2012 London Olympics and 2015 Rugby World Cup, but helping tell how West Indians transformed their former mother country is her most satisfying project to date.

“Brent has a large Caribbean presence, as many of the Windrush generation settled here. With it being the 70th anniversary, it was important for us to celebrate this, highlighting the contributions they have made to the country and borough,” she told the Jamaica Observer. “We have a rich reggae history as many of the reggae artistes who left Jamaica in the '60s came to Brent and were signed to Trojan Records, which was based in the borough.”

Brown's father, Trevor “Trevor Star” Brown, was one of the musicians who lay down roots in Brent. He went to the UK in 1971 as a guitarist backing Dave Barker and Ansel Collins, who had a massive hit song there with Double Barrel.

He became a top session musician in his adopted country, working on sessions for Trojan and with England-based acts like Alton Ellis. Brown's mother moved to London in 1958.

Windrush 70 is funded by Arts Council England with support from the British Library. It has attracted strong audiences since opening in June.

The exhibition's oldest participant is 97-year-old Reverend Norman Watson Mitchell, who went to Britain from Jamaica in 1955 and lived in the Forrest Hill area of London. Two years later he moved to Harlesden in Brent, where he still lives.

There are some pioneer West Indians who lament a lack of interest by their children and grandchildren in learning their history. That history includes facing institutionalised racism which prevented many of them from gaining proper housing and education.

Zerritha Brown said there is no denying the West Indian's impact on diversifying British culture. However, she admits Britons are still ignorant about the Caribbean contribution to the UK.

“The Caribbean Diaspora is present in British modern life, with influences evident in fashion, music, dance as well as the world of entertainment, sport and politics. Yet still, the story of Windrush and British colonialism in the West Indies is still not known. The Windrush 70 exhibition provided a platform to start the conversations and to promote the contributions and achievements of the Caribbean Diaspora,” she said.

Many persons in the early British West Indian movement have died or returned to their native soil. The foundation they laid for a multicultural Britain is recalled in forums like Windrush 70, which Zerritha Brown championed.

“I am proud to have led the artistic vision for the exhibition and it has been an honour developing the overall Windrush70 programme. We have met some inspirational people and uncovered some truly emotional stories which have highlighted the resilience, pride and courage of the Windrush community who came here to strive for a better life,” she said.

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