The Spiritual Revolution
The year 1990 was an auspicious time in my life which put Africa and the black race clearly on the map for me. Up to that point, I didn’t know much about Africa or black culture in general. I grew up largely in East Sussex, however I spent the first six years of my life from the late 60s to the early 70s in Brockley, South East London.
Although I came from a white, middle class background, I attended the local nursery and state primary school and so mixed with black kids. However, I never got to make friends with any one in particular, although I remember clearly telling my family that I wished I had a black friend and used to imagine one in my mind.
In Sussex, the comprehensive school I attended had not more than four black students out of a population of nearly 1000. There was one black kid in my class called Mark Henry who was known to be hard and no one messed with him. He was a brilliant footballer. I recall clearly during a metalwork class how he approached me and confided in me that he disliked all the racism he had to put up with. Being partly in awe of Mark for his footballing skills, but also slightly wary due to his hard man reputation, I felt humbled that he had singled me out to talk to about his pain. I listened sympathetically but could never know what it must be like to be in his shoes.
As my interest in music developed during my teenage years, I was aware of the power of music in bringing people of different ethnic backgrounds together. In the ska revival of the 1980s, bands like The Specials and The Selecter reflected a multi-cultural Britain. There was Rock Against Racism and reggae bands sharing the same stage as punk bands. There was Artists Against Apartheid. I developed a love for reggae and Bob Marley in particular. Most practices in the bands I played in would feature a reggae jam.
But it was the message that I heard in the lyrics of Marley and other reggae artists that captivated me. ‘We live in Babylon, we’re going to our Father’s land’ sang Marley in Exodus. Here was the voice of a people who lived in exile and had endured terrible suffering but yet there was this powerful note of hope in the music. It was reggae music with its spirituality and allusions to a Messiah coming from Africa that first shone the spotlight on that continent for me.
Events conspired powerfully in 1990, the year after I graduated from university. I had decided to stay on in Newcastle and pursue a music career with the band I was in. In February of that year I sat with my friend John in the house we shared in Benwell and watched live on television as Nelson Mandela took his first steps to freedom.
A month later, my brother George who lived in London announced he had got baptised into a West African ‘church’ called Brotherhood of the Cross and Star. He wrote to me to tell me about it and its founder Olumba Olumba Obu who was described as the ‘Comforter’ or Holy Spirit prophesied by Christ.
Then in May I watched a BBC drama called The March in which a future Europe was under siege from thousands of refugees led from Africa by a Messianic figure called Isa El-Mahdi. This prompted my oldest brother Charlie to pose the question: ‘Is Olumba Olumba Obu Isa El- Mahdi?’
I had to find out. From what I had read from Olumba’s sermons, he had stated his mission was to establish the new kingdom of God on earth and that this represented a new age of righteousness and justice with spiritual liberation for all. To me the message sounded more political than religious and there was no reference to church. It was clear from the teachings that this ‘spiritual revolution’ started with us rather than changing external political structures. The starting point was baptism, leaving behind negative practices and trying to practice ‘love one another’.
When my brother George said he was going to Nigeria to meet Olumba Olumba Obu, he asked me if I would accompany him. I jumped at the chance of being part of something which to me had such huge historical importance. In August 1990, the two of us flew out to Calabar, the headquarters of Brotherhood of the Cross and Star, into Africa, the cradle of a new spiritual civilization.