While the Covid-19 pandemic continues to cause chaos around the globe, there is another not-so-silent-anymore killer still raging – racism. Following the brutal murder of George Floyd, it’s time to say enough is enough and show why Black Lives Matter, says JLS star Oritsé Williams. The singer/songwriter showed his solo talents on 2015’s Jay-Z endorsed track Waterline featuring Pusha T. Now he is sharing his emotions on racial inequality through powerful poetry and spoken word and building his enoughisenoughuk Instagram movement, backed by an eclectic mix of powerful creatives including Áine Zion, Big Narstie, Jade Thirwall, Trevor Nelson and Rich Simmons as well as MOBO Awards founder Kanya King. We caught up with Oritsé, whose chart-topping band reformed in February and – social distancing allowing – are due to hit the road for a sold-out UK arena tour. He discusses for the first time being the innocent victim of police stop-and-searches, what JLS are doing to educate young people about racism and why he was told the BRIT Award-winning band would never be successful unless they included a non-black member.
How have you been dealing with lockdown?
“I’ve been staying safe, staying inside and being creative doing poetry and spoken word. They’ve become my little vice.”
Is poetry something you’ve always written?
“I’ve been writing poetry for a long time and kept it to myself because I didn’t know how people would take to it. At school I was good at English literature and creative writing. It was an extension of creativity that I discovered. When Covid-19 hit and we went into lockdown a lot of people were jumping onto social media and doing dancing and stuff. I thought it was great everybody was keeping people entertained and finding ways to make good use of their time. I wanted to take time to reflect and work out what is going on in our world and how our lives are changing. As I was reverting back to music, I started writing poetry. I was nervous about putting out a poem but it was my way of making use of this time. The first poem I put out, the fans went crazy for. That became really encouraging. I put out a poem every Thursday then they were requesting for me to recite my poetry.”
George Floyd’s death stunned yourself, like the rest of the world, didn’t it?
“George Floyd’s horrendous situation happened and the whole world was affected by it. I saw people posting Black Lives Matter and the whole thing around racial inequality re-arose. The world seemed to really want to make a stand. I want to make my own stand as a musician. Having this ability to create I leaned upon poetry to be able to express myself. It was a traumatic video that went around and we were all desperately affected by it. It was humanity at it’s worse in that video, but it’s raised the issue of the racial inequality that African/Caribbean people have been victim to for centuries since slavery 400 years ago. There’s been hidden racism as well as obvious racism. People took a stand and said enough is enough. Enough is enough are the words I use in my spoken word piece ‘Am I Next?’ that I thought was really important.”
Then you turned the spoken word piece into something else, with the use of music behind it.
“I caught up with my friend Charles Jacques, who is a writer/producer in LA. I sent him my spoken word piece. He said: “As white guy I’ve not known what to say. I would appreciate if I could stand with you on this and be able to express how I’m feeling by putting musical production around the spoken word’. He totally nailed musically what I was feeling, and he was too. We met through working on my solo project when I was in the hardest time of my life. When I was going through the crazy, traumatic, worst years of my life. He came from America and lived with me and we made songs day and night. We made the best music I’ve ever made, which hopefully one day will come out. He’s the one person who can make the music say what I want it to say around my writing.”
And it has now become this Enough Is Enough movement on social media.
“I decided I wanted to get other people to stand with me as a united front on this message and statement “Enough Is Enough”. I wanted to encourage people from all different backgrounds, races, to stand behind this message. I had Leona Lewis, Alexandra Burke, my JLS boys, Rochelle and Jade Thirwall, Big Narstie, Trevor Nelson, Sanjeev Bhaskar and Apache Indian want to get involved. I also had nurses, doctors, teachers, credible authors, dancers, choreographers, entrepreneurs and writers. Olly Murs felt very strongly about it. We had a really empowering conversation about racial inequality.
“Olly said he wanted to put my poetry and the Enough Is Enough message on his page. I had this influx of people contacting me wanting to be involved – Sam Branson; Richard Branson’s son, Janis Winehouse; Amy’s mum, JP Cooper. I decided to put up an Enough Is Enough UK Instagram page because the movement was so powerful. I really believe as a movement we can move mountains – united people can make change. Everyone was posting their own Enough Is Enough statement shot with my poetry so people could get the message. When my heroes had a message, I always listened to what they had to say through songs, whether it be Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye or Lauryn Hill. Dave – like we all saw at the BRITs – was simple but powerful through music. Joelle Taylor, Áine Zion, who was on the Emeli Sande/Jay Electronica track Garden, Kojey Radical are all credible poets that I am inspired by. I’m very much still developing this art form of poetry and spoken word. I purposely wrote lines in my poem Am I Next? like: ‘Refugees built our world as we know it/Have some respect/It’s time that you show it. Many of us from Asian, black African and Caribbean descent, it was our parents’ parents who came in to build up these countries that we are in. I wanted people to be aware of that. I had a really great dancer Gustave Die contact me who shared his passion to express himself through dance to my spoken word piece. He’s been in the Bodyguard and other West End plays. The visual he created which you can see on my Instagram page was incredible.”
What are your personal experiences of racism?
“I’ve always had an amazing, racial diverse group of friends. I always keep positive people around me. Of course through my life I’ve experienced racism but I wanted to make this narrative more inspiring. When I was putting together JLS a lot of people said to me: ‘An all-black band will never work in the UK’. I said: ‘I disagree. I think the world is ready for a band like this’. We should be just seen as a band. I want people to go: ‘JLS, that band’ not ‘JLS, that black band’. People don’t go: ’Take That, that white band’. I felt it was time. There weren’t groups like that for over a decade until we came along. I wanted to bring together a band that had soulful, R&B elements but in pop. I feel like people really embraced us with their arms wide open. That was me going against the views of people in the industry. They were like: ‘You have to put white members in the group’. For me it was about having the right chemistry with the boys, the right quality and talent. We are a multi-cultural band. In my far background I have Asian roots as well as Caribbean and african. Aston and Marvin have Irish and Scottish roots as well as Jamaican. JB’s got multi-Caribbean roots. Against the views of people who were intent in reminding me that they had more experience in the music industry than me I went against their advice, followed my gut instinct and created JLS.”
Did you experience any racism during the X Factor?
“X Factor was an amazing platform for me and the boys. We’re always going to big up The X Factor and Simon Cowell for the opportunity. I don’t think an act like us would have been able to have the success we have if we didn’t come through The X Factor. They seen us and believed in our talent. That was the grand opening to being part of the mainstream music scene. X Factor has had artists from all different backgrounds. If you just look at our year you had Ruth Lorenzo, who is Spanish, Eoghan Quigg, who is Irish, Diana Vickers, who is white. Britain’s Got Talent and X Factor I do feel give platforms to artists with diverse backgrounds. Our year with Alexandra Burke was the only all-black final. We didn’t make it about race but when you look back at it, it was a moment. Louis Walsh supported us all the way. I don’t have one bad word to say about X Factor. I can’t speak on everyone’s experience but I don’t feel it’s racist. For us, without that platform there’s no way that we would be the band that we are today. Before X Factor nobody wanted to sign us. We couldn’t get anybody to believe in us. Race played a part in it because people see a certain band formula that they’d had for a long time that we didn’t necessarily fit. People didn’t even believe in a boyband at that time. There are definitely situations that need to be addressed where people were racially abused or oppressed. It all comes down to education in terms of how we make a change going forward.”
What about post X Factor?
“When we were coming out of The X Factor and had our first homecoming gig at Fairfield Halls. I remember hearing police saying something that shocked us. They said that JLS had made them change the way that they look at young black boys. No one has ever known that. When Charles Jacques and I were making my solo album we went to a gig one night with my friends who were also producers – two big Nigerian guys. Charles was in the back of the car and the police stopped us for no reason at all. They didn’t see Charles at first. They asked us to get out of the car and put us on the side of the street. This was about 11.30pm. They told Charles to come out of the car last. We knew exactly what was going on. They lined us up on the side of the street and questioned us.”
What did they say?
“Where are you going? Have you got anything on you? What do you have in the car? They thought we were drug dealers – and it’s not the first time I’ve experienced that.”
Can you remember another incident?
“I was driving a Mercedes Benz – my first car after the success of JLS. It was a 4X4 and I had my hat on backwards and was driving through London. A huge police van – out of nowhere – stopped my car in the middle of the road. They all jumped out. This older, white police officer told me to keep my hands on the steering wheel. He launched his hand into my car and took the key out then told me to get on the side of the road and began opening the car. I said: ’No. I can’t believe this’. He put me on the side of the road and some Jamaican guy was riding his bike passed and he asked: ‘What are you doing to the young boy?’. They said it was police business. They searched my whole car for drugs or weapons. I said: ‘I have nothing. I am in music’. One of his colleagues clocked I was part of JLS and told him to leave me alone. They let me go in the end.”
Did they apologise?
“No. They sent me on my way. I was on the side of the street, embarrassed. One of the most horrible things was people going past on buses and cars were looking. It even got to my auntie, that police were stopping and searching me. I’ve experienced these things my whole life. It’s quite sad but you get used to it.”
You shouldn’t have to get used to it.
“When you say it like that and you think about it, you’re right. You should not but you do. It doesn’t make it right.”
When you started recording the first JLS album did you ever feel you were treated differently to how a white boyband would have been, in terms of which songwriters and producers you were placed with?
“The only thing I experienced myself personally was during making the first JLS album I was told by one of the Swedish producers that my voice was too soulful for the style of the band. I don’t know if that was a race or a sound thing. I had to try my best not to sound too soulful. I struggled with that in the beginning. I started questioning myself whether I could actually sing. In the end I decided to grow that soulfulness, not compromise on it. The most amazing thing about our fans is that they are so diverse. We’ve been able to draw people together of all backgrounds and races. You look at the audience and it’s completely mixed.”
You’ve been very successful but do you think if you had a white member or two white members in JLS you would be even bigger than you are now?
“We didn’t hold ourselves back. We had our dreams and visions and came together to break boundaries. We had no limitations to make our dreams come true in the most magnificent way as mates. When we think about it now are we the most successful black band that’s come out of the UK? We are the most successful UK black band of all time. That’s not blowing our own trumpets, that’s fact. We had the drive, the camaraderie and what we have is unrivalled. That chemistry is not born overnight. It’s destiny. It’s realness. It’s a different kind of emotion I can’t explain. Me and the boys have something that’s special and unexplainable. I know it’s something we all feel that – and everybody that experiences JLS feels.”
Are black artists getting enough mainstream radio play?
“On radio is there hasn’t been a soulful black male since Seal really break through. It’s not an equal balance. It would be nice to see more black, male, soulful singers be given support in music in the UK. It’s something really missing. I feel you’ve had so many great singers come through like Kwabs, Jacob Banks, and Michael Kiwanuka. Michael is an old friend of mine. He’s really making a stand now. That song Black Man In A White World was very powerful. He’s been making his voice heard on (Black Lives) matter for a long time. I would like to host a radio show playing new-skool soul artists, poets, conscious rappers, and spoken word. I feel they’re not given a voice in our country. I’m looking for solutions. My next step is how do I take action? BBC 1xtra or Capital Xtra… I’ll be getting in touch.”
If you could sit down with Boris Johnson would you ask him to put black history on the education system?
“100%. Me and the boys are actually working on something as a group with this organisation called The Black Curriculum to support the education of black history being taught in schools. We are pursuing the agenda ourselves. As fathers of children of mixed heritage it’s important for them to have a well-rounded understanding of their background and where they come from. We want that education to spread out to children all around the country. That change has to be done at Parliament so we will keep on shouting about it until that change is actually made. This has been bubbling for a long time and something dramatic was going to happen for people to come together and say: ‘We’ve had enough’. The best thing to come out of this is people around the world have come together as one human race to stand up and say enough is enough of the oppression of black people and demand change.”
How is the pandemic going to affect your reunion tour plans?
“We are not sure. For us to have a good time and for people to come and enjoy our shows we’ll only feel comfortable when we know everybody is going to be 100% safe. That’s always going to be the first priority. Whenever it happens – and the tour is going to happen – what a great celebration it’s going to be of everything we’ve all been through. The time has never been as important for JLS as it is now with Black Lives Matter and people standing up against racial inequality and the oppression of black people. To be the only black band from the UK, that’s a statement in itself as well as getting through Covid-19 and the pandemic. I’m also working on projects with young carers. There is no more important time in our history of being a band as there is now. Our manger told us The world needs JLS more than ever.”
Has your mum been shielding during the pandemic?
“Yes, she’s been shielding. She’s healthy and safe. My mum is always so positive. She’s an angel on earth. She takes everything in her stride including her MS, which she has been struggling with over the years. She’s never complained about her condition. She always says: ’Things could be worse’. I miss her terribly. I saw her on Tuesday June 16th but I couldn’t hug her. We’ve not seen each other since the pandemic hit in March so it had been nearly three months. That was difficult to deal with. For my mum not to see me or her other children was horrendous, but once we saw each other it was the most amazing thing. We spoke for hours. It was beautiful. She was so happy.”