The long road to equality: Interview with Joseph Malik
It should have been a day that was never remembered.
A five-year-old boy playing with his toys in his garden in a Glasgow housing estate in the 1970s was nothing out of the ordinary; a typical, forgettable day in the eyes of a child.
But when a group of young men threw a pot of white paint all over him and called him a ‘black bastard’, that day became one Joseph Malik would remember for the rest of his life.
Sadly, for someone so young, it wasn’t the first time he had experienced racism.
From the day he was born, Malik was a victim of prejudice because of the colour of his skin when his own mother – a white woman – abandoned him at the hospital, ashamed she had given birth to a mixed-race child.
But it is this incomprehensible start to his life, these horrific experiences as he grew up in Glasgow’s Easterhouse that made him the man he is today: a passionate community leader and activist, fighting for black rights and black lives.
“I was born in Glasgow, I was left at hospital when I was born, abandoned by my mother because she was ashamed that she had mixed race child,” says Malik, matter-of-factly, in a way that indicates he has recounted the story many times before.
“My grandmother came to pick me up, so basically if it wasn’t for her, I would have been put in care.
“When I was five, I was playing in my garden one day with my toys, being a wee kid as I was, and these guys came over to me, called me a black bastard and poured a pot of white paint all over me.
“It took me about a month to scrub it all off. I suffered all through that and at school, having to fight every single day.
“Then, when I was 14, I was nearly killed by four policemen in Shettleston in Glasgow. It was four officers, one of them was female and if it wasn’t for the female officer saying ‘stop it, you’re killing him’, I wouldn’t be here speaking to you right now.”
They just automatically see us as subhuman because of the colour of our skin
It is an eye-opening introduction to the early years of someone I have only just met, but his candidness reveals a man so shaped by his experiences that he almost wears them as a badge of honour.
He is not ashamed of his upbringing, despite how hard it was, and is proud of the way he has overcome a lifetime of racism, regularly sharing his story with large crowds at demonstrations and to more intimate audiences at events such as the recent Just Festival, Edinburgh’s social justice and human rights festival.
“They just automatically see us as subhuman because of the colour of our skin and we don’t belong walking on that street,” Malik continues. “So, since the day I was born, I’ve been fighting the National Front, BNP, Britain First and now all the other race hate groups that have arisen.”
Not surprisingly, Malik left Glasgow as soon as he could, and travelled 40-odd miles to Edinburgh in the hope the city could offer him a better life.
But Edinburgh in the early 90s wasn’t the cultural, diverse city it is today, and Malik’s new life was a continuation of his old one – until he decided to do something about it.
“I’d had enough of Glasgow, it’s a very white city,” he says. “You go up against certain families in Glasgow and you’d be shot. So, I’d had enough and moved through here to Edinburgh.
“When I got through here and I saw how small the city was and I saw a lot of the football casuals, both Hearts and Hibs, attack Asian shopkeepers, I said ‘no more’. I took it upon myself to gather some other tall, strong brothers, African and Asians, there was only about 12/13 of us and we stood against them.
“We said ‘you’re not going to harm this shop, you’re not going to harm this family’.”
Malik’s interventions coincided with the rise in popularity of black culture, of black musicians, of black footballers. He says when Hibs signed black player Kevin Harper in 1992, that signalled a shift in the attitude of the football casuals.
“All that [trouble] died down and I managed to get some peace between black and white in the city. Because of black culture and black sportsmen, that started to chill people out a bit more, black culture was more celebrated by white people. They started getting into it, so things became very, very peaceful.”
Malik himself became a well-known musician in the Edinburgh scene, making a life for himself in Leith where he mingled with the likes of Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh. He also became a father and worked hard to give his son the kind of upbringing he never had, where he “didn’t have a care in the world”.
It’s been very peaceful [in Edinburgh] for a good 20 years. Then the George Floyd incident [happened]. When I saw it that day, I burst into tears, it brought all the trauma back
“I was at the school gates to pick up my son at school one day, and I saw a guy that used to try and attack me and he’s standing at the gates and I’m standing at the gates and who’s coming out? His son and my son – as pals.
“And I said ‘do you want to go to the park with the boys’? And we shook hands and we actually got on and ended up becoming friends.
“It’s been very peaceful [in Edinburgh] for a good 20 years. Then the George Floyd incident [happened]. When I saw it that day, I burst into tears, it brought all the trauma back.”
The death in May of Floyd – the 46-year-old black man who died in Minneapolis, Minnesota after a white police officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes – sparked a public outcry and a global movement against incidents of police brutality and all racially motivated violence against black people. But, at the same time, it also sparked a backlash against the protests, with far-right groups becoming more openly racist.
Malik says it has got so bad he has, once again, started offering protection to families suffering from racist attacks and abuse and has given his mobile number out to people who have asked for his help, urging them to call him any time of the day or night if they feel threatened or are under attack.
I ask him if he worries about putting himself in danger in such a way, but I already know the answer.
Malik may be a self-professed peaceful man, but he is also a big guy. Not the type of person you would readily challenge to a fight.
“I am [putting myself in danger] but I don’t care,” he says. “I’m not going in there, fists pumping to go and fight,” he says. “I am there to stand in harm’s way to protect, but if they are attacked, I will defend myself.
“I’m 6ft 2 and I can handle myself so even the sight of me is enough. These people are cowards.”
He tells me that the previous night, a single mum who lives in Bonnyrigg called him after a group came to her door harassing her.
It would appear that the woman had upset the local racists simply by being black and by attending the recent Black Lives Matter protests.
It’s okay to go to a protest, but what happens afterwards? There’s a reprisal after that for these families
“It’s okay to go to a protest, but what happens afterwards? There’s a reprisal after that for these families. What I offer is, call me. I will get into a car and I will be there in 20 minutes, like last night.
“And if I have to stay over at night so she can get a sleep and get her kids off to school in the morning, then that is what has to be done.
“I feel like I’m stepping back to the 70s. I’m 50 in January. I thought I’d fought all my battles, but I just want to do something more. I don’t think enough is being done.”
But despite thinking all this was in his past, Malik made his offer of help in front of thousands of people when he gave a moving speech at the Black Lives Matter protest in Holyrood Park on 7 June.
The event attracted around 5,000 people – and was the biggest congregation of black people in Edinburgh Malik had ever seen – even though it took place during lockdown.
“I said that day [at the protest], if you live in Edinburgh and the police cannot protect you, call me.”
Malik was also involved in the demonstration in St Andrew Square, where around 1,000 people gathered to protest against the statue of Henry Dundas which stands at the top of the Melville Monument.
The 18th Century politician delayed the abolition of the slave trade and as a result of this delay, more than half a million enslaved Africans crossed the Atlantic.
This particular protest attracted widespread media coverage as a result of the guest speaker Malik had organised, his friend Irvine Welsh, who he has recently collaborated on an album with.
Welsh told the crowd at the Dundas protest: “Nobody did more to prevent the abolition of slavery. And make no mistake, they knew this was coming, that’s why they put him so high.
“Imagine a statue of Sir Jimmy Savile, looking down at us with a cigar. Well this is Jimmy Savile times at least 100,000.”
Malik tells me that a group of far-right activists also attended the protest that day in an attempt to provoke trouble.
“Irvine said to me privately after he made his speech, they’ll probably burn my books when they get home,” he recalls.
While the protest remained peaceful, Malik says he has been threatened and assaulted as a result of his involvement in organising the demonstrations.
“I got death threats and I was attacked,” he says. “Four guys who had obviously been following me, knowing I live in this area, jumped out the car, wanting to give me a fight.
“I can handle myself so I managed to fend them off, but I was shaken, as brave as I am, I was shaking after that, the reason being that they named my son, saying if they can’t get me they’ll come after him.
Racism is taught, you’re not born a racist
“I would rather throw myself in harm’s way so that no child ever has to grow up the way I did. That’s my be all and end all.”
He believes that education is the key to achieving this and is part of a network made up local people from all walks of life who are committed to getting a children’s education programme in schools.
“If you’re someone in their 30s who’s racist, then you can’t change them, but if we can catch the kids now, through education, [teach them] that everyone is equal, then I think that’s the way forward. Racism is taught, you’re not born a racist.”
Although he’s not affiliated with any particular political party, he says he is hopeful that progress is on the horizon in Scotland.
He is not so confident about other countries, however.
“Trump has stirred up racism, Boris has heavily stirred up racism. It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” he says. “You’re not going to solve this overnight. More black people getting into government would certainly help. That’s achievable within the SNP hopefully.
“It’s going to take a decade or two decades for it to be eradicated. We’re lucky that we live in Scotland, we have that hope.”