Find out what it is like being a black business man living in Norfolk, from the legend that is Ola. Listen to his full podcast here Being black in Norfolk
Neil: Well Good morning everybody. Neil Foley from the Business Growth Club here and I’m really pleased to be sitting next to a good friend of mine, Ola.
Neil: Good morning Ola.
Ola: Hello Neil.
Neil: How are you?
Ola: I’m good. Thank you.
Neil: Good. What we’re hoping to do today and what you’ll achieve by listening to this podcast, is getting the perspective, a different person’s perspective, on what’s like being a black business man in Norfolk. It’s right to call you black I guess, isn’t it, Ola?
Ola: Actually, I’m not black.
Neil: Yeah, we do have this issue. What do we call you then?
Ola: I’m actually brown.
Ola: There are black people on the planet, but I’m not one of them and I do get offended when people call me black. For this interview, you can call be black but I do get offended because I’m actually brown.
Neil: And you don’t get offended if somebody just calls you a brown person?
Ola: No, no one ever calls me brown.
Neil: No I know, absolutely. Or a person of colour?
Ola: Or a person of colour or African descendant is probably the … when I fill out forms and it says Black British but I’m not black and they’re trying to be politically correct but I, actually, that is not correct because it is actually very wrong, in my opinion, but that what we’ve been labelled as but there we go.
Neil: Well, we’ll learn more about that as we go through because these are mind field for us normal white middle class people especially in Norfolk because there aren’t actually many people …
Ola: Can I just stop you there?
Neil: Yeah, go on.
Ola: Sorry. It’s Caucasian, it’s a politically correct term. At least in America, anyway. Yeah, sorry.
Neil: No, it’s a good point and there’s a lot that we take for granted isn’t there? As I said, when you live in Norfolk, and I’ve lived in Norfolk on and off for most of my life, and actually there aren’t that many people, coloured people in Norfolk. I mean there are a few more Cosmopolitan … we have a slightly more Cosmopolitan feel in Norwich but probably less so here, because you’re in … if I describe this for the listeners, we’re in a field in the Norfolk/Suffolk border were the broadband is fantastic. It’s about 4 meg broadband. It’s perfect … It’s a very beautiful location but it is a very rural place we’re in now.
Ola: Yes it is. I do like it here. It’s very rural. When I first moved up here in 2005, my colleagues in Norwich used to call me the field Negro because … I can see why because I live in the middle of a field and that’s kind of … but I’m able to get on with it because I’m in a creative industry, less distractions and so on …
Ola: It’s a great place to be where you don’t get distracted and you can just get on and focus.
Neil: What is your business background Ola?
Ola: Well I’ve been in the music industry since early 90s where initially I started on a record store, then started distribution, set us up a record label, then we went into publishing, and then we also did … as things moved on we went into different areas because you can’t stand still in business you’ve got to move with the times. Then settled with music publishing and now we really produce music for the media which is called production music where our music is used in films, for corporate use, for adverts on the TV, radio, and all that kind of stuff. That’s where we currently are at the moment. Also, diversify a little bit more because the music industry is getting a little bit tough to combine … because we do the, we’ve got the media with the film and adverts and so on we’re producing videos for our artists. In the last four years we’ve started to produce corporate videos, promotional videos for small businesses.
Neil: Okay. What on earth then made you come to Norfolk? Because I guess that most of that type of work will have been based in London presumably.
Ola: Yes, I mean initially … it was more for personal reasons than business. Back in those days, you mentioned broadband, we were a little bit more on the internet wasn’t a problem, I could do business quite easily with our customers in London and in different parts of the world, we trade … our biggest client is in America and most of our income comes from … sorry, our biggest client is in Germany and most of our income comes from America. It was more personal reasons, for quality of life and something different. Initially, for the first two or three years it was fine. I was able to trade as well as I would when I was in London but then it became more difficult because as the industry got more, got tougher I had to be … I wasn’t seen as much so it was difficult to attend all of the networking events and meetings, and different events where people would be to … you need to keep your face about so that became a little more difficult.
Plus, also, I found locally the talent wasn’t as … there’s lots of talented individuals but I couldn’t find people who could actually produce and provide the finished product. That’s where producers are … that’s where kind of like things …
Neil: And there’re still based in the big cities are they?
Ola: Generally, because what I found moving to Norfolk and is that basically, it’s young people are the key to the music industry very youth oriented at least to keep it all moving and to keep my business going because they have the most dispensable income and so on. You employ young people, you get some really good smart ones on and then they fuck off to London because that’s where the opportunities are.
Neil: Well yeah, Norfolk has attractions of a people of a certain age but … young people got to cut their teeth and plan to do in the big cities.
Ola: I don’t blame them. They want to go to the big lights and whatever else. So we had a little bit of a problem with holding on to those, the talent, because you’d develop them so far and then … I’m sure it’s not just in the creative industry but most industries they would go to the main cities because there …
Neil: It’s something that young people have to do, isn’t it? So, as a man of colour coming to Norfolk for the first time, what sort of reaction did you get from the locals?
Ola: Well, I didn’t see any real difference from being in London. I did get some prejudice but, you know, from my experience, in life everyone experiences some kind of prejudice no matter where, who you are, what you do, we are all different in one way or the other. The thing about Norfolk, and one of the things I did learn is that it takes … it doesn’t matter where you’re from, you could be from over the border in Suffolk, it takes several years for people to get used to you or accept you or someone and that’s on a personal, social basis. Business people are a little bit more open minded because they have to be. Personally, I didn’t find any real issues with my colour. In fact, I use it as an advantage because being a minority has it’s advantages. I walk into a meeting and low and behold there are very few people of different ethnicities in a networking meeting of say 20/30 people. I’m instantly noticed and people notice me so there we go, that’s for me is a big plus and kind of like it’s good for marketing. If you want to be noticed then … no, don’t paint yourself a different colour or anything like that but …
Neil: It sets up the black and white minstrels not sure we should be blackening ourselves up … maybe I’ll try that next time, I’ll see what reaction I get. It’s a good point, isn’t it because you’re a tall guy as well, not particularly handsome but you can’t have everything, but you’re a tall guy and, as you say, you are brown or black of colour so you will stand out especially in Norfolk and Suffolk and places like that.
Ola: Yeah, I think that we’ve in the business community, business if you have a negative outlook than people are not going to look … they’re not going to want to do business with you. If you look at the stock market, it thrives on positivity rather than … if you have a negative outlook than people are not going to want to do business with you. It’s … I think it’s all about looking at what’s around you and taking something that would normally be … some people may deem as a negative or hindrance and make a positive thing out of it.
Neil: I guess you’ve touched on an important point here. It’s quite easy to cast ourselves as victims sometime, isn’t it and have a victim mentality, I would have done xyz but this was against me and that was against me.
Ola: Yeah, I don’t get that victim mentality because we all … everybody’s a victim of something. I could be a victim of my own success, I would rather be that kind of victim rather than a victim of something that’s a negative. Yeah, we could all be a victim. I’ve been in situations and for all my life where I have always … I have genuinely been the minority.
I’ll give you one example of something that … where a split second where I felt that something could go horribly wrong here. Must have been early 90s, there’s this music called habu which is a European fast techno aggressive music we call it Gabber in the UK, we used to, it’s not so popular nowadays, young people dance to it and go clubbing to it. I knew the promoters, we were in this club in Belgium, in this arena, this go-karting or funk arena and there were about 20-30,000 skin heads, white skin heads …
Ola: They were dancing to this aggressive music as was the DJ and a couple of ladies. One of the ladies wanted a drink that wasn’t available where we were standing behind the VIP pit, the guy said you have to go to the other end of the arena and I thought, being a gentleman, “I’m going to make that trip.” So I went across the arena and I thought, “Oh my God, what am I doing here?” Right
Ola: All of these guys dancing around to this aggressive music and I came back with the drinks and then all of a sudden I … they were putting their hands up like a Nazi salute and I just for a split moment I thought, “Oh my God, I’m in trouble here.” I looked up to the DJ and the MC and low and behold he was a black guy. Do you see what I mean? You kind of … we perceive people or things can cause you problems or issues but low and behold that kind of situation there was actually another, I called him black, but a person of colour actually asking all the guys, all the young people in the arena to raise their hand up but they were also, I found out afterwards, the music and the music industry around that genre of music were against racism and they had a big campaign about, Gabber, against racism.
Neil: I guess it’s … we all judge people on looks don’t we? I mean, we’re making split decisions about all sorts of things when we meet people or hear people talk or whatever and skin heads would make you think far right normally wouldn’t it?
Neil: You just would, you’d assume they’re racist and the rest of it.
Ola: Well, if you go back to Ska music …
Neil: Yeah, Ska was very integrated wasn’t it?
Ola: Yes, it was because they had skin heads as well.
Neil: Yeah, they did.
Ola: I think people can … It is quite funny when sometimes … I do … don’t get me wrong, I do, I am often faced with people who are, I’m not going to say racist, I’d say prejudice and ignorant.
Ola: Because the individuals who look at people because of indifference, I don’t think it’s … they will be derogatory or have some issue with anybody …
Neil: Yeah, short, fat, ginger, doesn’t matter what it is.
Ola: Exactly, so you do find them … it’s, from my experience, the best think to do is to challenge their ignorance and actually be friendly and overcome them.
Ola: Show them love and blah, blah, blah. Make them realise that there’s no difference …
Neil: We’re all human.
Ola: We’re all human. We can actually help each other out. Look at you, are you any different? You’ve got some differences there. To me, doesn’t matter whether I’m as you say, black, ginger, female, disabled …
Neil: I agree. I know you hear this term, “institutionalised racism”. That’s been around a long time very really, I suppose since the Stephen Lawrence thing really? When the Met police got branded … is it something you’re conscious of?
Ola: I have, again, it’s like I have experienced that and we will experience that. It’s just … and I think it’s just human nature. Other people are … some people say to you, “I don’t like the police.” Actually I have a lot of respect for the police and so on because who would you go to if you had problems, you’d got to the police. We look at Barack Obama who … so institutionalised racism, he was the most powerful man on the planet for eight years and now we turn over a Caucasian guy and look at all the trouble that he’s causing.
Neil: Not all white people are like that.
Ola: No but … I know.
Neil: I know what you mean.
Ola: I terms of … I tell you what actually, institutionalised racism, I see that as … turn it around and make it a positive thing. When I, there’s quite a bit of … there’s one thing I have capitalised on as a business in Norfolk is funding, there’s this little box that says, “What ethnicity are you?”
Neil: You’ve got a natural advantage there haven’t you?
Ola: I’ve got a natural advantage. I do put Black British but it’s like, “Oh. Oh okay.” It’s actually reversed so …
Ola: In some cases because of society, they recognise that there may be an issue, there is an issue and some people may deem it as being a issue because I’m a minority here I can gain from that and that’s the institutionalised positive discrimination, if you see what I mean. I think sometimes, society can be overly politically correct. With my … if you hear some of the conversations I have with my friends we use the ‘n’ word quite regularly …
Neil: Do you?
Ola: And these are Caucasians saying it to me and people go, “Ooh”, but it doesn’t matter. The music industry and creative industry are very acceptance of indifference.
Neil: I know that you said that to me before because all of life is within the music and creative industry.
Neil: But you accept but you do take the mickey out of each other a lot don’t you?
Ola: Yeah. We do take the mickey out, people’s indifference ourselves, because sometimes you have to take the mickey out … I’ll give you an example of indifference.
We had this lesbian lady working for us and she used to say to me, “I don’t like … I don’t fancy women or whatever because I’m not a lesbian.” I said, well what are you then, okay you’re not a lesbian and then she was with us for a couple of years and she got to know all the artist and everything over the phone and by emails and so on and so forth and by contact. Then all of a sudden she started to change, she was quite well endowed and then slowly but surely, I didn’t really notice but in looking back, she started to morph into a man. And then she didn’t tell me initially but it got to one point we were driving in the car and she put her iPod into my car system and it came up with a name Aiden and I said, “Oh, who’s Aiden?” She goes, “Oh, okay.” And the next day she came into work, “I’ve got something to tell you Ola.” I said, “What’s up.” She said, “Well, actually, over the last six months I’ve been having my hormones changed and all that and I’m actually having a sex change.” I went, “Oh, okay. That’s all good then.” She says, “And, um …” She then goes to me, “But I don’t know how we’re going to do all the artists. Could you say that I left and then you employed this guy Aiden?”
Ola: I looked at her and I thought, “Do you know what? No, we can tell them that you’ve had a sex change and if they don’t … and anyone that doesn’t like it, they can fuck off.”
Neil: Yeah. End of story.
Ola: End of story and she went, “Oh okay, all right.” She went away, couple of weeks … she went to her counsellor and whatever because you have to be counselled for this kind of thing.
Ola: She put together a letter which we then sent out as an email. Low and behold, some people made a few comments but no one really but acceptance we did have … some people had a giggle and a laugh but nothing serious. It was business as usual. I spoke to some other people locally about it and they were a little bit apprehensive. It’s like actually this is what happens, this is the real world, this is what happens, it’s quite common in some societies that people have transgender …
Neil: You have to feel courage for her to say actually, tackle the issue if she’s feeling very uncomfortable as to who she is then change.
Ola: Yeah, her choice.
Neil: As a person of colour in Norfolk, as a business person, you’ve used it to your advantage, partly through grants and funding, if there’s anything there that might be there just because of your ethnicity.
Ola: It helps.
Neil: It helps doesn’t it? What’s your overriding memory, if you like, of being a relatively unknown coloured person in Norfolk from a business viewpoint? Has it caused you any problems at all?
Ola: Well, no. I look at that as … if … as a spiritual kind of person. It’s like we make our own paths and if anybody or any situation that hasn’t worked for me, I look at myself and say, “What could I have done differently? How could I have approached this differently? What … this hasn’t worked out, well, why … it’s got nothing to do with my ethnicity, because if I use that or I think that is an issue I’m never going to move forward. I have to be able to work within and politely challenge any negativity so … don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some racism, blatant racism comments but that was sorted out and it was, there’s just ignorant kids. No, I don’t … It’s how you deal with things.
Actually I’ve never … I mean young people are great they … I did have a little bit of a hang up a little of actually, “How are we going do of this?” Am I going to be the face of the business because people are necessary going to … if they see this black guy in our videos promoting what we’re doing they say, “Oh, there’s a black guy, I don’t want to do it.” Then I don’t remember, Harrison he said, “Actually Ola, we don’t want to do it with those kinds of people anyway.”
Neil: Was Harrison younger? Was he a young guy Harrison?
Ola: He was a young guy, yeah.
Neil: Good for him.
Ola: He’s right, we don’t want to deal with those kinds of people. If they have … those people who don’t accept their actually missing out in business or personal life because variety is the spice of life. The more you accept in life the more fruits you can reap from it. So yeah, variety is the spice of life. If people don’t accept others for who they are they are potentially going to be missing out.
Ola: On a personal level, my children, have got … my ex-wife if Jewish and my youngest daughter is Norwegian. Christmas time, my children they celebrate Hanukah, the Norwegian Christmas because it’s on a different day, and also English Christmas. They get three sets of Christmas presents and they love it because they’re accepting and their embracing all of these different cultures. There’s me from Africa and accepting the British culture and so on, then you’ve got the Jewish culture, then you’ve got the Norwegian, it’s like, “Well, wow.” It’s great.
Neil: What could be better from a child viewpoint!
Ola: Exactly, yeah.
Neil: Well let’s hope that that continues. Help me in terms of if … because I worry sometimes about the institution of racism. There’s inherent racism in all of us, as you’ve said earlier, but from a Caucasian or a white man’s viewpoint. Is there anything wrong with describe … because I can have different occasions to describe you to other people. You know when I’m meeting someone I don’t know, so we’ve spoken on the phone, I always tell them, “Well, I’m sort of old salt, I’ll be wearing a red carnation, I’ll be sitting in the corner of the hotel and the rest of it and you could go all around the houses trying to describe Ola saying … whereas what you actually need to say is, “He’s a 6’4 black guy and he’ll be the only black guy you’ll see in the hotel.” I mean, how do you feel about being described that way?
Ola: Well, it is what it is.
Ola: Yeah, if that’s what people see. If that’s what …
Neil: Because we try to be politically correct don’t we?
Ola: Yeah but …
Neil: I don’t want to be …
Ola: It’s like some of my Caucasian friends or colleagues they will use the ‘n’ word or whatever, I won’t say it …
Ola: On here but then it’s not what you often say, it’s what you mean.
Ola: Yeah, if you … it’s what you mean. If you don’t mean to be offensive then, if it’s what you mean. If that’s the way to describe me so long as you’re not being derogatory and you don’t use any derogatory terms or people don’t use derogatory terms then that’s fine. I don’t think there’s a problem with that.
Neil: Would the other people that you know of colour or black, how do they tend to feel about being described that way? I mean are you the unusual or are you the norm?
Ola: Well I’m … people don’t mind they accept being called black or West Indian or African or Nigerian or whatever but I just find that when I’m thinking about success or people in business if you have a chip on your shoulder and you want … you let your ethnicity whatever you may be, you may be Polish, you may be Portuguese, we were all foreigners together in terms of our appearance and what have you don’t let that hold you back. If you have a chip then people are not going to warm to you. You need to integrate and forget all of that, that you are any different to anybody else. People only see what you want them to see. If you want them to see something that is indifferent to them because you are portraying that with a negative attitude than that’s what they are going to see and they’re not going to warm to that.
In terms of Afro Caribbean people in business around Norfolk I don’t know … I do know one guy actually just done a job for him and he’s lived in Felthorpe most of his life and he’s moved to Norwich and he’s the same as me, we just have a laugh, we just take the piss, we don’t care about our colour, we don’t … we’re not together because of our ethnicity it’s because we get on as people and that’s it. This is a funny thing about … I’ll let you in on a secret …
Neil: Go on, and another one.
Ola: Here’s another one. You may not … listen for all these people listening to this podcast, if you know any black guys or black men, many black guys in somewhere like Norwich or Norfolk and you … my partner would often would say “Do you know that guy, that black guy over there?” I go, “No.” “Why did he just nod at you?” We have this little kind of nod, we walk down the street and … or we see someone and we just have a little acknowledgement that’s it, you struggling or you’re having a good time I’m just nodding to you that we’re the same here, aren’t we? Little acknowledgement so just … when you’re with me and we see another black guy, see if give each other a little nod.
Neil: So you’re like the masons? Got your own secret codes and funny hand shakes.
Ola: Well we don’t shake hands we just kind of nod like that.
Neil: I’ve never noticed that before.
Ola: No, yeah because it’s …
Neil: I love the way Jordan would say, “Do you know that guy?”, just because he was black. Is that what she meant?
Ola: No because we nod at each other …
Neil: You did a nod.
Ola: We did a nod and she thought, “Hold on, what’s going on there.”
Neil: Don’t know that person.
Ola: Don’t know that person but it doesn’t mean that I’m going to get on or like this person, it’s just a acknowledgement and so on. I think more so it’s people do it as a, “Okay yeah, I’m just acknowledging you, we may be going through the same struggles but I’m just showing some respect here and that’s that.” But from my point of view, I don’t see it as I’m not struggling, I have struggled in life but I’ve learned to be positive and positive discrimination and look at whatever obstacles I’m faced because some may deem me as being of different ethnicity, we’re all the same.
Neil: Yeah, absolutely and the world, in particular, I’ve … when I came to Norwich I was only 11 and then left in the early 20s and didn’t come back until 14 years ago. Actually, it’s ja much more cosmopolitan place, Norwich generally rather than Norfolk. Largely, I guess because of the university and the business parks and the food research and the rest of it dragged all sorts of people from all of the world. We’ve got to be better for that, don’t we? There’s just a nicer feeling.
Ola: There is a nicer feel. I have to be honest, if you go into Thetford, has a bit of a bad reputation.
Ola: But I actually love, I really like Thetford because of the diversity of cultures, it may still be European and Caucasian but a little bit … makes me … people have … knowledge is very good.
Neil: Knowledge is good because not all Europe is actually very tolerant, is it? I know I’ve spoken to you before, when you went to Austria on holiday and it was only a couple days in you suddenly think, “Actually, I haven’t seen any coloured people or black people here at all.” The only people of any different ethnicity were probably Turkish, I would think, there were a fair few of those. I know Germany and Austria … they weren’t tolerant in the slightest which surprised me, I must admit.
Ola: Yeah, I thought about it. I did kind of like … it did put me off going there for a little while and than I’m thinking, actually someone did invite me.
Neil: Did they?
Ola: Austrian guy.
Neil: Well you should still go.
Ola: Yeah. Then … but then I’ve been … it’s been like that for all of my, since I’ve been in the music industry. I’ve travelled across various places in Europe. One of the scariest things I did, was we were touring Germany, in ’89 actually, yeah ’89/’90, we got on this train, me and my ex business partner, my ex wife, as far east as we could and we got off the train. When into this little café and then opened the … went in … opened the door and looked in and I thought, “Oh okay.” Then I looked in and thought, everyone just stopped, it went silent, really.
Ola: I was just, “Right, the only black, African brown people they would have seen would have been in the US military.
Ola: And I’m thinking, “Right, should I … thought we better get back … let’s just get back on the train.” But I’ve travelled through most of Europe, I haven’t been to Russia yet but I don’t know people who have and I think that could be a little bit of a …
Neil: Bit tricky aren’t they?
Ola: They’re a bit tricky with any different culture. That’s a tricky place. But most of … I’ll tell you another story, actually. It was in Estonia. Went to … knew some guys there and some performers … people kept coming up to me and shaking my hand and asking for my signature and I was like, “What the … Why is this? Why do they ask …” “Because they don’t see many black people and they think you’re famous. You must famous because you’re here.”
Neil: You wouldn’t be in Estonia anyway.
Ola: You wouldn’t be in Estonia anyway. “Oh okay.” So there’s that indifference thing again.
Ola: It’s like you might perceive, that might be your perception and you’re like, “Oh, right.” And people might be looking at me funny I thought but then they’re actually, “Who’s he? Is he famous? Is he a rapper?” I was none of that, not talented at all in that respect but it’s just a perception so … I think, all of these things through life has taught me to be positive and use it in a positive way. I don’t think you’ve ever, since you’ve know me, I’ve ever had any kind of issue with saying, “Oh someone so and so because I’m this, that, or the other …”
Neil: No never, you’ve always been a positive person. I think you are full stop but then you’re a great ambassador to try and … especially in an area like Norfolk where there aren’t that many people of different … especially in the rural parts. It’s exactly what the world needs, isn’t it? To say we’re all the same but different but let’s all just get on. From the business point, who cares?
Ola: No, exactly. Who cares? You’ll miss out a whole … you’re missing out if you don’t embrace … you’re missing out on ideas, you’re missing out on more people you could sell to, different markets. The world is a much smaller place, and if you can understand people of difference whether it will be people who have a lot of prejudice more so against you since your appearance in some business beauty as a whole part as a community that you could be embracing that you could be learning from to sell to or to market to and help or whatever else. It’s all about … just embracing it all that you can see.
From my perspective and my experience some people may be a little bit apprehensive in all okay … I think, “Oh okay, this person …” I don’t mean to be, think it out anybody, but sometimes women can be, “I don’t want to be”. So I approach them and I approach them in a gentle manner and just reassure them, “Yeah, we aren’t all rapists or hooligans or whatever I do speak relatively well, I think.” Just make them feel at ease and just be an, as you say, ambassadors for minorities.
Neil: I guess that is as well because, am I right in saying your origins are Nigerian?
Neil: Of course, Nigerians get a bad rap don’t they?
Ola: Yeah, they do and they don’t but then it’s like well then so do other people. I actually take the mickey out of that because I think it’s quite amusing and play on it. So if I ever asked you for your mother’s maiden name and your bank account details. What do you think I’m going to do with those … I may pass them on to my cousin is here … so those emails are starting to come out more and more now. So just watch out if I ask for your mother’s maiden name, okay?
Neil: Very true Ola. Well it’s been a real pleasure talking to you Ola. I hope people have found this interesting and stimulating and what we will do is put Ola’s website details on the podcast text so if people wanted to get in touch with Ola, etc. … this will be one of a series so we’ll develop this as we go along. Thanks so much for listening and until next time.