It’s almost midday. In front of me are 5 old fishbowl TV sets, one of which is playing Martin Luther King Jr’s seminal I have a dream speech. People watch more or less fleetingly as they pass through the wide corridor, between rooms containing arrays of contemporary art from around the world. Each screen takes a turn at illuminating a different visionary, Malcolm X and James Baldwin to name but a couple. The words are powerful, but my attention is broken by the buzz of my phone. I look at the message: “I’m in the Zeid show in the new building. Wait there, I’ll come to you.”
Ahead of her appearance at The Warehouse Project this November, I’d been given the chance to have a chat with Jane Fitz. She’s someone I’d wanted to talk to for a while now, a seemingly mysterious figure in London’s underground scene; ever-present yet enigmatic, capable of flawlessly winding together any number of styles. For someone who’s been part of the scene for so long, it’s unsurprising. Interviews at coffee shops seem too standard, whilst those ‘going for a dig with a DJ’ types were surely, in my mind, ten a penny. I’d wanted to do something with some sort of link to music, but spare the obvious. She’d agreed to meet me at the Tate Modern, to view the landmark Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power exhibition, one that documented the vital contribution of Black artists to a dramatic period in American art, music, and history.
The show opens at the height of the Civil Rights movement. In 1963, the Spiral group formed in New York, a collective of African-American artists initially consisting of Romare Bearden, Charles Alston, Norman Lewis, and Hale Woodruff, to discuss their position in American Society. Across one wall hang several of Bearden’s collages from the era, amongst others his bustling The Street, a vibrant depiction of daily life in Harlem, a scene typical of his early Projections series, a collection of collages made from newspaper and magazine clippings, photographs, and paint.
Scanning the works for clues, Jane breaks our silence. “Where were these on show? I'd be curious to know where they were showing really… D'ya know what it is? It's my journalist’s head.” We talk about her earlier career working in journalism, television, and teaching, which she tells me was very much ‘what she did’ for many years, music being something she did on the side. Only recently has she been able to make a living solely off playing out, and even now she’s still working the odd sub-editing shift to help out her friends, although this seems to be purely out of choice, rather than necessity. There’s a sense of kinship to the way she describes working or collaborating with others, which will later turn out to be a recurring theme throughout our conversations.
“It's like I've been slowly battling my way into people's consciousness really… There was never any big impact, I was just… one of those people other people found out about, rather than somebody announcing themselves on the scene with a big record, a big label, or a collaboration, do you know what I mean?”
Staring at the mostly monochromatic collages depicting a time and a place from which we’re both far removed, we question the context of such work, discussing the ideas of how and where such art would have been exhibited given the period in which it was produced. “I’m a journalist, so I’ve got loads of questions.” she trails off, laughing. We both agree our knowledge around the show’s wider themes is pretty basic, but before we’re even done with the first room she’s given me a detailed description of The Night James Brown Saved Boston, a documentary centring around the time of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination.
“To transcend the ‘I’ or ‘me’ for the ‘us’ or ‘we’ ” was the guiding philosophy behind AfriCOBRA, the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists, whose paintings hang in one the exhibition’s subsequent rooms. One could argue that such a philosophy was reflective of the ideas underpinning club culture as it first developed. “I think, for me, people noticed I started getting steadily busier before I did. It’s been a 10-year journey; the first time I played overseas was 2002, and that was in Split, Croatia. Before that I was doing parties of my own, Peg, a warehouse party in East London before people did warehouse parties in East London…” Jane explains. “I stopped that when everybody started coming to East London, around 2008/2009.” After that, it all becomes a lot simpler, she tells me. A number of years spent gradually playing out more and more, and an RA podcast mid-2015, at which point things exploded.
I remark that it’s pretty great someone can have an interest for so long that turns into a new career in its own right. She tells me she feels she’s been really lucky, but she’s certain there’s also the elements of right place, right time, probably making some correct decisions and, ultimately, playing the long game. “A lot of women my age are opening florists, or seeing their eldest go off to university… But I know so many DJs in my peer group, my age as well, that it's not that unusual. It could easily have been them; they’re all just as talented… I think it's easy to be young, but there's plenty of people who are in their 40s doing this job. It's like golf isn't it, you can do it at any age!”
In front of us hangs Liberation Soldiers by Wadsworth Jarrell, a vivid, bright acrylic depiction of some of the founding members of the Black Panther Party. Immediately striking is the figure standing behind Bobby Seale, whose eyes are masked by silver foil sunglasses. The painting follows the group aesthetic of “ ‘rhythm’, ‘shine... the rich lustre of a just-washed ‘fro...’ ”, And “Colour colour colour colour that shines, colour that is free of rules and regulations.” Less immediate, but equally striking, is the hidden lettering weaving messages through the painting. “This one's quite metallic, it's like an updated Klimt…” Jane remarks.
The further we progress through the exhibition, the further off brief our conversation becomes until we’re simply talking like old mates catching up. The next room concerned East Coast Abstraction, and I was immediately drawn to Trane, a large acrylic painting comprising sharp, intersecting lines. William T. Williams started making ‘hard-edged’ abstract paintings whilst studying at Yale and pointed to improvised jazz as a source of inspiration, music he saw as abstract in itself. “It's interesting that the only abstract artists you really know about from that time, that were particularly prominent, were white artists. Were there any black artists producing the same kinda bodies of work, or were of equal stature? Or were they just completely abandoned and overlooked?” Jane asks.
We discuss power dynamics in art, and I get schooled; I ask what we have now that’s representative of our time in the art world, and instantly get a lecture in how Damien Hirst clearly represents everything commercial or mass marketed about art today. Conscious of the fact we’re now, effectively, just visiting an exhibition together, I ask about her quarterly residency at The Pickle Factory, a series of nights she’s curated with the idea of ‘doing something different’ to the usual notion of a night out. “I mean, my thing with that is, this is my living room, and I'm just going to invite the people that I want to play. That was the whole idea of that. They really were like ‘this is your budget, do what you want, we trust you.’ I got freedom, so for me, that was brilliant. I booked everybody, basically. I booked everybody I wanted.”
I’m amazed by the warmth, depth, and excitement with which she talks about the artists she’s got involved, ranging from Carl_h with whom she played back-to-back on her third night (“He has basically singlehandedly started a scene in Cleethorpes, it’s unbelievable, it’s amazing.”), to Simone Salvatici who performed a gong meditation at the start of her first night (“I tell you what, it was so nice that people came in, they sat down, they turned their phones off, that's pretty rare isn't it. I've never seen that.”) She tells me it’s all about connecting the dots, something that only becomes clear later when I email her to follow up from the latest of the nights she's curated, the progression being ‘warm-up’, ‘getting excitable’, ‘gloves off, going in’, and finally, later this year, a ‘reevaluation and homecoming’.
The thought behind it strikes me as pretty unique, and it mirrors the sentiment of her response to our earlier discussion of the sense of community within the scene, “In a way, it shows you how small it is, people that like what you like. It's actually quite a small amount of people.” I remark how she’s got a space entirely at her disposal, and how it must be a dream, something with which she is in full agreement. “I couldn't be any more local to my local club so yeah, I do like it.”
Roy DeCarava was one of the first black American photographers to carve out a successful career as an artist, chronicling daily life during the 1960s around his neighbourhood, Harlem, and the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. “You should be able to look at me and see my work. You should be able to look at my work and see me.” A wall of deep black and white compositions illuminates a dizzying ensemble of jazz musicians, candid street scenes, and striking portraiture.
“It’s pure reportage… You don’t have to attach anything to any of that, it was just unfolding, it was just happening at the time. It’s interesting that he wasn’t just ‘doing the news’, he was just kinda... creating…” Again, I feel this is the journalist in her talking, and for a while, we discuss the idea that this sort of work was just as important as the political movement it worked through; it gave visibility by functioning as nothing but itself.
“I think when you've got everything you become distracted, and when you haven't that's when you become exposed, and you become informed, and you come alive. If there's nothing else, you start to take note of your surroundings a lot more. You start to represent it, or you start to express yourself more because there's nothing else in the way. I think it must be hard to really... I think anybody that has any money, now, and has everything they need, I think to create anything within that level of being comfortable is actually hard, because you're not rubbing up against something, you're not filling your own void, you've already filled it. If everything's filling it around you, you must, rather, react against it… You make the best with what you’ve got.”
Across the terrace sit two lone red and white striped deckchairs. Not too far away The Shard stretches into the sky, as the back streets of London Bridge buzz with activity. Naturally, I’m drawn to the deck chairs, and it appears Jane is too. We’re at the end of our allotted time; she has a meeting to attend later that afternoon at The Pickle Factory and needs to head off soon. I’m still struck by the DeCarava photos, and the idea of creativity being mobilised, even if it is just by observing your own, natural environment. I felt it drew some parallels to London’s burgeoning radio scene, giving a voice to young people that might not have other creative outlets and, in turn, helping develop new scenes and new genres. I wanted to get Jane’s views on this; she’d seen the evolution of pirate stations to wide-reaching online platforms first-hand. Recently she’d even held down a morning residency on Rinse FM. She explains that radio’s been a part of her life throughout; and for the best part of a decade, she had a show on the underground online station My House Your House. I ask about what function she feels radio, nowadays, serves. She explains the immediacy you get with radio, and the opportunity it provides to interact. In her mind, Rinse FM sat on the FM dial, so it was a really pleasant surprise when people as far away as Israel and Amsterdam wanted to talk about the shows she’s done when she was recently playing out there.
“I think radio is pretty healthy in London at the minute. I remember internet radio coming along in about '99, and I think it's taken until now, so that's a good 15 years at least, to really find a proper personality, a proper niche, and to be taken seriously. The number of homes I go into where you go in, and rather people putting on the TV in the background they'll have NTS playing off their computer. I see that a lot now. It's a voice, and it's a meeting point. Now it's a community meeting point too, it’s just that it’s online.”
Later we sit in the Members Bar, located on the 5th floor of the main Bankside Power Station building, overlooking St Paul’s and the River Thames. Around us people sit eating, drinking, and talking, a quiet hum filling the air, which is occasionally broken by the sporadic clatter of crockery. Again, we go back to her progression as a DJ; I’m captivated by the way in which she’s carved out a life separate to music yet has, seemingly inadvertently, carved out a new career from what was something that was ‘just always there’. It’s the long game.
“...It's interesting, because I am very conscious of the fact I'm somebody that people discover, and then they're like 'Oh, you've been around for ages, I didn't realise that', and they really feel bad about it... But, I'm like, 'Don't feel bad about it! I never shouted about it.' “
Jane Fitz plays Feel My Bicep at The Warehouse Project on Saturday 18th November. Find out more HERE.
Photo Credits: Vicki Couchman / Radion Amsterdam / Jane Fitz / The Pickle Factory