Jon Daniel, Black politics and me



I’m never normally nervous about giving talks. When I began more than two decades ago I was always nervous as hell. But over time I reasoned that I would only talk about something I knew well, and that gave me the confidence to talk about tackling persistent race inequality and what the solutions might be. But this was different. Discussing the friendship and working relationship with Jon Daniel who sadly passed away was personal.

Therefore, for a whole week building up to last nights’ talk I was very, very anxious.

I’d got to the gallery fairly early so that I could gather my thoughts, and as I walked into where I was supposed give my talk, there was Jon in conversation. My heart raced and a lump came to my throat.

I wondered whether or not I would right there just lose it. But after what was an interminable 5 seconds I just listened to Jon during one of his last TV interviews about his work that was being shown in the gallery: ‘When I was a kid I saw this other kids drawings,’ he said. ‘ I loved it, and just wanted to draw myself. I was obsessed by it. Almost in that moment I knew I wanted a life in the creative world. “

And so in that moment instead of falling apart like a blubbering wreck I smiled, and acutely remembered just how infectious Jon’s enthusiasm was with everything he did.

I began my talk stating that to get a fuller picture of Jon and the enormity of his creative work, you need to understand that in no small measure Jon was instrumental in giving life to Operation Black Vote, and the project that would dramatically put Black politics on the political map.

And not just those important embryonic months when we began, but also over a 20 year period -Jon was there on so many occasions.

I told the gathering of my first encounter with Jon and his then creative partner Trevor Robinson. Word had quickly spread about the OBV activists that were shaking up the political establishment, and a top ad agency BBH had offered OBV 250K worth of advertising nous for free. Furthermore, they also put on the table 25K cash through a sponsorship deal to help the campaign. It was a deal too good to be true, until that is we’d met with Jon and Trevor.

They walked into the room with all the swagger as though they owned the building and turned to Lee Jasper, Derek Hinds and myself and said: ‘This is our gig. This is a Black project and right now it will be best executed by Black creatives who can feel what you feel and help translate that into a dynamic message and the very best results”.

Once their whirlwind presentation was finished, we just looked at each other and said, ‘Deal done guys’, followed by hugs and high-fives all round. The campaign they delivered gave us the lift off we had hoped for but rarely expected.

For the first time in British political history politicians were talking about the BME electorate, not as they used to, in the negative, but in the very positive. Daniels’ campaign, along with the data focused the politicians mind to see that there could be a political price to pay for rubbishing BME communities. The political establishment recognised this, and the leaders started to talk up BME communities.

During the evening last night I was able to recount many wonderful stories about our work with Jon, from our many collaborations with Rev. Jesse Jackson, who just last week in Washington DC spoke about his condolence after hearing that Jon was no longer with us, to organising the stylist for the superstar Desire to fly over for the shoot she was doing with us for the mayoral elections. I spoke for more than an hour and a half, and could have gone on for at least another hour. I was enjoying myself sharing those moments in which ideas became reality and reality changed minds.

Afterwards Jon’s mother called me aside, held my hand and thanked me for sharing so many ‘lovely tales’. Then she told me: ‘Jon really loved the work he did with you Simon and I know that first-hand’, she said. ‘One day I’d just come back from Barbados, and Jon picked me up from the airport and told me that I have to come to work with him. Low and behold’ she continued, ‘that work was sitting in an OBV van travelling around London with a loudspeaker registering Black people to vote’. I nearly died laughing. ‘I remember that campaign’, I told her. But I’d forgotten you were in that old rickety van for 5 hours or more listening to Lee Jasper and myself shouting through load hailers about why we should register to vote.’

It was a wonderful evening, one that allowed me to lay bare the wonderful humility, creativity and the decency of my dear friend Jon Daniel.

Thank you to Jane, Jon’s wife, the Gallery and the Arts Council for recognising the impact that Jon has made in British creative space. The exhibition covers a range of Jon’s work from the Supa Heroes to Black icons in stamps, and his work with the NHS.

But it is his work with us in OBV that will ensure that Jons’ name will be writ large in the story of the Black British civil rights movement.

Simon Woolley