“I Turned My Grandparents’ Interracial Love Story Into Music”: BEKA On Legacy, Identity & EP Your Skin

Photo by Sebastian Cyrus.
"I've really been exploring me, where I come from and how I came about," says BEKA, beaming over Zoom, all vibrant in her trademark red lip. "It felt important to put down in words this kind of deep revelation that I was having." The deepest of these revelations form part of the singer-songwriter's self-penned EP Your Skin, a collection of atmospheric, hope-filled pop, exploring themes of legacy and identity, beauty and self-confidence. We meet just before the EP’s release, during rehearsals with her band and before she joins electronic music duo HONNE on their world tour. BEKA is, as she puts it, "ecstatic". After a string of standout performances supporting acts like Laura Mvula and Griff, she’s more than ready to share the music she describes as a "magic, medicinal thing" that allowed her to heal.
"'Your Skin', the title track of the EP, started as a guttural response to thinking about my hair," she tells me, "wondering how I’d be perceived if I rocked the styles I wear at home [in public]. I started to see how little I gave myself permission to wear these looks out because I rarely saw them on women around me." Like many Black and mixed-race women, BEKA’s journey to grappling with her own identity and, specifically, Blackness started with examining her relationship with her natural hair. BEKA describes all too familiar scenarios of walking into corporate or all-white settings – "Wearing my space buns!" – and questioning (or rather doubting) how she would be received. Until recently, she admits, these were feelings she "pushed down". "I think especially as a woman of colour, you just have to deal with these weird microaggressions and you don't fully deep them. At that point, I really had to think about my identity as a woman and my identity as a brand. At the time, the world was working out its identity so it was a song that just kind of bubbled up out of me."
Originally from Nottingham — considered the 'mixed-race capital' of the UK, given it has a larger than average mixed-race population than the country as a whole — and with two Black mixed-race parents, BEKA has had an interesting relationship with race and self-acceptance. "I have a bit of a strange experience where both my parents are mixed race, which is quite a rare thing," she explains. "On my mum's side, she has a British parent and West Indian parent and then on my dad's side, he is Nigerian and has a British parent. But he was adopted into a British family. So from being quite young, I had this feeling of like, the world is very big." BEKA explored her Blackness through her Caribbean heritage – "Mum was just really big on bringing it into our lives" – and her exposure to other mixed-race families in her community. "I think that was quite an empowering thing for me because as a child, I didn't spend a lot of time feeling out of it," she says.
Yet it wasn't until 2020, as the Black Lives Matter movement surged, that BEKA felt compelled to reflect on her history, which would lead her up her family tree to her grandparents. "I felt a bit exposed and started thinking about my heritage and all those unassuming moments that happened to get me here," she explains. "Thinking about my grandad in St Vincent and the Grenadines, realising he wanted to become a doctor at age 7, walking to school barefoot and winning scholarships to study in the UK."

As I've become a woman, [my grandparents' story] has blown my mind even more as I go through these different stages of my life.

BEKA’s grandfather, Cecil Cyrus, moved to North Yorkshire in the 1960s, a time when many Windrush migrants were heading to London. Winning a scholarship to study medicine in York, he met a woman on his ward – a white, Yorkshire woman named Kathryn – who he would eventually marry. "They meet and fall in love," says BEKA. "My granddad describes her as this bossy nurse and whenever he says that she just rolls her eyes and says: 'I wasn't bossy, you asked me a question and I answered it.' But she is just this tenacious woman from North Yorkshire who fell in love with a Black man — one of the only Black people in York."
"We're talking Yorkshire, which is still nuts now," she stresses, wide-eyed. As someone whose own grandparents moved from Barbados and Antigua to Manchester in the '50s and '60s, I nod along knowingly. Our ancestors were among thousands of people from Commonwealth Caribbean islands such as Jamaica and Grenada who took up the British government’s offer to come to the country as "citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies". Those who settled in the north of the UK faced great adversity and racism and while interracial relationships certainly happened, they were taboo. It’s what makes BEKA’s grandparents’ story even more intriguing.
"They fall in love and their families allow them to be together and they have my mum," BEKA says. "My grandmother has her appendix out with a 5-week-old baby," she continues. "She says goodbye to her entire family of eight siblings and her parents to get on a boat to go to the tropics for the first time, knowing she'll not see her family for years…with a newborn baby, as an interracial couple, in the '60s," she stresses in disbelief. "They land on St Vincent and the Grenadines [and] they then start this NHS for the island to facilitate people to have the healthcare that they deserve."
"As I've become a woman, [my grandparents' story] has blown my mind even more as I go through these different stages of my life," she says, laughing. "I’m like, Grandma, what is just like a basic bitch thing to you is mind-blowing to me. Four kids under 5 – like, what? Crazy!" BEKA’s grandparents still live in St Vincent – "My grandmother still has an Earl Grey every day at 4pm in a china teacup" – and in 2019 her grandfather was knighted for his services to the NHS. Their love story became the inspiration for BEKA’s single "Don’t Call Me A Friend". The track, which is about having the courage to live your truth in the face of negativity, sculpts the tone of the entire EP. 
"[When writing 'Don’t Call Me A Friend'] I was kind of experiencing something similar to what my grandparents would have experienced when they were coming together… Having people who just weren't willing to be allies, people who just didn't want to understand and didn't want to talk about it. And so when I was writing this song, I was feeling super vulnerable… I think it was that feeling of like, don’t call me a friend if you're not willing to sit with yourself and with the things I'm trying to say."

It was almost a bit of a charge to myself of: 'How dare you want to hide things about yourself when it took so much for those human beings to come together?'

Amid all these revelations about identity, allyship and race, I wonder what BEKA learned about herself?
"I think the journey of looking at yourself can go two ways, can’t it? You can either spiral down and have a load of self-hate or you can journey to a bit of self-love," she explains. "As I started to think about writing [the song] 'Your Skin', I was writing all the things I wish had been said to me as a young woman. I then started to think about the universal side of [self-love] and about my personal heritage and it was just an immense joy that definitely kind of snowballed into just thinking about where I come from. It was almost a bit of a charge to myself of: 'How dare you want to hide things about yourself when it took so much for those human beings to come together?' The people who made your parents, who made you…"
For BEKA, the lasting impact of her new music and the reflections that came before it is feeling more liberated to be and say what she wants. "There's nothing quite like liberation," she says, smiling. "That’s what I really want to explore this year for myself. What does it look like to be more liberated in my shows and in my music and in what I say and in what I wear? Because I think liberation is a contagious thing. I like being around people who are freer than me because you catch it, don't you?" 
Your Skin EP is out now.

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