Sun | Dec 4, 2016

Black hero Flip Fraser joins the hall of fame

Published:Sunday | September 7, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Flip Fraser
Fom left: Fraser, Val McCalla, and Deputy Editor Sharon Ali.
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Elizabeth Pears, Voice Reporter

FLIP FRASER, the man who made history as the first editor of Britain's largest black newspaper, The Voice, passed away last week following a long-term illness. He was 62.

Born Peter Fraser in Kingston, Jamaica, the media pioneer was also the visionary behind iconic stage productions such as Caribana and, most famously, Black Heroes in the Hall of Fame.

The show - an epic 5,000-year black musical history lesson that showcased up to 75 icons, from African kings and queens to thinkers such as Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey - was described by co-producer, JD Douglas, as one of the most significant cultural contributions to black Britain.

It was groundbreaking simply because there was nothing like it of its kind in the UK at the time, filling audiences with pride while entertaining them at the same time.

As one fond tribute stated: "I walked out of the theatre with my head held higher, my pride clung to me like a second skin ... thanks for the memories and for the validation of my blackness in a sea of misunderstood stories about my heroic ancestors."

Over the past few months, Fraser had displayed a positive attitude towards his illness, sharing images of himself being treated in hospital. His brother Paul was by his bedside at St Thomas' Hospital in London when he died, as was his devoted wife Joyce, who told The Voice he had a peaceful death.

Charismatic

A charismatic character, Fraser - widely known by his childhood nickname Flip - was also known for his passion for reggae music. Over the course of his impressive career, he worked with acts such as Delroy Washington, Maxi Priest, Sly and Robbie and Musical Youth, to name a few.

Fraser, a star pupil who had won a scholarship to the prestigious Jamaica College in Jamaica, moved to the UK aged 16 when his father was posted to the Jamaican High Commission in London.

He later enrolled at Bradford University where he studied chemistry, but developed allergies to the chemicals and dropped out. Fraser then started working in the music industry with British record label Trojan and later fell in love with the media side of things.

He went on to study media and journalism at Tennesse State University in the United States - a state-funded historically black college - and graduated in the same class as Oprah Winfrey. Fraser championed undiscovered talent, giving them a platform through events he would organise and his columns for West Indian World, Sounds magazine and Arif Ali's Caribbean Times - where he was music and entertainment editor - and West Indian Digest. He also established the Search for a Star talent competition which enjoyed huge community support.

Headhunted

In 1982, the well-respected journalist was headhunted by the founder of The Voice, the late Val McCalla, to be the first editor of the paper - one that, unlike its predecessors, would appeal to a new generation of black Britons.

After leaving the paper, he joined Camden Council as special projects, arts and entertainment officer, where he met and worked under the supervision of Douglas.

Douglas recalled: "I gave Gale Jn-Baptist (Fraser's then girlfriend) an application form, but Flip never applied. Just before the deadline, I called her and said her boyfriend had not got in touch. She was quite angry. At the very last moment, we got Flip's application and we were able to squeeze him in at the end of the interviews.

"This guy walks in, almost floating on air. He was in a short-sleeved shirt, no tie or anything. My boss told me I had to decide who to give this job to because I'd be working closely with them. I chose Flip.

"His application was late, he was not looking the right way but he had more ideas than all the others put together. He reeled off six ideas then and there and I thought, yes, I can work with this person. He was a man of vision."

It would prove to be a historic meeting. The following year the pair - alongside collaborator Khareem Jamal who did the music - staged Black Heroes.

The show made its debut at the Shaw Theatre in 1987 and its original cast members included the late lover's rock singer Jean Adebambo, actor and musician Count Prince Miller, reggae maestro Lloyd Brown and celebrated actor Fraser James, who played Malcolm X.

Douglas recalled: "The theatre told us we would never be able to make four nights and cancelled the Sunday show. By the second day, it had sold out. He came back begging for us to keep going."

The show toured America and one of its biggest fans was Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan who invited Fraser, Douglas and others for a meal at his home, served with solid gold cutlery.

But Fraser could also be a divisive character and had many run-ins with colleagues over the course of his career.

"One day Flip told me he wanted to put on a reggae show," recalled Douglas with a laugh. "I thought he would be doing it in a community hall somewhere and later he gave me a document to sign. It was a contract at a theatre in Hampstead.

"A reggae group in Hampstead? In those days? The neighbours would have been trembling. But that was Flip. He was a proud Jamaican who dared to go beyond what was expected. He was a bit of an outlaw and didn't care for authority; a maverick but very charming. He was no angel and no saint but the good he did far outweighed the bad."

Douglas continued: "He took young people from the hood and put them on the stage. He gave so many opportunities to so many people and that legacy will never be forgotten. The last conversation we had was about putting on a show. Flip died the way he lived: thinking about the arts."