In this paper, I aim to take advantage of the capaciousness of Henri Lefebvre’s theory ‘right to the city’ (RTC) in attempt to bring attention to, and “unify the struggles of various marginalised groups around a common rallying cry” (Mitchell & Haynen, 2009). Black women currently have a highly contested right to the city; “we can’t win a right to the city unless Black Lives Matter” (Burton, 2017), it is through organisations and movements such as #BLM and street art, which establishes their right to occupy urban space. I intend to bring together urbanisation, feminist and Marxist theory as an insightful way to reveal how capitalism is eroding cities that “were once useful places that combined functions effectively” (Hubbard, 2017), marginalise certain members and promote injustice. The ‘right to the city’ notion shifts this capitalist city into an inclusive and accessible urban space.
It was clear through my research that even though progressive urban scholars embrace the idea of the right to the city, many have neglected the relevant gender and racial dimension of enquiry, and therefore, I will be focusing this case study on the unequal gender and racial dynamics of the city. I hope this paper accurately and respectfully presents the struggles Black women face in the city and, stresses the importance of representation by those such as Neequaye Dsane. To note, for the purpose of this essay, a black woman is someone who self-identifies as being of African descent, including but not limited to African, African American, and Black Caribbean and, who also self-identifies their gender as female (Gollnick & Chinn, 2013).
Right to the City
The ‘right to the city’ concept derives from the writings of French Marxist Henri Lefebvre; whose work presents a radical and revolutionary vision to transform the capitalist city through a process of movements and encounters (Purcell, 2014). Lefebvre argues, the RTC is a “transformed and renewed right to urban life” (Lefebvre, 1996), and “to claim the right to the city is to claim shaping power over the processes of urbanisation, over the ways in which our cities are made and remade, and to do so in a fundamental way” (Harvey, 2013) Cities can be viewed as spaces of resistance and transgression (Hubbard, 2017), spaces “where differences encounter, acknowledge and explore one another” (Schmid, 2012). Cities are also viewed as a “creative product of everyday life of its inhabitants” (Attoh, 2011) and, capitalism which gives rise to social, economic and political injustice, the RTC theory has become a valued movement for social equality and justice, bringing awareness to issues and helping establish rights. Furthermore, current cities thrive of capitalism and ‘exchange value’ which tend to “subordinate the city and urban reality” (Lefebvre, 2006), and also ‘subordinates’ Black women too, underrepresenting them in favour of a white-male view of the world. It is only through a ‘cry and demand’ that brings attention to ones’ right to occupy and transform urban space.
A ‘cry and demand’
Lefebvre’s theory is seen as a cry and demand, “a cry for necessity and a demand for something more”, coming from those directly in need, oppressed and marginalised (Marcuse, 2009). The demand ensures change, gives a voice to the voiceless of which is echoed through activist movements. The ‘cry’ effectively serves to unite the struggles of Black women around a common cry: “we can’t win a right to the city unless Black Lives Matter” (Burton, 2017). A united-ness and collective demand for justice presents people’s desire for their rights, formulated well by Harvey (2003) using Robert Park’s phrase: ‘the city of heart’s desire’, where citizens pursue what is desired, a city where needs and demands of the alienated are met.
Lefebvre does not view the ‘right’ as an individual liberty or democratic right, instead “is an element of a wider political struggle for revolution”, a struggle for urban space and a ‘revolution’ to take back the city. It’s an opportunity to distinguish the ‘city’ from ‘urban space’, and to erode capitalism and exchange value through a process of moments and encounter, “to claim shaping power over the processes of urbanisation…the ways cities are made and remade…in a fundamental way” (Harvey, 2013). The ‘urban’ is a place of encounter.
Notion of encounter
Although Merrifield (2011) has understood the notion of the ‘encounter’ as a method to ‘overcome the inertia of mass powerlessness’, my aim here is to not classify Black women as powerless, but voiceless. The process of urbanisation is ‘formless’, as it is the drama of the encounter, and urban is “the site where we encounter the drama of the counter itself” (Merrifield, 2011). The site of urban protest or activism is an expression of political discourse and, creates space where individuals encounter each other and discover themselves. ‘Encounter’ moves Lefebvre’s concept away from individual liberty and towards a collective one, seen through movements such as Black Lives Matter (Kipfer et al. 2012). There is an importance for a collective demeanour in cities, as urban changes inevitably depend on the exercise of collective power over the process of urbanism (Harvey, 2003).
Black Women & #BlackLivesMatter
In classical Marxist fashion, Lefebvre prioritises the working class; this demotes the significance of challenging the patriarchal and racist city (Watt, 2017). However, urban scholars such as Fenster (2005) and Buckingham (2010) argue that the right to the city has had “little scrutiny from a feminist perspective”. It is clear that throughout history, Black women have long struggled for their right to the city, within greater London over 13% of the population identify as Black (Census, 2017), but still struggle to oppose stereotypes, exacerbated by constant media coverage of Black violence, demonising the community. It is clear that the Black narrative is difficult to overcome. Furthermore, a capitalist society has ‘serious implications for low-income African Americans and single head-of-household women in the inner cities’ argues Harvey, many of this 13% will be rendered homeless, vandalised and wrecked by predatory lending practices of financial institutions (Harvey, 2003).
Many scholars have tended to group Black women into generalised categories that have them being oppressed and dominated (Collins, 1989), or engaging their experience collectively with the Black mans or the white woman’s (Crenshaw, 1989). Although it would be simple to advocate for ‘lived spaces’ (Lefebvre, 1991), where peoples experience is not based on race or gender, but because we are human, this is not possible. Hence, Black women are consistently being marginalised in urban literature and society. Collins (1989) revolutionised Black Feminist Thought (BFT) theory, aiming to bring awareness of the Black women’s collective experience, to Black women’s issues, and the importance of their representation in society.
Movements such as Black Lives Matter (BLM) has been effective in providing a collective voice to those silenced by society (Garza, 2017), #BlackLivesMatter was tweeted over 12 million times in 2016 (Sichynsky, 2016). However, I argue this movement perpetuates the notion of the ‘angry black woman’, as one Google search of BLM reveals the violence (perhaps necessary) in their protests. I instead present a case of where street artists such as Dreph are reclaiming the Black women’s right to the city.
Reclaiming the city through street art
In an essentialist way, Lefebvre presents the importance of a creative city, “the city is itself oeuvre” (Lefebvre, 1996). Graffiti, street art and murals are effective modes of representation, a ubiquitous juxtaposition that challenges capitalist norms of privatised and commodified space. It gives a voice to the voiceless and provides alternative ways of viewing contested political and social issues. Arguably, graffiti and street art are “meaningful acts of colonialism and inhabitation” (Zieleniec, 2016), which promote use value, appropriate the city and represent a ‘cry and demand’.
Neequaye Dsane, artistically known as Dreph, has played an invaluable role in representing Black women in London through painting murals of “inspirational” Black women to bring attention to the importance of Black female empowerment. Here, Dreph celebrates those, he argues, who are not given the visibility they deserve (Simpson, 2017), and aims to bring the attention away from the celebrity face towards the of ordinary everyday Black women who need support in establishing their right to the city. Dreph has represented Lefebvre’s desire to appropriate and use space in everyday life.
“Ordinary women who do extraordinary things” – Dreph (Simpson, 2017)
Figure 2: “For over 26 years she has quietly influenced change within the UK education system helping staff and students achieve excellence in schools facing significant challenges” – Dreph (Somerleyton Rd, Brixton, London SW9) (Simpson, 2017)
Figure 3: “She is an influencer. When I first met Mimi, what stuck with me was her youthful energy, free spirit and outlandish style.” – Dreph (Southey St, Penge SE20 7JD) (Simpson, 2017)
Figure 4: “Leyla is a psychotherapist specialising in supporting survivors of sexual abuse. She is a leading international campaigner on female genital mutilation (FGM) and her passion is to empower women and girls.” – Dreph (Wardour St, Soho, London W1F 8WG) (Simpson, 2017)
Understanding street art regarding right to the city
Urban city life is the “confrontation of difference” (Schmid, 2012), and is a place of danger and pleasure. However, dangers are being lost through exchange value regulating urban life. Through the media and politics, we are perpetuated with the idea of ‘otherness’, when we should be embracing and normalising. Street art challenges this; it provides an alternative way of seeing and communicating Black women’s issues, the urban and everyday life. Unlike architects, urban designers or advertisers who seek to establish order, as well as commodify representation, Dreph has brought Black women representation to all and, has quite literally embodied ‘creative colonialism of public space’ (Lefebvre, 1996). He has also established the use value of space, a lived experience and collectiveness of the Black Women’s community in London. It only through street art that Dreph has been able to appropriate urban space.
Furthermore, his work supports Harvey’s claim that “social spaces of distraction and display become vital to urban culture as the spaces of the working and living” (Harvey, 1985). Street art can appropriate space through reimaging conflict and challenge the dominant political discourse. It confronts and in Lefebvrian terms, intervenes and engages with urban space in a way in which lived space is ‘literally, figuratively and artistically created’ (Zieleniec, 2016). Dreph has created socially meaningful space through reprioritisation use values over exchange values. He artistically presents a ‘right to the city’ by ‘writing the city’ (Zieleniec, 2016). Dreph has given a voice to the community of Black women in London and acknowledged those who live in the city, but, are too often overlooked and ignored.
The right to the city is a necessary part of moving towards a more urban future. It is a movement that becomes a reality when citizens reclaim urban spaces, assert use value over exchange value and, promote encounter and appropriation of traditionally privatised and commodified urban spaces. This essay has presented the artistic role of Dreph as appropriating urban space and reclaiming the Black women’s right to the city. It is through the ‘right to the city’ movements, organisations and representations that we can understand space, its rhythms and people (Lefebvre, 2015), but also the obstacles that need to be overcome (Purcell, 2014). It is through understanding what Robert Park phrases ‘the city of heart’s desires’, we can respond to the ‘cry and demand’ of the alienates and ‘remake’ the city for what it should be (Lefebvre, 1996).