The Magid touch
Since he was inaugurated to the Imperial March from Star Wars Sheffield’s lord mayor Magid Magid has done things differently
Since he was inaugurated to the Imperial March from Star Wars Sheffield’s lord mayor Magid Magid has done things differently
One of Sheffield lord mayor Magid Magid’s 10 commandments is “Do epic sh*t” – his asterisk. He practises what he preaches. Since his inauguration photo went viral in May – Magid looked more rap star than mayoral, crouching atop a column in the town hall wearing his 18-carat gold chain – he’s become a worldwide celebrity.
“How can I not use my position to speak out? As far as I’m concerned, remaining silent is siding with the oppressor.”
Magid was 28 when he became the Steel City’s youngest ever lord mayor – its 122nd. He’s also the first person of Somali origin and the first Green councillor to hold the year-long ceremonial role. Looking around at the room of “dull and crap” commemorative pictures, he dismissed the photographer who had been employed for 40 years, brought in his own and “waited until nobody was looking because it’s a health and safety risk”, before perching on the pillar. “I knew that picture would outlive me,” he reflects. “I wanted something that says: I’ve arrived and am going to do things differently. Now when I walk into classes in primary schools, the kids are squatting on the tables waiting for me.”
When he again made global headlines over summer by “banning” Donald Trump from the city (despite not having the power to do so), donning a sombrero and a “Trump Is A Wasteman” t-shirt to declare Mexico Solidarity Day, local bars and restaurants joined in by offering free tequila shots and tacos. Posters bearing the slogan sprang up in London. George Takei, aka Star Trek’s Sulu, hailed him as a “hero”, and fellow sci-fi legend Mark Hamill liked the post. “Luke Skywalker!” exclaims Magid at the mention of his name. “I was like: ‘What the heck?’ Because during my inauguration for lord mayor, I entered the chamber to the Imperial March from Star Wars.”
Over breakfast in a café near the town hall, he looks equally unconventional: instead of a suit, he’s wearing a hoodie and baseball cap. He’s charismatic and a passionate circus barker for the virtues of the city he adores. With a background in digital media, I’d presumed he’d designed his stunts to go viral. Having met him, I don’t think he’s that calculated. It’s more that he lacks a filter – which frequently lands him in trouble.
For all those who have applauded him for modernising a position that many view as now archaic and outdated, complaints have abounded that he is making a mockery of the office. At the end of November Sheffield Council attempted to rein in his renegade behaviour by imposing the first ever mayoral code of conduct in its 150 year history. A report by a scrutiny committee, requested by council leader Julie Dore, suggests a lord mayor should “respect tradition” and “remain non-political”.
“People say: ‘You shouldn’t be political,’” he shrugs. “They say I shouldn’t rock the boat and I should stick to the status quo. But I haven’t got the privilege of not being political. I’m a black, Muslim immigrant – there’s so many issues. How can I not use my position to speak out against it? As far as I’m concerned, remaining silent is siding with the oppressor. If I see injustice, I’m going to speak about it. People would rather I just shut up and don’t do anything, which is bizarre.”
He dismisses much of the criticism as “racist bullshit”. A letter in the local paper he’s saved for posterity claimed the lord mayor should be someone from white descent. “I’ve had emails, letters, people have shouted abuse as they’re driving past. I even got a death threat – but that’s not going to stop me from being me.”
He says Brexit has prised apart the fissures running through Sheffield, which voted 51 per cent to leave. “It’s been shocking at times how divided we are. Those who held racist views have been legitimised by Trump and Boris Johnson – and all the far-right and anti-immigration rhetoric that’s been pumped out around Brexit. Look at hate crimes, which have risen massively.”
He’s impulsive and did not know he would “do the Donald Trump thing until three days before”. He cites Trump’s Muslim ban, withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement, moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem and “defending white supremacists” among his reasons.
“Look at the rise of Britain First and the EDL here,” he argues. “When you’ve got someone like him as world leader who spouts so much hatred, the far right here have said: ‘Do you know what? We’re not crazy.’”
Republican congressmen and the alt-right targeted Magid and some of his fellow councillors thought it was giving the city a bad name. “But the irony is more people than ever have now even heard of Sheffield because of it,” he notes, unperturbed.
He’s earned praise from unlikely quarters – Jacob Rees-Mogg applauded his appointment as a good news story about somebody who had pulled himself up by his Doc Marten-bootstraps.
Magid was five when he escaped war-torn Somalia with his mother and elder sister, spending six months in an Ethiopian refugee camp, before arriving in Sheffield, unable to speak the language. He and his sister adapted – and picked up English – swiftly.
“But my mother had a completely different experience because she had to raise children in a completely different country, not speaking the language, so we took over responsibilities like filling out forms and translating,” he remembers.
What does his mum make of his lord mayorship? “I think she would like me to dress smartly,” he laughs. “She’s quite old school. She’s supportive, but she’s keeps saying: ‘Stop being silly.’”
His troubled teenage years included a stint in a gang, but it was his ambition to better himself and travel that stopped any descent into delinquency. Studying aquatic zoology at Hull University, he founded a mixed martial arts club, and was elected to the university’s sports executive in a bid to secure extra funding. That led him to run for student union president, despite being politically illiterate.
“I didn’t even know the difference between left and right. Party politics was above my head. I was more issues based. The guy I was running against was a Labour Party member and had John Prescott campaigning for him. Why is the ex-deputy prime minister supporting someone in a student union election?” Against the odds, he won.
After graduating, the rise of Ukip and climate of “hate, fear and division” around the European elections in 2014 fermented his interest in politics. “I was tired of complaining. It’s like, if you don’t do politics, politics will do you. There was so much awful stuff happening. I thought if I can at least make my small part of the world – Sheffield – better, I’m contributing.”
After educating himself using YouTube videos, he stood successfully as a Green Party council candidate in 2016, “even though I didn’t know what a councillor was the year before”.
“My mum would like me to dress smartly. She’s old school. She’s keeps saying: ‘Stop being silly’”
Two themes characterise his lord mayorship – young people and arts and culture in the city. He took the unusual step of appointing a poet laureate – 23-year-old hip-hop artist Otis Mensah – and, to “shake things up”, he invites somebody from the city’s creative community to flaunt their talents in a half-hour interval in the monthly council meetings he chairs. These have included comedians cracking jokes and scientists firing water rockets across the chamber.
“Politics can be a thankless job but it should never be a joyless job,” he states. “I try to have as much fun with it as possible, even if it means wearing different hats before council meetings and trying to get people to guess which hat I’m going to be wearing. I always have a political message on my t-shirt and I’ll write a speech about it to raise awareness.”
Indeed, he trolled the Sheffield Landlords Award ceremony by wearing a red Acorn t-shirt – the renters’ union that specialises in direct action against bad landlords.
From the start, he’s battled hostility from Sheffield City Council. “You could say maybe I’m the wrong political colour. Maybe I’m a risk because they can’t control me and I can engage with more people than the entire council’s communications team.
“I don’t fit the stereotype of what they think a lord mayor should be and, for them, I’m an embarrassment. For so many other people, I’m a breath of fresh air.”
Recently, councillors were forced to debate the role of lord mayor after they received a petition of 47 names calling for Magid’s removal – a counter-petition in support of him attracted 17,500 signatures.
“It’s just a small group trying to find ways to control me. Let’s be honest, it’s probably a dying thing. People can’t name other lord mayors or know what they do so, for better or worse, at least people are engaged.”
He seems resigned to being under constant threat of ousting. “I’m cool with being dismissed for saying Donald Trump is a wasteman because I stood by what I believed in and felt was right rather than pretending to be someone else and sticking around in a job being false.”
This idealistic reluctance to compromise principle for diplomacy can come across as an own goal – he’s bruised from weathering a Daily Mail storm for wearing a white poppy to the city’s Armistice Day commemorations. He was told he “would not be welcome at the ceremony” if he wore it.
“That’s why I didn’t wear it in the beginning, because they would have turned it away. I put it on as it took place, thinking they can’t do anything now.”
Was the negative blowback avoidable? Yes. But to him – and supporters such as the late Harry Leslie Smith who rushed to his defence – authenticity was more important.
His popularity extends to having a merchandise section of his website, where you can purchase “Donald Trump Is A Wasteman” and “Immigrants Make Britain Great” shirts. “A friend has made a chopping board with my face and the Sheffield Ten Commandments on it for a Christmas gift set,” he laughs, showing me a picture on his phone. It was these commandments – unveiled at the Tramlines music festival in July – that proved especially divisive. Among them were “Don’t be a pr*ck” and “Don’t kiss a Tory”.
“A lot of people said: ‘My mother’s a Tory. Are you telling me I shouldn’t kiss her?’ Some replaced the word ‘Tory’ with ‘gay’ or ‘black’ and asked if that would be acceptable. I’m like – that’s not a choice. You can choose to be Tory. It’s not a choice to be black. It was blown up out of proportion.”
Some felt it crossed a line – that it was damaging the city’s credibility. “I can tell you far more things that have damaged the city’s credibility than a bloody poster at a music festival,” he says. “There’s worse things you can say, like Tories kill people with their policies or don’t trust a Tory. Don’t kiss a Tory? Get a grip!”
Back in his lord mayor’s flock wallpaper-covered parlour, Magid is donning his gold livery to go about the pomp and circumstance of cutting a ribbon on a photo exhibition. His assisting macer – who has worked with 32 mayors – describes him as “different. We have to leave for everything earlier because he gets mobbed for selfies in the street.”
One survey showed more people know who he is than their local MP. Despite the fact that his profile and creative way of engaging people’s short attention spans could make him a potent electoral force, it isn’t in his sights. “Nobody joins the Greens to have a career in politics!” he protests. In fact, he says he doesn’t know what he will be doing in six months’ time, nor does he think he will have left an indelible mark on the role.
“It’ll probably go back to normal when I’ve left, which is a real shame. I’d like to think the next lord mayor will bring something new to the role and understand that it’s not just a fuddy-duddy thing where you just shake hands and open fetes – because that’s a waste of taxpayers’ money. It’s a waste of time and that platform. I understand people want an easy life – it’s not easy to go up against the status quo and challenge things.
“I’ll look back and think, did I lead to making Sheffield look like a cool, vibrant place to live and did I lead to young people seeing politics differently?”
He hopes the answer is yes. Then he’ll feel he’s achieved some “epic sh*t”.
Photo: Magid’s inauguration (Chris Saunders)