Magid Magid: if the cap fits

There were those who dismissed Magid Magid as a novelty act but behind the Trump-baiting t-shirts is a steely political resolve to make the link between race and the climate emergency

Hero image

Two years ago Magid Magid became a global celebrity when, aged 28, he became Sheffield’s youngest ever lord mayor. His unorthodox style – Dr Martens boots and baseball caps paired with the 18-carat gold chain of office and inspirational back story (the Somali refugee who arrived in the UK aged five) – meant that he was far removed from the fusty stereotypical image of the holder of the ceremonial role.

“If you’re just going to conform, what’s going to change? Power comes from being yourself.”

The Green Party councillor’s year-long tenure – from May 2018 to 2019 – was unconventional and frequently controversial. He was sworn in to the Imperial March from Star Wars and the Superman theme tune, and made worldwide shockwaves when he used social media to ban “wasteman” Donald Trump from the city – a measure not within his powers, but one widely applauded on Twitter by the likes of rapper Skepta, and actors George Takei and Mark Hamill. The stunt ruffled feathers to the extent that the managing director of Boeing – which was set to open its first manufacturing site outside the US in Sheffield – contacted the town hall to express his disappointment.

“In the council chamber, both the Ukip and Labour councillors stood up and demanded that I should apologise for putting out the ‘Trump is a wasteman’ tweet, delete and retract it,” remembers Magid today, from his home in his beloved Steel City. “But everything’s political and I wasn’t going to shy away from standing up for not only what I believe in, but also one of the biggest principles of Sheffield – that we’re the first City of Sanctuary. I’m not going to turn my back on that just to please an American bloke who doesn’t give two shits about Sheffield, other than making money.”

Labour councillors, he says, told him they regretted voting for him and thought he was disrespecting the city by not following traditions – which he dismisses as merely “peer pressure from dead people” – such as toasting the queen, and a motion was introduced to change the constitution to limit the role and responsibilities of lord mayor for the
first time.

Despite feeling isolated in the town hall, by charismatically modernising a role some view as archaic, he engaged a young demographic in Sheffield and beyond and he regrets that after him, it has reverted to the usual status quo.
“I wanted more authenticity for that role, for ordinary citizens in Sheffield to know that role was for them and they had a stake in it,” he says. “It’s quite sad in the sense that the current lord mayor, Tony Downing, is your bog-traditional lord mayor, and was one of the Labour councillors that believed I’d ruined and disrespected the role.

“What I found baffling was the people who used to complain were the same ones who never knew who the lord mayor was before me, didn’t care, but just because someone was doing things a bit differently who didn’t look like them, they were all up in arms about it.”

Love or loathe him, you couldn’t ignore him, says Magid. “Whereas people couldn’t tell you who the current lord mayor is now – to the extent that I still get blamed for stuff that’s happening now.”

Now Magid has written a book, The Art of Disruption – A Manifesto for Real Change, part a guide to empowering people into activism, and part autobiography.

Born in war-torn Burao, northern Somalia, Magid, his mother and five siblings spent six months in a refugee camp in Ethiopia before settling in Sheffield. When he sees the hardening stance towards migrants, he can’t help but feel a personal resonance.

“Because those same people fleeing their country from war or persecution, that was me in the early 1990s. Any one of those people that the media is so quick to demonise and dehumanise could be the next lord mayor of Sheffield and contribute so much. It’s heartbreaking because what separates them from the people who live in the UK is just luck.

“No one chooses to leave their family home and belongings and get on a dangerous journey that they know they and their children could die on if it wasn’t worth it.”

After studying aquatic zoology at Hull University and running a digital marketing business, it was the rise of Ukip that in 2014 kindled his interest in becoming involved in politics and joining the Greens. He was elected councillor for Broomhill and Sharrow Vale in 2016.

After his lord mayor term was up, it was similarly divisive rhetoric from Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson that prompted him to stand for election as MEP for the Greens in 2019 on a pro-immigration platform, becoming one of six from Yorkshire and Humber to enter the European Parliament. But on his first day in Strasbourg, Magid found himself again making headlines after being asked to leave the parliament by someone he thought might be an official. Wearing a baseball cap and T-shirt emblazoned with “F**k Fascism”, he was first asked “Are you lost?” before being shown the door. At the time, the European Parliament claimed it could “safely say that no member of staff addressed Mr Magid
in an inappropriate way”.

Only 30 of the new class of 751 MEPs were BAME, while in the age of Black Lives Matter, more people are opening up about their experience of unconscious racial bias.

“It’s not something that’s exclusive to the European Parliament. Just going into H&M, I’ll get followed around by security,” says Magid. “I’ve always been made to feel unwelcome in certain places, including Sheffield town hall, so it’s something I’m sadly used to.

“Some people say it’s because I was wearing a T-shirt but the Lib Dems were all wearing their Bollocks to Brexit T-shirts and it had nothing to do with that. It’s to do with the fact we’ve been socially conditioned to expect what a politician should look, dress and behave like and when somebody comes along who doesn’t fit that narrative, everybody’s like: ‘Wait a minute. This person clearly doesn’t belong here.’ Your first day of work is supposed to be a joyous occasion and that put a dampener on it.”

Although he’s a proud Europhile, Magid still recognises the EU is in need of serious reform. He praises its fundamental goals, but doesn’t believe its current set-up will achieve them. “As much as I genuinely believe that what is best for us is remaining in the European Union, it is in no way a safe haven for progressive ideas. There’s so many issues wrong with it in terms of discrimination within itself, but also the way they treat refugees and asylum seekers, and how they’re handling the whole Mediterranean refugee crisis, is appalling.”

Speaking out left him in the unusual position of attracting opprobrium from hardcore Remainers and – in the ultimate insult for someone who was motivated to go into politics to provide a counter-narrative to Nigel Farage – cynically courted by the Brexit Party. “Nigel Farage followed me on Twitter and Brexit Party MPs were sending me constant messages saying: ‘Come and join us.’ They’re just opportunists.”

He wants the EU to honour its pledge to resettle 50,000 migrants and impose sanctions on countries like Italy which have introduced harsh laws criminalising those who assist migrants.

“The way it treats the migrant crisis is the thing that will make or break the EU in all honesty,” he asserts. “They can put up all their Black Lives Matter performance politics, yet if black lives really matter, what about the black lives in the Mediterranean? Do they not matter?”

While highlighting the devastation of child refugees drowning in the Mediterranean in the Strasbourg Hemicycle, Magid remembers the vice president who was chairing the discussion admonishing him for wearing a baseball cap. Playing devil’s advocate, why not simply wear more formal attire that won’t distract from his message, nor give his enemies any ammunition?
“If you’re just going to conform and accept the status quo, what’s going to change?” he responds. “There’s power that comes from being yourself. There’s a lot of MEPs who said they didn’t like what I wore or said, but respected that I had to courage to be myself.

“For me, it’s important to show people from all different backgrounds: this place is for us. What I wear is political because it sends a message to say we belong here and it’s not just for the entitled elite.”

As someone who has faced prejudice his whole life, for being black, Muslim and working class, he feels that the conversations that are happening in the wake of the George Floyd
protests have the potential to be a turning point. “Fundamentally, there’s a lot that needs to change and just being non-racist is not enough. We have to work to be anti-racist, which means actively fighting against racism rather than being passively sympathetic towards it.”

He is currently building a network of European activists and groups to focus on racial and climate justice. “There’s a clear and crucial connection between both – we can’t talk about the climate crisis without recognising that it is also an inequality and race issue.”

What makes The Art of Disruption so timely, he feels, is that Covid-19 has shifted the tectonic plates of what we once thought politically achievable.

“The realms of what can be done have dramatically expanded over the recent events.” For years the government told us it wasn’t possible to house the homeless – “then the pandemic lockdown hit and they housed the homeless.

“As a result, we have to reconsider what’s possible and be more ambitious. Most importantly, we have to demand more.”

The Art of Disruption – A Manifesto for Real Change is published by Blink Publishing

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to Magid Magid: if the cap fits

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.