“Let us man be loud. Let us man not doubt. Let us man not fear. Let us not fear you.” Jeremiah “Sugar J” Brown recites these lines from his poem, Us, straight down the camera’s lens in Ridley Scott’s new short film, Behold. Speaking to the writer, poet and actor over Zoom from his bedroom in Croydon, it is clear that fear and doubt are not part of Brown’s practice. From plays at Woodside Primary School to performing at BT’s Sport in Words, he admits that he has “always been comfortable on stage”.
Working with renowned director Ridley Scott, director of The Martian (2015) and Blade Runner (1982), was not the 28-year-old’s first time in front of the camera. In 2017, he was featured in Nationwide’s ‘Voices of the People’ campaign, which saw his face grace television screens across the country.
It was George the Poet on Krept & Konan’s ‘Young Kingz Part 1’ who inspired Brown to try his hand at writing when studying politics at the University of Westminster. The beginning of his career was spent trekking from South London to Genesis Cinema in Bethnal Green for its monthly poetry slams and spoken word nights. It was here he cut his teeth. Reminiscing on his early writing and performances, he laughs: “I would enter but I’d never win. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve got any of them [poems] that I would perform now.” The best he ever placed was second, and that was to Caleb Femi, London’s former young people’s laureate and author of Poor. He says seeing Femi perform was one of formative moments of his career.
Brown’s face lights up as he remembers the first time he read Kevin Prufer’s poem, Churches. “It’s the way that time moves and the way that you feel,” he says. “It’s almost like a film that’s operating in flashbacks and flashforwards and you don’t really understand. Then as the poem comes to an end you’re there and it’s beautiful.”
Brown initially used the alias ‘Brown Sugar’ for his poetry performances, but when he started thinking about his online presence, he soon realised he could not compete with D’Angelo’s 1995 R&B hit of the same name. So, “Sugar J” was born. “I didn’t come to poetry with writing poems for the sake of writing poems being the norm, I found that afterwards,” he says. “What I understood as poetry was people performing their work – people writing things and performing it.” He has written and performed poems covering a variety of themes, saying his interest is simply in “life”; from the collective joy of watching Usain Bolt smash the world record to the stresses and frustrations faced during pandemic.
It’s not just his fellow spoken word poets who have inspired and influenced his work. Brown is an avid reader, and novels such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun made a huge impact on him: “I was like, rah! This is mad,” he says. “I didn’t appreciate that reading was revolutionary until after doing Barbican Young Poets. If you want to have access to whole new worlds or whole new ways of thinking, just read.” Brown’s love of words was apparent from a young age. “My nan had a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,” he says. “If I went out with my nan and we were going into a shop, I would find a corner while she looked at clothes and just sit there and read.”
Brown was heavily influenced by his grandmother, whose house he spent much time at as a child and she is a key figure in his work. As Brown grew older, he realised he had taken his grandmother for granted. It drove him to interview her for his play A Likkle Rum with Grandma (2019), which explored immigration, loneliness and identity. “It was quite funny because at the event she was a little celebrity because this whole show was about her,” he says of the opening night.
When it comes to his own work, he “pulls on elements of home, Croydon and South London,” along with people in his life who are “very vivid and real”. He likens his writing process to being in a wind tunnel where there is money floating around and you have to try and collect it, but instead of grabbing money, he is trying to catch and hold on to his life experiences.
While Brown will always love poetry, he is currently trying to develop one of his plays for stage and produces a weekly newsletter, Sugar Shots. He now writes poetry as his refuge and he sees it as “a form of self care”. He has got a busy year ahead of him but is keen to carve out time for reading; “As long as you have access to books, no one can gate-keep your development,” he says.
Follow our series, Reading Between the Lines, this week to read more about literature across our boroughs