Spotlight on... Dr Toyin Agbetu

Dr Toyin Agbetu
Dr Toyin Agbetu

This week we meet Dr Toyin Agbetu, Lecturer in Social and Political Anthropology at the Department of Anthropology, who teaches on nationalism, ethnicity and race. Here, Toyin - who is a film buff and avid cinema-goer - shares his top music, movie and literature recommendations.

What is your role and what does it involve?

I’m a lecturer in social anthropology teaching about nationalism, ethnicity and race. I also use my background in political anthropology to shape pedagogical practice in social-justice themed work like the Decolonising Anthropology module I am convening with my department and our amazing students.

How long have you been at UCL and what was your previous role?

I have been at UCL for around five years, transitioning from a postgraduate student to a teaching assistant at the UCL Institute of Education, before becoming a lecturer soon after completing my doctoral studies. Before then, I was/am a community educator for a Pan-African, human rights-based organisation where I engaged in scholar-activist at both a grassroots and institutional level.

What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of?

The work I do is not something I would or could rank ever in order of merit. I tend to work with people and communities facing disadvantage and socio-political discrimination resulting in cultural, epistemological or structural violence.

This means my work in the health sector co-chairing a fantastic peer-to-peer Sickle Cell support group or supporting culturally sensitive mental health initiatives is just as important to me as when I support parents challenging school exclusion policies or helping young people hold the police to account for racist stop and search encounters.

Sadly, my work sees me engage with many people who have experienced death or trauma, so I won’t name them. Nevertheless, I am proud of my educational mentor, the late Dr Abiola Ogunsola introducing me to the concept of Education and Community Development. Without her intervention when I was an undergraduate, I may never have seen the potential of the Academy to contribute progressively to social justice concerns.

Tell us about a project you are working on now which is top of your to-do list?

As a newbie to being a "permanent" member of staff within UCL, I am currently trying to learn as much as I can about the art of crafting fundable research projects. I want to know how I can secure significant resources capable of creating new knowledge that includes excluded and deleted paradigms of merit while synthesising the outputs to generate meaningful, long-term social impacts. In the meantime, I’m slowly piecing together the seeds of an idea that could create an interdisciplinary network for scholar-activists across UCL.

Leaning on my experience as a senior software developer, I hope to conceptualise an admittedly self-serving project that will free up the time academics waste on tasks that could be modernised with technology to use their expertise to dismantle institutional systems of Afriphobia, racism and misogyny.

However, top of my long-term to-do list is an external project I’m investigating, which I hope will find a way to help reduce the corruption prevalent within British policing caused by a toxic culture. As an anthropologist, demystifying culture is our business.

What is your favourite album, film and novel?

Hmm... this is an impossible question to answer. First, my eclectic taste and recognition of genres make all my likely choices incomparable. Second, my predilection towards collaboration over competition means I won’t ever rank them. I could make a half-baked attempt if I apply the temporal filter of "... this year".

So, on a musical tip, the 2021 newbies I’ve recently had on rotation are Nubiyan Twist, Golden Browne, H.E.R, Emmavie, Mumu Fresh, Coner Albert, Thundercat, Anderson.Paak/Silk Sonic, Balimaya Project, Haitus Kaiyote, SAULT, Deborah Bond and Alfa Mist.

I’m a film buff and avid cinema-goer, but despite craving some high-quality escapism, this year has been a bit of a disappointment. I enjoyed the new take on Dune and loved The Mitchells Vs. The Machines, but was triggered by the excellent Judas and the Black Messiah.

I am looking forward to Summer of Soul, but as a rule I’ve avoided documentaries this year (apart from A Glitch in the Matrix, which put me to sleep). Instead, I’ve doubled down on noisy action flicks and have been pleasantly surprised by the likes of Riders of Justice, Nobody, Raya, Shang-Chi and Suicide Squad!

The nature of my scholar-activist work, which includes endless reading and writing for various political reasons outside academic work, means I have not been able to pick up a book for fun for quite a while. Nevertheless, I have an eternal softness for The Healer by Ayi Kwei-Armah, Ousmane Sembene’s Gods Bits of Wood, The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin and anything by Octavia Butler or Nnedi Okorafor. When I find that space to lose myself in literature, the novels I am most looking forward to reading are Courttia Newland’s A River Called Time and Akala’s The Dark Lady. If you’re picking up on the sci-fi tint, it’s because I am a Trekker and a fan of anime.

What is your favourite joke (pre-watershed)?

How do you keep in idiot in suspense?

Who would be your dream dinner guests?

I’d break bread with anyone who possesses compassion, integrity and a generosity of spirit sympathetic to political heterodoxy, intellectual creativity, collaborative mischievousness tempered by a sincere dose of humility and love of all humanity.

What advice would you give your younger self?

You were right to follow your spirit and not compromise on your ethics. Say sorry quicker when you’re wrong, it makes you a better, warmer and stronger person. Despite the many challenges you will face, you will survive. Your fiery passion for change comes not from anger, but a desire for peace, love and justice. Don’t stop creating music, it makes you happy.

What would it surprise people to know about you?

I consider myself insane, ’streetsoul’, and some people think I’m a bit radical.

What is your favourite place?

Anywhere I feel love and can be love.