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Why I Got Stopped at the UK Border

For everyone who has asked for the full story of how I was detained and denied entry at the UK border last year:

My plan had been to make a video telling the whole story after I got back from this month’s “You’re Damn Well Gonna Let Me In This Time” return tour, but with everything else going on now I feel like that would be self-indulgent. So I’m excerpting the account here from University of York’s excellent student paper ( ), along with a snippet from my speech at York where i finally got to close the circle.

I’m grateful beyond words to all the like-minded heads I got to build with at York, University of Salford, and HipHop Ed in London, and I’ve come home more inspired than ever to get back to doing the work. Or at least figuring out what the heck the work is.


“…He was scheduled to make the trip from New York City to England in order to deliver his lecture to the University on Wednesday 16 November. He explains that according to the law as an expert speaker addressing a university you don’t need a Visa, but if you come without one it is up to a subjective assessment of a border agent to assess whether you look like an expert speaker. Jay says that his speakers agency sends people to England regularly and have no problems getting through, however, he believes it is because unlike him they are “well to do, older white people wearing a suit and tie who fit some people’s description of an expert.”

In contrast to the hoodie and trainers he was wearing at the time before telling them that he was an expert in hip-hop and looking, in Jay’s words, “ethnically ambiguous to many people.” He continues by saying that he still doesn’t know which one of those cues prompted the agent to make her judgement, but she made one very quickly which led to the process of being detained.

When describing what he went through, Jay explains that the border agent was “manipulating the conversation so that I didn’t have the chance to state my case and I could have easily gone online and showed her credentials, but she had decided in her mind that I was going to sneak in the country… I don’t know what. So I spent a couple of hours being humiliated, having them go through my luggage, look through my wallet and ask why I don’t have more money, am I able to support myself financially and mind you I don’t have enough money in my wallet because you use a different kind of money here. I didn’t know we were going to be shooting a rap video in the corner and make it rain” he addressed the audience eliciting laughter once again.

After a couple of more hours of this, Jay was sent back on a plane to New York which he describes as one of the most humiliating, degrading experiences of his life. He says it was “one of the stark instances I’ve ever faced, but once I got home and had the opportunity to sit with it I also had to temper that knowledge with a sting that I was getting only the tiniest taste of what immigrants face every day when they come to the border.”
Jay is trying to convey a message about humility and privilege. Even as an “ethnically ambiguous” man, he understands that his American privilege kicked in as soon as custody was given to American airlines. Jay says he was immediately given the option of bumping up to first class on the flight back. “That’s not going to happen to 99 per cent of people who get turned away at the border, whose lives and futures will be on the line.”

Jay describes his experience as humbling, and asks everyone to remember that it is only the tiniest sliver of what so many people go through. He describes the “trauma of being shamed and being treated as less than human” as something that stuck with him for weeks after. “Every time I pulled out my wallet I remember them looking through it, passing their judgement.” Jay still emphasises, however, that his experience was not surreal and that it is still normal for millions of refugees for whom the stakes are so much higher than his own. Jay concluded the lecture by saying that he took a vow when he was sent back to America that he would return to speak to the University of York like he had meant to do in November, but this time wearing the document showing his denied entry on a t-shirt, which he showed the audience to a roar of applause…”