Abandoned as a baby to the British foster care system, Alex Wheatle grew up without any knowledge of his Jamaican parentage or family history. Preoccupied with his own roots, Alex grew inexorably drawn to reggae music, which became his primary solace through years of physical and mental abuse in a children’s home.
Although riven by loneliness and depression, Alex found joy and empathy among his reggae heroes: Dennis Brown, Bob Marley, Marcia Griffiths, the Mighty Diamonds, Sister Nancy, Gregory Isaacs, Barrington Levy, King Yellowman, and so many others. These were friends and mentors who understood the enormous challenges facing a young Black man, gave purpose to despair, provided a sense of belonging when Alex had no one, and who educated him in ways no school ever could. From the abuse he suffered in foster care, to the challenges he faced on the streets of South London as a young man and his eventual imprisonment for participating in the legendary 1981 Brixton uprising against racial injustice, reggae music always provided a lifeline to Alex.
Alex’s life story was portrayed in Oscar Award–winning director Steve McQueen’s 2020Small Axe. InSufferah, he vividly tells his own story, putting the reader in his shoes through the many challenges of his younger years, answering the question: how on earth did he make it? By his example we are reminded that words can be our sustenance, and music can be our heartbeat.