Black History Month: Femi and TJ Koleoso's story

Black History Month: Ezra Collective

This year we’re commemorating Black History Month by telling the story of the figures who have shaped or are connected with our unique history with our Black community.

Over the course of the month, we’re profiling key voices from the Arsenal family and beyond.

Our latest guest writers are Femi and TJ Koleoso, childhood Gooners from 2023 Mercury Prize-winning jazz quintet, Ezra Collective.

Femi and TJ Koleoso
Ezra Collective

For us, it was only ever going to be Arsenal. Being honest, we never really had a choice in the matter. When we were born, we were signed up as Junior Gunners - we had our memberships before we even had passports!

It all came from our uncle, who was a season ticket holder at Highbury. It was a bit like ‘you’re Black, you’re Nigerian, you’re a Gooner’. We had all the kits growing up and just fell more and more in love with the club as we grew older.

There’s a saying: ‘If you can see it, you can be it’. Well, the history of Black players at Arsenal has been so strong for decades. Look at that match at Leeds in 2002, when we fielded nine Black outfield players. Stuff like that was the norm when we were growing up. We asked our uncle why he was an Arsenal fan and his response was that it was down to the impact of people like Rocky Rocastle and Ian Wright. Even for him, watching Black players represent The Arsenal was the norm. That’s been carried through the generations. That builds a natural affinity. A lot of our family came to London when they moved to England. For us, as Black supporters with a Nigerian background, Arsenal are a London club that feels a bit like home.

One of our favourite ever Arsenal players is Kanu. When we were growing up, he was the African brother we really looked up to.

In fact, we have a story about Kanu we’ve got to tell you. It all started out as a normal Sunday morning. We woke up and went to church, then said hello to all the uncles and aunties afterwards. There was this man in the distance. He stood out because of how tall he was, but we hadn’t really clocked him properly. We looked closer and the first thing we noticed were those iconic canerows.

Kanu, the man we grew up idolising, was at our church in Enfield. The reaction to him being there was priceless - we saw grown men just dissolve in front of him. We remember seeing a family friend called Ola - he was looking after his kids but as soon as he noticed Kanu, he just stared at him, so starstruck.

Kanu celebrates scoring at Middlesbrough

We’re blessed to work in music and have been lucky enough to meet some really famous musicians. We never really get starstruck - but seeing Kanu was a bit of an exception! It wasn’t that long ago - we were adults and to just see him at Jubilee Church… wow. What a feeling. He’s just a different level of superstar for us. Growing up, we’d watched him in the red and white of Arsenal and green, white and green of Nigeria - and that represented such a big part of our identity.

It wasn’t just that though. It was the way he played too. Every time he stepped on the pitch he’d be the tallest guy, but he had the most delicate feet. He was super smooth. Look at that hat-trick against Chelsea. Wow. His technique was just next level. You could ping any ball at him and he’d be able to take it down and control it easily. It was ridiculous. He’s just an absolute legend and one from what was a golden age of Nigerian football. The likes of him, Taribo West, Jay-Jay Okocha just give us good memories.

It’s mad because every country you go to, you just see people in love with the Premier League. The fact that there was such an iconic Nigerian player representing the Gunners just had such a big impact on our fanbase there. But it wasn’t just Kanu - we’ve had loads of African players and it’s built and then strengthened that connection through the continent. That diversity is something to be proud of. It’s the Premier League in general now - you can look at a team sheet and see nine different countries represented - and that’s a beautiful thing.

There are a whole lot of Nigerian Londoners right now who look at Bukayo Saka the same way we idolised Kanu. They look at him and think ‘he’s one of us’. It’s a very powerful thing to see someone who looks like you start for your team. It’s amazing for us to watch someone like Bukayo because he has the same background as us, which allows us to identify with him.

I feel like we’ve got such a rich history of great Black players. Even little things like the attitude towards the African Cup of Nations - it’s always been positive. The community ties and community roots that Arsenal have are really beautiful. The club celebrates The Tollington, the local chippies. Arsenal are so rooted in the local community. And the fact we’re in London means that the community is going to be diverse and multi-cultural. They’ve always celebrated difference. I mean look at the artwork outside the stadium. You come to the Emirates, you walk around and what do you see? Arsenal Nigeria - big and bold. Do you know how many supporters from different nations will have that feeling when they come past and see their flag? You’ve got so many countries represented and, for me, that artwork epitomises what Arsenal is about. 

The We All Follow The Arsenal Emirates Stadium artwork

We were always taught to celebrate what you want to see. You want harmony between people, different communities and cultures. Arsenal have taken that approach and put it on the side of the stadium. But it goes further than that. You’ve got that picture of Ian Wright celebrating by skanking with his gold tooth. I feel like we’ve always been good at celebrating people's differences. Arsenal have always seemed to be at the forefront of change culturally. As a Black person, you can come towards the club without having to question whether it’s for you. That representation is what grows a wider affinity for the club.

Just think for a moment about Patrick Vieira’s chant. He comes from Senegal, he plays for Arsenal. Do you know what that felt like as a West African? Hearing everyone at Highbury singing it together… just wow. These things are powerful. 

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