Julia Rampen 1st August 2018
“I was looking at this room of all the Lord Mayors and I’m like, ‘It’s such a shame these pictures don’t tell a story,’” says Magid Magid. “We did the standard shots and I had this great idea. I thought, ‘If I stand on this plinth, it will give a really good composition.’
“It wasn’t something I planned, or whatever, I just squatted into it. Then I was like, ‘Right, quick, take the picture.’” The image shows Magid balanced on the marble staircase, wearing a white jacket, a ceremonial chain and Doc Martens. Since he posted it on 16 May 2018, it has been retweeted nearly 3,000 times. “It showed I am here, I am different and I’m going to do things differently.”
The Lord Mayor of Sheffield, 29, tells the story in a Pret A Manger booth, wearing black shorts, a yellow baseball cap flipped backwards, a Yorkshire-themed t-shirt and a badge that says “yaah”. He came to Sheffield as a refugee from Somalia, but his political awakening began at Hull University, where he was elected president of the student union. Unlike his predecessors, his background was not in the Labour party, but the mixed martial arts club. “I honestly couldn’t have told you the difference between left and right,” he says. At the student union hustings, someone asked if he would join the picket line. “I remember thinking: ‘What on earth is a picket line?’ I kind of gambled and said yes, and got a cheer.”
He took online political quizzes, and finally decided he belonged in the Greens. Determined to combat the Islamophobic rhetoric of Ukip — “my mum wears a headscarf” — he campaigned for the local party, then stood as a councillor and was elected in 2016. He became Lord Mayor on the first day of Ramadan, and opened his fast in the grand surroundings of his offices. “I remember thinking, ‘I wonder if the people who actually built this room would have thought that there would have been a black Muslim refugee opening their fast in this room?’”
It is fair to say that the 19th-century architects of Sheffield Town Hall would not have predicted what happened next. Early on, Magid decided to wear a t-shirt with a different slogan each time to the monthly full council meeting (the first was: “Immigrants make Britain great”).
I don’t regret anything
Then came July, and the impending visit by the US president. Magid commissioned a t-shirt declaring “Donald Trump is a wasteman”, and tweeted the image with a proclamation that Trump was banned from the city. “You know how Donald Trump speaks?” Magid says, putting on a drawl. “I, Donald J Trump hereby… I thought I’d play on that.” He also declared 13 July 2018 “Mexico Solidarity Day”.
The tweet earned Magid worldwide fame, and also racist backlash. An anonymous petition demanding his removal on the grounds of embarrassing the city gained more than 6,000 signatures. I ask him later, after the protests are over, whether he regrets it. “I don’t regret anything,” he tells me. “I’d do it again in a heartbeat. A hundred percent.”
By this time, Magid is embroiled in another controversy, this time relating to a poster in his name at the Tramlines festival which announced his “Ten Commandments”, including “Don’t kiss a Tory”.
Jesus Christ, it’s not that deep, just lighten up a bit
“It’s a joke,” he groans. “I’ve kissed Tories myself.” He says after missing the deadline, he came up with the idea on the spot. “Jesus Christ, it’s not that deep. Just lighten up a bit.”
His critics say he shouldn’t be so political. “What do you mean about being non-political? It doesn’t exist,” he says. He is particularly bemused by those who say he doesn’t represent them. “Had I said, ‘Do you know what, Hobnobs are the shittest biscuit,’ nobody would have said, ‘Oh, you don’t speak for me. How dare you say that?’ They are very selective.” Are Hobnobs the shittest biscuit? “No! They’re my favourite biscuit — they’re the best biscuits.”
Name me any other Lord Mayor — nobody gives a shit
What about the other charge — that he’s turning an important post into a gimmick? Magid argues that there is nothing wrong with getting the attention of groups normally turned off by politics: “Name me any other Lord Mayor — nobody gives a shit.” Fans recognise him in the street. “I’ll be in Sainsbury’s with hummus in one hand and pita bread in the other, and someone will say, ‘Magid, can we take a picture of you squatting?’”
As for his t-shirts, he’s got a Yorkshire-themed one for August and a Black History Month-themed one for October. He buys them out of his own pocket — “there are people on the board who say, ‘There’s my taxpayers money,’ and I’m like, ‘No, it’s completely my own money’.” His mother, though, remains less than impressed. “At times she says, ‘Magid, why can’t you dress in a suit?’” (He has used his Mayor’s clothing allowance to buy one).
In all forms of government, local and national, the people who make decisions for us don’t reflect our society
He gets emails from around the world, and questions from young people about how to become Lord Mayor. “One of the reasons it’s gathered so much attention is due to failed democracy,” he says of his appointment. “Because in all forms of government, local and national, the people who make decisions for us don’t reflect our society.
“So, the moment someone different comes in who is younger, who is from a refugee background, who is a Green, it gathers so much attention.
“If you had more people of colour, if you had more women, if you had more people from the LGBT+ community, it would not have been such a shock.”
Main image: Mark Howe
Julia Rampen 1st August 2018