Football and music are powerful tools. There is a reason why they are so widely loved and touch many lives around the world. About 30 miles from central London, in Billericay, the footballer and spoken word rapper Jess King uses both arts to deal with painful experiences and fight for change in the women’s game.
Born in Liverpool, King has written spoken word, music and poetry from an early age. But when she suffered concussion last year and had to stop playing, she dedicated more time on it and was able to share her talent with the world. Earlier this month, she released a new single called Look Into My Eyes, where she shares some of her experiences dealing with racism and micro-aggressions throughout her life. “I think music is a way to let it out,” she tells Moving the Goalposts.
“Some of it comes from where I grew up and the experiences I had as a kid, but a lot of the times you get on with it, and then when you reflect on it, you look back and see it’s quite serious. You carry these things with you and I guess I want to help myself heal.”
The 31-year-old played for Liverpool in her youth before getting a scholarship to play football and attend Trinity Western University in Canada. Back in Europe after her studies, King played for Everton, the Swiss side FC Basel, USV Jena in Germany and Kolbotn IL in Norway before returning to the UK for spells with Lewes and Charlton. Since August 2022 the forward has been with Billericay Town.
In Look Into My Eyes, King reveals how dealing with racism has affected her mental health. She admits it is frightening to put some of her most painful experiences out into the world, but it was part of her way of dealing with it. “I guess I had to go through my own process to improve my mental health, and writing this song was part of it.”
King has put out three new songs in 2023, and has dedicated more time to her music career, but her football experiences have played a part too. In 2020, while playing for Lewes, she released Raise Us Up, a call for action on equal pay in football – and a portion of the profits were donated to the club.
“When you’re emotionally invested, you’re either getting playing time or not getting playing time, and then there’s a micro-aggression, even if it is consistent, you just carry on, because what else are you going to do? Who is going to listen to you? Who cares?” she says. Asked what advice she would give her younger self, King doesn’t miss a beat: “Don’t care what anybody thinks. You are good enough. You are more than capable, you are more than good enough. Go for what you want and don’t look back.”
Since the Euros in 2022 there has been a debate about the lack of diversity in English women’s football. King believes the issue will not be solved immediately. “You’re not going to all of a sudden have a hundred new black coaches,” she says. “The approach has to be realistic. The steps that we are taking now will affect the future.”
Last month she organised and headlined Black To The Future, hosted by the London Borough of Hackney for the Hackney Marshes Girls’ League to celebrate black culture in the women’s game. It involved players, managers and other stakeholders in the women’s game. At first she did not know what to expect, but feedback has been positive. “You don’t need to be in the spotlight to make a difference. Just by being yourself and bringing your best self, you can help football be a better community. And by having those challenging conversations I think it is so powerful.
“I feel that with racism in women’s football, they have to tick a box. As long as it’s been written about or looked at, it’s enough. But that is just like putting a plaster over a massive wound. It actually needs systematic change.
“It can be very narrow-sighted when you don’t have different perspectives and experiences,” she adds. “We just want to use Black to the Future to inspire people to be themselves without holding back, with no limitations or fear. Sometimes if I’ve made a mistake, I wonder ‘do they think I’m here because I’m a box ticked’? Would I have gotten here if I wasn’t a person of colour? No one has said that to me, that is my own anxiety. I don’t want that for the kids that are coming through. Racism is not going to disappear, but we can help make the load not as heavy for them.”
King remembers having Kelly Smith and Alex Scott as childhood heroes, together with the American Mia Hamm. “I used to wear her shirt when I was out and about playing football in the streets,” she recalls. “Football changed my life when I moved to Canada, it helped me be resilient, and I’ve met some amazing people and played in some of the best leagues in the world. Not so many people can say they achieved their childhood dream, but I did that.”
She hopes Black to the Future is an opportunity to help other girls and women reach to the stars. “Hopefully we will continue to use this platform, this group of people, to have these conversations, give insight, inspire and make change. That’s all we can do.”
Click here to listen to more of Jess King’s songs.
Rachel Daly is one of a kind. It is always amazing to see how she takes pretty much every opportunity to score. Daly’s stoppage-time winner was painful for West Ham but for neutral football fans it was just brilliant.
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