When I came across the box of papers, I was shocked by the extent of Dad’s lies.
After my dad, Peter, died in 2011, I found a box of papers and a photo album under his bed. That’s how I discovered he had a secret wife named Irene, and that he was 10 years older than he had said he was. Even his birthday was different. I found photos of his family and discovered he had 12 siblings he’d never told me about.
Dad was a first-generation immigrant from Ghana. He went to Harlech College in Wales, on a scholarship in the 1960s and later worked at the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE). He met my mum, Su, who is white British, in 1987 at a work conference. We lived together in Wolverhampton in the 90s. My parents separated eight years later – after that, I lived with Dad on weekdays and spent weekends with my mum.
Mum encouraged me to express myself, to sing, dance and have a great time. Dad’s vibe couldn’t have been more different. He once told me: I don’t care if you love me, but you will respect me. His life was all about work, and he was obsessed with my education. I was interested in music growing up, but he wanted me to be a civil servant and never heard me sing. He didn’t speak about his past or where he came from.
When I first came across the box of papers, I was shocked by the extent of my dad’s lies, but I wasn’t entirely surprised. He’d always been secretive. I tried not to get too emotional about it, and thought instead about organising the funeral, clearing his house and focusing on my singing career.
Then came Covid. I was living in Berlin but was touring the UK as a backing singer with a band in March 2020, when flights and borders were suddenly closed. I couldn’t get back to Germany. I became jobless and homeless on the same day. A friend kindly put me up in her flat in Brixton, south London. Locked down, my thoughts drifted back to my dad. It was time to get some answers, so I started working on a documentary about it.
I got in touch with some of Dad’s former CRE colleagues and a close friend of his from the 60s called Ian, who painted a very different picture of my dad. Ian described him as outgoing, always repping for Ghana and wearing African clothes. I was disappointed he had kept that part of himself from me. I knew him in his later years, when he was happiest at home watching EastEnders and pottering in the garden.
Using social media and ancestry websites, I also tracked down my Ghanaian family. I discovered that Dad was the youngest in the family – sadly, his siblings had all died by then. I came across an article online about the town Dad came from, and contacted the author, a professor who was willing to help. I gave him everything I knew about Dad’s family.
That’s how I was put in touch with my cousin Edward, who lives in Peckham. It’s incredible – all this time, I had a family member living only a half-hour bus ride from me. Edward told me he had met Dad occasionally in the UK but then Dad stopped contacting him and the rest of the family. He doesn’t know why. He just disappeared out of their lives. And I’m still looking for Irene. She and dad married in the 70s – it would be huge to find her.
I used to be angry that Dad held things back from me, but as I’ve learned more about him, I’ve softened. I was looking for concrete answers and a perfect conclusion, but the truth is messier. My documentary is just coming out now on YouTube, and I hope Dad would have been proud to see how far I’ve come.
I’m going to Ghana this month for the first time. I’m so excited about what I’ll find there, feeling part of his family and heritage. I’ll meet some of my relatives and find out where my dad was born so I can scatter his ashes there. I’m releasing some music inspired by this search, and hope to work with Ghanaian musicians. Dad’s family have been super welcoming. I’m hoping this will feel like a conclusion – I’m not going to forget but I’m ready to move on now.
When I had some therapy a few years ago, I expected to have a Tony Soprano moment – that huge dramatic revelation where everything comes into focus. It’s nothing like that. This process has been longer, a search in which a thousand little pieces eventually come together.