Sunday 26 July 2015

Simon Armitage, The Last Poets & Cultural Appropriation

 "Screaming "brand new", when they just sanitized the old shit" - Mos Def
I’m a fan of Simon Armitage. I have studied his poetry and taught it to GCSE students in Hackney classrooms and often, students appreciate poems like ‘Harmonium’. It’s a rich prompt to get students to think of what can come to symbolise a relationship, from a worn out piano to an unsung father figure. I’m also glad for his new position as Oxford professor of poetry. When this was announced, The Telegraph picked up on Armitage stating he; 

“Will use rap and hip hop to explore the definition of modern poetry so the literary form is not thought of "as a museum". 

A contentious statement, but for the most part he is right to point out that rap and Hip-Hop culture are relevant to western poetry traditions, I don’t feel the need to explain why and how, we’re beyond that argument nowWhat I did find interesting is when Armitage states;

We might need to consider what constitutes poetry, and rap might be one of the answers. If it comes up I'll probably talk about Kate Tempest - though she might be hip hop.”

Really? Kate Tempest is his entry point to validate the bridge between rap and poetry? I know Kate, I think even she would be embarrassed by this remark, but even though I understand Armitage’s intention, you got to be aware of the consistency in which black culture is appropriated by white mainstream media and why there is a carelessness to this statement, as Oxford Laureate, there is new volumes in his voice. Armitage does go on to say he wants the next person taking his place to be a woman, so in a way he could be setting up the stage for someone like Kate to be considered, very noble of him.

Last week I performed at Latitude, standing backstage with Bohdan Piasecki when Simon Armitage walked into the room and I was like “Shit, Simon Armitage!" I had so much to say to him but where do I start, how could I not come across as awkwardly overeager?” Then, as sudden as Simon appeared, the members from The Last Poets walked in and sat on the sofa, brushing past Simon, who now had nowhere to sit.

Hopefully I don't need to explain who The Last Poets are, but they are basically, alongside Gil Scott Heron, DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash, credited among the pioneers of Hip-Hop culture in America. I had to take a minute to take in that these men were in the same room, not knowing the significance of the other and I, a poet and lover of Hip-Hop, could've taken the responsibility of introducing these two missing links and probably done more for poetry in the UK than any essay I’ll ever write.

That bridge Simon was building between rap and poetry, a lot of that was built by the guys from the other side of the Atlantic, who had just taken his place on the sofa. If only I had taken that picture, it would’ve been the poetry equivalent of John Lennon meeting Chuck Berry. The difference there is John Lennon understood the issue of cultural appropriation and famously, when asked if he was inspired by black music, Lennon stated, “of course, is there any other kind of music?”.

I’m not saying poetry is a “black” thing, that would be ridiculous, language isn’t racial, it’s cultural. I’m saying, if Simon Armitage is going to talk about under representation and feel a need to rethink our relationship with the ideas of what poetry is, who it is by and who it belongs to, he must go all the way and perhaps educate himself on the subject before he becomes another white man claiming his people invented something they didn’t.

Source -

Didn't get to speak to Simon Armitage but I did speak with The Last Poets and Eimear Mcbride

If you are interested in further reading, I'd recommend Nate Marshall's Breakbeat Poets Anthology.

Monday 13 July 2015

What Is Spoken Word Education?

This week I leave my position as Lead Educator on the Spoken Word Education MA Programme, it's been a great three years and it's been hard saying farewells to students and teachers. Here's a video of a few of the students I've worked with over the years at an all school showcase. Also look out for a series of blogposts on Spoken Word Education coming out on Apples & Snakes in the coming weeks.

Sunday 12 July 2015

Joburg Street Photography

Johannesburg, The Apartheid Museum & Maboneng, An Example Of Positive Gentrification

Currently, I am in Johannesburg, sat on the top floor, a mile in the sky of a hotel room with a group of theatre producers and programmers. Joburg, a city described with hard edges, grumbles below us. Peter Stark OBE, a former theatre director and a cultural policy expert gives us an orientation to the city, explaining how the city creaks and groans as it tries to keep up with the first world mechanics of free market capitalism. He looks and speaks like a larger version of Sean Connery in the extraordinary league of gentlemen, although he has an English charm about him, he’s also blunt and to the point. He’s able to articulate the brutality of European Colonialism and white supremacy in Africa in a way that even knowledgeable white people in England couldn’t without lowering their voice. You can’t avoid talking about race in South Africa, it’s a country built on racism since European invasion. Peter Stark, to be stark, is stark about being white and English in Africa. This, paradoxically, makes me comfortable with him. “Being white in South Africa is like being a V.I.P toilet” says Peter "after we’re continuously told we’re special, it’s hard to realise our shit isn’t as special as everyone else's”.

After visiting the Apartheid Museum, an intense and moving experience, I found myself shaking my head at the fact that the theme park next door and the Apartheid museum is owned by the same company, (this company also has shares in the skin bleaching industry if I heard Peter Stark right, it was also a site where gold was struck when the Dutch were settling) this is capitalism, starkly Amoral, what makes money, makes money. It also made me think of the gentrification that’s been happening in London. A few weeks ago I overheard a guy outside a coffee shop in Bow, tell his friend he’s “moved to Hackney because it’s meant to be jumping”, but he’s disappointed with how many old people and school children are about. I had to pull him up and say “Hackney is a community, not a theme park”. But this is it, if you got money and no emotional investment in an area, you care less about the cost of your fun.

Later I visited Constitutional Hill, another intense experience looking at the condition of those jailed in the Apartheid era, including Gandhi and Winnie Mandela. Afterwards, just round the corner there was a musical theatre, walking out of these dreaded historical landmarks into singing and dancing (and you couldn’t overlook that the directors and most the actors were white), there’s something insensitive about that. I’m not saying anyone needs to be in constant shame, but rollercoasters and musicals? it feels like two long white middle fingers.

Speaking of Gentrification, I visited Maboneng this evening and met the community activists that managed to nurture relationships with the town property developers. A town that has investors and the guidance of a local community who see the area as a home, not a theme park. The money here is doing more than talk, it’s listening. The cynic in me wanted to tell the locals about Hackney and Brixton as a warning tale, but I didn’t need to, they understood. They felt they’ve managed to negotiate the space to suit both, local community and new investments. The artwork on the walls around the city is staggeringly striking. A large portrait of a young Nelson Mandela in his freedom fighter days, posing with boxing gloves on looms over the town. The statement is clear, the people here will not be moved from their own movement.

Thursday 9 July 2015

Iain Ewok Robinson On Whiteness In South Africa

Ewok as YOBO
“Can’t heal nothing without pain” – Toni Morrison

In 2012, after returning from teaching English and poetry in Cape Town Townships, I had my first photography exhibition as part of the Afrovibes Festival in The Albany, Deptford. I published a travel journal, “The Coloured Experience” alongside the exhibition. Chill Pill, the poetry night I co-curate has been in collaboration with The Albany for over four years now. Last year we collaborated with Afrovibes and installed a Chill Pill show inside a Township Cafe’ at The Albany. Currently, I am in South Africa looking to meet the nation's poets and poetry programmers to start potential international collaborations. Along the way I'm thrilled to meet Iain Ewok Robinson in Grahamstown and see his latest one man Spoken Word show, YOBO, which is a commentary and deconstruction of whiteness in South Africa.

First off, man, it’s been a long time in the making and we finally get to meet! When I was last in South Africa your name rang from Cape Town to Durban! I want to congratulate you on your new one-man Spoken Word show, YOBO. An ambitious piece and I applaud you for taking it on… so, what is “whiteness”?

Ha ha! Master Antrobus, it's been a highlight of my festival this year, touching base with a head like yourself.  So YOBO, yeah, ambitious, but from our perspective (my wife Karen is the co-creator and director) we just felt that there was no other way to approach this subject other than head-on as you said.

When I think "whiteness" I think "blinding white light".  It's a type of mental blindness inherent in most white people that allows us to view other races as victims, as oppressed, as previously disadvantaged, but somehow disables us when it comes to seeing ourselves as privileged, advantaged, as perpetuating an ongoing racist paradigm.  Whiteness is an act of "othering" if you will, of positioning white as normal and anything other than white as abnormal.  Whiteness is the result of centuries of inbred superiority along a completely arbitrary genetic difference, skin pigment.  It is a condition that allows us to say sorry but not to feel sorry, to hide away in plain site, to feel sorry for ourselves for being victims of self-inflicted guilt.  I think the idea for me was best encapsulated by an author called Peggy McIntosh in an essay called"White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack".  She says "White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks."

What’s racism got to do with us in 2015? (said the brown Brit to the white African)

The world has never been as readily accessible to us, in terms of our being globally connected through media, and yet even with this incredible expanded knowledge base we are somehow growing further apart.  Segregation along lines of class and race and religion is growing as rapidly as the technology that purports to bring us closer together.  We are finally seeing each other for who we really are: scared fight-or-flight animals with a consciousness that has us not at the top of the food chain but at the bottom of the crab bucket.  Racism is a manifestation of some of our most base animal instincts for survival at all costs.  Confronting it and transcending it means that we have to be able to see it, to recognise it, and the act of exposing racism in all of its manifestations is also an act of community, of coming together, or eradicating arbitrary categories and differences that enable us to be separated easily.  It's such an arbitrary category in fact, race, as evidenced by the existence of a brown Brit kicking it with a white African.  Humans, we seem to love labels so much, we buy into them because they seem to make us feel more certain of ourselves somehow.  Maybe it's because we are so settled in our consumerism that we respond so readily to these easy to apply images of each other.

YOBO got a standing ovation on the first night, but you mentioned walk out’s too, considering it’s a head on commentary and critique of Whiteness in South Africa, you must have expected that?

Yeah, totally, I think we ticked all the right boxes with that one!  Same story tonight at our second show: ovation at the end accompanied by one or two walk-outs during the piece.  What's interesting to me is when the walk-outs happen.  Tonight I managed to pin-point the exact moment.  It was during what is arguably the most judgmental part of the performance, a voice-over called "Dear White People" that is essentially about owning our privilege.  I will never know exactly what the reason was.  Maybe it had nothing to do with the show!  Maybe there was an emergency at home and they had to cut-out, but in all honesty I think it has more to do with people not wanting to feel preached at, not wanting to be challenged.  Some people come to theatre so that they can escape, or so that they can bare witness to someone else speaking their thoughts for them.  This piece, as you pointed out, tackles the topic head-on and doesn't leave you any room to hide really.  It was intended for that purpose, because I think that trying to make this subject matter comfortable for white-people is retroactive.  As one reviewer said, he was "looking for more charm, more humour, more enticement to enjoy…Maybe Robinson's too angry to sugar-coat the pill."  I think he nailed it.  I think that the time for mincing our words is long gone. 

Do you think YOBO could speak beyond your shores? For example, the US’s Black Lives Matter gets a name check, what conversation can be had internationally?

This piece is very specific in its use of South African-isms to localise the discussion, only because I don't feel equipped yet to deconstruct racism outside of my immediate context as a white South African male.  That being said, it does speak to the idea that the real work to be done in terms of addressing this condition of "whiteness", especially with the more hidden insidious institutional racism, is really about seeing it, exposing it and activating white artists and creatives to tackle it head-on by turning the tables.  As many international activists and writers have said recently in response to the exposing of the brutal racism that still exists within the American public policing system: Racism is not a black problem, it is a white problem, and the real work in righting this wrong needs to be done on white people by white people.

Brett Bailey on Exhibit B set
We were talking about Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B. When that show came to London it was protested, apparently there were no protests in South Africa, what do you think that says about racial consciousness in these two parts of the world?  

I don't think that South Africans have had enough large inclusive conversations about the notion of a type of institutional racism that seemed to typify the reactions that were the London protests.  For us race is still very much a he-said-she-said surface level type of personality clash, where to be racist is simply to use derogatory words or demean others through outright acts of dehumanisation.  This idea that there is an entrenched almost invisible superiority complex that pervades our society is only really being exposed now through the work around transformation being led by student groups and grass-roots activists at our universities e.g. #RhodesMustFall and #OpenStellies.  A lot of people here would have succumbed to the ease of simply brushing off Brett Bailey's work or ignoring it rather than confronting it.

You’re a musician, rapper, graffiti artist, educator and a parent… How does race play a part in each of these identities?

Well, I group all of those aspects of my career together as seeing myself as a Hip Hop artist, and Hip Hop culture taught me about race and politics and alternative education.  Hip Hop draws it's roots from black Jamaican and American working-class culture.  However, the power of Hip Hop is in its ability to transcend race, to cross borders and connect people beyond race, gender, age or language.  So expressing myself through the elements of Hip Hop culture has introduced me to the problem of stigmatised racial categorisation ("A white rapper?"), and it has shown me some solutions, at least enough for me to believe that we have the ability to connect beyond the barriers that we have constructed in our society.

The biggest barrier that I face as an educator in South Africa is language, which is still very much tied to institutionalised racism.  The oppression of indiginous black Africans through a dispossession of their language is for me the deepest cut of all.  Education is at crisis point here, and my ability to play a part in addressing that crisis is ham-strung by my inability to communicate effectively in any language other than English.  My work as a poet and a teacher comes with the bitter pill of reinforcing the dominance of English as a medium of instruction and mainstream communication in our country.

As a dad?  I want my son to speak twenty tongues and use every one to tell stories about the way we were and never want to be again!

As we’re both poets who teach, I have to ask, did Suli Breaks see your response to his Why I Love Education But Hate School and what’s the story behind that?

Yeah, he left a comment on the YouTube site, something like "I'm glad we can keep the debate alive."  I basically wanted to provide a vital balance to his seemingly one-sided argument about the validity of standardised schooling systems.  While I agreed with some aspects of his agenda, I just think that he didn't take into account the teachers themselves, at all, or the parents.  He grouped them all together into one "education system" that completely dehumanised the incredible individuals I have come across, both as teachers and as colleagues.  I know from first-hand experience how teachers and parents have to struggle to navigate the dominant education system that serves to produce cogs for the capitalist machinery, where they are having to satisfy the education outcomes of policies that are determined by politically aligned committees and look good on paper, but when you have to apply them to "real-time" teaching, face-to-face classroom connections and conditions, prove to be lacking.

So Ewok, we’ll be seeing each other in Sweden alongside Sage Francis in October for the Ordsprak Festival. The force is with us… right?

Yeah yeah!  There's a powerful posse of poetic heads lining up for the Swedish journey, and the Upsaala Ordsprak Festival 2015 looks set to be some continent shifting consciousness connecting brother, best be warned!  Three days of Slam, Spoken Word and the purest poetry.  Salute my man, see you there!

Follow Ewok on Twitter - @EwokEssay