Kiss My Black Side Cool conversations with Black Creatives
With Brenda Emmanus OBE
Broadcaster and journalist Brenda Emmanus OBE leads conversations with successful Black creatives who have made a significant impact in dance, film, fashion, music, theatre and visual arts.
Together they discuss their work and ambitions, delve into issues central to their field of practice, spotlight other exceptional talent and celebrate Black arts with specially commissioned spoken word and poetry.
Brenda’s guests include filmmaker Jeymes Samuel (The Harder They Fall) singer Emeli Sandé, choreographer Jonzi D, fashion designer Avis Charles and theatre director Tinuke Craig.
Brenda Emmanus OBE is a television presenter and journalist working across print, radio and television. She has established her career across a range of genres – news and current affairs, popular factual, travel, fashion and the arts. Brenda has presented features and documentaries on a broad range of subjects from Princess Diana to African Fashion. She has interviewed some of the biggest names in arts and entertainment – from Oprah Winfrey and Maya Angelou, to Sir Elton John and Tom Cruise. Brenda was awarded an OBE in 2019 for services to Broadcasting and Diversity.
From Break Beats to Ballet – Black Dance in Britain
In conversation with Precious Adams, Jonzi D and Sharon Watson MBE, DL
Brenda Emmanus OBE chats with a trio of influential Black dance talent – Precious Adams, Jonzi D and Sharon Watson – who share their stories of reaching success in the dance world – from acknowledging their passion for the art form, to dealing with changing perceptions and promoting more diversity in dance.
A State of Independence – taking ownership of the Black Narrative
In conversation with Jeymes Samuel and Anthony & Teanne Andrews
A dynamic film director and a duo curating Black cinema experiences for a deep dive into how Black creatives are taking ownership of not only their stories but how they are being presented to an audience.
Does this come in Black?
In conversation with Saul Nash and Avis Charles
Broadcaster and journalist Brenda Emmanus, OBE catches up with two celebrated fashion designers to talk accolades, Black history and all things couture.
Sistas are Singin it for Themselves
In conversation with Emili Sandé and Nadine Benjamin
Brenda Emmanus, OBE chats with two music stars – women whose trajectory to success took a circuitous route but have emerged more themselves than before.
Black British Theatre – a Renaissance?
In conversation with Clint Dyer, Stella Kanu and Tinuke Craig
Host Brenda Emmanus, OBE brings together three Black theatre creatives to deliver an insightful conversation on the arts, and the place of Black practitioners and audiences within it.
Visual Arts – Seeking our spaces
In conversation with Curtis Holder and Bolanle Tajudeen
Brenda Emmanus, OBE talks to two established black voices in the world of visual arts achieving success in their own unique ways.
Host and Producer: Brenda Emmanus OBE
Assistant Producer: Petal Felix
Recording and Editing: Pretty Fire Productions
Music Composed by: Max Cyrus
Image Design: Ben Wachenje
Spoken Word Poets curated by Natalie Stewart – Flo Vortex
A Sadler’s Wells production, as part of Well Seasoned on Digital Stage
Produced by Free Spirit Productions Limited
From Break Beats to Ballet - Black Dance in Britain
Hello and welcome to Kiss My Black Side with me, Brenda Emmanus. This is a celebratory look at art from a Black perspective. In this show, we talk to some brilliantly talented creatives who have made their mark in the world of dance film, fashion, music, theatre, and the visual arts. We discuss their work and inspiration, and then we get to do a little deep dive on issues related to their specific artform.
And as we’re talking, we figured it would be nice to end each programme with a specially commissioned spoken-word tribute to our chosen topic, which in this episode is Dance. This podcast is produced by Free Spirit Productions Ltd and brought to you by Sadler’s Wells. Sadler’s Wells is one of the world’s leading dance organisations and in 2022 they’re celebrating work by Black dance artists with Well Seasoned, a year long programme of live performances, dance films and more from Black choreographers, dancers and artists of colour.
My guest for this episode of Kiss My Black Side includes Sadler’s Wells, associate artist and founder of the amazing International Festival of hip hop dance theatre, Breakin’ Convention. He’s a choreographer, dancer, producer and all-round nice guy, Jonzi D. I’m also joined by an incredible talent who I find as addictive to watch as some people find ASMR to listen to. She’s a World-Class ballet dancer from Michigan who has spent the last eight years in the UK dancing for English National Ballet. Her name, Precious Adams, and our final and equally awesome guest is currently the fourth principal of the Northern School of Contemporary Dance. Prior to this, she was the longest standing artistic director of Phoenix Dance Theatre. Welcome. Sharon Watson, MBE.
Hi, everyone. Thank you very much for joining me. I feel truly honoured to have you all here. How are we?
Precious, I would love to start with you because every little girl’s dream is to be a ballet dancer. But then reality bites. I know they certainly did for me. I just didn’t have the talent, but why ballet for you, over any other dance form?
It might sound cliche, but I really think it was perhaps like my life’s calling. I’ve been obsessed with ballet since I was about eight years old. And when I say obsessed, I mean, like, very obsessed. I would just go to the library and rent every book and every DVD. It was what I wanted to spend all of my time doing, like living, breathing, sleeping. Since I was around eight or nine years old, but I think with anything you choose to do in life, you have to pick something that you’re just incredibly passionate about. So, for me, it just happened to be dance above anything else. Like, nothing else has ever sparked my interest to that degree.
Now, I know I got into television because there were certain journalists, I saw on screen that looked like me and made me feel it was possible. Did you have that or were there any Black ballet dancers? Or were you aware that it was an arena in which there were very few Black women?
Um, I think I really only became aware of that probably when I was around 11 or 12. I think I was quite naive and was perhaps in my own little bubble where it made me happy. And there is something very welcoming about the dance community anyways in general, especially when it’s recreational. So, it just never really occurred to me. I think I was just so in love with the art form and then I also think that, you know, this is like right before YouTube, so I just wasn’t exposed too much. I also didn’t know that it was a possibility to become a professional ballet dancer. I’ve never seen an actual ballet production live until I was about eight or nine, so I didn’t even know that there was really the profession of becoming a ballerina. And I think just from lack of exposure and culture, I thought I was like the only Black kid in the world doing ballet, which was kind of silly and stupid, but I think that’s what I thought for a few years.
I can understand why. So, Jonzi, did dance find you, or did you find dance?
Jonzi D: 04:48
I was dancing way before I was born. I think that my mum, her heartbeat, I think I was jammin to that while I was still there, do you know what I mean? Seriously, because for me, I don’t remember not dancing ever. You know, I grew up in a family of six kids, and all of them danced. So, I just immediately appeared just doing the Dougie already. So, yeah, the dance was always in my life.
Was that the same for you, Sharon?
Sharon: 05:29 It was a little bit, slightly different. I can’t really answer that, whether who found who because it was in my middle school, and middle schools don’t exist anymore. But at the age of nine, I had my first dance lesson, and I knew then, it was my calling. And that was quite incredible because I knew nothing about it. I literally had my sister, who was my example of what dance was about, and she had two years ahead of me doing dance. By the time I got to my first year in secondary school, I had one lesson and it was for me. I came home and told my parents `that’s good’, at 16 I’m going to train to be a professional dancer. 16 came and I was off. So, everything was a cacophony of ideas, emotions, feelings, expressions that just collided and made it all possible. So yeah, it happened in that one moment.
Now, I can only assume for all three of you to get to the stage where you have in your careers, it’s taken some resilience, some challenge to overcome and obviously a phenomenal amount of talent. For you Precious, what would you say got you to where are? What was it that helped you to navigate and steer your way to this level of your career?
I think it was just the initial passion I had for the art form and my love of dancing. There’s kind of I mean, you know, I think it was when I was ten years old, but I figured out, oh, you can have a career as a ballet dancer and do that as a profession. And from that moment on, there was there was just nothing that could possibly happen that was going to stop me.
Like, if I had to walk to ballet lessons because there was no one there to drive me, then I was going to walk to ballet lessons. That’s just the level of, I don’t know if you would use the word insanity or obsession, but I’d like to use the word passionate.
I call that commitment.
And I think that’s also what I think my parents saw. And they were like, okay, well, there’s nothing holding her back. She’s obviously going to give this 100% of her energy and effort. And so I don’t think they ever doubted that I would find a way to make a living or find some form of success down this path, whether that was, you know, working at a big ballet company or not, whether that was Harvard or you wanted to find success or whatever. I think they were just sort of like, she’s obviously working so hard. It’s going to pay off in some kind of way. And I think I believe that as well.
I mean, it may or may not have, but when did or did it ever; being a Black woman in the ballet world become an issue or a talking point or something that you thought you had to think about?
I would say it was probably after like 15, it just never came up. I mean, I remember my cousin once asking me when I was like nine years old or something, she saw a picture of my dance troupe, and she was like, how come you’re the only Black one? And it just never crossed my mind, and I was like, I don’t know. And like, literally, I wasn’t thinking about anything. You know, you’re a kid, you’re nine years old. You don’t really think about stuff so deeply. But then it was when I was around, I would say like 15 or 16, I think when you’re kind of getting closer to that age, when you really need to start thinking about what are my professional prospects, what are my professional possibilities? Where could I really see like my career going? Where could I dance? Where could I really have a career based on my physique? My capabilities? All of those things. And then when opportunities started to come about to perform on stage, that’s when I think I started to become a little bit more aware of… Okay, like things might be a little bit different for me. Oh, certain things aren’t as straightforward for me. Oh, I need to sort my hair out for this. And I would kind of just deal with it or sort it out on my own. But yeah, I would say it was in my mid-teens when the conversation started to come up.
I remember when I started my career, I remember thinking I would never apply to the BBC because there’s no one at the BBC that looked like me and I did it privately, but once in there you realise that you can’t change anything from the outside. You have to be in it and what’s been really inspiring about watching you is that you’ve kind of taken that responsibility and made changes, albeit because they were personal to you. Do you feel that sense of responsibility? Did you feel, for example, when you demanded to wear brown tights as opposed to pink, that this change was not just for you?
Well, OK, I didn’t like demand to like wear brown tights. I have to be so clear about that because I think people really want to depict me as this rebel and as this, you know, as like a difficult person, which I think is what really stinks about trying to be progressive or even just like, have a conversation or bring something up is, you’re instantly seen as a troublemaker.
And that’s so not the case. I waited until my first promotion when I was going to be doing more soloist work. So, when I was going to be lifted out of the corps de ballet, when I felt like it was an appropriate time for me to bring up the subject and like, mind you, brown tights also wasn’t something that ever really crossed my mind as well, until pretty close to when I was 18 years old. It didn’t cross my mind until I was 18 years old. Like, that’s literally how I mean, you could say it’s perhaps because I’ve been wired, perhaps brainwashed, perhaps naive would be the word, like, how come it never crossed my mind? I don’t know, but it was because one of my ex-teachers was at the ballet competition, and I did the first round of the competition wearing pink tights, and they just came up to me and they were like, you should wear brown tights, it will look so much better. And I was like, Oh, okay. And then it did, and it looked amazing. And I was like, Oh!, it was like a light bulb went off in my head.
But then you join a company and you just kind of go with the flow. So, when the time was right, I had, had a promotion and so I asked my director for a meeting, and we had a conversation, and I actually started a conversation with `Why are tights pink?’ and she didn’t have an answer. So, then I went on to explain to her, I was like, you know, my colleagues look one way, I look another way. From the outside looking in, I see them, they look so aesthetically pleasing because it’s all coherent and then there’s me and it’s like colour blocking. And I was like, What do you think about me wearing tights more often on stage? I’ve started to do it more in rehearsals because you’re allowed to wear what you want in rehearsals in a ballet company. If purple tights are required in rehearsal, then you wear purple tights. You can wear whatever you want, as long as your physique can be seen kind of thing.
And she was like, Okay, well, that’s a good idea, we’ll consider and look at which parts and which costumes it will work for. So that was in 2017 or so. And so now when you fast forward, like at the Royal Opera House, every show I have seen in the past 18 months, every Black dancer has on black tights for every act. And that’s the white acts in Swan Lake, that’s the white acts in Giselle, they have on brown tights. And I think that’s just like huge progress because how it started with and ENB, I would only wear brown tights for certain pieces and certain acts. So, like for example, on Swan Lake only for Act one and three, I would wear brown tights and then acts two and four I would wear pink tights.
For them, their logic was, okay, so maybe when you’re playing a human you wear brown tights, but if you’re playing a fictional, you know, Ok, it’s a swan, everyone’s wearing white, we’re going to go with the white, pink tights or whatever, you know what I mean? And then eventually, it was slow but again, these are the sorts of things that almost don’t matter or make any sense to people that don’t look like me. And I had to spend so much time trying to get my Caucasian colleagues and friends to understand my perspective because they literally did not understand it. They were like, I don’t think the pink tights look weird on you and having to try to convince people of the lens that I see the world through was kind of tiring because it also made me doubt whether or not it was worth it and whether or not I was doing the right thing? You know.
It’s a case of each one, teach one, isn’t it?
But Jonzi, is it all about the timing for you in terms of Breakin’ Convention? It is at such a level now, it’s incredible. You’re bringing the best of hip hop talent from all around the world to this little London, well it’s not little. You know, this space in Islington, this renowned world class stage. I can’t imagine that was easy.
Jonzi D: 14:27
It starts before that. So, for me, I feel that coming from an activist environment. My parents were activists and I remember a book about Muhammad Ali that was just left in my room, for some reason, I don’t know why but it greatly influenced me in relation to why are we here? You know, and I love dance. I grew up with dance, but I didn’t grow up with the dance apartheid that I discovered when I started actually looking at this as a career.
So, for me, hip hop dance is just a dance style. And then when I started looking at, you know, doing dance class and stuff, I realised that there was a very different approach to what dance is. And I started to realise that there was a strata. When people talked about high arts, people would refer to classical ballet and contemporary dance and I didn’t see what I was doing at the time as being in this world. So, then it made me think, okay, well if that’s high is what I’m doing low? If we’re using this type of language, it begs the question, do you know what I mean? So, I’ll never forget, I told a story often. I’ll never forget being at Lewisham College in 1988 and it was a dance foundation course and the plan being to go on to higher education.
I ended up going to London Contemporary Dance School, which was absolutely amazing. But the question that I asked when we were studying jazz at the time, I asked, are we going to learn anything about hip hop? And I was told by my theory dance theory teacher at the time, no, because we want to look at preparing you for the marketplace. And to be fair, the marketplace at the time, you didn’t see that much hip hop, particularly in the theatre. So, at that point, I said things have to change, you know? So, my constant drive has been looking at different dance forms and maybe dance forms that don’t have a history of the court dances of Louis the 16th.
Maybe we need to look at some other roots of where dance comes from. So that’s been my journey consistently looking at, you know, reggae dance, Jamaican dance forms, looking all over the world of where dance exists and this language of dance and how it needs to be much more diversified. So, Breakin’ Convention ultimately came out of that. Looking at this dance form, shared by the whole world, everybody has access to this dance style. You mentioned earlier `each one, teach one.’ This is one of the fundamental things about hip hop. It’s not enshrined by an institution. So, access to this dance form is much more I guess, peer to peer. The development of hip hop has created these huge events that are happening around the world. Huge battle events. And I guess Breakin’ Convention is part of that, even though battling isn’t central to it. But it’s a way in which the whole of society can now engage equally, I suppose.
And I think that’s what’s been revelatory about constantly turning up for Breakin’ Convention, it’s just how open and diverse the audiences are. The fact is everyone assumes that hip hop is urban, but the audience is so eclectic.
Jonzi D: 18:21
Well, the audience is urban because I think urban is a term that is kind of a euphemism for black. But we’re all black. If we’re going to go, there. So, we’re all into this music. We’re all into this culture. Do you know what I mean? and I think that the roots of it are clearly from an African perspective, an African-American perspective. But aren’t most art forms that become really popular? If you look at the West End, you’ll see lots of jazz dance there and increasingly lots of hip hop. So, for me, I think that we need to look at what dance is in the world today. There’s not one type.
Now, Sharon part of your early career was as a first female dancer in Phoenix Dance Theatre. Tell me about that experience and do you feel it’s important that dance groups such as Phoenix, and I remember when I saw first Alvin Ailey and a couple of weeks ago, I saw Ballet Black, what role do you think Black dance groups serve?
It’s quite incredible, actually, because I think like Precious, there was a lot of unexplained happenings that just happened. I think there was some naivety around the beginnings of who and how in terms of the seeing the Black body on stage, and a lot of acceptance as to just exactly what it was that we were delivering and why it was happening. The question that Jonzi asked is, what’s the purpose? I don’t always believe that we knew that in the early days. Being one of four, it was a novelty to a lot of people. And actually, it wasn’t until we were on the inside that we understood the importance of who we were and how we were able to influence. I also went to London contemporary dance school to train, and it was a phenomenal experience.
And I don’t really remember having the kind of politicised conversations around who I am as an artist. But getting into Phoenix, it suddenly became so visible, and we were being politicised, so it was a very different way of delivering and actually, you know, it was narrow by comparison, you know, we didn’t, we trained in classical ballet, but we didn’t deliver it on stage. We did some hip hop, we did some jazz, we did a bit of tai chi. We did all of the art forms, but contemporary was our narrative form that we were able to tell our stories. But we were held on a pedestal, we really were, because there was nothing else like that and to see ten Black bodies on stage being dynamic, being as equal to any of the other companies in the UK, not necessarily getting the same kind of credit, but we matched what was happening and it was a phenomenal experience because it did take us around the world, which I don’t know how I would have done that otherwise, whether my career without Phoenix would have really helped me to expand that visibility and to be that visible. So, we were yeah, we talk about it often as the first females entering that space that was held by Black men, which we never dreamt was ever going to be possible, let alone seeing six Black men in the first instance.
So we were, yeah, they were breaking the mould and I feel that even today we’re losing that, it’s becoming more and more diluted. We are losing those power moments of seeing something so powerful because it’s been replicated and tried to replicate it in so many ways, but it is actually diluting the potency of Black visibility and Black engagement and Black narrative. So, there is yeah, something that we have to hold on to.
And is that significant, having these groups and you as dancers important for you as well as for the audiences because these shows are always packed out. I’ve not been to one dance show, to one Black dance company that hasn’t been sold out or packed out.
I think holding that space becomes imperative. It becomes imperative to our narrative of British culture. It becomes imperative in terms of the way that we cross the Atlantic, in terms of understanding a lot of our influences at a time, I have to say, came from America. So, we were influenced by Alvin Ailey and Harlem and Bebe Miller and various other companies and the National Dance Theatre of Jamaica, although they weren’t quite in the headlights in the same way. But we had connections with them because they were our role models and I guess it’s not okay to sit in the 21st century and say that everyone has the same equal parts in what we do because then you don’t really understand the deficit that we’re trying to make up with some of the work that we’ve been doing, some of the voices that are actually on the platforms and some of the celebrations of what we’ve contributed to British society and to British culture. We will lose that if we don’t really kind of hold on to what it is that we’re able to offer.
In terms of celebrating – Precious, how much has having the likes of Alvin Ailey Dance Company and seeing someone like Misty Copeland escalate and then you yourself winning awards, what did that mean for you as a dancer in this space?
So, the celebratory side of seeing representation in Black representation and dance is one. I think they’re big symbols of visibility and progress. However, I have to say what I see, the way I see Dance of Harlem and Alvin Ailey versus Misty Copeland, they’re almost like two different things because Misty Copeland is someone who’s penetrating a very white space, which is really important. And I almost see that as different work because she’s, I don’t know, it’s like she’s penetrating these spaces and she’s causing a lot of influence on this. Like, perhaps I don’t know, if you want to use the word like in this mainstream space or in this white space or whatever, but she’s caused a lot of performance. And I think that there’s a hugely important role to play, kind of like occupying that space because I think it caused a lot of influence. But then on the other hand, of course, out of the necessity, we have our Black dance companies that are kind of there. I mean, at least they started out as being there to really serve the Black community and to enrich our Black communities and to give culture back to our people so that we could feel seen and represented and all of that.
And now, you know, and then it expands to a place where it’s also educating a wider spectrum of people and everything. But it all just plays a role in representation and visibility which just influences the population in a positive way and helps us all to be able to relate to each other, whether we’re the same or whether we’re different. I think it helps to just educate the population and to extend all of our minds to feel as though we can relate to one another.
And there was there was an exhibition and I think it was in 2014 in Liverpool. I think it was at Liverpool Slave Museum, looking at the history of Black Dance, and it was absolutely fascinating. There’s so much to learn and the names I had never, I know I have picked up on this in previous conversations with you, Jonzi, about whether, and with other practitioners in this space, whether you can define what is Black Dance? I know you have a particular view on this. Do you want to share with us?
Jonzi D: 25:53
Love to. So, I think it’s these two things. Yeah. One, it’s from a cultural perspective, what has the African diaspora offered in relation to dance language? Yeah. And there’s a lot of it. There’s so much, you know, and we can look at it from a historical perspective. We can look at it from a migratory perspective. How African people, as a result of the slave trade, just in migration anyway, we’ve brought culture to different parts of the world. Yeah. So, I think that Black dance is one, the dance that comes from the culture of Black people, but also and this is very important, it’s just dancing. If you’re Black and you’re dancing, that’s Black dance. I don’t think that’s hard to get your head around personally, but hey, I’d love to know what you guys think.
All right, Sharon, what do you think?
I disagree with that, Jonzi. I honestly can’t because I think for the very early days, I think some of the criticisms that we were that kind of was imposed on us was that we weren’t doing traditional dance. But then I had no connections with traditional dance. I had contemporary dance. That was what I was brought up to express and to experience. And actually, over the years, you begin to understand that actually the African diaspora is so broad that you could do anything. And even being in my skin as a Black woman then, yeah, that’s Black dance for me. So, you can sometimes get drawn into the channels that don’t necessarily belong to you when you’re trying to defend an argument around what is Black dance? And your often kind of led into spaces that you end up with the political arguments about what, you know, money’s given for Black dance but you’re not a Black dance company, what is a Black company? and you’re bouncing around for years and years.
There is no one answer other than if you look like us, you are doing Black dance.
Is that your perspective Precious? Because obviously you’re doing ballet in a mainstream ballet company and you’re a lack dancer. So, what’s your argument here? What’s your opinion on what’s said?
Oh, gosh, it’s really hard to pin it down based off of what you, Jonzi, and Sharon have both made really interesting points. However, I, I mean, because then someone can argue that me putting on pink tights in the first place is, like, I don’t know, reverse racism or something. I don’t know, like, there’s so many like, insane things that can be said, which is why I would rather dispel all the complexity in the layers of these arguments.
And just because, you know, its cultural appropriation, it’s this, it’s that, it’s the other. And it’s like, no, actually, this is like a seriously globalised world. Like, everything is everyone’s. And unless we kind of view things that way and if we’re so possessive over things or that’s where the discriminatory and that’s where those attitudes come from, we’re not all just walking into each other’s spaces and saying, oh, it’s just like it’s all fusion, we’re all, it’s all mixed anyways, you know, we’re all here to like to share and to give and to learn from each other with each other, which is maybe it’s my crazy hippy dippy naive perspective or whatever, but I think that’s just how I like to see things. It’s just dance
It is so hugely complex. I was just thinking, coming up at Sadler’s Wells is Germaine Acogny who’s doing Pina Bausch. So, is that because her company is all Black dance, make that Black dance, but it’s a white choreographer? It’s a very complex issue.
I actually wrote about this for Sadler’s Wells. They had a Guests Selects, Digital Stage and I included that rendition of Pina Bausch’s choreography with all African cast, and I said, actually, typically I always preach about how I think typecasting is wrong but actually in this case using all African cast on this beach in Senegal was incredibly powerful because they’re all connected in this way. For example, when I did the Chosen One with English National Ballet on Sadler’s Wells stage, there was something very kind of artificially manufactured about creating the spiritual experience, which is what Pina Bausch was trying to do back when she first produced this. But you’re literally taking a stage in the middle of London or Paris where it was first done, covering it with dirt and doing this like spiritual sacrificial dance. And it’s actually weird when you think about it.
It’s super obscure, and it actually, almost makes more sense the way that it was staged with the all Black cast on an actual beach that naturally has Earth. Like, that’s really doing, I think that’s really depicting what Pina Bauch was trying to do actually, in a more authentic and real way, than trying to manufacture it in the middle of a city for white audiences.
You know, so yeah, I mean, I guess that’s what art is there to do anyways, to get us all thinking because you can break it apart any which way.
And we certainly are thinking here. Jonzi?
Jonzi D: 31:25
Yeah. I was just thinking of the audiences, do you know what I mean? Because I think what’s happened is that there’s a divide. Do you know what I mean? And there’s not Black people that don’t even look at going to the theatre because generally, particularly in dance theatre, generally there’s not that much that’s targeted for that community. I think that particularly in London the theatre scene has definitely advanced in relation to that, where there’s Black audiences that are saying, I see myself so therefore I want to go and check it out. And I think that for along time, and particularly as I was studying dance, I just didn’t see myself.
I just want to big up Phoenix right now because if it was not for Phoenix coming to my school when I was 13 years old, I wouldn’t be here now. It was them, directly that made me realise that I can be part of this world as well. So, I really feel strongly about making sure we’re still doing that for the younger generation.
That must be incredibly powerful for you to hear, Sharon. But what’s exciting is that you’re now in a leadership role where you can make a difference and you can initiate change. How excited and determined are you with this new position? How do you feel about being a principal?
I love it. I absolutely love it. I think if you were to ask me many moons ago whether or not I would be in this place, I never saw it because again, I haven’t seen anyone that’s doing this leadership role. But I understand the power that I have in the same way as being the AD for Phoenix. I think there’s something about understanding the power of it and making room for others. It’s a hard space to be in. And because the wheel turns so slowly and by the time you’ve managed to make things happen without really breaking the ship, without breaking the, you know, the entirety of the organisation, in order to make change, you’ve got to steer very clear very carefully.
And you know, I kind of feel as though very early on I was, I was gifted with an ability to teach and to educate and to inform and to influence. So, I feel that my gift right now is coming to the fore in terms of a full circle, having experienced being a dancer, having been through the training process, having supported the training process, and now we’re stepping into a space where you’re actually really trying to keep your elbows wide because the political agenda, the agenda of government, society and all of those things that looks at a young person and says, “you’re not meant to do this” or “this isn’t for you”, has to be part of my kind of my drive. And I know that I’m sometimes known as a maverick in terms of what I want to do. But behind the scenes there is that real challenge of trying to dig away at that change, which actually becomes critical to the survival of who we are as artists, of who we are as people, and how we share that responsibility within society, that says dance or art per say, is for you.
So, I do love my role and I’m only two years into it and I say only because it only feels like I’ve just got going. So, I’m hoping that what I’m able to do and able to achieve begins to resonate and looks very different to what it was two years ago.
I love you guys, not just because of what you do, but what you say. And this could go on forever. What I’d love to do now is this part of the programme we call Pass the Baton where you can tell me about someone that inspired you, and it could be somebody from the past or somebody that you feel is worth looking out for currently. That has really inspired me. So, we can share with the audience, and they can go into a deep dive and discover them themselves. So Precious, can I start with you? Who would you like to pass the baton onto?
There’s two people that come to mind. Kevin Thomas. He’s the director of the Collective, sorry Collage Dance Collective in Memphis, Tennessee. And I think that what he has done is really significant. He has ideals essentially to replicate Dance Theatre of Harlem, but in kind of in the South in America and really start a Black dance organisation that’s kind of expanded into a huge power within the community and him and his partner like have managed to build this on their own. And I just wish more people knew about it because I think that, I think it just takes so much courage to do what he’s done and then to be successful with it as well. I think it’s just really, really powerful, and significant. And then the other person that comes to mind is Erica Walsh who is also a ballet dancer. She’s a dancer at American Ballet Theatre. But I recently met her, and I just thought the way with which she kind of goes through life, I thought was really, really special because it can be really, she’s also the Black dancer in a white ballet company, but she just didn’t seem as tightly wound as everybody I know, who just works for about a company, period.
But yeah, like let alone a dancer, let alone like a Black dancer in those spaces, which is just, like, really refreshing. Have so much respect for her because I think that sometimes it can all just get really, really serious and really, really heavy. And it’s just kind of like, oh my God, it doesn’t have to be. You can actually just like…
Yeah, you can actually just like enjoy it. And that’ll actually just influence people on its own. And people will just want to, like, keep more of us around and more of us in these spaces, you know? And so, I just really loved her, her energy, and her perspective. And I think she’s one to look out for as well.
Two amazing people to check out. Jonzi, who are your choices?
Jonzi D: 37:27
Um, I’ve only got one off the top, my head, to be honest with you, Ivan Blackstock, um, he’s someone who I’ve been working with for quite a bit. He did, his company, BirdGang, who’s he’s left over the last couple of years, but he started a company called BirdGang, and they performed their first ever Breakin’ Convention in 2006. But he’s, he’s been really pushing. His work. He’s been doing film and he did an amazing show called Traplord, which was a Sadler’s Wells helped produce it. And also, the Manchester International Festival. It was performed at 180 The Strand in a very, I guess a bespoke space for his work. What I really love about him is he’s resilience and his determination and his very unique vision of hip hop theatre. It goes` in,’ I just want to say and it’s very challenging, you know what I mean? But for me, some of the artists that I’ve loved over the years, people like Michael Clark, who really kind of pushed the boat out, I think that that’s what Ivan is doing today for the, for the 2020s. And I mean, it’s amazing for him.
Sharon, who’s your baton going to?
I’m going to pinch, you’ve already mentioned one, I’m going to pinch a couple of your spaces there, Jonzi. But it’s interesting because a lot of the people I admire for very different reasons. And Sharon Ray, who’s over in America, we lost Leonora Stapleton earlier this year who were role pioneers. You know, Paulette Brooks who’s got serendipity, who’s bringing us a new platform for visual stimulus in terms of culture and Kully Thiarai, who’s at the current moment, she’s the Leeds 2023 creative director. It’s just I mean; she saw Phoenix back in the day. And it’s just one of those things where, you know, that one drop has managed to make many things happen. And I think at this moment in time, there’s two people that I would love to shout out to, and one is Alethia Antonia, who is a young PhD student right now, who’s creating work from a place of self. And I just think she’s going to make marks and she is making marks. And the other one is the current rehearsal director for Phoenix Dance Theatre, who I think has developed a backbone of steel and, you know, and ambition. And I just think whilst they are relatively young in these positions, people like us are able to really give them to support, the visibility and the strength. So, I’m going to hand over those two batons to Joanne Bernard and Alethia Antonia.
Thank you. Well, we’ve come to the end, so I want to say a huge thank you to our creative, constructive and celebratory conversations led by you guys. You’ve been absolutely brilliant. We end the programme with a specially commissioned spoken word contribution by slow poet, Mr I Am Jones. Enjoy everyone and do join us again for Kiss my Black Side.
A State of Independence – taking ownership of the Black narrative
Hello and welcome to Kiss My Black Side with me, Brenda Emmanus. This is a celebratory look at art from a Black perspective. In this show, we talk to some brilliantly talented creatives who have made their mark in the world of dance, film, fashion, music, theatre, and the visual arts. We discuss their work and inspiration, and then we get to do a little deep dive on issues related to their specific art form.
And as we’re talking, we figured it would be nice to end each programme with a specially commissioned spoken word tribute to our chosen topic, which in this episode is Film. This podcast is produced by Free Spirit Productions Ltd and brought to you by Sadler’s Wells. Sadler’s Wells is one of the world’s leading dance organisations, and in 2022, they’re celebrating work by Black dance artists with Well Seasoned; a year-long programme of live performances, dance films and more from Black choreographers, dancers and artists of colour.
Now, excellent talent is what we’re bringing you in this episode in the form of writer, composer and director Jeymes Samuel, whose debut feature film The Harder They Fall, has been a truly exciting and refreshing cinema offering. This all-star, all-Black, unique take on the Western film genre was so original and thrilling, and featured a to-die-for A-list cast which included the likes of Regina King and Idris Elba. Our other guests are the dynamic duo behind We Are Parable, an award-winning company that provides audiences with opportunities to experience Black cinema in culturally relevant, memorable and unique ways. Anthony and Teanne Andrews have taken the cinema experience of watching Black films beyond sitting with your mates and a box of popcorn to creating a legacy of bespoke experiences for Black audiences.
A Kiss My Black Side special welcome to you all.
Jeymes, I’m so glad we got you. I was absolutely ecstatic about the film; it was so genuinely refreshing. What do you think resonated with audiences because it was well-received?
I think the reason why it was so well-received is just, you know, giving people something that they’ve been… they’ve been missing from the Western, Western genre, something that they’ve been missing from that genre and… In a… putting a new perspective on it, right? I would say a correct perspective on it. One in four cowboys were Black, cowboys was something that was given to Black people. It wasn’t even the name for white folks, they were called Cow hands. So, I think when you put all of these things into context and you create from that, from that standpoint, you’re always going to have something that, that touches a nerve and strikes a chord with the message because it’s something that they’ve never really seen before.
And also just, you know, the… the unapologetic approach to the filmmaking. I think that’s why, that’s why it was received in the way it was. And also, you know, I’m a G, so when I do… [Brenda laughs] So, yeah, I can give you a Shakespearean answer and sound all intelligent, but the fact of the matter is, I’m a G, you know.
But I think being a G means that you are authentic, and it is that, I think it’s that authenticity of the work that also resonate with people but very, not many Black filmmakers have the opportunity to do what they want in such a bold way. How comes you find yourself in that position?
I think it’s just who I am as a person. You know, it took me, like, probably over ten years to put this, put this film together, so, the only way, the only reason why it took so long for me is because I wanted to do it in the fashion and the way that I wanted to, I wanted to do it. If I shot it, you know, like ten years, ten plus years ago, it would’ve been a much smaller film. I would’ve had to make a lot more compromises and this, that and the other but in you putting it together. You kind of have to wait for the universe to catch up, so to speak. You know, the reason why a lot of us creatives in general, not just Black people, don’t find themselves in that type of position is because they, you know, they want to make something, and they need to make it kind of immediately. They need to make it as soon as they get the opportunity. I had opportunities to make a version of this film, but it wouldn’t have been the way I wanted. So just was a longer wait. And that way, when I do do it, it was in the fashion where I have the freedom and the creative where with all to do what it is I need to do.
I remember interviewing Spike Lee once and asking him whether he felt a weight of responsibility when he was filmmaking in the fact that Black audiences are starved of original narratives, you know, and there seems to be, we put a lot of pressure on our filmmakers to deliver something that we’re gonna be excited about and good. When you have a cast which is so amazing, and you’re redressing historical balance in terms of narrative. Did you feel a sense of responsibility?
Yeah, I think you feel a sense of responsibility. Kind of just brushing your teeth in the morning, like, just being Black and then the position that we’re in. And I don’t mean in successful business. I just mean, you know, working in this industry and in this business on any level. I believe you do have a responsibility, whether you want the responsibility or… or not. You know, I can’t really speak for anyone else, but I welcome the responsibility. And you do have a responsibility to tell the story and to give your people something that they… they can hold up and be proud and be proud of and something that represents us, you know, in the dope, in the dope way. So, you do it, you have a strong responsibility to not be careless with your, with your narrative and not be careless with your, with your presentation. And also, that responsibility makes you stand by your guns even more with things that you’re, that you’re going to put in a movie or put in your, you know, your artistic endeavour and that you’re not going to change. You refuse to change. So, there’s a lot of those things but it does boil down to responsibility a lot of times.
And before you cut your teeth as a director, you were an accomplished singer-songwriter who went with the moniker The Bullitts. And you’ve worked with such an eclectic mix of artists from Damon Albarn and Mos Def to Charlotte Gainsbourg. How important is it to you to mash it up in that way to work with such a diverse mix of people?
It’s super important. I think, you know, the people I work with are people I listen to, right? I don’t have a track record of working with a bunch of randos that I don’t actually revere. So, people I work with, I love them. And, you know, that’s super important because then your ideas, your ideas keep flowing, your ideas come to you. But if you’re working with people that you don’t really love or don’t move you in that way, for me at least I’m stifled, idea wise, my ideas stream keeps flowing, but I think that’s because I keep collaborating with people that are just super dope and inspire me with ideas.
Now, speaking of super dope and inspiring, you have a special relationship with Jay-Z, which is long and has been formed over a long and solid time. How would you best describe your relationship and how you collaborate and what you learn from each other?
We’re just brothers. We met by Jay Electronica when I was producing Jay Electronica’s album, like in 2010? We did a song called Dinner at Tiffany’s with Charlotte Gainsbourg and Jay Elec. From then we were just brothers, a brotherhood. And when you meet another creative, like a super creative you’re going to have a stronger bond because of that, because of that reason. And, you know, in the spirit of collaboration, the world would call it collaboration, but it’s not as if we go in to collaborate, we’re just always creating stuff when we’re talking like, oh, it would be wicked if… could you imagine when… and what if? It’s just, it’s almost like a normal conversation. It’s just that those things end up… er… guns go bang with Kid Cudi or The Harder They Fall, you know, er… it’s uh, it’s just, really brothers just kicking back and forth and uh, having fun. But then you present that to the world, and you have, you know what I mean? You have, like, pure gangsters in the mix and a huge hit called The Harder They Fall.
And you create magic. You know what really fascinates me is your whole approach to filmmaking and who and what inspires you. For example, you mentioned Alfred Hitchcock and Roald Dahl. I mean, Roald Dahl, his approach to chaos. Tell me a bit about that, why those two in particular?
I think those two in particular were just the ones that touched me the most as a kid. Roald Dahl is possibly the best children’s storyteller since the Brothers Grimm, right? And he… but also Roald Dahl, you never grow out of Roald Dahl as a storyteller. As a kid, you’d be drawn to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James’s Giant Peach and all of that stuff. But… and Matilda. As you get older, you find the stories of Roald Dahl that were adults like the, you know, like Pig or Royal Jelly, the short stories or The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, which is my favourite book of all time. You grow up with Roald Dahl and you don’t stop. You don’t stop really reading him in his approach to narrative storytelling.
With Hitchcock, I mean, Alfred Hitchcock was just against the master of suspense, and he just, the way he mixed, like, dark humour with, you know, with drama and stuff and his balls in his shot composition where he’ll place the camera and Psycho killing off the lead actress halfway through the movie just to, you know, Alfred Hitchcock is the reason why we go to the cinemas on time.
But why we get there at the beginning of the movie. Before Hitchcock, you’ll get to the movie halfway through. It was just like… going to the movie was like, going to the movies was like going to the bar, going to the wine bar. And then he released Psycho and because he was killing off his lead early, he made a deal with the theatres not to let people in after the beginning, after the film starts, that’s when people started going to the theatres and making sure they got there at the beginning of the film. So, this guy was just a trailblazer in so many different ways. He doesn’t seem like he was the nicest guy, but art wise, he was always a G.
Now I want to turn to two really nice guys who make sure that we go to the cinema on time to see Black film in the most bespoke and inspiring way. Anthony and Teanne Andrews, tell us about We Are Parable, it’s such an amazing concept. How did it evolve and how did it start?
So, I mean, it really started from just having a love for Black cinema while growing up, but really that the nucleus of the idea came from us being at home, being a bit depressed and watching Coming to America, which is both of our favourite film. So, for anyone who doesn’t know myself and Teanne, we’re husband and wife. We got two small children and yeah, it’s one of those films that you put on when you’re feeling a little bit low and we put that film on in 2013, and one of us said, “You know that film’s celebrating its 25th anniversary soon.”
And actually, you know, I don’t think we’ve ever seen it in the cinema. So, we thought, okay, look, there’s an opportunity here to put on into our local cinema and, you know, let’s have a chance to see it on the big screen and we feel our peers and our friends would feel the same way. And so that’s exactly what we did. We got in touch with our local cinema, and we put on the screening of the film. But then, me and Teanne, we kept on talking about, you know, just the, just the pomp and the, the environment of that film. We thought look, there’s more than we can, there’s more that we can do when it comes to actually screening this film. Could we, for example, have rose berries throwing petals on people’s feet as they walk in? Could we turn a cinema foyer into an African marketplace where arts & crafts makers and designers and fashion makers all come together to sort of show the best of Africa? So, we did all of that. We created those moments around cinema, almost to try to redefine what it means to go to cinema and watch a film.
We had dancers, we had drummers, we had, I think we had a poet there as well. We’ve come together to create this performance of cinema, kind of a, just kind of combination of things going on at the same time. And yes, it came out of that, and we just continue to create amazing experiences for audiences who really want that culturally relevant unique and memorable moment when they go to cinema.
And Teanne, what is it that your work has taught you about what Black audiences want and what Black filmmakers need?
In terms of audiences, you know, I guess they want to show that they’re being represented, but also, they want an experience. I think a lot of the work that we’ve done is really looking at our audience and coming from all the events that we’ve produced over the years that we’ve been going. The stream, that’s kind of, the feedback that’s come back is that they’ve enjoyed coming to the event because they’ve enjoyed being around other people, Black people, they’ve enjoyed looking at our culture but doing it in different ways, different art forms, but also gives them a new way of coming to the cinema, new reason to want to come to the cinema.
Now, you credit film director Spike Lee for having had a massive impact on what you do. What happened and how did you meet him?
So, but I’m a massive Spike Lee fan, I really grew up with his films in the early 90s, watching Do the Right Thing on BBC Two, and I was like 11 years old, was a game changer for me. So, I’ve just always grown-up with his films. And then when we started, We Are Parable, I always had the idea of creating a Spike Lee retrospective and that turned into Spike is 60. So, in 2017 Spike Lee was celebrating his 60th birthday. So, we had the idea of thinking, wouldn’t it be great if we could create a nine-month long film festival of Spike Lee’s films, showing 12 of his films across two different cities, London and Manchester and do it in a way that only we could, by creating that really memorable and culturally relevant experience in the round.
So, we’ve done like, we did loads of events such as in the Rio cinema in Dalston, East London which is an Art Deco cinema. We have a saxophonist and music over the top of Mo’ Better Blues. To really further immerse people in the world of the film. We did street parties for Do the Right Thing. So, we have all of these events taking place over the nine months. And then halfway through the festival we got a call from the man himself, Spike Lee. We got an email in fact, saying, “Hey this is Spike Lee, I’m going to be in London for a few days, we should meet.” I we thought…you know what, this is something that we’ve been dreaming about that could happen. But when we spoke to him a little bit more, we were like, look, can we get a picture with you? Can we just have a chat with you? And he was like, “no, no let’s do an event together, Let’s actually try and sell some tickets and get people to come down and hear me talk.” So, we thought right we can do that.
So, we had three days to put together an audience with Spike Lee, where he spoke to a UK audience, the first time he had done that in 15 years, 400 people sold out within minutes. You got full-fledged access to the man himself doing the talk for about an hour and a half, talking about his career, his life, his passions, his dreams, and then meeting and greeting all of the people that came along, the people with their merch, people with like, with kind of like, all of their memorabilia for Spike to sign and that was the event. And being able to get Spike Lee at our event was the thing that really trajected us forward. So, I always say that Spike Lee can change my life twice. And, you know, sitting in like watching my black and white TV when I was 11 in 1990 while watching Do the Right Thing for the first time and then in 2017 when he was part of our event, that really changed our lives, he was able to speak to that audience and that was an amazing moment for us.
Jeymes, what you’re hearing, do you see value in what Teanne and Anthony are doing? Do you think that encourages audiences to go to the cinema and have a different experience?
I think it encourages people to go to the cinema and have a kind of more immersive experience in general, not just Black people. When they were talking. I was like, oh wow, we should do something like that with The Harder They Fall. Put live musicians in there. And you know, that’s a really amazing, amazing thing. I think it is something that cinema needs as well. Because it pushes the language of cinema forward. It actually pushes the IQ forward of cinema in general. I think it expands kind of like way beyond Black people. When you hear something like We Are Parable, doesn’t have a colour, it’s just that it started from, because of Spike or whatever the reason it was, but the actual, actual format is, is amazing. It’s amazing. I think it goes much further beyond any, you know, demographics. It’s interesting because we are, we are Black and we want to do as much for our people, our community and our culture as, as possible. But, you know, also we got to think beyond, beyond that and how to maximise the potential of, of what we create because what happens is, is We Are Parable will be, will be so, so dope. And while we’re sitting around saying, you know, great for us, this, and that and the other, the white folks will just come take it and it will be like `Parable We Are’, bringing that to this worldwide… make billions, billions off it, but I think, you know, in short, what I’m saying, what I’m saying is, yes, it is, it is dope, a dope format, it’s a dope thing. It brings everyone together.
Yeah totally and I think we actually worked on The Harder They Fall with Netflix when it came out, and one of the things that we wanted as part of the event, we were able to get the costumes and that went down with the audience because it was a way of kind of them looking at the artistry craft and really kind of being able to kind of get with that moment as well of the films that I think…
Yeah, it was kind of transcends over with, not just kind of Black audiences, but we always say, you know, fans of Black cinema. (Jeymes: That’s Awesome) So. You know, outside of that, if you just love kind of what we’re doing, then come down. But yeah, totally right. I think it’s a kind of thing where we’re seeing that a lot of people from all different races are coming to our events because they’re just lovers of Black cinema. And I think that’s something that we’re really kind of passionate in terms of putting forward…
I think you’re right because I think Black cinema does appeal beyond our audiences. If you look at the likes of Moonlight and Black Panther and The Harder They Fall, they’ve all penetrated a much wider audience. So, do you think do you agree, or do you think that Black Cinema is in in rude health? Do you think we’re in a good place?
Yeah, you know, I’m an odd one to ask because my perspective on that is totally different. I’ve always hated the term Black Cinema because Black people don’t wake up and feel Black, which just seems like, well, that’s what happens, when we leave our house, we’re made to feel Black. Right? The Harder We Fall is not a Black Western, it’s a western, what happen, if Star Wars is not a white Sci-Fi movie, then The Harder They Fall is aint a Black Western. It’s just about those peoples. I remember going into HMV in a megastore. Virgin, no, it was an HMV in Oxford Circus. And it had, this was years ago, and I went to buy some DVDs and it had Black cinema…shoved, Black cinema. And on the top of the Black cinema stock was Hitch. I got so angry. I moved them to the regular section, but Will Smith was the only Black person in it, literally the only Black person in that movie is Will Smith.
Literally, just for me, I think like, like I’m really proud of who we are, and I wouldn’t want it, I wouldn’t want it any other any other way. But man, like Hollywood has done a number on us. They always find ways to marginalise us. And one of them is, is the labels they give us every time out the gate. Right? A lot of times we embrace those. We embrace those, those labels. But, you know, it’s a, it’s a… I do think there’s two sides to that point. But in answer to your question, I think we are, we are in a great place because there’s just an array of amazing creatives right now operating in front of and behind the camera. This is, we’re in a, I’m really happy, I’m in this era with amazing directors and visionaries of the same background as me. You know, I mean, it’s a, it’s really mean and Black. So, it’s a really awesome time. I think we are in a great place. And also, we can get things done easily now by using the phones and YouTube.
You, you’ll see a lot more opportunities for creatives than we had, you know, when we were kids, when there was only cinema really but now it’s just that even televisions in the healthiest and the most amazing space it’s ever been and then streamers, you know, which is a big answer to having movies with black people made. Because that Black cinema thing is the reason why Hollywood wouldn’t fund movies with Black people. They’ll use this racist foreign distribution model and talk about how much your film is worth.
That’s why it took so long to do The Harder They Fall. How much your film is worth in Germany, in Russia, in Ukraine, wherever. They’ll go all around and if you had a Black cast, they would, erm, they would say, it’s just not worth anything, we can’t sell it. We sell it for the budget it costs, which is which is B.S. And then the streamers came about; Netflix, Amazon, Apple TV, and they would be all around the world at once. So, they don’t care about a foreign distribution, theatrical market because they don’t, they don’t use it. And so, The Harder They Fall can get made. I don’t believe a studio, even though they say they would have done, I don’t believe the studio would have made The Harder They Fall. If they would have done, then where were they? All those years when I was trying to get it made. You know what I mean?
It’s fascinating and insightful. Now Anthony and Teanne, your, part of your work relies on Black creatives having the opportunity to deliver and create what they want and in the way that they want. Are you excited by what you’re seeing, how things are evolving?
Yeah, I’m definitely excited. You know, I definitely echo what Jeymes says. I am excited about what’s happening. I think it’s really important that we see a sustained movement towards more of this happening because I think, you know, the 2020 was clearly a watermark for everyone in terms of, you know BLM in terms of the pandemic, in terms of Black people dying from the pandemic more than white people.
You know, there were all these opportunities that all of a sudden came to fruition. And I think now we’re seeing, you know, we are seeing that the benefits of that. But I think a lot of our job is about ensuring that that continues. And one of the things that we’ve done to ensure that it continues is a new product that we’ve created called Momentum. We’ve partnered with Channel 4 to provide mentorship for 60 Black British filmmakers in the UK to give them mentoring for six months with industry professionals, to give them access to industry masterclasses, to give them mental health support. Because obviously it’s a very tremulous and challenging industry that they work in and give them the opportunity to get work made. So, the partnership for Channel 4 came about because we want to get work from these Black British filmmakers commissioned to see on screen. And so it’s not just about screening work for us anymore, it’s really about enabling and helping filmmakers to get their work made in the first place and then hopefully to get their work seen by audiences.
So, I am very hopeful about the state of the industry at the moment, but there is a lot of work to do, and I’ll always remember, I’m always reminded of Kobe Bryant. I think it was game two of the NBA Finals one year, and he’d won the second game. So, there were two more games to go into the NBA Finals championship. And you know, a commentator said to him, “Are you happy? are you going to give us smile?” and he was like, “jobs not finished” he’s like “If the job was finished, I’d give you a smile, but the job isn’t finished.” And I feel that same way about, about the state of the industry. You know, we’ve made great progress in the last couple of years, but there’s so much more that needs to be done. And I see us as being a true part of that.
I want to ask you guys; Tyler Perry has managed to do something phenomenal to create the largest production studio in the United States and to be the first African-American to outright own a major film production studio. Is it ever possible to have even a humble equivalent of that here in the UK? Jeymes, what do you think?
Absolutely. Absolutely. Everything starts with the vision. Absolutely. I think it is possible. Before he did it, literally the day before he did it, we would have asked ourselves, is it ever possible to have the largest film studio, like that in in the U.S.? Right? And he had the vision and, you know, and he he that was his goal. And he and he’s done it. I think it’s absolutely possible to have that in the, in the UK. And also, we have the, you know, really the only currency in this industry of any value, the only real currency of any value is ideas. And those were the ideas always, always win. It’s the only currency of any value. Everyone will be, so it’s who has the ideas? It always comes down to who has the ideas, and you know from even speaking to the folks behind We Are Parable, it shows that, you know in the UK there are, a slew of great people in front of them behind the scenes with great, with great ideas.
All it takes is us coming, is us coming together. As soon as we come together, it sounds cliché because it never happens, but as soon as we come together like there’s no there’s no stopping anything. United Artists was made by Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks. I think Mary Pickford, three artists come together. DreamWorks was Spielberg, Katzenberg, Geffen, you know what I mean? But you never, ever get Spike Lee, Tyler Perry, duh, duh, duh, you just don’t for whatever reason, you know. There’ll be more arguments in front of the camera than there will have been behind the scenes. I’m like, look, what the hell? We need to…Tyler’s got the studios, Spike’s got the films, you know. Everyone, as soon as everyone comes together, you know, Me, We Are Parable, Rapman. Just…Idris. There’s no, there’s no stopping anything.
There’s no commodity like the gold that is Black people. There’s no more valuable commodity. I don’t care where you go there’s no more valuable commodity systems. Everyone comes together we… that’s how I got The Harder They Fall made, bringing Jay-Z, Idris Elba. I brought everyone together before I even hit Netflix. We were all doing this thing and it just showed what happens when, when, you know, we all work in tandem are working in unison. I think when you were talking about responsibilities earlier, it’s our responsibility, is to empower each other. But I have to empower We Are Parable. We both have to empower you. Us three has to empower the British Black list. It goes on as soon as everyone comes together, there is no stopping us. It’s just that Black people do not come together for whatever reason, Brenda.
But I’m getting goosebumps at the prospect, I really genuinely am. Let’s hold that thought and energy. Let’s do that. Let’s definitely do that. Now it’s been such a revelation speaking to you all but before we go, I’d like to end the programme with our, `pass the baton’ moment, which is where I invite you to tell us about someone who’s inspired you from the past and why, or someone you’re currently inspired by so that our audiences can share and know more about these wonderful creatives. So why don’t we start with you, Anthony, and then Teanne, and then James.
I think someone who I’m inspired by, if we’re thinking about film specifically, I’d say Horace Ové just because of the stories that he wanted to tell. Just because of the time that he was telling these stories, he just felt like a fearless artist. And, you know, I feel like although we’re working in slightly different fields, I feel like I want to take some of that philosophy going forward into the projects that we do. So, I’d say Horace Ové for his incredible body of work.
Good call. Tea?
For me, it’d have to be Ava DuVernay. I admire her storytelling through documentaries, but also through the empire that she’s building. Yeah, that’s what I’d put forward.
Oh, I love every inch of that woman. Jeymes?
The one person that I’m inspired by the most is myself. I am a G of the highest degree, and I make no bones about saying so. I’m inspired by myself. Like, I wake up every day, I was saying the word ‘yourself’ is like the most misused word in the dictionary, right. The phrase `Enjoy yourself‘ I was saying this the other day, it’s the most misused phrase. ‘Enjoy yourself.’ I’m inspired by myself. I come from, I was in Mozart Estate, I was like so I’m going to make a Western, who’s in it? Everyone, watch. I’m inspired by myself. I wake up every single morning. I open my eyes. The Lord says, action, everything is possible. Everything is possible. As we’re speaking the birds are singing right, outside. Look at our lives. All right, so, you know, I’m awesome.
You are. You know, I can’t even complain about gratitude myself. I so desperately want to have you on our, on our podcast. Now, I want you to sprinkle that self-assurance throughout the whole of our community.
So, you know, it’s always awesome to take inspiration from other people, which I, which I do. You know, our sister was saying, Ava DuVernay you know. It’s awesome to take inspiration from other of people. But it’s also, it’s also like, it becomes, you get to a stage, the older you get, it’s politically incorrect to give yourself praise. Right? Some will say, you know, self-praise is no praise at all. That’s actually a phrase that’s live in the universe. Self-praise is the only praise that matters. Everything else is just noise, self praise, the only praise that matters in that regard.
Preach, my brother, preach, my brother.
Inside you all, there’s a G
I’m here for it.
Yeah man, I wanna take that energy into the rest of my years. 100%.
Me too. Me too. I’ve got a smile like a Cheshire cat on my face right now. That really is so true, so true. Sadly, we’ve come to the end. So, I want to thank all three of you for such an insightful chinwag. I’ve learnt so much that it really has been brilliant. Now we end the programme with a specially commissioned spoken word contribution by a flow poem inspired by our film theme. So, a big thank you to Floacist, Natalie Stewart on the flow spoken word vortex, for sourcing these brilliant creatives. The title of the poem is Every Frame A Painting, and the Flow Poet is Alchemy. So, enjoy everyone and do join us again for the next episode of Kiss My Black Side.
Does this come in Black?
Hello and welcome to Kiss My Black Side with me, Brenda Emmanus. This is a celebratory look at art from a Black perspective. In this show, we talk to some brilliantly talented creatives who have made their mark in the world of dance, film, fashion, music, theatre, and the visual arts. We discuss their work and inspiration, and then we get to do a little deep dive on issues related to their specific art form.
And as we’re talking, we figured it would be nice to end each programme with a specially commissioned Spoken-Word tribute to our chosen topic, which in this episode is fashion. This podcast is produced by Free Spirit Productions Ltd and brought to you by Sadler’s Wells. Sadler’s Wells is one of the world’s leading dance organisations. And in 2022 they’re celebrating work by Black dance artists with Well Seasoned, a year-long programme of live performances, dance films and more from Black choreographers, dancers, and artists of colour.
My first guest is the name on the tongue of every fashion person `in the know’ that I ask, Who excites you? Hailed as one to watch. Saul Nash is a young designer whose menswear collections combine movement, technical innovation, and sporty sass. His career already boasts prestigious awards such as the Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design and the International Woolmark Prize, which celebrates outstanding fashion talent from around the globe. This amongst his other achievements. Welcome Saul!
We’re also joined by a designer of a different generation, but with an equally impressive background. Avis Charles was a graduate of the London School of Fashion and has gone on to amass 40 years in the industry building her own consultancy agency and having the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Victoria Beckham as clients. She works with the Prince’s Trust, has her own silk scarves range, and also finds time to mentor teenagers and design entrepreneurs. Welcome to you too, Avis.
It’s great to have you both on here, and I’m excited to hear what you person have to say about your own experiences. Having seen and listened to your both and watched your careers.
Saul, I want to start with you and first to say, a huge congratulations to you on a phenomenal year. Winner of the prestigious Woolmark prize, which has changed the lives of some of the world’s best known designers. And it has a prize of over £100,000 to boot. And the Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design, which celebrates Britain’s young talents who are key to the fashion industry’s role, improving society and diplomacy. As a young creative, you must feel very proud of your achievements already.
Yeah, I’m also quite shocked. I work so hard, and I spend a lot of hours in my studio, so I do my work and I really love what I’m doing. So, you know, to be awarded it is absolutely incredible because it wasn’t something I was expecting I was just working so hard.
And you’ve been thrown in the spotlight because of how different has life been since winning these accolades?
Erm, well, I’ve tried to maintain a sense of kind of grounding, and so I always keep my family really close around me. It’s been quite lovely. Because, you know, when I go out, I’m surrounded by the industry. But then when I come home, you know, I’m reminded by, you know, I guess where I come from. So, it’s been, it’s been really exciting, but it’s also been a good time to reflect and, you know, think about where I’m heading as a designer.
And you mentioned fashion and you mentioned, you mentioned the fashion family and you also mentioned your family. What was it all? Who was it that inspired you to come into this industry?
So, it’s kind of a weird journey into the industry. I started off studying performance design, so in the beginning I actually wanted to kind of create performance art, which use dance and movement. It wasn’t, it wasn’t until my final year of my bachelors that central at Martins that I kind of realised I was creating a world because I was using a lot of costumes. But I then realised that I wanted to create something that goes beyond the performance space and something that could kind of live in society and address some of the things that I was exploring in my work in the kind of wider landscape of the world. So, initially it kind of came late to me and it was through this need to, to, to merge performance and fashion that really brought me into fashion.
Now this podcast is brought to us by Sadler’s Wells, one of the homes of prestigious and international dance in in London. How much has dance been a part of your life? Because I know it’s a major inspiration for you. You mentioned performance.
I’ve been dancing since I was a child, and I guess my mum saw from a young age, this, this kind of drive and need to always move. I had a lot of energy as a child. So, like naturally I started to kind of learn to dance at my local youth centre. And then this led on to me studying dance. Later I was in a dance company. So that’s how, that’s always been a part of my life. And it still is, like I’m still, I still practise dance whenever I can.
And how have you managed to emerge there into your, your fashion? I mean, is it a happy marriage?
In the beginning to be honest, it took a long time to kind of harness what I wanted to say and going into the Royal College of Art and having Zoe Broach as a tutor. It really kind of encouraged me to explore who I was and not really hold back. And I think it was through that exploration. At some point I went to Adidas and, you know, I learnt about performance wear because I was always interested in sportswear and the men I grew up around, but just learning the techniques of performance and designing for function, it created this full circle which made me realise exactly what I should be doing as a designer. But it was a long journey to get to this point.
You’re such a creative soul in the fact that you’re kind of inspired by performance. Does that mean you’re also very practical in your work?
Most definitely. We often, like at the Royal College I’d often showcase my work in performances because I was always interested in the way things move, particularly my garments. It started out as an exploration of how they moved, so it was having dancers coming in and testing it, even moving in it myself, because I guess a lot of my desires come from my own need as a dancer to have clothes that I can move in. So yeah, it is a very active and practical process.
I don’t see, I don’t think you wake up in the morning and think, “Right, I want to be a role model”. I think you’re chosen to be a role model and in your space and your success, I think it naturally means you’ve become one. Do you feel that? Do you feel the need to inspire others? Do you feel that, do you take that role model status quite seriously?
It wasn’t something that I set out to do, but I also realised that particularly from my own experiences, I always tell an account of like when I was young, and I’d go to the theatre and feel like people were almost judging me for not dressing correctly for the context. And I think my work serves a purpose to inspire people just to be who they want to be. And that’s always something that, I think movement in itself embodies and represents liberation. And for me that that’s always something I’ve set out to do is create a sense of freedom and liberation for my work. So, I really hope it does inspire the younger people just to be themself and to embrace who they are.
Because you used to go to the theatre in sportswear and tracksuits. Were people snobby about it?
Oh, most definitely. And I kind of didn’t feel like I belonged there. So, I think that’s also, it’s also a point to challenge preconceived ideas, particularly around the people who wear sportswear, because I guess I was also judged in that way. So… yeah.
Your success was like two fingers up to establishment in some sense, wasn’t it?
I know the other thing that’s important to you and has inspired your creations to a degree is your heritage. Tell us about your cultural heritage and what part that plays in the way that you create and think.
So that was quite interesting. I mean, my mum is born in Barbados, but to Guyanese parents and on my dad’s side, I’m Mauritian and English. But last season I foccussed more on my Guyanese upbringing, and that was also looking at these kind of folklores that were told in the home. So, I thought a lot about spirituality. My mum would always say, don’t burn a red candle because you know, it evokes spirits or, don’t throw your hair in the toilet because the birds will peck at it. So, all of these kind of folklores in the home, I started to question what do they mean to me as a man growing up in London, particularly because I grew up quite far away from these cultures.
But I have the idea of them based on what I know in London. So, last season I started to look at, you know, what does this mean to a young man who grows up in London, particularly one that wears sportswear? And I think what was exciting, I showed that from a barber shop, which a lot of my interactions in my culture were in the barber shop, you heard the music; you have the food and just the vibrant energy of it. I thought that was the best way to communicate that to my audience.
What you said that just reminded me, I was cutting my 92 year old mother’s hair the other day, and I took the extra hair off the brush and threw it the toilet, and I dare not tell her because she’s going to go mad. So, it just reminded me.
Throwing it in the toilet is better than in the bin. My mum. (Brenda: Yeah) She said the bin was where birds would peck at your hair.
Or if it gets burnt it’s like you’re burning their spirit. Now Avis, you’re hearing this young talent. And how much of what Saul said about his career resonates with you?
It actually resonates quite a lot because hearing what he was saying about performance and going to the theatre, obviously I started from a completely different point of view in regards to the way that I studied and doing an apprenticeship. So, we’re talking about early seventies when I was doing this. But the thing about is when I was younger, one of the things that I always did was dance as well. And my daughter actually went to a performing arts school, arts education school, so going to places like Sadler’s Wells and Royal ballet, we also stuck out like a sore thumb, but that was being Black, not just because of what we were actually wearing. I certainly know when my daughter was at school what she went through in regards to the fact of only being… you know, one of two Black girls that were in in the class and the comments and, and everything else.
And so, I think that within regards to my journey to get here and what it’s made me, who I am. You talked Saul about your family. And I know without my parents, I couldn’t have done this. Everything I’ve achieved today is because of them. And I started by doing an apprenticeship with a company called Susan Small, a couture house that was in the West End. And this couture house made clothes for the females of the royal family. And up until now, we still are trying to work out how my mother, coming over in the 1950s, could take herself into the West End, find this couture house and convince them to take on a 17 year old daughter as an apprentice as well as allowing her to do day release at a college as well, you know going to London College of fashion, but the whole basis of that was life changing.
But the mantra from both her and my father was you start at the top and you stay there and 50 years on that’s exactly where it is because everything I do is at a really high level because I think it’s important and I think it’s important for me as a Black woman. And I think it’s important because of the ones that are coming behind and what you’ve achieved is extraordinary. And I look at what our young Black designers are doing and the tenacity and the difference and the change that they are making to the industry, the level of individuality. And with what you’re saying, you know, we’re talking about studying and continuous learning, research, building your confidence and also having a vision. And somewhere along the line, having a business plan.
But we won’t bother discussing that in detail. And also, belief and having a second strand as well because in business it’s not easy to just stay on the one path. It’s, and obviously doing something within what you do. So even though I have the consultancy, erm, couture, I just love in fact, it’s become virtually like my therapy so the reason why I’m here is because, as Brenda mentioned, making a wedding dress for a client and the interesting thing and again, it’s down to the way that I was taught, and my apprenticeship was that we did one fitting of the toil. So that’s obviously the mock-up. And yesterday we did the fitting of the final piece. I have nothing to do on it except hand sewing. And this is a corseted bodice on a young lady that I’ve only met once. I know her mother very well. And, you know, Brenda mentioned the dress, mentioned Oprah Winfrey, and that was the Victoria Beckham dress. And that dress was made purely from measurements.
Wow. Weren’t you terrified?
Well, yes. But the thing about it is this is back to, you know, the confidence and understanding your, understanding your client. So, I’m looking at every detail on the client, you know, and the customer themselves. So, the fact that it was a Victoria Beckham dress that obviously on the model would have been a size eight, ten. Right. And to grade it up to, you know, a different size purely from measurements, it’s also known how to construct the garment as well, knowing where the pressure points are. But also, I’d met Oprah on a couple of occasions anyway. And anybody I meet, I can visualise their entire body. And then looking at what she looked like in images and pictures and stuff like that. That’s why I was able to do it.
Did you find her inspiring? I’m almost getting gossipy now, but did you find her inspiring to meet and to work with?
Well, when I think when I met her, it was at a concert at, in South Africa. I was invited, as a guest of Nelson Mandela. Here we go, name dropping.
As you do.
(Laughs) via work that I’ve been doing with women in the rural areas in South Africa because I honestly don’t have an ego. So, when I was actually invited by the people who had said to me, oh, Madiba has invited you as his guest, you know when something just goes in your head and you think, no, no, no, no, no, that can’t even be correct. And you know how you sometimes think about I know what I would say if I was ever to meet Nelson Mandela or so-and-so and whatever. (Brenda: Yeah) Yeah, right, whatever. First of all, to be able to see him land in his helicopter, I was just beyond because I didn’t know the lady that I worked with, that her family had helped pay the legal fees for when he was in prison. She never told me any of this. So, it wasn’t until the event itself and I realised where we were sitting, which was behind Madiba. (Brenda: Wow)
That I then realised the enormity of it all. And then when she introduced me to him, when he said, “Oh, is this the young lady that you were telling me about?” I couldn’t remember, my name, I couldn’t remember what I did, absolutely nothing. So, after all of this practise and, you would have thought, you know, it’s different meeting members of the royal family at the age of 17 and you know, meeting Princess Margaret at the door of the couture house and taking her up in the lift. That’s one thing. So, you would have thought I’d kind of nailed this. No, absolutely not.
I can remember that when I met Muhammad Ali, I lost my tongue completely. Saul, have you ever had any moments like that with your clients? Who have you particularly enjoyed working with?
Well, no, not necessarily my clients, but I have that a lot with well, my show team. I love my show team that I’ve acquired over the seasons. Some of them I would have known about when I was like a lot younger, like at school. So then to have the opportunity to work with them, like a good example is Elgar Johnson. I’m so inspired by him, but I actually work with him and for me that so it’s like, well, whoa!
Meeting Lulu Kennedy from Fashion East is just all the people I’ve met along the way. It’s, it’s just shocking to me to think I ever, I was, I’ve ever got to the stage where I’m actually under them or working with them. Or Ewen Spencer, who’s just shot my look back. I looked at a lot of his images in school and then not to mention Kate Middleton, most recently, that was quite, you know, I can totally relate to that moment, Avis, of, you know. I mean everything you’re gonna say and then when you finally meet them, you don’t know what to say. So, yeah, I mean, I’m constantly shocked, by the different people I met, like Riccardo Tisci, The Woolmark prize, the list is endless for me. And, you know, I’m just…
Are you mindful though, I must ask you, because if you look at the Woolmark Prize as one of your, many accolades, it is renowned for changing the lives of some really big names in the international fashion. Are you waiting for them at you? Are you aware of the enormity of it and does it impact you in terms of when you’re creating, you think, oh, my God, the pressures on?
How do you take all of that?
No, I think it goes back to the grounding, like, I am so proud of what I’m achieving, but I have greater goals that I’m still not, I still haven’t achieved. So, it’s always a humbling reminder that, you know, of what I’m striving for. I’m so happy with everything that’s going on, but I never take my eye off of what it is that I want to achieve. And I think for me, the ultimate sense of achievement will be the day that I can, you know, lift up other people and, you know, help them. I think that’s, that’s really deep down my passion, you know, it’s like I’m so happy. And these are like moments that we, we celebrate, and we enjoy, but they just give me the momentum to just keep moving forward.
And in what way? In your head, what is your vision and in what way would you like to support others?
I mean, I’d love to you know, have a kind of bursary to help someone go to college because I got a scholarship to study at Royal College of Art. And if I hadn’t got that, I wouldn’t have been able to go. So, I think, you know, it’s always in my mind, subconsciously, that was, I’m really happy of what I’m achieving. I really would love to kind of one day help other people.
Now Avis, you do help other people. You do a lot of mentoring, and you work with social entrepreneurs. Has that always been important to you, too?
Yeah, absolutely. Because I know that for me, there wasn’t an Avis to talk me through the industry or give me an idea of what it’s like and you know, especially again, I bring up the fact of being a Black woman and something happened a couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine that I’m staying with. She called me and said, some friends of hers, their daughters are interested in fashion. These girls are seven years old. So, she said, oh, they’d like you to come and speak to them. I repeat, they’re seven years old.
I wrote them a little bit to say, you know, tell me what your interests are and whatever. And one of them sent me a voicemail and the voicemail went through exactly the kind of things she liked, colours and the styles that she liked, she likes something nipped in at the waist. At that point, I practically keeled over, and we cut to the end where her mother said to her,” and would you like to tell Miss Avis what you’d like to do, something else about yourself’ So she said,” Well, I think I want to sing, but obviously I need really, really nice clothes, which is why I want to learn about fashion. And the second thing I am is, that I’m, I believe I’m a role model and I know I already influence other children”. I’m thinking 7 years old!
So, when I hear you Saul saying that this is what you want to do. You probably don’t realise it, but you’re actually already doing it. Because people look at you and know I can do this, and I certainly know for me in my career I’m always knocked sideways when I hear back from students or people that I’ve mentored or you know, one of the artisans, when my daughter and I were in India, I called her to say that we were in in Rajasthan, and she was actually in a different part of India. And her PA answered. She now has a shop in Dallas. (Brenda: Wow) and four franchises of her business in India. So, when you do something like that or you may meet a young lady at a conference or something, and she says, “My mother asked me to come and speak to you.” And she comes from Rwanda, and she talks about how when you went to Rwanda, you encouraged my mother to start a business and gave her ideas of what to do and everything.
And here is her daughter. And together with her mother, they now have this business, which is established. And so, when I see those things, we do this naturally, and I think it’s part and parcel of who we are. I think we have to keep on giving. I don’t think that we can ever get wrapped up in whether it’s our accolades or any of the great things that happen to us. Whether it’s, you know, making an outfit for somebody for the Tony Awards or the Royal wedding or whatever things I happen to be doing. Because I think looking at the next generation is important and especially looking at our people as, as, as people of colour, as Black people, because all of this is omitted from our fashion curriculums, and you know that, Saul. So, so which robs all of us. (Saul: Yeah, yeah) Robs all of us and also stumps creativity as well. So, for me, that passing on and for people to be able to see us and we have Brenda interviewing us and even though she never says anything. But the thing about this is how many young ladies has she influenced to when they see her on TV and think, you know, well, this is what I want to do.
They do actually come and tell me. So, I am alright. But you know, it’s a testament what you’re saying about you saying you can’t be what you can’t see. But what I really would love you to share with us Avis because I’m sure it will interest Saul as well is, the whole putting our experience in the whole historical context of fashion, the way you feel that we’ve been omitted and how you’d like the curriculum, particularly in fashion colleges to be changed to reflect that.
You know, I just simply call it an omission of history because, you know, this is never included. And honestly, if this discussion was 24 hours a day for the next year, it would never be able to fill in the amount of bits that are missing in regards to historical context. And we, you know, as I said before, it robs our designers, it robs all designers. It doesn’t matter what colour they are. You cannot sit there and in honesty and say that you are doing a whole project on denim without working backwards and you cannot possibly start from sharecroppers and Levi’s as if that, as if it wasn’t slavery before that. When the people that would have done the weaving and the dying would have been Black people.
And so, you know, that whole omission of that, on an item and a piece of fabric that has been continuous generation after generation after generation. And there is historical fact that shows back in the day you know, Africans that were actually wearing this particular fabric. The way it’s, if you look at the way that the weave has actually been done and you even look at old pictures of slaves as well, and you can see exactly the same, exactly the same weave.
Now, I don’t think that the slave masters suddenly rushed out to Neiman Marcus and went and bought their clothes. So, I think it was a possibility, in fact, an absolute probability that the slaves made their own clothes. And the reason why that seems pretty obvious is because you had slaves that were actually what we would call Couturiere now that created, virtually clothing ranges that their slave masters would sell because this was an extra way of making income.
So, once they realised that slaves would sew, that was it. And this is something that’s been passed down in in generations
That’s interesting because sewing is in my, sewing was in my mum’s family, like it was passed down to her as well.
Yes, of course, because it’s always been there.
We had to learn to crochet, we had to learn to sew, we had to learn to darn our socks even. So, I think it’s part of our DNA, really.
It is part of our DNA. You ask anybody from the Caribbean what their grandfather did, and I bet you they were tailors and women of that kind of era, you know, if we’re talking about kind of, the time of the Windrush era, the majority of them, well I would have said, all of them would have sewn because where they come from, you couldn’t run to Selfridges to go and get an outfit to start with. And then when you think of the way the men dressed, when you looked at the way they came off of the boat as well, you’re talking about they’re in suits, ties. That came from when you had the Great Migration from the north to the south, when the slaves were supposedly free and they no longer wanted to wear denim, which was called slave clothes.
When you see, usually see a lynching, a slave is usually in dungarees which are denim. So having to shed those slave clothes which they class as denim, which was denim. And then during that great migration in suits, and then you think of how that is passed down, which is why our fathers, my father certainly was a tailor and our mothers included dressmaking and whatever they did, my mother was a teacher. So, you have always this passing down. And so, when you kind of think to yourself about that, you danced as well as this creativity in regards to your fabrics and the movement, you just need to look at whether it’s you’re looking at Haiti or whether you’re looking at Brazil, the way the dance is done, using the big skirts and the fabric.
And you’re talking about Mauritius, exactly the same thing when you look at the culture of Mauritius. Yeah, with exactly the big skirts that are used in movement. So, somebody may think that this has just come from you, and you’ve only learnt this while you’re doing your, your MA at Royal College of Art or whether it was when you were at CSM.
But it’s always been there. There can, there’s no coincidence in that.
I mean, it’s so inspiring to me to be sitting here, somebody who worked on the Clothes Show for so many years and has always been celebrating designers to sit here with somebody who, you know, whose career spans that 40 years and somebody now who’s seen as one of the most exciting things. And in between that we have the more Syd Wills and Ozwald Boateng and the Virgil Abloh and the amazing work that Vogue has done.
So, Saul, I’ll start with you first. I mean, Naomi Campbell is becoming increasingly vocal more and more, saying, you know, we’ve come a long way, but there’s still much more to do. But what’s your feeling on the whole idea of diversity and inclusion in fashion? So, do you think we’re getting there?
I, I think that the work is never over. You know, during the Black Lives Matter times I was really upset and actually I was crying because it just felt so heavy. What happened in the US it was so unfortunate, but it really triggered a worldwide kind of reflection of what is going on and it felt so heavy and a lot of my, my kind of contemporaries, other Black designers, we came together and, you know, we spoke a lot because everybody was feeling that heaviness and so I think, whilst it’s positive, how, I have definitely noticed over the past two years, there’s been a kind of shift to, to include more people into fashion.
I think the work has to go all the way back to education because even letting young people, particularly young Black people, know that, you know, going to CSM is a possibility for them or you know, they’re not really aware of what’s possible because it’s not even going that far back into education. So, I think on the content of surface level, it’s really good what’s happening because it’s positive.
And I think, you know, even more visibility of Black bodies in fashion. It’s a real positive thing because it allows younger people to see themselves. And I think that the work like it’s years and years of unwinding that needs to be done. So, it’s really good that that we’ve made a positive step into change. But I think it’s, it’s just got to keep going and, you know, and it’s just got to keep, keep going.
And what’s your view, Avis, as a seasoned practitioner? You observed this over decades. What do you think should be priority?
I think the industry has changed because it had to and I think, you know, even before George Floyd. I think the difference with George Floyd is that your generation has said enough. And my generation of my age has also said, you know what, I don’t have the tolerance anymore. (Saul: Yeah), and also the onset of being of social media is that nobody’s going to wait to be recognised as a designer and or just think to themselves, I can’t do this.
They’re going to at least try. And the one thing about going on social media, Instagram and whatever, there is that million in one chance that you will be noticed, but at least you’re doing something. And I think that the industry hasn’t really got a choice. And when it comes to the curriculums, whether they like it or not, they’re going to have to include all the kinds of things I say, whether they want to or not.
So, if diversity, inclusion and whatever else they want to call it. Sorry, I’m rolling my eyes at this moment, you, you want to do it in a piecemeal kind of fashion. There’s not only me going to say Oh, hell no, you need to be included. And I’m exceptionally vocal because I have no fear at this age. What exactly are you going to do to me, really? You know, apart from the fact that I have a sister that’s a judge, so I’ll sue. I’m really not going to, I could not possibly continue my career without being vocal about these things, about the fact that there has always been Black couturiers, always, always and we’re talking about from Hollywood times as well.
And, you know, without including, you know, people like Miles Davis, it wasn’t just music, it was his whole sense of style, but Black men were doing that anyway. And this again is coming from, out of slavery. And you think about your own upbringing in regards to the way that we have to dress. When we go to round to see our parents looking like, without everything fixed up and in place. And in my case, if I’m taking my mum to church, she used to have all those hats just ready. “You’ll have this hat on and you’re praying. Your friends are gonna see you.” So, I think that kind of, you know, the change that is coming now, this is a juggernaut coming down the hill and it is not going to be stopped.
So, when you see a Saul Nash, you know, people just, our young people are just not going to put up with it. They’ll demonstrate for so many different things because their voices need to be heard. And especially when you understand your history, your voice is definitely going to be heard because you’re not going to go back. And people like myself and I’m not the only one, have laid these foundations. And we’ve already put up with most of the nonsense. And it’s, you know, the fact that we’re here, (Saul: Yeah) having this conversation and, you know, the fact that we have an independent Brenda, that’s allowing us to have this conversation on a platform like this is huge.
Well, I think it’s hugely important that we do get an opportunity to celebrate Black creatives, which is why I wanted to do it, which is why I called it Kiss My Black Side, because I think there’s an attitude and a confidence now that we have, that. Like you said, it’s not going backwards and you’re just so amazing people, who doesn’t want to know about you? who doesn’t know about you? Before we do go, because we are going to run out of time. I hate that. All of us have been influenced. We mentioned Oprah. If I didn’t see the Oprahs, the Trevor McDonalds and the Moira Stewarts, I wouldn’t have known it was possible for me. So, I just wondered Saul, who inspired. If you were to pass on the baton backwards or forwards, who would you say has been a great inspiration for you that you’d like the audience to hear about?
There’s been many. And if we talk about through history, there are so many. But this person, I’ve seen their journey quite close up. So, I would say, Bianca Saunders, because I’ve seen this person, I guess, out in the world and behind the scenes. And she really inspired me to push my business forward and to get to the point I’m at today. So, I would definitely say Bianca.
Is there anything specific about the way she works or creates that inspires you?
I mean, there’s, there’s, there’s so much to discuss about her creativity and just her vision as the designer, but it’s just the values that I kind of learnt from her, you know, being tenacious, being savvy, you know, that don’t let the door close, just keep knocking on it. And I think just seeing somebody like that for me was, was essential, particularly at the stage of starting my career.
I want to cheat a little but the fact that you do menswear, is there a particular male that you are inspired by his look or his style?
There’s quite a few of them. I grew up in London, so a lot of the men kind of when I was younger, I used to watch them TV. A lot of them would be like Grime M.Cs , so like Dizzee Rascal or I really love how they put sportswear together. So, when I was young, I’d see a lot of them on Channel U. Yeah, that’s what it was called back then. So, they were a lot of my kind of they shaped the way I dressed, growing up.
And you Avis, who would you pass your baton to?
I would pass my baton to, to any emerging designer And I haven’t, I don’t think I’ve got anything to pass on to Saul Nash.
I’ve learnt so much and…
But I think if I was looking backwards, my influence really would be my mother first, sheer Caribbean elegance and style. But Ann Lowe, born in 1898, an African American fashion designer who made dresses for the High Society of the US and notably Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress and was invited to show in the haute couture shows in Paris by Christian Dior. Certainly not mentioned anywhere. And I think for somebody of that ilk to have come so far is quite incredible and she wasn’t the only one. So, I think women of that era just have so much influence on me. And as I said, my mother.
This has been a truly dreamy conversation for me. Does this come in black? Well, we know excellence certainly does. I want to say a huge thank you to both of you for joining me for this programme. And we have a specially commissioned spoken word contribution to fashion to end the programme by a flow poet. The title of the poem is Japito, and it’s performed by a Slow Vortex Poet, Mr. I Am Jones. Enjoy everyone and do join us again for the next episode of Kiss My Black Side. Thank you.
Sistas are Singin it for Themselves
Hello and welcome to Kiss My Black Side with me, Brenda Emmanus. This is a celebratory look at art from a black perspective.
In this show, we talk to some brilliantly talented creatives who have made their mark in the world of dance, film, fashion, music, theatre, and the visual arts. We discuss their work and inspiration, and then we get to do a little deep dive on issues related to this specific artform.
And as we’re talking, we figured it would be nice to end each programme with a specially commissioned Spoken-Word tribute to our chosen topic, which in this episode is music. This podcast is produced by Free Spirit Productions Ltd and brought to you by Sadler’s Wells. Sadler’s Wells is one of the world’s leading dance organisations. And in 2022 they’re celebrating work by Black dance artists with Well Seasoned, a year-long programme of live performances, dance films and more from Black choreographers, dancers, and artists of colour.
Well, insightful conversations with formidable creative talent is what we’re all about in this podcast series and in this edition, we’re in the company of two awesome women in music from different sides of the musical spectrum, but who I know have a lot in common.
Our first guest is the multi-award winning pop star Emeli Sandé. Born and raised in Scotland, her unique voice and eclectic musical taste has seen her embraced by both mainstream and urban audiences. Constantly evolving as a woman and an artist, her latest album is probably Emeli at her most confident and authentic.
Our other guest is someone I’ve admired, not just for the power of her vocal chords. Nadine Benjamin is an award winning opera soprano who has performed as a soloist at the English National Opera, Glyndebourne, the Royal Opera House and Opera de Lille, to name a few. Nadine is also a certified coach and was the founder of Opera in Colour, showcasing diversity in opera.
She’s also the founder of Everyone Can, a mentoring scheme supporting others in building their dreams. So much to talk about at Kiss My Black Side. Welcome to you both.
Now Emeli, I’m pretty sure we’re grabbing you when you’re exhausted because you’re just ending a tour. Is that correct?
Yes. I’ve just come off tour. We, we just finished The Brighter Days tour, which is, you know, for the new album, Let’s Say, for Instance. And it was a wonderful time. It was the first time I’d tried different things and sang just with a piano. So, tired, but I feel very proud of the tour. It was really nice to reconnect.
I’ve said that I think this album finds your most confident and most, most authentic. Am I telling the truth?
Yeah, I’d say. I’d say so. I mean, I definitely feel my most confident and truthful, you know, personally. I think that just reflects in the music, hopefully and it’s the most independent process I’ve ever had. And I think that’s allowed me to truly be myself and just make decisions based on instinct.
Now you’re in the music business. How much does the business side of the music industry get in the way of the creative process?
I mean, hugely because and that’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot actually, because you are stepping into a business which is, you know, attempting to contain and present something which has nothing to do with business. You know, it’s music, it’s your soul, it’s emotions. But, you know, they need to work hand in hand for it to be successful, you know, to, to reach the people that you intend to reach.
But it does get in the way at some points, but I guess you just try and minimise that as much as possible.
Is the performing side the bit that you really enjoy the most?
It’s difficult. I really need to split my year. Like six months in the studio is perfect. I love being in hibernation. I love being in that very vulnerable state where you’re pulling in these ideas and trying to channel something beautiful. But then after a while you start to think am I just doing this in vain, you know? Isn’t there a reason to do this?
Am I not doing it for people. And then that’s when it’s so amazing to get on stage and feel the adrenaline of performance and, and really see real people, because until you get out there, you know, it’s essentially just numbers. So, when you actually see these are human beings, souls, and through this music we’re connecting for this incredible night. So, I think I need both, because obviously when you perform too much, you can burn yourself out. So, I think you need a balance.
Now, Nadine, having seen you perform, I just know how much you relished that side of the business. But I also love your stories. Share with us, how does a young woman from South London, bought up by a single parent, in Brixton, find her way to opera?
Erm, sheer determination and light as Emeli will know herself. You know, this kind of artistic world is about sharing one soul. And I think the more we get into this process of sharing one soul, you get more and more courageous. It gets more and more authentic. So, I suppose when I first started, it was just, it was like I had this calling and it was asking me to share a gift that only I can share because I believe that everybody has a gift and each person’s gift is only what they can share, not what everybody else can share.
And I had, I just had this calling in my heart, was brought up in the church as well. So, I just had this calling in my heart that I had to sing. I had to heal with my voice. It had to be a part of the process of what I did in life. And then I ended up in working in the corporate world and in the banking world and totally loving that.
But again, the calling kept coming back, like, get to your work, your actual work, and, and then to that, you know, led me into singing opera. And, you know, that nugget was left by a singing, a music teacher at school called Mrs. Lake, and she had planted that seed from when I left secondary school and it just grew in me. I didn’t go to a conservatoire or anything, but I just had this natural passion and natural talent to sing.
Now you’re someone who, as well as being a brilliant performer, helps other people find their dreams, in terms of your coaching. I mean, I know how good you are because I’ve had the benefit of, of your great work. But it wasn’t always that easy, was it? There was resistance and not everybody believed that a Black woman like you should be in opera, would they?
No. And I think, you know, it’s, it’s, that has been a journey in itself because I believe that that initially played on my self-esteem of how I believed that I could show up in the world. And, oh, my God, it’s been nearly 22 years now since I trained as an NLP coach. When I think back on it, it’s like 22 years ago, but then most recent, about in the last ten years I qualified as a certified high performance coach.
And then really recently in the last year, I’ve certified as a physical intelligence coach. And for me, I needed all of those things to help transform my own life. And it hasn’t been until the last kind of, I don’t know, five, six years that I’ve really, felt really, again, strongly about sharing that side of myself, that empowerment. I’m all about empowerment.
I call myself the queen of empowerment. I love seeing people do well. That makes me, gives me so much joy. So, I love sharing that side of them. And I think empowerment goes into a kind of five or six sections. It’s about your spiritual empowerment, it’s about your physical empowerment. It’s about your emotional empowerment. Your spiritual empowerment, your social empowerment and you know, your relational empowerment.
So, it’s all those sections, and I think we go into those, and those, those quadrants at different times of our lives and we have to search them out and really work on them. And then we move on to the next one. And that’s how the journey of my life has been over the last 22 years. And I feel that that’s given me my strength.
The speaking of calling because Emeli, if you’d followed your first path, you studied clinical medicine specialising in neuroscience. So, you could have gone a completely different path. So how did you navigate and how did you get over the resistance of anybody telling you, you couldn’t do it and find yourself in music and then choose what style of musician you wanted to be?
Well, you know, everything Nadine was saying there really resonates because it really is that, you know, you know you have this thing within you that you need to share. And it was really against my character completely. I was a very shy kid you know, I found it very difficult to talk to anybody, to communicate, to express who I was. But music gave me this, you know, expression and this voice and this power, which really, I knew was a gift that I wanted to share and I had this longing to sing in front of lots of people, even though talking to one person was difficult. There’s this message or something that I knew I had to do and really wanted to do. And, you know, but then you have parents, I’m in this tiny Scottish village and a dream of becoming, you know, a pop star in London is quite far fetched.
So, everybody wants you to be sensible. And obviously, you know, school was big in our house. So, and that’s the safer route. You know, you maybe it’s a little bit harder. You study the exams, you pass, and that gives you a career and, and I think I was in split mind, but I always knew deep within, as Nadine was saying, that music was what I was supposed to be doing.
But I always felt like I needed this fallback, well not fallback plan because I did love medicine, but I needed the security of it. And it really wasn’t until I was releasing my third album where I didn’t feel split because I hated feeling not, that I wasn’t giving 100% of myself to either of the decisions. So, it was really after the third album where I really felt like, okay, I’m a musician and I can finally say that and accept that within myself.
Now music has given you a very successful career, but it’s also helped you as a Black woman discover who you are, hasn’t it?
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, music really was my educator as a kid. I didn’t really have many Black women to look up to, to really teach me about what it means to be a Black woman or just, you know, even things like how to do your hair, all of those things. I was really learning myself, up in Scotland and that’s what I loved about music, hearing Nina Simone for the first time, Lauryn Hill, Jill Scott.
I was really learning what it meant to be a Black woman through music. And then also my dad is from Zambia. So, hearing music from his homeland, you feel something within your soul that brings you home even though you’re across the world.
Now Nadine, being a Black woman in opera, especially when you started, must have felt a bit like the road less travelled. I know things have changed and I’ve seen some amazing talent come behind you, but you set up Opera in Colour. Tell us a bit about that.
Oh, so the actual, it was originally called Opera in Colour, but it’s now called Everybody Can and it’s an Everybody Can mentor scheme and opera company. And I set it up because many of the greats in in our lives you know, had mentors. They had people who were at their backs and by their sides. And they really wish to share that part of themselves with somebody who was coming up.
And what I noticed for me in the Opera world was that wasn’t available, it just wasn’t available. And I realised if I believed in it and you know, I’m sure all of us here will agree, if you wish to lead, you have to go first. So, I was like, well, what have I got that I can offer. Well, I’ve got all my corporate side of myself I could offer, and I had already trained as an NLP person and I thought, Let’s share that.
I can share that. And then in time I will get all the information I need to support my journey as a, as a soprano. And so, I just felt it was really important to give back. And then the opera company, you know, somebody said to me, I’d never played Desdemona in Othello. And, you know, I remember it quite clearly.
She said, you’ll never play it because you’re Black. You know, and there are stories about a Black man who hurts a Black woman or a white woman, and duh duh duh. And I was like, actually, no, it’s a story, actually, about post-traumatic stress and domestic violence, you know? And, you know, when we go into the humanity of the story, we, it can be played by any colour.
So, I was just like, actually, I’m going to put on Othello and I’m going to play Desdemona, just to make my point. You know and that’s exactly what we did. And we are this year doing, Norma, in on the 9th of November. And that’s going to be at St James’s in Piccadilly. And we’re really looking forward. So that’d be our third production in the last, kind of seven years.
That’s absolutely brilliant. It really is inspiring. But I mean, there’s so much good news and watching particularly women like you both in music, it would make you think that things are rosy. But late last year, Black Lives in Music, they did a deep dive and research, and they found that there is still systemic racism in the music industry and Black women in particular were disproportionately affected.
What’s been both your experiences in terms of racism, be it microaggressions, be it glass ceilings, being told that you can’t do this kind of music because.
Yeah, I think all systemic racism is so difficult to put your finger on when it’s happening, but you feel it is happening. I think there’s, there’s often an atmosphere in which you do find yourself being the only person of colour there, and this kind of want for everyone around you to feel anything you should be grateful for. Whereas if I was a white man, I could really you know, demand well, this needs to be done this way and, in that way, and not feel guilty just as a woman and as a Black woman that I’m asking too much.
I don’t know if that’s just being a woman. I don’t know if that’s… I don’t know. You know, I can, I can never really finger point, was it racism? was it sexism? whatever it was. But I think the way I’ve tried to get around it is being very, you know, the only thing you truly have control of within the industry is who you work with and what team is around you.
So, I think it’s really trying to get as many people that are empathetic to what you may be going through, whether they’re white or Black, and building a team with that understanding and consciousness.
Oh, gosh, I really agree with you, Emeli. I just think, you know, that it’s there, whether we like it or not. And it’s very covert as well. It’s not overt. So as Emeli was saying, it’s so subtle and you know, and especially since Black Lives Matter, my whole thing has been just to have uncomfortable conversations, if I see it, because normally I would have let those conversations go and just to make a mental note.
But now I lovingly and gently question and challenge and also make it a question that is peace that comes from pro-peace and not anti anything. You know, so it invites people into a conversation with me that doesn’t bring about defensiveness. And I think that’s really important for our industry to think of race and allyship about how we really work together in that way.
And I really had to look up my part in it as well. So, what had I bypassed to kind of feel more comfortable and really come out of that space and make myself really uncomfortable. And I, at the end of the day, I think I’m looking at humanity and I wish to meet a person as a person. And that’s got to be my first point of call.
That’s really interesting. And speaking of uncomfortable conversations, because I’m surprised I’m even having to bring this up, because, about the intersectionality of being a Black woman, and like as we record this podcast, only recently, I think it was this weekend, I read that, it hit the headlines that Dame Kelly Holmes had recently said that she feels that she can now finally breathe because she’s come out and confirmed that she’s gay. And that she was reluctant before because of all the negativity, that the response she felt she was going to get for being authentically who she is.
And I can’t believe we’re in 2022 and one of our most successful athletes in the UK has felt that she’s had to hide that part of herself. Now, Emeli, I know you made the decision recently to come out and Nadine you’ve just married, you got married recently to your wife. Tell me how it’s been for you both.
You know, making the announcement that I was with my partner felt so natural, you know, I never felt like I needed to make a statement or kind of share anything. I never felt the pressure to share anything because it was only till I fell in love where I just felt I wanted to share, this is the most amazing thing that’s ever happened to me.
Yes, she’s a woman. But more about it being we’re in love. And I’ve always wanted to be, to follow my heart through everything. I try to do that through our music and my life, so it was really incredible, the response and, you know, the acceptance and love that that kind of post received. And I think often it’s, it’s through your experiences, you create mental blocks within you. And I think, yes, half of it is society. We have a long way to go until, you know, love is truly accepted. But I think half of it, or if not 30% of it is within your mind. If you have had experiences in childhood where you felt you couldn’t be yourself, or you just see how society works and how dangerous it is in many places for people in same sex relationships.
So, it’s, I can definitely, I feel so happy for Dane Kelly, just to see her joy and the feeling of being yourself and not having to hide anything is really, truly liberating.
Yeah, I agree with you as well. Again, Emeli, I mean, I think for, for myself, I got severely, severely bullied. And when I was in primary school and in secondary school for being gay. So, for me, my fear came out of, well, if this is how I’m going to get treated at this point in my life, how is it going to be for the rest of my life.
Scary? You know, it was really, really scary. And also, you know, there is that thing of being pinpointed. But you can’t play, you know, you can’t play a lead if you’re a lesbian. You know, at that time when I was first coming up, you know, so there was a lot of fear for me around being accepted. Now, just like Emeli just said, I’m so in love, with, you know, my wife is you know, she’s, she’s a, she’s, she’s a gardener.
She’s like, salt of the earth. he like, she deals with the land, very centred, very calm and, you know, just supports me in all that I do. And wishes me to be the best that I can be. But I’m not gonna. For me, I’m not. I can’t possibly downsize how afraid I was. I was petrified. I was terrified. And I did come out initially. And then I went back in and I married a man and, you know, and I had a completely different experience. And, you know, and then I realised that this just wasn’t the right frequency for me. And so, my, I suppose for me it’s all been about coming into myself rather than coming out to the public. Coming into myself, being settled in myself, recognising that I’m born this way, this is how I am.
It doesn’t make me any different from anybody else, if we’re going to go straight into humanity and to celebrate and champion the fact that this is the part of me that I’m here to share, to share. And when we talk about intersectionality, I’m gay, I’m neurodiverse. You know, I come ,I come from a really, you know, poverty background.
You know, I didn’t go to university, you know, you know, I’ve got a disability. There’s loads of stuff for me that really comes into intersectionality. My colour, I’m a woman. Thing is, is that we could go on forever. But as Emeli has just said and I think it’s really important that we highlight this, you know, we are in charge. We’re not in control because none of us are in control, but we are in charge.
And it is down to us to be responsible and to be accountable to our own behaviours and to our own thoughts. I know that’s not easy all the time and I’m not going to downplay anybody who’s challenged at this point and moment. But what I do know from all the coaching and everything that I’ve done is that it is the way we think and not just the way we think, it’s the words that we use also. So, we have to be really mindful of how we’re speaking to ourselves and what we really think about ourselves in the world.
So that said, what would you, if you, if you were speaking to your younger selves and to young women looking at you with awe, because that’s not all they can do about their careers in music. What advice would you both give? How would you tell them to do things differently? Or would you?
Just for them to think about who’s your team? Who’s that person that you can call up at 3 a.m. in the morning and say, this is not going, okay? Who is that person that when you’re feeling a little bit wobbly, you bust yourself with and say, I’m having this, not very good thinking, can you put me on the right road again?
You know, but also the team around you that’s championing you, that celebrates you, that you can go out and have fun with because we so forget to have fun.
We’re so serious about what we need to do and doing the art really well, and being creative, you know, that we forget to just have this what I call rest and restore time and that’s just as important as the work time. So yeah, I would, I would really, I would really, you know, kind of invite the younger generation to be inside your heart more and to live from your heart.
Because I think when we really live from our heart, that’s where our dreams are really found and made into reality.
Now, I know both of you never forget how to have fun. I’ve seen you both have fun. And thank God for that. I have some fond memories of of having fun with you two. You know, it’s easy to be moved by other people’s definition of success, but you have a voice coming out your ears. Both of your mantelpieces full. But how do you personally define your success? What does the success mean to you both?
I mean, I’m going to sound very cliché here, but it truly is happiness. You know, you search for everything, you think as soon as I get that award, I’ll be happy. And as soon as I get this album to do what I want, I’ll be happy then. And then you get there, and you realise that it’s just insatiable. It’s just keeps, this longing to find that place where you’ll finally be content and I think, yeah, happiness.
And I do feel that, you know, being in love just feels fantastic. And I feel like once you’ve been on the right path and like you’re saying, Nadine, there, that you let your heart lead you. I think that’s the only time you’ll, you’ll get where your heart’s supposed to get. So, I think happiness and, and love, you know, that’s what now finally, at this age, I realise that’s what success is.
And I think for me success is really about finding peace and some days peace for me is literally, I need to rest for the day, and I need to stay in bed and watch Netflix. So, I think I have different forms of success for me. And yeah, I think it’s important to recognise that you have 24 hours and I’m speaking like this because I’m 22 years in recovery.
I’m a recovering alcoholic, I’m in recovery from alcoholism for 22 years, I’m sober 22 years and if there’s anything that I’ve learnt is at the beginning I had to take it sometimes 10 minutes at a time in my day when I started and now I just, I live into the 24 hours and I think that’s been the most interesting part.
And if I can find peace in that 24 hours and for me that also includes love, then I’m the happiest person in the world.
So, I ask you instinctively to tell me the most memorable moment of your career. What comes to mind immediately?
Oh, yeah, I would say the Olympics, just because it was such a, such an event and I went through a lot of emotions to get on that stage. And I felt proud to represent. Yes, I’m a Black woman. Yes, I’m you know, I’ve grown in Scotland. I’ve been here. Just the things I’ve loved being, you know, growing up in the UK. Yes. It’s not perfect, we’ve a long way to go, but I do feel lucky to be in a place where there’s still room for expression.
Yeah, I suppose, performing at three of the most amazing opera houses: Royal Opera House, Glyndebourne and English National Opera. Like all those three, as a soloist, that was like one of my dreams. My next dream is the MET so that I’m coming after that next. But, but also what we did recently actually with Emeli and Mica, Mica Paris.
I mean, you know, we were on Commonwealth Day, we were at Westminster Abbey, and we were singing in front of the royal family, and just hearing these women. And I, you know, I’ve, you know, I’ve met Emeli online, but I’d never, oh, I’ve met you once face to face hadn’t I. But just to be with two iconic women who I love and admire and respect, for me, I just felt like I was in such amazing company. It really reminded me why I do what I do.
That’s brought goosebumps to me. Because I just know what that was like, I just know. You know what, this has been a truly special conversations for me. And I knew it would, I had no doubt this is going to be brilliant, but I want to do one of my favourite parts of the programme, which is when we play Pass the Baton, and I’m going to ask you to tell me who has inspired you. It could be someone from the past or someone currently you think it’s worth our audiences knowing about.
I mean, I have to say, you know, it’s hearing that story, Misha Paris. She’s an incredible woman and I’ve only really gotten to know her. I mean, at that show was the first time we were in a dressing room together. So, we started to get talking and she was just giving me hours of advice. She’s like, and to have, you know, a woman who’s had so much success, a Black woman passing down that wisdom, there’s no better source of wisdom to be had. So, I just and she’s so fun and she just has this energy and passion for life. So, she’s definitely inspired me all the time.
Absolutely. I mean, I’m going to agree with Emeli there as well and I really meant what I said, like the both of them just together in one space, us talking to each other, singing. It was just that was just magical. And I’d seen both of their careers in the past, but also yourself, Brenda. People normally do this to me but I never thought I would be in the position to do it to someone else. But it’s true. Like you have been somebody who’s been on the BBC, you know, I know you’re not there anymore, but you’ve been on the BBC. You’ve been a face that we recognise internationally, not just, you know, nationally and internationally all over the world as this broadcast of really successful, so knowledgeable, so intelligent, crossing all boundaries like every single one of them.
And for me that was really important because I felt as an opera singer that was important, that was there, but that the path I wish to take to cross internationally, globally. You know, to see someone walking into all these different worlds for me was really, really important to have in front of me. So, thank you for that fact that I really mean that.
Let me say to the audience, I have not paid her to say that. And I now have a tear in my eye.
Thank you both so, so much. We’ve come to the end. So, I just want to say, this has been a brilliant, cosy, creative conversation. We end the programme with a specially commissioned, spoken word contribution by a flow poet inspired by our music theme. A big thank you to Floacist Natalie Stewart from the FLO Spoken Word Vortex for sourcing these amazing spoken word artists for us.
This poem is called Music is a Poem by Al-Khemi.
Enjoy everyone and thank you for listening to Kiss My Black Side Brought to You by Sadler’s Wells, Ciao for now.
Music is Poetry
Growing like the seeds
Planted by my ancestree
Close your eyes and see
Just how it moves me
The right keys
Open up hearts
Music is medicine
It’s influence is second to none
Instrumental in the healing of the nation
When it hits you, feel no pain!
Just rocking and rolling
Serotonin flowing like a river
Filling limp limbs with rhythm
Beating the drums of rebellion
Together we are strong
Music is the finest Art
The world’s greatest musician
Through that we can all find freedom
The most high is the best composer
That’s why you’re dancing with no composure
Invested in the richness
Floating away on the vibrations
By the melodies
We are moved
Kiss My Black Side is a Sadler’s Wells production.
Black British Theatre – a Renaissance?
Hello and welcome to Kiss My Black Side with me, Brenda Emmanus. This is a celebratory look at art from a Black perspective.
In this show, we talk to some brilliantly talented creatives who have made their mark in the world of dance, film, fashion, music, theatre, and the visual arts. We discuss their work and inspiration, and then we get to do a little deep dive on issues related to their specific art form.
And as we’re talking, we figured it would be nice to end each programme with a specially commissioned Spoken-Word tribute to our chosen topic, which in this episode is theatre. This podcast is produced by Free Spirit Productions Ltd and brought to you by Sadler’s Wells. Sadler’s Wells is one of the world’s leading dance organisations. And in 2022 they’re celebrating work by Black dance artists with Well Seasoned, a year-long programme of live performances, dance films and more from Black choreographers, dancers, and artists of colour.
Now, exciting talent is exactly what we’re bringing you in this episode in the form of three brilliant theatre practitioners doing amazing, impactful work. First, we have Clint Dyer, who has the very fancy title of deputy artistic director at the National Theatre. He also wears other hats as a writer and actor across film, television and theatre.
My second guest has worked in theatre, festivals and the cultural sector for decades, so I know has a wealth of experiences to share. Stella Kanu is the executive director at Lift, London’s bi-annual International Festival of Theatre, which brings joyful, daring theatre from around the world to London using the whole of the city as its stage.
Last, but by no ways least, in my trio of theatre talent is the formidable Tinuke Craig. Brought up in Brixton, she joined the Royal Courts Young Writers Programme at the age of 17. She’s currently witnessing rave reviews at the Old Vic Theatre for her staging of Jitney, the first work and the great August Wilson’s ten play cycle detailing Black life in each decade of the 20th century.
A Kiss My Black Side special welcome to you all.
So, Clint, I’m going to start with you. And it must feel like great progress for Black practitioners to see a Black man as a deputy artistic director, one of the world’s most revered theatre establishments. How did you feel when the offer came your way?
I’m flattered. I think that would be my first response. Extraordinarily flattered. I also felt rather confused because it hasn’t been something that I’ve, I’ve chased and, management wasn’t really on my agenda. I really only wanted to create for and obviously for the last 30 years I’ve been just acting, writing and directing. So, in the main, I should say I have done little pieces of associate stuff at Theatre Royal Stratford East and the Phillip Hedley, but it wasn’t, it wasn’t as full time as this and all encompassing as this. And I kind of had an experience of what running a theatre would be like. So how did I feel? Trapped. Caught. No, no I felt honoured and flattered, honoured all those things and concerned and worried as anyone would be as to whether I could actually do it. Yeah.
Now I know for you Stella, leadership and Black people in leadership roles in the arts is something that I know you’re constantly trying to champion. Do you feel with optimism by what you’re seeing? What’s your feeling of where we are at?
I mean, yes, there’s reasons to be optimistic and there are some nuances within that. I think what has been really joyful for me over the last few years has been, you know, going and seeing work that is like, wow, I’m actually seeing stuff that really absolutely could relate to my nephew or my mum or my uncle. That is amazing.
It’s amazing every time there’s a new announcement and Clint, even though, you know, we don’t know each other very well, on social media I’ve bombarded you with congratulations. That’s the kind of way we’re connecting and that energy. And that’s really lovely. But, I think the optimism and the focus on venue leadership in particular is happening alongside, complementary, alongside loads of other spaces that are growing.
You know, we know that in terms of the work on stage, we know that even in terms of the movement around environmentalism and this will kind of push within the sector to be delivering that work. We’re seeing that there are some Black voices within there as well. And then when you move towards administration, like executive directors, like myself, producers, that is all exploding at the same time.
And I think that, that’s really exciting because it’s kind of, it’s kind of showing what is possible. But I think what Clint was just saying about the backdrop of that is that we’ve been here before and it’s part of a longer evolution, but we also can be fully aware of some pitfalls or some things that might not grow.
You know, like every garden, some things grown, something don’t, some seasons are terrible. And, but I also think that the bigger backdrop, if we look at the sector within kind of like a kind of human landscape, there is a real shift and there has been over the last few years away from the kind of what I like to call brain leadership, you know, the very old fashioned style of leadership and what all the leadership that’s happening on every single level offers us is an opportunity to kind of break down the hierarchies that have existed over time and time and time again in the systems that have kind of been created because of that.
So, I think that there’s something of a move towards heart leadership that we’re all hoping is represented in the changes that we’re seeing that could have much, much longer term influences and impact. And that’s the optimism for me, is really at that end point of going okay, if I’m in my 70th year, what are the things I think I can see based on the seeds and the fruits that are happening right now? And that excites me, but I think is still a long way to go and as Clint said, it’s evolving.
So, if we are moving towards heart leadership, as you put it, do you think there is a genuine appetite for Black creatives at all levels of the theatre industry, or do you still see it still slightly tokenistic or post George Floyd or the right thing to do?
I mean, I genuinely think that the appetite and the intention is real. What’s the, what’s the drivers? Those are the things that need interrogating because they talk a bit more about the end point that people want to get to. And that’s sometimes where the dehumanisation comes into play so that we become the, we become products. We become something that can produce, that can, and that’s too close to labour to me, that is just too close then to some other historical experiences.
And so, I think that there’s, I think the intention is, definitely, definitely real. I’m not, I’m not in any way, shape or form thinking that that isn’t the case. But I do think there are nuances there again. And because, as you know, I’m in a similar space in terms of thinking about the history of particularly the theatre sector.
And if you go back to, you know, the seventies where there’s this massive explosion of multiculturalism and community arts that really began in kind of Black and Brown spaces and to the Black arts movement of the eighties to the nineties where there was the Black dance and development trust and all of that kind of explosion that kind of really got us to focus on creativity and spawned some administrators who are still part of this kind of leadership explosion that we’re talking about now.
That kind of landscape was on the back of an appetite, but actually its intentions are what we’re interrogating right now. So, I think there is definitely some tokenism in there, as you highlighted, there are all of those things. But I think that the environment that we’re in is so different in lots of ways that I think some of those things might fall by the wayside.
And there may be new challenges that come to play. And, you know, for me, some of that is in, you know, the people that are fulfilling the massive appetite at the moment, what’s their experience? How are they, what new things are they, kind of challenges, are they coming across that we haven’t seen before? Because, you know, now we’re focussing on wellbeing and mental health and we’re examining the microaggressions that before we might have put in our pocket and just got on with it.
But now we’re examining everything. We’ve moved from being the confessional generations to being the generations that are going “What’s the political implication of this?”. And so, I think there are some challenges in in the space for both Black artists, creatives, administrators, leaders, and, and the white kind of custodians and stewards that are kind of also stirring the enthusiasm.
Now you’re talking about experiences and I want to ask Tinu about her experience, because you’re there at the moment enjoying great reviews for Jitney, which is brilliant. I mean, I was just blown away when I saw it. But Jitney is very much about, which your directing, it’s very much about place and community. So, I just wondered how you navigated your place in the theatre community and what your experiences have been?
Yeah, I think it’s um, how have I navigated my place in the community? It’s a great question. I think for me, I suppose I’ve always known what I wanted to do or why or what, rather why I wanted to do it, I suppose. And I’ve always known what my line of enquiry was as an artist, and that’s meant that I’ve sort of known kind of creatively, kind of what my place might be or what the kind of work is that I might be interested in, where, what that gap might be.
But in terms of finding a kind of position within the wider community, that becomes a little bit more complicated for all the reasons that Stella’s talked about so beautifully. You know, there’s a, I feel like I might be part of a generation of directors where there are quite a few, like I can name quite a few of my peers who are Black and I can name more of my peers who are of Colour very easily.
And so, there’s a sort of sense that, you know, when we talk about how things changed, I think, you know, sort of my name or Roy Alexander Weise’s name or Lynette Linton’s name or Ola Ince’s name probably gets reeled off relatively quickly in order to say, well, look, it’s it’s better now see that the change has clearly worked. But actually, for kind of trying to navigate through that position, you’re still in a position where you, I find myself sometimes the worry I have is that our generation of directors therefore have to kind of be the, the kind of native informants of that.
We have to be the kind of messengers and the kind of vessels for that work and that we, you know, we ought to know more about it than anybody else, and we must be the people who can enlighten other people and kind of call theatre audiences to our experience, through our very specific role that we might play within the world, which I’m actually very happy to do because I’m passionate about who I am, where I’m from, and my community and my culture, but at the same time it can get in the way of the artistry content, it can get in the way of just being able to do the thing you want to do because you have this extra burden of responsibility and the sense that you have taken up a space and that there aren’t many spaces for you and people who look like you, and so if you’re going to have a space, you better nail it because you’re doing that for the people as well as yourself. There’s a there’s an additional pressure, I think, that comes with that that doesn’t necessarily mean that I don’t feel I have a place in the community. I think I do, and I think I’ve found that largely amongst other Black artists, but it is a slightly more loaded space than it might be for some of my White peers. I mean, I’m sure they would, they might say something different, but I suppose my my perspective of it would be that.
And how do you cope with that pressure? Do you, because I remember speaking to the likes of Spike Lee about responsibility as a creative? I remember as a Black presenter and the correspondent over the last 20 years, you feel it because you’re one of the few, you do feel this sense of responsibility, you know, for me it was Moira Stewart and Trever Mcdonald and if I hadn’t seen them then maybe I wouldn’t have seen it as possible. So, when people see you, you, they, ah, you know, you suddenly realise there’s a possibility. But that can put a tremendous pressure on you.
I think it can. I think it can. And it also puts a pressure on you from the wider community and maybe more especially the white community, but also pressure even within your own community, because you know that you are responsible for representing people in a way that feels true and real and respectable and respectful. And that I think, I’m very happy to do that.
But it does, it does become an additional thing that you’re having to think about or a burden that you’re having to bear. And it’s and I think the danger there also is that it takes Black artists, Black creatives, and it turns them into a monolith, as if we would all think the same thing and have the same experiences and want to tell the same stories about the same things.
It doesn’t really take into account gender and class and sexuality and ability or disability or neurodivergent, and all the other intersections that you might examine. You become a sort of Black artist, and that’s your lane. And I think that pressure can feel, I suppose the reason that I find that pressure to be unhelpful is that apart from anything else, it feels uncreative and I want to be creative more than I want to be anything else.
So, speaking of the creativity and the work itself, the content itself, how do we go about and how important is it, we’ve now brought Jitney to light again of the great playwright August Wilson, there is so much great work around which we want to preserve and unless you’re in the position where you can say, How about we should be doing this?
How important do you think it is that we preserve this great work and how do we go about doing that if we don’t own the Theatre spaces, we don’t make all the decisions. How do we address such balances and what can be done about it?
I think it’s crucial that we preserve the work, partly because I think what, what I was really excited about when I first discovered August Wilson, a part of that discovery was seeing Clint in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, actually. So here we are. But I think there’s something of the discovery that there might be a Black canon and there might be a sort of literary history that you are a part of, I think is really exciting as an artist, but also I think it’s really affirming as a human to know that you are part of the cultural history, that the artform that you care so deeply about includes you and has always included you, actually. I think is really empowering, really exciting and allows you to look at the sort of the artform differently, which I think for me is really empowering.
How we, how we do that in these spaces I suppose, well partly it’s about what we’ve been talking about a little bit, which is allowing. I say allowing, it’s the completely the wrong word. Finding ways and pathways that Black people might be able to be the heads of these cultural institutions so that the Black canon is something that feels more exciting and prominent in that person’s mind. So, that it isn’t a freelancer coming up to the Artistic Director and actually going, Hey, I’ve got this thing, have you heard of it? Can I convince you to do it? It’s also just the artistic directors themselves going, this is the kind of stuff that we really care about.
This is the kind of stuff we really want to do, that feels crucial and important. And I also wonder if it’s also about allowing us to think about, for example, with Wilson, I think allow us to think about Wilson as just a great classic and let it, and let him sit where he ought to sit alongside Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams and Chekhov and all the other great playwrights that we talk about with the language that we use about Wilson. Without going, Oh, but this is niche and this is specific, and this is only for some people and not for others. Because in doing so, I think there’s this great glory in being part of something specifically Black. But the danger, I think, in terms of how we market these things is that they become niche and then when they become niche, they become disempowered. And that’s a shame when you’ve got work like that.
So, um, Clint, as well as these classics is, it’s also equally important that we have new work which drives new audiences to the establishments which you are climbing up the ladder. How important do you think it is to get diverse audiences into spaces like The Old Vic, spaces like the National Theatre, Clint?
Well, as far as my directing goes, it’s only new work that I’ve done. And, and the reason for doing new work is to get new audiences. The reason I’m in this position at the National right now is because of Death of England: Delroy and Death of England: Face to Face, all being new work, you know. They regard it, we regard it at the National as, as paramount to trying to gain new audiences, to be able to push through the barriers that Theatre can sometimes put up.
Now I want to talk about a moment which you know where somebody really did get to do what they wanted to do. And it was, I mean, as a broadcaster, I have seen and I think theatre has been more progressive than film and other arts genre, in moving things forward. I’ve always felt that I think you’ve got that space, I think place at the Royal Court have allowed that and it’s been exciting to see. But I’ll never forget going to the Globe Theatre and seeing what Stella had done and seeing the Globe in a way I’ve never seen it before. Do you want to share what that was about Stella and why you did it?
Yeah, I mean, I think it is still one of my pleasures that I can easily conjure up the image and we’ve got a photo to show it. And it is a beautiful moment. Absolutely. Yeah. And I think it kind of started, there’s a bit of a journey to how we got to that photo I guess in a way, but initially back in 2018, I’d been as executive producer at Ovalhouse Theatre and using my kind of judgement to find the best kind of candidates, ended up with what I think might still be massive anomalies in other organisations, with five Black women working in one theatre.
Because often what happens is we’re kind of dotted around, you know, and we’re in one, we might be in one organisation and talk to each other outside but being in an organisation where we were communicating and creating work together.
It came out of conversations where we were talking about the challenges that we were finding and talking about them regularly and getting upset often about what we were experiencing within those buildings, within the relationships we’re trying to build professionally, within the work that was being programmed.
And it led to these kind of conversations where we were like, let’s just get some Black women together and talk and let’s do that with an energy of celebration. Let’s because, you know, I was a little bit older than some of these things. I really didn’t like the intro that talked about me being around for decades and decades. I am 19!
Me too, then.
My very early gestation period of living.
You were just a precocious talent too.
I kind of like, you know, I kind of lived at the tail end of some of the kind of decades I was talking about. And I kind of remembered them because I thought that that’s what I would meet when I was able to. And yeah, I got to the position of being, you know, an emerging leader and all of those kind of things that disappeared.
But I knew people, I knew I remembered figures because you would catch people and remember them. So, I was sharing that a lot with this up and coming generation. And they were sharing with me also, you know, new talent, but also, you know, what their issues and concerns were and how the game was slightly shifting. And so, we set up Black women in theatre events.
There were three events that we held throughout 2018 and 2019 and those networking events just exploded. I mean, we just had women coming from all over the UK just to be in a safe space with other Black women talking about celebration, their journeys, things that were important to them, what they wanted to see, we did a lot of future gazing.
And we invited people like Winsome Pinnock, Ola Ince had come, Lynette Linton, Judith Jacobs, loads of people, this intergenerational mixed space to talk and to just share stories. And, and then we wanted to kind of, I really have this thing about where the conversation currently begins around diversity and inclusion and equity, which is all about statistics and numbers and all about the lack of and yet here we were, programming these events that was attracting the statistics in one space and there was something really powerful about that and not as a reason to kind of diffuse that “Oh, there were only 4% in this place. They’re only 1%”. But what I realised was really challenging is that we were buying into the statistics game as a people and not seeing each other past and present and not seeing the voluminousness of our kind of contribution to theatre, the theatre sector, to the art sector, to culture.
And so, I wanted to make that visual, because I just felt, I felt the power in that room. Everyone felt the power in that room when you know, there might have been 60 of us in the space, but the energy that was driven in there, I really wanted to capture that. And I’ve been doing a couple of panel discussions at the Globe and talking with, talking with them about, you know, race in Shakespeare and blind casting and all these kind of things.
And I thought, okay, they’ve had some challenges internally and they’re trying to make some corrections. Let me just see if they can put their money where their mouth is. So, I kind of just propositioned them in a really short phone call that just said, this is what we want to do. We want to get loads of women to come down and we want to occupy the Globe.
Because you remember, I was just talking about how often we’re in organisations, singular. So that isolation is really, really keenly felt and, and, and you know, when we go into these buildings, we don’t own them, we don’t suddenly own them. Even if you’re in a leadership position, let me tell you, you don’t start owning the building. And so, there was this conversation that was brewing about we want to be able to occupy spaces, a space where we’re not considered to be.
So, the Globe was it and so we then, kind of did this real secret campaign by sending out individual invitations to people who were in our networks, because we also wanted to keep it quiet, and we thought we would have 100 women turn up. But it kind of grew and grew and grew. And secretly, over six weeks we were communicating, I was working with the Globe to figure out how we were going to have one, we had one, they gave us a one hour slot in between, I can’t remember. Might have been Measure for Measure, I can’t remember what um, piece was on in that in that period, but they said they’re going to come off stage at five and they’re having a short break and then coming back on at six. You’ve got one hour to get everyone in, take the photo and come off again.
But can you explain to them, to Tinu and to Clint what you were trying to recreate that, that classic Harlem photograph?
Yeah. I mean, there is a history, isn’t there in the kind of Black creativity of a series of moments that are visual representations of where something is and I guess I managed to trace it back to Black Wall Street, actually. I found an image of eleven, it might have been nine, nine or eleven, early investors in Black Wall Street in that area who set up the first Black bank and I think it was in 1913.
I’m getting my numbers mixed up. It might be 1911, early 19th century. And they’ve taken this sepia photo of the founders and so that’s the kind of origin. And then you’ve got the kind of the great day in the great day of Harlem, which is the Jazz musicians of the age who took the photo.
So, you’ve got in the nineties the great day of hip hop where all of the hip hop artists took one. I think in Manhattan, maybe Brooklyn, actually, where they had 77 hip hop artists take a photo. You’ve had in 2018, the Netflix creatives and back of House taking another photo. And for me this was a continuation of that by saying actually we in the theatre and cultural sector are presenting in the same way. And I do always say this, the numbers kind of grow, but there is none of those photos there is as many as 250.
I’ve got to say, it was the most incredible place to be at that time. It is embedded like cement in my memory, (Stella: Do you remember?)it was absolutely, the energy was something else and I felt like I was an intruder because I was a journalist and a broadcaster.
I remember looking at the, I stood up on the stairs and looked down because I wanted to remember it and I just couldn’t believe it’d happened, and we’ve made it happen because it was absolutely. The sound of everyone’s chatter and people meeting each other and we encouraged people to make connections and it was just yeah, it was really something.
Sorry to jump in. Yeah, no, funny enough, there was another one. There was actually another one the Giles Terera organised at the National that I was in and that was about six, seven years ago. I have a wonderful picture with us all sitting on the Olivier stage, and we did readings, etc. But anyway, my point I’m trying to really make is that there was a lot of people there, but it was nowhere near 250. So, I congratulate you. I salute you. In fact.
Tinu, what does it feel like to you? You’re of a different generation. Do you feel that, you know, I know we’re running out of time, but do you feel Tinu, that you now have agency that you can say, I want to do this, and you’ll be given licence to do it?
I think I certainly feel like I’ve got er,agency to say it, to say it. Whether or not, whether or not people will let me is, is quite another matter. But I suppose I’m lucky to be part of a generation that has got models and role models and have seen versions of what it might be like or how you might go about achieving these things.
It does feel like um, I mean, it feels like there’s a there’s a wind blowing and there’s a change happening. But it doesn’t feel like I don’t think I’m in a position to sit and go, . It’s all sorted, now me and my mates, we could just do what the hell we want, you know? And you know, like I said, I said, you know, there’s an appetite at the moment, but the appetite, you know, comes from places it doesn’t always feel comfortable.
You know, you’re aware that sometimes the, the interest in you doesn’t necessarily… It feels precarious. You know, in some ways I think I’m a child, I’m a child of the nineties. And so I was, I grew up around about the time with loads of schemes. And if there hadn’t been loads of schemes, I don’t think I’d be doing this.
Kids who are nine now are not going to the free drama clubs I got to go to when I was nine. There’s a whole system in place that creates the artist, that allows the artist to get to where they need to get to. And if that system is being dismantled, we can’t relax, is what I would say.
So, whilst I’m so happy to be doing the work that I’m doing, it’s, we can’t chill out.
We’re so glad you’re doing the work you’re doing. In fact, we’re glad you’re all doing the work that you’re doing. I want to play my ‘pass the baton’ game with you, and I’d like each of you to tell me about somebody that you would like to, in essence, pass the baton to. You’d like to celebrate either from the past or you currently feel is worth worthy of attention. Tinu?
There’s a playwright called Dipo Baruwa Etti, who I saw his show at the Yard, An Unfinished Man a while ago, and I’ve read a few of his, drafts of his work. And I think he writes so specifically about the kind of intersections of the Black experience and these sorts of corners that are less examined and things that feel epic and theatrical and of the art form and also really, really kind of laser in on something that feels particular and important and undiscovered. He’s, he’s an artist I’m really excited about.
So, Clint, if you agree, Let’s see if Tinu agrees with your choice.
My choice would be Lynnette Linton. I think she’s incredible. I think she’s a force of nature. I think her work has been outstanding and her taste, and her choices are to be heralded. And yeah, I’d love to, to feel like if anyway there was that I could be a part of that rise, I would be. And so, if this podcast can help her future, I’m glad that I’m doing it here and now. Yeah, no, she’s great. I’d love to pass the baton on to her.
I think for me also, because I have a different vantage point that isn’t necessarily artistic, and I would hate to miss out anyone. I think for me I can answer this in a way that feels authentic, which is I am often on the lookout for different types of people and you know, who can have different kind of functions, who are really inspiring.
For me, that is what I like to call tender warriors, people who are kind of leading by the heart, you know, they’re not leading, you know, they’re leading themselves by their own heart. But they’re also, you know, they have a sensibility enough to not fight like a brawler, fight like a warrior, you know, with skill. You know, someone who can fight you in the silence, fight you quietly, fight you with precision.
Because I think, you know, that’s, there’s something about the combination of those two things that is really interesting to me. And I identify with and I’m so, and I often think that often the outsider sensibility and so I’m often on the lookout for tender warriors who I think are going to be the new, you know.
In 50 years time, they will be the ones leading organisations and working in a completely different way. And leading our sector in some, in some way because I think there are a whole new set of challenges that are coming that will require both of those things, people who can be in the softness but you know, slice and dice in a second.
This has been truly inspiring. I want to thank you, all three of you for this really engaging, can I call it a thespian exchange? Are we allowed to say thespian exchange?
You can say it if you like.
It’s been a gas. Thank you all so much.
We’re going to end the programme with an especially commissioned spoken word contribution to theatre and I’d like to say a big thank you to flow artist, Natalie Stewart, from the FLO Spoken Word Vortex. This poem is called Stage and it’s by Mr. I Am Jones. Enjoy everyone and join us again for Kiss My Black Side.
Kiss My Black Side is a Sadler’s Wells production.
Visual Arts - Seeking our Spaces
Hello and welcome to Kiss My Black Side with me, Brenda Emmanus. This is a celebratory look at art from a Black perspective.
In this show, we talk to some brilliantly talented creatives who have made their mark in the world of dance, film, music, theatre, fashion, and the visual arts. We discuss their work and inspiration, and then we get to do a little deep dive on issues related to their specific art form.
And as we’re talking, we figured it would be nice to end each programme with a specially commissioned spoken word tribute to our chosen topic, which in this episode is the visual arts. This podcast is produced by Free Spirit Productions Ltd and brought to you by Sadler’s Wells. Sadler’s Wells is one of the world’s leading dance organisations, and in 2022, they’re celebrating work by Black dance artists with Well Seasoned; a year-long programme of live performances, dance films and more from Black choreographers, dancers and artists of colour.
I’m really excited to have two wonderful guests from the world of the visual arts joining me today. My first is someone that I’ve been watching with awe, and once I met him, confirmed that he was as funny as he is talented. Artist Curtis Holder creates the most mesmerising images using graphite and coloured pencils. His main themes focus on people and the human form, creating the most unique and original images of his subjects.
In 2020, Curtis won the Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year Prize. A National Portraiture Competition televised in the UK. My equally amazing second guest is as passionate about being a champion of the arts as I am. Bolanle Tajudeen is a curator and founder of Black Blossoms, a platform which promotes black women, artists and creatives by hosting regular exhibitions throughout the UK.
In 2020, she launched the Black Blossom School of Arts and Culture and will now be running short online courses titled Art in the Age of Black Girl Magic. Welcome, guys.
Hello. You’ve bigged me up now, so if I’m now not funny, I’m going to get completely slated.
You know, that becomes your problem and not mine. (Curtis: Oh, thanks for that!) You’ve never not been funny as long as I’ve known you, darling. So, I really don’t think that’s going to be a problem. But what you are is exceptionally talented. And I was going to start the conversation with you asking you what you’ve been up to since winning Portrait Artist of the Year, because I know that has been quite a thing for you.
I want to go back first to your previous incarnation, which was teaching.
Yeah, I was a primary school teacher for like 15 years. And what I realise is every career I’ve had has been an excuse to draw. And weirdly, I’ve gone through many things I can’t, some of which I cannot speak about here, that’s for our private business.
Have you still got the pole in your living room?
Yes, I have thank you very much. I’ve got the pole. I’ve got the G-string. I’ve got it all. I’ve still got the tassels. But that, again, is for another time. But, yeah, I’ve, every career has led me to this point because it was just, everything I did was an excuse to draw and finally ended up as a primary school teacher, because I think, weirdly, you draw every day.
You draw every day. And it’s, it’s just so magical being in an environment where there are young people at the beginning of their life journey. And hopefully you have that positive influence in order for them to just carry on being who they are, which I think is sometimes pushed to one side in education because of so much other stuff going on.
For me, it was about recognising and seeing who they were and help them to be that for the rest of the rest of their lives, because as we well know, there are going to be times where we are buffeted from pillar to post. Should we be this? Should we be that? Should I be doing that? Should I be doing this?
Usually influenced by external pressures of all types? And I think, I think for me it was important to help them to understand, actually this is who I am, and I need to walk through this world trying to be the best version of that, whatever that is. And, you know, careers or hobbies or whatever you want to do is part of that, you know, travelling journey and shouldn’t be confused for the core essence of who you are.
And I loved it. I absolutely loved it. And I do miss the children. I really do.
Speaking of who you are, who or what helped you to take yourself seriously as an artist and make the decision to make that your profession?
Well, do you know what? First and foremost, it was my parents. And I’ve got, I’ve got to thank my parents because they were, I now come to see quite unusual in as much as they weren’t pushy in, in any shape, way or form and understood that I was a creative being and whatever that meant, they just let me get on with it.
And I think, I think having parents who, one from Jamaica and one from Barbados, obviously bizarre mix as we well know. You know, we’d be going to parties and my, my, mum would often be harassed by `how have you met this small island man?’
The usual, the usual debate.
But and he was a complete atheist, and my mother was high religion. And what that showed me was, do you know what? There is love in everything. You can do anything. It doesn’t matter about those things that seemingly pull you apart. They actually strengthen who you are and give you, you know, a very open-minded childhood. I think I had a very open-minded childhood compared to a lot of the people I knew back then.
My dad, very gentle, very gentle guy and it was a very, a huge mixture of people around of different types of people, different races, different ethnicities I would say. And, and sexuality as well. Dad had gay friends and there was a lot of Irish as well. My mum’s a nurse as well. So first and foremost, it was their ability to let me just be and my brothers have quite they’re quite academically minded.
I’m not saying that I wasn’t, but they were you know, little geniuses when it came to things like maths.
So how much did your, how much did your Caribbean roots have an impact on your art practise or did it?
Did it? Did it have… Do you know what for me, very early on, my ability to make marks and draw and create was a way of me understanding who I was and how I fit. Because I grew up on an estate in Leicester where there were no other Black people and that was purposeful. My mother, they wanted, apparently my mother wanted, they wanted to send us to another estate and my mother said, no, we’re not going to that estate because it’s predominantly Black and we, she wanted us to be in an estate that was closer in what she thought was more of a more affluent area, which is (it didn’t really make any difference). But, no, it was, it was great. I loved it.
But I think art for me was a way to just connect with my surroundings in a way that didn’t make me seem threatening or it was a way of me mixing and being part of groups that I wouldn’t necessarily have been able to join or be a part of or observe if I hadn’t got this artistic ability. This skill and it seemed to put people at ease.
So, which came first, the chicken or the egg? I don’t really know. But my drawing, my ability to draw is so much a part of me. I don’t know where the art practise begins and, and, and Curtis ends, if you know what I mean. He’s always been. So, the first thing I remember doing before writing or spelling it was drawing.
And I say, so I think that my art practise has evolved as, as, as I have as a way of, of observing the world, communicating with the world, and just trying to find some kind of place and understanding of what’s going on and who I am. So, I don’t know whether I could separate the two. Does that make any sense or am I just waffling?
It does make sense. So, I’m going to move on to Bolanle i here because education formed a part of your career path as well, didn’t it? But in a very different way. You went into education initially?
So, I studied at University of the Arts London. I actually studied public relations at London College of Communication, and it was my aim to go into politics and policy. And I think being in a creative environment really opened up my eyes to all the things that state schools don’t open your eyes to. So, from illustration to photography, fine art.
I was in all the campuses, and so in my third year I ran for a sabbatical position in the student union as education officer because it kind of went with some of the political aspirations that I had like, you know, a sabbatical officer leads into a lot of civil servant jobs and things like that. So, I was really interested in like developing that kind of practise of my work.
And when I was in that role, I came across quite a few statistics that really affected me. And so, I was elected to be Sabbatical Officer by my peers. I had like 600 votes; it was really great. And then becoming Education Officer was like, it was such a downward spiral. So, all my friends had actually left because they’ve, we’ve all graduated now and still working within the union.
And it wasn’t as great as I thought. And then these statistics were around how Black students and students of Colour were less likely to receive a 2:1 compared to their white counterparts who will get a 1st and the attainment gap was something that really…it shook me for a number of reasons. Firstly, because I have a child and I thought, okay, this can have such a detrimental effect on securing jobs and what does this mean if, you know, you go to university, you work really hard only to like, be getting a 3rd, like what does this mean for students?
And I just came across so many different reports and statistics that the university had been compiling all the data. And then I felt this like enormous pressure to tell the students that this is what they were more, these were the issues that they were facing. And, and it was kind of my responsibility because as an elected Sabbatical Officer, you are there to represent the needs of the students and not the university.
And, you know, I’m, I was a really fun time girl. I like, I like politics, but, you know, there’s always a time and a place for everything and you know, going to a group of students and like trying to tell them that oh, by the way, you’re less likely to get a 1st because of the colour of your skin wasn’t something that I envisioned, especially, I was quite young actually and yeah, it was like I was being forced into EDI without necessarily wanting to do EDI (Brenda: It happens) And yeah, you know, you just have, as a Black person, you just feel the responsibility. And so, in… whilst I was a Sabbatical Officer; I started a campaign called `UAL So White’ so, it was like, literally right after the #OscarsSoWhite and it kind of yeah it just it really changed the game.
Like all the students by tweeting their experiences, there was coverage in the Voice newspaper. The university started to take it seriously and they started to implement some of the campaigning ideas that we were asking for. And by the end of the campaign, I felt really, really burned out and I felt really depressed. I like, I would Google my name and `UAL So White’ would come up and I thought, but I haven’t even got a job in my industry yet. Like what hell, like what is, you know, it was just. I was so down and then …
You were just concerned that speaking out would go against, would go against you.
Of course. Yeah. And I hadn’t even started my career. And so, to be honest, I kind of just really needed something that… when I started Black Blossoms it only actually started as a one day conference. And it was a safe space for me and Black women who worked, graduated from University of the Arts, was currently studying, studying at UAL
And it was just really meant to be a safe space conference. And then it just like started to grow into like more events and then I had the opportunity to do an exhibition in the High Hope in campus. And, you know, I, the, you know, I was able to choose students who had graduated within the last 3 to 5 years. And it was such a beautiful exhibition.
This one had about 15 Black women and non-binary artist, Black non-binary artist and, and yeah, everyone was calling me a curator. Everyone’s like, oh my gosh, this is so amazing. I was like, OK what’s a curator? This is cool. And I, I do like art and I, I realised I had the eye quite quickly to put artworks together, really understand like the art world as well.
Like I will say that I don’t come from a traditional art background. Yeah, I went to university in an art school. I done a course at an art school, but I everything that I know about the art world has been because I’ve taken the time out to do either short courses, I read a lot. I have just really been able… and that’s when I know some things are spiritual, some things are not even meant to be understood.
Like the way that I’ve been able to understand the art world. I meet people who’ve gone to university to study like, arts management, and I still kind of have a better understanding of like how the different structures of the art world work. Because I feel it in my gut, I feel it in my bones and I just, I, I was really from quite early on in my career, I was able to understand art institutions and art markets, how they operate, how they support each other, the separations between them.
And I definitely think that’s been pivotal to the success of Black Blossoms because yeah, quite early on, after I curated a few exhibitions, I started doing public programme workshops with Tate and they allowed me to bring my own audiences into that. And it’s just been that kind of understanding that I’ve had of.
How these kinds of very separate entities that are not meant to really work together but do work and collude and collaborate, etc.
It’s possible. It’s been interesting listening to you talk about that because your, your experience is almost similar to mine. I didn’t study art history or anything like that. I just had the passion for it. And I think you’re the same Curtis, it’s when you feel it’s the right thing for you, I think that the universe just puts you in the right place at the right time. However, that might be.
So, I think that’s quite exciting to hear and I think learning, I think coming from, what I, because I used to sometime feel insecure about not having a historical background and all of that. But I think I was learning and what I was learning, I was sharing with audiences, and I think, for me, art is for everyone. (Curtis: Absolutely)
And there’s sometimes a conscious effort to make it elitist and keep people out.
Absolutely. And the key word there is passion. Erm, I knew, well I knew very little about the art world before I entered the competition and, and won it. And I think that objectivity that we’re all talking about is an absolute blessing, because we can actually go into an environment and, and see it for what it is and not have the trappings of the traditional route or what we’re supposed to say or what we’re supposed to do.
We can look and go, hold on a minute. Why is that happening and not that happening? Why aren’t those two groups talking to each other? Because they are going to be able to help and support and raise each other up. But traditionally they would be on opposite ends of the room and, and weirdly, forces would be trying to keep them apart, which is, you know, nonsensical.
But I think. what I think passion is, is the thing. And like you, as you were saying Bolanle, it’s, you feel it in your gut, you know what you need to do. You know what’s broken. And, and inherently, you kind of know how to fix it.
Yeah, I did this documentary I don’t know if you saw it, called Whoever Heard of a Black Artist? And it was looking at, well the void in Black, in British art history and it was a real revelation to me, partly, there was a part of me that was almost, felt embarrassed because there were so many great names of artists I’d never heard of and didn’t understand their experience or their plight.
And to see their battle and to see the constant battle that they had just be acknowledge and to be recognised and some doing great work. And then I go to the Tate now and I go to the National galleries, and I see Kehinde Wiley, hanging up in The National Gallery. Then I go to Soul of a Nation, and It’s packed out with Black people really enjoying and absorbing art.
We’ve got Hew Locke on at the moment, we’ve had Lubaina Himid. We could do a roll call. So, we could, it looks like things are changed radically, but is that really the case Bolanle?
So, thank you, Brenda. So, when I first started Black Blossoms, it was a platform to highlight Black women and non-binary artists. So, this was in 2015 erm, Lubaina Himid hadn’t won the Turner Prize, Sonia Boyce, definitely, like, look, we’ve got another seven years from 2015 until Sonia Boyce would go on to win the Golden Lion.
So, you know, Black women artists in Britain were very, very much unseen and unheard (Curtis: Yeah), but now, if you look at the landscape… I was on Artsy. I’ve been on Artsy quite a few times this week, actually, just looking at the numbers that young Black women artists are doing on the secondary market. Black British men are not doing the same in the contemporary art market.
So, we are definitely in a time period where Black women artists and non-binary artists and queer artists as well, they are very much being, their work, is very much being picked up institutionally, is being picked up by collectors, their being noticed? You know, I was trying to think about why, why is it now? And I think Lynette Yiadom-Boakye is definitely one of the artists who had, who started to pave the way. So, in 2013 you can start to see like her secondary art market sells and like therefore there being a lot of faith that from a collector perspective this is buying up work from Black women artists is actually a good investment.
And once you have the investors on sides, the collector’s side, they’re the ones who donate artworks to museums like, you know, it’s a very interesting colluded little bubble, (Curtis: laughs – it is) but it,
When you start to understand certain like, okay, this is why this artist is having a show at this space and who’s one of the main sponsors. I wonder how many works of so and so artist they have and things like that. So, you know, I think, yeah, the course that I teach. So, after I done Black Blossoms highlighting Black women artists and so forth, etc. and that’s still one of the main missions of Black Blossoms.
In 2020 I launched a Black Blossoms art school and we’ve had a number of courses from a number of tutors. So, we’ve had Black British Art, which was led by Lisa Anderson, who is from the Cultural Archives. We’ve had the amazing Evan Ifekoya whose collective Black Obsidian, was nominated for a Turner prize last year, they also led their course, Devotion and Spiritual Practise in Art.
And we’ve had Richard Rawlins lead a course, so we’ve had really amazing tutors lead courses and I teach a course called Art and Activism in the Age of Black Girl Magic. So, the main reason why I launched a school is because we have the secondary art market now really paying attention to Black artists. We have more Black artists having institutional shows.
However, if we don’t have constant education about these artists, then people are not going to be talking about them, referencing them in their work. And it’s really, really, really important that Black artists continue to take up space within an educational academia context. Like we want students in art schools to not just reference Sonia Boyce, but even younger contemporary artists that are coming up.
Because the more references they have, it just it keeps the cycle going. How many books has Picasso had written on him? Five books written on a Black woman artist is nothing. You know, we need to have more books. We need to have more courses. And as we know, a lot of these art schools, they don’t have a diversity of tutors coming from different racial backgrounds, so therefore they’re only going to be talking about artists from their pool of networks that they know.
And that is one of the main reason the school exist is to just make sure that Black artists and artists of Colour continue to be part of the conversation whilst also breaking down who has access to knowledge and at the same time who is a knowledge producer? You know, people will assume that me as a young Black woman can’t produce knowledge and give out knowledge to people.
Because of my background, I’m a working class Black girl. I grew up in care, so forth and so forth. So, I think people assume that I shouldn’t be able to give the knowledge about the arts and things like that. But my course `Art and Activism’ that I teach, it’s sold out three times at the Tate, no, twice at the Tate. It sold out for The Photographer’s Gallery.
We’ve got a huge partnership with Art on the Underground where we’re actually delivering four new courses and that respond to four of their new artistic commissions on the underground. So, you know, there’s definitely an appetite for Black art, Black art education and, you know, this is the time to really lean in and extract and give as much as we can as cultural producers.
And yeah, that’s mainly what I do.
Is so exciting. Curtis you are currently, well, speaking to you from taking up space at the National Theatre as the first artist in residence. Now that is amazing. Tell us a bit more about what you’re what they’re expecting of you and what you’re doing.
Well, you know what? It’s a collaborative effort because where all running, you know, we’re all running blind. I was introduced via the Director, Dominic Cooke who’s seen, who had previously seen my work, and he invited me to, like I said, quite literally document the process from day one of the play that he was directing, which is called Corn, The Corn is Green.
I saw that, It’s great.
It was quite, do you know what, I didn’t know anything about the play beforehand. And then he was telling me about it, and I was thinking how, how is … I just didn’t I was thinking, right, okay, how is this going to play out? And the one hook that, that really got me was education. It was about education. And not only education, it was about the power that one person can have.
And in influencing a whole swathe of people and the knock-on effect that that can have. And, and it brings us you know, it really ties into what you were saying Bolanle about education and who the educators are and what those people who are being educated go on to do and how they can bring their own flavour to whatever they do in the future, you know, and…
So, what did they want you to do? what are you doing? What are you tasked with?
Well, well, what I’m tasked with is well, what I have previously been tasked with is whatever I like, I will go and draw rehearsals. And there were, there were acting rehearsals. there were singing rehearsals and there are all, all of that as well as all the technical aspects of what goes into making a production. So, I would be one day I’d be in the props department watching them weld huge, massive structures together.
And then I would be in hair, wigs and makeup, watching them apply and create magic and transform individuals. It was quite an amazing thing to watch. So, I would be quite literally sitting there, and I would be drawing. I would be talking to them about themselves their process, how they arrived at the National Theatre sometimes. And it was very interesting to see the different energies, different departments had and also what the individual make up of that, that particular department was.
It was really interesting because especially in the props department, there are lots of women in the props department who I didn’t, this is about my own prejudice, there are a lot of women in the props department that I didn’t really think, I was quite surprised, but it was really, really amazing, the wonderful energy and it was quite insightful. Obviously when you’re drawing and you are talking to people about themselves and the longer I, I was here, the more intimate, the, the conversations became.
And so, some of them I can talk about, some of them I can’t. But that was my task. And I didn’t see that being an end game to this because I just thought, well, I’m here because I really love being in this environment. I really love capturing the essence of what people are doing and, and capturing the essence of the individuals that made up this, this play, this production, this play at the end of it.
And so, it was quite interesting to see the journey of the play evolve and how, how different it was from start to finish. And, and because I was seconded to one play, it wasn’t, it didn’t limit me because they’re so generous here. I was able to move around different plays and one play that was on at the same time as The Corn is Green was Small Island, which was, was very interesting.
And I did sneak into the dressing rooms there and had some very interesting conversations. And it was a very bizarre and uplifting atmosphere to be in this place where it was theatre and you’re walking up and down the corridors and it’s just Black people everywhere where you were there with Black people behind the scenes and in front of the scenes.
And not only that, there were, because of the nature of the play, there were, there were people walking around dressed as you would see… (Brenda: Windrush generations) Yeah, that you would see in the albums, the photo albums and the wedding albums of your parents and all your in-laws. It’s like, oh, my God, you know, Jesus, this is, this is them this could be in the photo album
And so, it was a very interesting, different energy. That’s basically what I was doing. And then as the show progressed and I saw the end result, I then envisaged pieces. I then could see actually this could be pieces that could be part of the show. And so then with further talks, we decided that there is going to be a show at the end of the year.
And my, my time here has been extended and I’ve been given my own working space. So, I hope the pair of you are going to come to the private view.
Of course, we will.
Curtis will be documenting this experience at the National Theatre. I know you’ll be documenting and making a book out of Art in the Age of Black Girl Magic, which is obviously important. But considering the wealth of experience you have now. What do you think needs to be done today in terms of the ecosystem to support Black artists and also audiences coming in and being invited in feeling all these spaces, all these institutions are for them?
I’ll let you start with that Bolanle.
Deep question, I know.
The one, the one that I’m going to tackle first is about audiences. I think, you know, you just got to have very interesting programmes. I think public programme teams, and public programme teams are doing a lot with very tight budget formats because a lot of public programmers are my friends, but I know they are doing a lot on tight budgets, and I will say that it’s about thinking outside of the box if their programming and reaching out to cultural makers and shakers and tastemakers that don’t necessarily sit in with the arts.
So, for example, I love Oloni. Oloni is a young sex blogger from London. They talk about a variety of things. And I always think, why haven’t, why hasn’t a big institution asked Oloni to come and do a night like one of their late galleries? They’re sitting on 300,000 followers, you know what I mean, I think, you know, we don’t need to, we don’t, firstly it doesn’t need to, we need to get rid of the idea of respectability, politics and making sure that the person that we are going to give jobs to fit into this very narrow kind of oh are they sure,, you know, just a very narrow definition.
And I’m you know; I welcome the day when there are more people looking at the art than are guarding the art, that are Black. (Brenda: laughs – security). But I totally agree with you. I think it’s about the institutions inviting, inviting a different kind of audience to celebrate and be part of that institution if they want, if they want to, to, to grow and to be relevant, they need to absolutely think outside the box and invite people.
Because, as you well know, look, look at the Kehinde. Every time I went to the Kehinde. I’ve never seen so many black people in my life.
In The National Gallery, I know, I was shocked. I was shocked. I still remember Soul of a Nation as well, walking down there and seeing it jammed with people so excited.
When they say that Black people don’t engage in the arts,. I don’t really understand what that means. And not all white people engage in the arts either. You know, it is a very niche, with people who come to visit…the audience is also niche. Yeah. And I just think things just need to… I have a lot to say about a lot of public programmes that happen.
I really enjoy developing public programme as much as I enjoy it in an art exhibition, and I do think it is about really pushing the team to really think creatively. There’s only so many times you want to hear the same people in conversation.
That’s true. It’s lazy thinking, that’s all it is. It’s lazy thinking that they need to be more creative on that side. And I’m gradually seeing that happen. I want to play, I want to do this with you because I always, at the end of every podcast is my, is the Pass the Baton section where I ask you to tell me of somebody that you’re into, has inspired you in the past or somebody that you currently think is worth an audience, listening to or getting to know.
So, Curtis who would yours be?
Oh, yes, I know Gaylene, very well.
Yeah, I, we met when I was 14 and I asked her out and as my husband now says, well, she dodged a bullet didn’t she.
I wonder if she thinks that?
Yeah, yeah, she probably does. Well look, she’s known me since we were 14. But she’s gone on to, recently she’s doing, she’s set up erm, oh gosh, erm a new kind of initiative, which is about…
It’s like a soiree, isn’t it?
Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s quite… And I asked her about it, and she talks to me about it and it’s just this ever-evolving platform, just bringing people together, helping people to understand where their strengths are. But she’s well, I don’t need to tell you what she’s been involved in, in the past, but she’s, she’s a real pioneer, I think, and also a real champion.
Well, she’s been a very personal champion for me, but also a huge champion for Black arts. And I think she’s always the one to watch. She’s there. She always seems to be there way before anybody else.
So, from Gaylene Gould, Bolanle, who would you pass your baton to?
So, it’s actually a duo. So, it’s two people, but they work together as a duo.
They’re brother and sister and they run a community interest group called flat 70, and which is based in Elephant and Castle. And they exist to support cultural workers and artists of Caribbean and African descent and other marginalised identities as well. And what flat 70 are doing is really, really cool. They are., so, when we talk about how do we get more audiences into museum, they’ve started a cultural club with GUAP Magazine where they have different museum days and gallery days.
They’ve had really cool exhibitions in this space and the way they came up with the space is that they lived on the Heywood estate that was knocked down and they lived in flat number seventy and then they went to go and open up a gallery just by the kind of tanks by the station. And now it’s called flat 70. So, it’s an ode to that.
And I’m really, I’ve just been watching them on the sly. I really, you know, like because they’re young and I just, I really enjoy that young creative energy and being like, how much, how much the possibility is for them to expand into so many different, so many different avenues in the arts. Say that’s who I’d like to pass my baton on is the brother and sister duo from flat 70
Anthony Badu is the Arts Director, and his sister Senam Badu is the Communications Director. I just think that’s what we need. We need more Black people to just come out, take up space, work institutionally. Work with really cool, new media platforms then also have exhibitions. This is this is all of like that creative energy that inspires me to work.
And also, it reminds me, actually because when you’re in these art spaces as a Black woman, you kind of sometimes, you can get lost in the sauce. You kind of forget, okay, this is what I’m doing. You know, I get invited to everything. All the parties, when I first started out, that I used to be like, oh my gosh, I want to get an invite to that party.
I want to go…now, I just don’t have the time. And then you also develop different relationships in the art world and your mission changes as well, like starting the school. I mean I’m very business focussed now. Yeah, seeing all the work that flat 70 is doing is just super exciting for me.
The work you guys are doing is so exciting for me, which is why I wanted you to join me on Kiss My Black Side. I swear. I know we could talk forever and ever. I’m truly inspired by both of you and what you do, and I think we’ve got exciting times ahead. I want to thank you both for joining me for this cool, creative conversation.
We end the programme with a specially commissioned, spoken word contribution by flow poet inspired by our visual art theme. So, a big thank you to Floacist Natalie Stewart from the Spoken Word Vortex, for sourcing these brilliant spoken word artists for us. Now, this wonderful piece is called We Are Art by Al-Khemi. Enjoy everyone and thank you for listening to Kiss My Black Slide Brought to you by Sadler’s Wells. Ciao for now.
In arts and crafts
Presented in photographs
A celebration of shades
That takes you to a place
Where you can feel the breeze
Oration on canvas
Storytelling heard by eyes
Watching to read
Witnesses of truth
Proof painted, printed, original not repeated
Presenting the black experience
Depicting the strength in our structures
Shaping the richness of our cultures
New foundations, no vultures
Just us and our real stories
In Black, no white wash
Fists raised with vigour
Art in fact
We are empowered
And are celebrated
We heal and receive healing
We see and observe
No need for lies
The truth will do
We are enough
We are Art
Kiss My Black Side is a Sadler’s Wells production.