Paris Lit Up: the Trials of the ‘JC’

My Paris Lit Up debut, 20 October 2016.
My Paris Lit Up debut, 20 October 2016.

A few days ago, I made my second appearance at Paris Lit Up: a cool, slightly anarchic, gathering of poets, writers and assorted other creative types (mostly English-speaking ones) who spend Thursday evenings reading – or otherwise performing – to each other in a bar called Culture Rapide.

The first time I went, I read War, Blood Diamonds, and Now the Ebola Virus – a piece I wrote for the Greenbelt Festival’s website in 2014. This time round, I decided to share some more thoughts on the experiences of a Sierra Leonean living overseas. And so I wrote a piece specially for Paris Lit Up, which I titled the Trials of the JC. Here it is:

Weird things happen to a Sierra Leonean on re-entry after spending any amount of time in the First World. For starters, nobody seems to want to converse with you in the native languages any more. The number of times I’ve gone into a shop in Freetown, and ended up yelling at the shopkeeper – “Man, ah beg – talk Krio to me! PLEASE – NO MORE ENGLISH!!”

You walk along the street, minding your business, enjoying the heat, and you notice someone giving you a friendly smile. You smile back – I mean, it would be rude not to. So he says hello. “Yay! I’ve made a new friend!” you think to yourself. So you say hello back… and then he replies with: “Dollar or pounds?” They never say “Euro”. Missing a trick there, if you ask me…

Encounters like this happen every time you set foot out of your door. Eventually you realise what’s happened: You, my friend, have become a JC.

Yes – a JC. That’s the special name the locals in Sierra Leone have for me and my kind.

JC. Just Come. Just two letters, but they carry a lot of weight. To be fair, everyone from overseas who comes to Sierra Leone is a JC. But the word takes on a whole extra level of meaning when it’s applied to people like me. People who have Sierra Leone in our blood, but clearly haven’t lived here for a very long time – or maybe never lived here at all. Your JC status becomes apparent the moment you step off the plane at Lungi Airport. Now that I have a nice green passport – dual citizenship rocks – I don’t get the dirty looks at immigration any more. But I’m still expected to tip folks for smiling at me.

But the real fun begins when you hit the mainland and start to mingle. There was this one time my two uncles took me to a nightclub. They waited until we were seated round a table, a thousand watts of Afrobeats blasting in our ears, and then one of them pulled me to one side and said: “Oh, George – the rule here is that the JCs buy the drinks for the homebased.”

Ah, lovely. If your ‘homebased’ ass came to London, I’d consider you a guest and I’d buy drinks for you. Now you’re telling me that I’M the guest and I have to buy drinks for the host?!?

It always amazes me how quickly people can tell that you’re a JC. Alright, maybe we do give ourselves away when we get into a taxi and put the seatbelt on. And walking about supping from a bottle of Evian you just bought from a supermarket; nobody else does that. I can see that now. But even when you don’t do any of those things, the locals can still pick you out from a mile away. Them’s some mad skills there.

To be fair, those skills aren’t restricted to Sierra Leoneans. I can recall sitting on a beach in Gambia once, and having an unsolicited conversation with one of those fly guys who comb Gambia’s beaches looking for tourists to hook up with:

“So, you’re from England, yeah?”

“No, I’m from Sierra Leone.”

“Yes, but what part of England are you from?”

HOW THE HELL DOES HE KNOW – AND WHY WON’T HE GIVE UP!!

At first, I resented being called a JC. “How dare you!” I used to think. “How dare you belittle a huge, formative chunk of my life? I may not have been born here, but I came here as a child and left here as a man. I haven’t ‘just come’; this is my home too!”

I’m not sure I went through all seven stages of grief, but I can definitely say that I’ve moved on from anger and have arrived at acceptance. I now hold my head up and say my name is George, and I’m a JC. JC and proud.

But even though I accept that I’m a JC, I’m not buying the drinks when we go to a club. It’s the principle. I’m your guest, for God’s sake…

Advertisements

Why the zero?

You may have noticed that the little blue square on the side of the page (the one under “Novel-writing madness”) says zero. And you may be wondering why. After all, for the past seven years, the number has risen steadily throughout November – and the final figure proudly displayed for a year.

Well, there’s a simple explanation: I didn’t do NaNoWriMo this year. I didn’t start and then give up; I just didn’t do it. I did write stuff, but there were just too many other things going on for me to focus on NaNoWriMo as I have in previous years. So even though I did do some work on a novel during November, I couldn’t honestly call it “doing NaNoWriMo”. Besides, it’s common practice in some professions to have a sabbatical once every seven years, so let’s think of 2016 as my NaNo sabbatical year.

To all my mates who did do NaNoWriMo: well done – especially if you did hit 50k. And to everyone who’s said to me this year, “I’m going to do that nano thing you’re always going on about”: they always said I’d be a bad influence…

(Only kidding. Seriously, I feel really chuffed to know that I’ve inspired someone to do something creative, so thank you)

Did it again…

Winner-2014-Web-Banner

November 2014 has been and gone; another stress-filled November in which I participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).

I won (again – yay me!), but I’d be the first to admit that this year it was a struggle. But I have learnt a few imortant lessons from the experience – the main one being that I am not a ‘pantser’.

If you’re unfamiliar with the ins and outs of NaNoWriMo, you’ve probably looked at the last word in that previous paragraph and wondered if I’m on something. I’m not (although as a writer, I reserve the right to make words up when I feel like it). In NaNoWriMo-speak, there are two types of writers: Planners and Pantsers. Planners have a clearly thought-out idea, have sketched out a few characters, and have some idea of the plot of their story is going to go. They’re prepared, basically (the level of preparation may vary from one to the other).

Pantsers, on the other hand, don’t have time for all that. They rock up to this thing on Day 1 with nothing prepared in advance; they face the blank page/screen, and fly by the seat of their pants (hence the name).

After three years of going into NaNoWriMo with an idea kind of thought out in advance, I decided this year to see how the ‘blank canvas’ experience felt. Even the title of my novel alluded to this blankness (I named it The Person Who Did a Thing – backhanded tribute to my favourite Swedish authors, Jonas Jonasson and the late Stieg Larsson, whose book titles can all be reduced to that).

So far, so vague- I mean good. I started off well; I aimed to do two thousand words a day, and for the first week, I pretty much succeeded. But then I missed a couple of days and things started to unravel. Nothing much was happening with my characters, and it wasn’t until I decided to switch from telling the story in the third person and made it a first person narrative instead that words started to flow slightly more easily.

Again, the social/community side to NaNoWriMo helped me stay on track at the hardest times. I went to as many of the ‘write-ins’ as I could (usually in a Costa near Oxford Circus) and to the ‘Literary Lock-in’ – an all-nighter at the Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green. That really helped. Writing from 7pm to 7am in a small bookshop with about 40 other people sounds daunting. But by the end of it, I’d done 6,000-plus words and was on track once again. I finally hit the 50K target on the very last day.

At the end of a gruelling NaNoWriMo, I now have two characters (plus half a dozen anciliary ones), tons of mostly self-reflective musings on anything and everythng, and a few ideas that could make a few decent short stories at the very least. So nothing’s been wasted.

What next? Well, after a short break, my plan is to pick up Refugees & Renegades (the novel I won NaNo with in 2011) and give it that long-overdue rewrite and edit. Of all the characters I’ve created so far, Braima, Ed and Alvaro y la Familia Montes are the ones I feel closest to (probably because of the amount of time I’ve spent with them). It’s time to finish their story and get it out. Once that’s done, it’ll be either Yebu and Yasminka (last year’s winning ladies) or the two Bens (from the year before). Either way, there’ll be at least one manuscript done by the time NaNoWriMo 2015 rolls round – and I’ll probably use that time to rewrite one of the other two.

Emmanuel Jal: Keeper of the Key

Last night I went to see Emmanuel Jal performing at the Forge arts centre in Camden. As gigs go, it was an exciting performance in a space which at times seemed too small to contain all the energy that was raring to burst out. Support came from members of his backing band who have their own solo careers: vocalists Tanika Charles and Clinton ‘Roachie’ Outten, and Afrobeats artist and multi-instrumentalist Silvastone. Emmanuel’s own set consisted mostly of songs from his latest album, the Key.

Emmanuel and band soundchecking
Emmanuel and band soundchecking

I’ve known Emmanuel for quite some time; over 10 years, now I think of it. I was one of the first journalists here to help relay the heartbreaking yet uplifting account of his escape from life as a child soldier to the world (that would be in 2003, if my memory serves me well). I was at Westminster with my notebook and camera when he and several other Sudanese people and their supporters staged a ‘die-in’ as a protest against the war in Sudan. We bumped into each other again the first time he played Greenbelt, and at an African music festival in Trafalgar Square. But all that was a long time ago, so it was good to catch up with him again.

Before Emmanuel took to the stage, he and I retreated to a nearby restaurant where I threw a few questions at him…

Interviewing Emmanuel
Interviewing Emmanuel

So much has happened in your life since we last met up. Give us a rundown, please…
Yes, a lot of things have happened. The We Want Peace movement is still going, where I go to schools and share my experiences. I believe that when you share your experiences and stories, it’s like putting on a spotlight in a dark place. When you put a light on in a dark place, evil will perform less.

I’m also still doing charity work with Gua Africa – the charity that I founded, helping families and individuals overcome the effects of war and poverty. I’ve just been in a film called the Good Lie with Reese Witherspoon. And I now have five albums out; the latest one is called the Key.

The Key isn’t just an album. What else is there to the concept?
It all came about when I met Paul Lindley in South Africa. Paul’s the founder of Ella’s Kitchen, a company that makes baby food here in the UK. We started talking about food – but from that I came to realise that Paul cared about children, as I do. And so he suggested an idea: Why couldn’t we make an album about children’s rights? And so we started brainstorming ideas.

Later on, these ideas gave birth to an enterprise. And that was when we formed The Key is E. It’s going to fund small business owners who have a direct impact on children’s lives. It’s going to focus mostly on Africa. The Key is E will be a platform to connect people who want to invest in Africa; connecting the diaspora to local people with ideas, or any other investors who want to go to Africa.

I’ve been doing tours where all the proceeds from the tickets at the door go to the enterprise. All the proceeds from the album go to it too. As for the album, we had lots of people involved. Nile Rodgers did a song called ‘My Power’. Nelly Furtado’s on two songs, and then we have two songs from the album featured on a film soundtrack.

 

 

emmanuellive2emmanuellive1You’ve also started your own record label. What acts have you signed so far?
The label’s called Gatwich Records and it’s based in Canada. In terms of artists, at the moment there’s just me and my sister Nyaruach. But we’re looking to sign others. What we’re going to try to do is focus more on management. It’s not easy to make money from CD sales, so we’re trying to bring 360 deals in.

How did you find the writing process when you did your autobiography War Child?
It was a difficult thing to come out and tell the story. One of the most difficult things is, when you tell the story, who’s going to believe you? And because there’s a political side to it, you could get attacked. People will accuse you of lying.

The main questions are: who’s going to believe you, why are you doing it, what’s going to happen and will it create change? Those four Ws all have to be answered first. After I’d answered them, I just took the risk and wrote the book. But yes – telling it personally was difficult.

What’s this new film you’re in, and how are you finding the acting experience now that you have two films under your belt?
The Good Lie is about the ‘lost boys’ of South Sudan who escaped, and how they survived. Some became child soldiers, and they finally made their way to the US. Reese Witherspoon’s in it, and I brought the musical and cultural aspect to it, together with other South Sudanese, we helped make it accurate. The writers did a fantastic job; the director was awesome. It’s an amazing project – and it was fantastic to have Reese Witherspoon humble herself and help put the message out.

The hardest acting experience for me was Africa United – the first film role I was ever given. It was hard because I was being told to act! But then, the role was that of a child soldier, so that made it easy. I was a soldier before, so I acted as if I was going to kill. Sometimes soldiers act when they’re threatening you.

One of your collaborators on this new album is Nile Rodgers. I’ve been a Chic fan for, like, forever; how did you get to link up with him?
When you’re walking your path and you keep on doing your work positively, you’ll meet a lot of positive people on the way. And that’s how I met Nile. I met him at a UN concert. From there, we kept in touch. He invited me to a We Are Family Foundation event; I supported him; he liked what I was doing – and so we ended up doing a song together.

Nile’s an amazing person. He’s like a mentor to many people. Whenever you meet Nile, he will always give you the support you need.

How are things in South Sudan at the moment?
Right now, South Sudan is in a difficult situation. I feel betrayed when I think about the situation, where the people we trusted – the people who fought for our freedom – pocketed our freedom. The war that’s happening in South Sudan now started as a disagreement between people in the same party. The president was questioned by some of the other party members, who said “we have corruption going on; we need to have accountability towards the people we’re leading and towards our party”. They said they needed to be transparent and put institutions in place that would protect all of us. Some of them also said they would like to be able to run for the presidency. That made the president angry – and he fired the entire cabinet.

When that happened, people started to speak out, and the president started putting them under house arrest. He broke the constitution and dissolved the electoral system. His biggest threat was his vice-president, so what he did was arm members of his own ethnic group within the city and made them the presidential guard. That was what led to the conflict. Later, he accused the cabinet that he’d fired of trying to stage a coup. His plan was to silence any opposition. When that failed, those who escaped discovered later that their families had been killed. A lot of young people got angry when this happened, and they thought it was a tribal war. Some of them attacked the government’s barracks; some carried out revenge attacks on people from the other tribes.

According to community research, about 20,000 Nuer people were killed in Juba. We’re talking innocent civilians here – women and children in their homes. My house was burnt down. Sixty people from my family got killed – including my brother and stepmother.

What saved the situation was the widow of Dr John Garang. She spoke on the radio and said, “Look – what happened in Juba is not good.” Her speech on the radio was what prevented the conflict from becoming a tribal one. I give her credit, because without her intervention, genocide could well have happened. A lot of innocent people would have died.

The situation is terrible. We have approximately two million displaced people; thousands killed… Our country spent a billion dollars on arms, while the UN is looking for 1.3 billion to fund the refugees that need food. But now I think both sides are beginning to come to their senses. I hope they find a peaceful solution, and that all those involved in these killings are held accountable.

Film review: ‘the Quickener’

The time has comeBirmingham, Saturday 21 September, 8.10pm: My train home leaves in an hour, and I’ve decided to spend my last few minutes in our second city doing a brief review of the film I’ve just been to see in the Midlands Arts Centre. I find myself fired up, having spent an afternoon in a cinema full of very talented, slightly Bohemian people. They included Joel Wilson, director of the short film The Quickener (whose premiere is taking place here) and various members of the cast and crew.

Joel Wilson, the director
Joel Wilson, the director

The Quickener is one of those films that would leave people scratching their heads and muttering “Yeah… right” if you tried to explain it to them. It’s set in Medieval times, but the entire dialogue is done in a hip hop style. That’s right – Medieval hip hop. With a poor artisan couple on the run from a loan shark who speaks something akin to Parseltongue (for which he needs one of his heavies to act as his translator), corrupt officials, a power-hungry gangster and a friendly hermit, this is really an urban street movie with chain mail. And bubonic plague…

Osbert, a struggling artisan. Very good at sculpting scary statues. A bit broke.
Osbert, a struggling artisan. Very good at sculpting scary statues. A bit broke.

Joel got the idea for the film from another project he’d been

Tipharah, Osbert's missus. You don't want to mess with her when she has a sword in her hand...
Tipharah, Osbert’s missus. You don’t want to mess with her when she has a sword in her hand…

asked to work on. He’d written an epic poem about a gargoyle being decommissioned, so to speak, having lived on a church wall for about 600 years. Writing about the gargoyle’s last day on the wall, he wondered, What would its first day have been like? Cue a fantasy tale about a poor sculptor and his wife – who, having been commissioned to make the gargoyle, then being told on completion of the job (and a huge debt incurred in the process) their services were no longer required, and that they wouldn’t be getting paid for the job they’d done. It’s only half an hour long, but it’s a very fascinating half hour, full of passion, tension and quite a few dead bodies.

"Hiss, hiss, hiss" (translation: "We'll cut off your fingers")
“Hiss, hiss, hiss” (translation: “We’ll cut off your fingers”)

Life begins…

My home during Greenbelt. A man's got to camp in some style...
My home during Greenbelt. A man’s got to camp in some style…

This time last week, I was at Cheltenham Racecourse with a few thousand other folk, taking in (and contributing to) the 40th annual Greenbelt festival. The first one since 1995 or thereabouts that I haven’t attended as a member of the Press (although I was on reporter duty for Surefish and did do some festival coverage for them). This was my fourth year of being involved with Greenbelt as a volunteer, and I’m still learning a lot about the inner workings of this crazy festival I’ve been a devoted fan of since 1990 (as those who’ve seen the interview with me in this year’s festival programme will tell you).

In some ways, ‘#GB40’ (as it’s known on Twitter) was a smaller Greenbelt than usual. Cheltenham Racecourse is in the early stages of major renovation work and parts of it are yet to recover from the almighty flooding that made last year’s Greenbelt so ‘memorable’. As a result, the festival site was shrunk a bit. That, coupled with the fact that some of the regular traders had either gone out of business or stopped doing festivals, meant that a few regulars from previous years – Nuts Cafe, for example – weren’t around this year (it probably also explains why Higgledy Pies ran out of my favourite mash so quickly – but let’s not dwell on that).

Extra Curricular doing their 'thang' on Mainstage.
Extra Curricular doing their ‘thang’ on Mainstage.

But ‘smaller’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘of lesser quality’. And as far as the programme went, Greenbelt delivered goodies a-plenty. Both Extra Curricular and the London Community Gospel Choir were a joy to watch on Mainstage on Saturday (and as the DJ between the Mainstage bands that evening, I was privileged to see both gigs from side stage). Amadou & Miriam were great too – as were those mad folksters Folk On, the Austin Francis Connection (of whom, more later) and the ‘oldies’ who played each afternoon: the Fat Band, Fat & Frantic and Why? (I’m actually wearing my XL dark blue “Giggle, ‘cos it’s fun” T-shirt as I write this; a T-shirt that got completely soaked in cider on Sunday afternoon).

The LCGC 'bring it' on Mainstage, Saturday evening.
The LCGC ‘bring it’ on Mainstage, Saturday evening.

The line-up in the newly relocated Performance Cafe was just as great (not that I’m biased or anything) and included stellar sets from Eska, Eliza Carty, Jacob Lloyd, Daughters of Davis and a poetry showcase curated by Harry Baker.

As far as talks go, I found the short talks in GTV easier to get in to see than some of the others (I took one look at the queue for Vicky Beeching’s talk and knew I wasn’t getting in). I was able to see Sami Awad speak, and enjoyed a talk Catherine Fox gave offering an insight into the novelist’s craft – plus short talks from Andrew Howie, Sara Batts, Cieran O’Reilly, Steve Lawson, Vicky Walker, Jonty Langley and Jim Wallis.

I mentioned the AFC earlier. Their Sunday afternoon Mainstage gig was also their swansong, the band members having decided earlier in the year to disband. I interviewed founder and front man Edi Johnston for Surefish; you can hear an edited audio version of that interview – plus a few of their most popular songs – here.

The Austin Francis Connection: One Last Chat by George Luke on Mixcloud

My other jobs over the weekend included co-hosting a GTV talk show with Chine Mbubeagu, interviewing a few of the Israeli and Palestinian speakers at the festival. I also had another stint DJing at the silent disco in the Big Top on Monday night. I did record the set (mostly world music for the first two hours, plus some soul, some more Latin music, and a couple of what my rival DJ on the night described as “low blows”). The plan was to put that out on Mixcloud, but it appears that the audio file needs some work before I can do that.

Greenbelt, it was a pleasure celebrating your 40th. Life begins; let’s see what life has in store…

Tools of the DJ trade: my IDJ deck on the side of the Mainstage.
Tools of the DJ trade: my IDJ deck on the side of the Mainstage.
...and of course, one must always be prepared.
…and of course, one must always be prepared.

“Too many Latinos”

Yesterday I attended Day 1 of the Big Church Day Out – a two-day Christian music festival on the grounds of a stately home situated at the foot of the South Downs, on England’s South Coast.

One of my reasons for going was that Salvador were playing. I’ve interviewed their lead singer Nic Gonzales several times in the past (and also his wife, the singer Jaci Velasquez) and a follow-up interview was, in my mind, long overdue – especially since I’ve now kind of started playing in a Latin band myself…

A few days before I was due to see Salvador, the Internet threw me another good reason to want to speak to them. A certain right-wing commentator had decided to spew some bile on immigrants (again), and had written a column basically claiming that there were “too many Latinos” in the USA (I’m not even going to dignify such nonsense by naming the person or posting links to their writing; I suggest you google ‘too many Latinos’ yourself if you want to know who it is and what he/she/it wrote). And so when it came to my turn to fire a question at Salvador during their press conference, I knew exactly what I was going to ask.

“As a multi-cultural Christian band that plays Latin music, how do you respond when someone says ‘there are too many Latinos in America’?”

Step forward Nic Gonzales and saxophonist Craig Swift:

NIC: “I think that any time people talk about there being ‘too many’ of something, it’s spoken out of frustration. We certainly give grace where we believe grace would be given. People who speak that way have obviously come into a bad encounter with a person of Hispanic culture, or maybe they’re frustrated by something. Any time you’re overwhelmed, or feel like you have a lack of something, you’re looking for someone to blame.

“Being Hispanic is one thing. But being Christians overall, we certainly feel that grace needs to be given. Maybe they just don’t understand. Personally, those comments don’t hurt my feelings because I probably don’t dig into them as much; I kind of live in a bliss that I’m working as hard as I can, and I’m going to do the best that I can by my family and my bandmates. And I think that as long as I do that, I can certainly feel good about who I am and the colour of my skin.”

CRAIG: “As a white person, I think it probably offends me more than it would offend them [cue laughter from the Hispanic band members]. I think Chris (Bevins, the band’s keyboardist) would probably feel the same way. It kinda baffles my mind, the small thinking of some people.

“Being around Latin culture, as a white person I’ve gained a lot. I love how Latin people place such a high priority on family. It’s beautiful to me to see that. Loyalty is another thing I see throguhout the Latin culture. I think that’s something that we all gain a lot from. We all need to put more emphasis on our families. And we all should be loyal friends and loyal husbands and wives and churchgoers. So as a white person, I probably shoulder more offence and am in more of a ‘fight’ mood than these guys.” [cue more laughter]

Oh yeah – I also mentioned to the guys that I’d started playing in a salsa band, and asked if they could offer me some survival tips. Percussionist Alejandro Santoyo offered this advice:

“I would go back and listen to Santana. Listen to the rhythm section that’s going on; it’s very simple. as you start to listen to more salsa music, the montunos get more and more difficult. As far as percussion goes: if you have the rhythm here, and you learn the two different claves, you’re on your way.”

Muchisimas gracias, hermanos. And now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time I got some montuno practise in…

Salvador at their press conference. Nic Gonzales is second left (in the blue shirt); Craig is on the left. Alejandro is at the other end; on the right.
Salvador at their press conference. Nic Gonzales is second left (in the blue shirt); Craig is on the left. Alejandro is at the other end; on the right.