I know I haven’t done one of these for a while. It’s not because I ran out of famous Sierra Leoneans to write about or anything like that; it’s just… [Save the explanations and get on with it, mate]
If you follow the UK charts, then you probably know that Duke Dumont‘s club hit ‘Need U (100%)’ unseated Ant & Dec’s ‘Let’s Get Ready to Rhumble’ from the Number One slot yesterday (7 April). Guest lead vocalist on the song is the rising singer songwriter Aminata “Amy” Kabba, aka A*M*E*. So, who exactly is this young lady who’s helped rescue the charts from the tyranny of PJ & Duncan, I hear you ask?
Well, she was born in Freetown in 1994 – three years after the Sierra Leone civil war started, and three years before it hit Freetown. Her mum was a hairdresser with her own salon; as the war intensified, the salon was burnt down and Amy (then only eight) moved to the safety of the UK.
In her new home, she joined her school choir. From there, she spread her creative wings, linking up with another singer-songwriter, MNEK. One of their collaborations (a song called City Lights) caught the attention of Gary Barlow, who ended up signing her to his label, Future Records.
Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of hanging out with Sista K, Supreme Clem and Nassim – three members of the Marseille based ‘global fusion’ band Watcha Clan. Their fifth album, Radio Babel, comes out in April and it’s simply the most awesome take-everything-you-can-get-hold-of-and-shake-it-all-about concoction I’ve ever heard; a mix that includes dubstep, drum & bass, rai, and folk music from Europe and the Middle East, underpinned by a strong sense of social justice. The band were as much fun to talk to as their album was to listen to. But don’t just take my word for it; have a listen for yourself…
I haven’t been as prompt with my updates on here as I’d like to. But I should share a really heart-warming moment from a couple of weeks ago with you.
Actually, I’ll go back further – back a few years to when I was hosting my World Beat radio show on UCB, and I first heard about an Eritrean gospel singer who was serving a prison sentence inside a freight container.
Helen Berhane was a member of an Evangelical church in Eritrea – one of the many religious groups deemed ‘illegal’ by the Eritrean Government. When she refused to renounce her faith, she was arrested.
Torture and imprisonment followed; Helen was held in a freight container in sweltering heat, with a mentally ill woman who’d tried to assassinate a Government official as a cellmate (probably in the hope that the mad woman would try to kill her too).
Helen’s plight caught the attention of several people outside her homeland. Amnesty International joined Christian groups such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide and Release International in campaigning for her release. Celebrities such as Angelina Jolie took up her cause. As well as give her album T’kebaeku airplay on my show, I also lent a hand in remastering the only available cassette of it for a CD release.
In November 2006, we received the news that Helen had been released after spending two years in her makeshift cell. The following year, she was granted asylum in Denmark, where she now lives. And that brings us to Saturday before last, when she was a guest speaker at CSW’s annual conference in London.
She couldn’t come to the conference in person, due to the terms of her asylum status (if she leaves Denmark within her first three years there, she loses all her benefits). But thanks to the power of Skype, we were able to see and chat with her, and have her sing for us. I don’t mind telling you it’s been ages since a singer’s voice made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end…
Helen is free. But there are still hundreds more Eritrean Christians facing heavy persecution in their homeland. As long as that’s the case, the fight continues.
Like most other people I know, I care about stuff. Unlike a hardcore few of them, there are limits as to how far I’m prepared to go in support of my causes of choice. So I’ve always had a grudging respect for the guys I see camped opposite the Houses of Parliament, whether I agree with their stances or not. I’ve had my moments on that big patch of grass myself – the last time being in support of Burma’s human rights campaigners – but I’ve always come home to my warm bed afterwards.
A couple of weeks ago, someone I know set up camp there. I first met Ben Gilchrist when he was leading SPEAK, the Christian organisation that encourages students and young people to get involved in social justice issues. Last month, Ben spent over a fortnight camped on Parliament Square as part of a campaign on behalf of asylum seekers, together with another Ben – Ben Gibbs – as part of the ongoing Still Human, Still Here campaign. During their time camped on Parliament Square, the two Bens had meetings with a number of MPs. They also had a pattern of prayer built into their routine, praying at 8am, noon and 7pm each day.
I did a lengthy interview with the other Ben outside Parliament Square during their stay there, which you can hear here. You can also check out the blog the guys kept during their outdoor vigil here.
Bens, thanks for being a lot more committed (and less attached to your comfy beds) than I am. You’re an inspiration, guys.