From backstage at Africa Oye 2018, Manchester-based broadcaster (and good friend) Geli Berg and I got to interview the Ghanaian reggae singer and activist Rocky Dawuni. Here’s the interview, with tracks from Rocky’s 2015 album, Branches of the Same Tree – the album that won him the accolade of being the first Ghanaian artist to be nominated for a Grammy Award.
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.
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…
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.
You’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.
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).
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 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.
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…
With a title like that, you’d be forgiven for expecting this film to be some LOTR/Game of Thrones-style fantasy flick (more so when I tell you that it’s part 1 of a trilogy). In actual fact, Nefarious is a hard-hitting documentary exposing the dark side of the sex trade.
The Nefarious film trilogy is produced by Exodus Cry – one of a number of organisations that have cropped up in recent years with the aim of tackling human trafficking and raising awareness about it. This first episode takes us to see the Eastern European gangs who shift women across the continent and into places such as Amsterdam’s red light district. From there, we head to the Far East, where we see men who travel across continents to buy girls as young as 10… and then hear the shocking news that many of the girls in the brothels have been put up for sale by their own parents.
After Eastern Europe and the Far East, our next stop is the USA itself – and it was at this point that for me the film seemed to veer off-topic – or rather, to settle in on the subject it was really interested in. The stories we heard from ex-prostitutes interviewed in the film were no less harrowing than the ones we heard from trafficked European women and Asian girls. But to describe them as being “trafficked” in the same way that the first batch of girls/women that we met had been just didn’t work for me. When we were in Eastern Europe and Cambodia/Thailand, we saw organised gangs of people making a concerted effort to round up women and girls for sale. In Las Vegas (and London), we saw a handful of individuals who had been abused earlier in life and had drifted into prostitution more or less of their own accord years later. I’m not saying that one route in is any better or worse than another, just that they’re not exactly the same.
Also, having been told that I was coming to see a film about human trafficking, it bothered me a bit that all we ever saw about trafficking was the sexual side of it. I did raise this issue with someone from Exodus Cry after the film, and her reply was that they had deliberately chosen sex trafficking as their primary focus, but were planning to expand their vision and to start looking into trafficking for labour purposes. I hope they do; it’s great that trafficking is on people’s minds, but it does sometimes feel as if all the focus is on sex and no-one is speaking up for the slaves hidden away sewing our designer clothes, assembling our electronic toys and harvesting our coffee and chocolate.
Anyway, back to Nefarious. As I said before, prostitution is where the film’s heart really is. We’re told of the psychological damage it takes to make a young woman prostitute material. The ex-prostitutes interviewed tell us of their scariest experiences “on the job” and the low spots their lives hit before a turnaround came. We go to Sweden and see how effective their policy of criminalising prostitutes’ customers has been (by this time, I’d forgotten the little Cambodian girls, and instead found myself gaining a new appreciation for Stieg Larsson’s Millennium novels). This being a film made by a Christian organisation, the obligatory Christian testimonies are in there, along with the equally obligatory reference to William Wilberforce in the form of a rallying call to become an “incurable fanatic” in the fight against the sex trade.
And that was Volume 1 of the Nefarious trilogy; harrowing and heartbreaking, but ultimately full of hope. Although I still think it doesn’t fully do human trafficking justice as a subject, I would happily recommend it to friends of mine who work with prostitutes.
It’s now been a week since I returned home from a my first ever trip to Israel and Palestine, and my head is still trying to make sense of everything I saw, heard and felt while I was out there.
Two Saturdays ago, a disparate bunch of arty types (and one seriously cool reverend) got into a plane headed for Tel Aviv, on a trip organised by the Greenbelt festival and the Amos Trust charity. I was in Istanbul when I received the invitation to go on this trip; prior to this, I’d tactfully steered clear of the Israel/Palestine conflict issue. When you grow up in certain Evangelical circles, you pick up on the party line very quickly… and if it’s a line you’re uncomfortable with, you kinda learn to keep that discomfort to yourself (at least that’s one way of dealing with it, though not necessarily the right one).
One Bible scripture that’s always meant a lot to me is Galatians 3:28, in which Paul says, “There is now neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ.” It’s been a source of encouragement to me as a person of colour in a society where racism is prone to raise its ugly head every so often, with its assurance that (ideally, at least) church was one place where we could all be truly equal.
However, it’s always seemed that when it came to Israel – and, dare I say it, to Palestinian people – the Evangelical response seemed to owe more to George Orwell than to Paul: “You are all one in Christ, but some are more equal than others.” I never could accept that everything Israel’s government did was right, or that all Palestinians were inherently evil, as it was always kind of suggested to me. And I really hated the way that anyone who felt any different was immediately branded “anti-Semitic”. I still reject those labels: “pro-Israel”, “pro-Palestinian”, “liberal”, “conservative” and the like. It’s sad that Western Christianity – like much of our media – can only deal with issues Harry Hill style (“I like Israel and I like Palestine. But which one is better? There’s only one way to find out…”). At the end of the day, it’s not an either-or thing for me. None of the Palestinians I met when I was there wanted to “obliterate” Israel; they simply want a peaceful life, living like regular human beings. Walls, checkpoints, appalling (in some cases, nonexistent) amenities… nobody deserves to live like that. And for Christians to condone or actively support such injustice due to dodgy theology is absurd. If I am pro-anything with regards to Israel/Palestine, then it’s pro-reconciliation and pro-justice. I resent the patronising notion that my unwillingness to be blindly Zionist is because “You believe what you see on television” – especially now that I have seen the ‘separation wall’ with my own eyes…
So, wall aside, what else did I see and what did I make of it? Well, the trip was quite full-on (there was easily a month’s worth of activities packed into seven days). What I’m grateful for the most was being able to meet both Israelis and Palestinians who are committed to seeing peace and justice prevail in the region – many of them with incredible hope-filled stories. People such as Daoud Nassar, who runs the Tent of Nations in the West Bank; Sami Awad of the Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem; Marwan and his multicoloured pet birds (“My birds all believe in nonviolence”), and Iyad our guide who showed us round everywhere (except Jerusalem, which he can’t go to on account of his being Palestinian).
There was Munther, the Jerusalem bookshop owner from whom I bought a copy of Amos Oz’s How to Cure a Fanatic and Suad Amiry’s Sharon and My Mother-in-Law. Jeff, Itay and Ruth from ICAHD, with whom we shared about a ton of pizza in a tent in Beit Arabiya, on the site where a Palestinian family’s home had been demolished. Claire, whose gift shop/guest house struggles to make a living ever since the wall was put up right in front of it. Zoughbi, who runs Wi’am, the Palestinian Conflict Transformation Centre. And there’s no way I could forget the three members of Combatants for Peace – two Palestinians and an Israeli – who spent an afternoon with us in Beit Jala, telling us about their work, and the various reasons why they now embraced non-violence as a way forward.
One thing’s for sure: I’m never going to believe the ‘Palestinian suicide bomber’ stereotype ever again (not that I actually did). It’s impossible to label an entire race of people as anti-Western Muslim fanatics when you’ve sat with them in a pub called “Cheers”, having a pint, smoking water pipes and watching Milan play Barcelona. Or when a handful of Palestinian schoolgirls have tested your volleyball-playing skills to the limit. Or when you’ve spent an evening having dinner with a granny who’s about my mum’s age, and she’s told you about all the work she’s been doing with other women for years and years. These are all human beings with everyday needs and dreams, just like any Londoner.
At the end of it all, the comments that will stay with me are our Palestinian guide’s plea to the outside world (“We’re not asking you to hate Israel, or to love them any less. All we’re asking is that you show us a little love too.”) and the Israeli lady from Combatants for Peace (“At some stage, somehow, peace will come. And we need to be ready to live in it when it does.”). That and a bloke called George, who came up to me on a busy Jerusalem street while I was recording some background noise, and introduced himself to me: “All we want here is peace. Just peace.”
It’s now been a good few days since I ‘de-camped’ from Cheltenham and took the train back to London – feeling absolutely shattered but also inspired, elated and, dare I say it, turbo-charged from Greenbelt.
It was a much scarier Greenbelt than usual for me this year – mainly because I’d accepted the major responsibility of booking acts for the Performance Cafe. The rest of the team were incredibly supportive, and made my debut as a festival booker a great learning experience (special thanks to Roger, the venue manager).
Naturally I’m biased, but that doesn’t make it any less true when I say that the Performance Cafe’s lineup this year was absolutely brilliant. The lady I sat next to during Eska‘s set couldn’t stop talking about how wonderful she was (another bloke sitting next to me said simply, “She’s a genius.”). I felt immensely proud to hear people raving about Lanre. Jason Carter was great on Friday – and given the awful road accident he’d been in just a few days before, we were all just glad he was alive and able to play. Having him on just before Duke Special yielded an unexpected bonus; it turns out they’re both old friends, and Duke talked him into joining him onstage during his set. The little I saw of Rob Halligan was great, as was Paul Bell – and Folk On were wee-yourself funny. Mainstage highlights included the Gentlemen’s Dub Club, the IDMC Gospel Choir and Extra-Curricular. And Monday’s lineup: Ron Sexsmith, Kate Rusby, Iain Archer, the Unthanks and Mavis Staples, with you-know-who playing records in the changeover periods between each act.
There wasn’t a working Press room this year as there had been previously, so whenever I wanted to interview someone, I had to go up to them and ask. I still got a few cracking ones, though: with Brian McLaren, the Dalit human rights campaigner Vincent Manoharan, comedian Andy Kind, Rob Halligan and Shane Claiborne (actually, the last two had been pre-arranged). And Luke Leighfield – if you’re reading this, I owe you an interview!
I didn’t get to as many talks as I’d have liked to (I even managed to go through the whole festival with just a fleeting glimpse of Rob Bell), but really liked Brian McLaren’s talk on Christian identity. I did much better on the comedy front – what with Last Orders most nights, and Folk On playing the Performance Cafe. It was also good to catch up with my old friend Jo Enright again, and hear her jokes about knitting.
Greenbelt gave me ample opportunities for putting real faces to the names of people I’d developed friendships with via Twitter and Facebook. Helen (aka Fragmentz) was a great camping neighbour. And it was fun helping Karen get settled on her first Greenbelt (you can see some of her Greenbelt experience here). Catching up with old friends was also great – especially seeing Matt and Trish Hart again after about 10 years (I first met them in Ecuador in 2001, when I worked for a couple of months at Orphaids – the HIV/Aids care charity Matt’s parents set up). It was good to catch up with both the Akinsiku brothers (Siku and Akin, co-authors of the Manga Bible) and their families.
What else was good? Nadia Bolz-Weber’s communion service message, the morning worship sessions in the Methodist tent, my first Goan fish curry (I didn’t do Pie Minister this year)… and of course, DJing on the Mainstage on Monday night. Hanging out in the beer tent until 3am on the last night of the festival was a first for me; I usually go straight to bed after Last Orders; I never realised they had so much fun there!
Thanks once again to Greenbelt, for a great weekend and another reminder of how rewarding it can be to step out of one’s comfort zone and do something that stretches you.
Well, not so much a review as a collection of thoughts…
I’m on a 148 bus (hooray for smartphones! But on what planet do people say “hooray” when they really wanted to say “bootstraps”?), going home after a brilliant gig I went to mostly out of curiosity.
Ruben Blades has just come off the stage at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire (I know it’s not called that any more, but I refuse to give free plugs to mobile phone companies), after treating a packed house to two and a half hours of sheer delight. Salsa fan that I am, I’ve kind of always been aware of Ruben’s existence, but not as familiar with his work compared to that of other salseros. So when I heard he was going to have a gig in London, I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to acquaint myself.
Well, even though I didn’t know much of his material before, I thoroughly enjoyed the gig. And in his band was someone I was familiar with: the ace trombonist and salsa dura maestro Jimmy Bosch, who did a few awesome solos and a great ‘duelling horns’ battle with one of the trumpeters. In addition to his own songs, Ruben covered hits by Willie Colon, Hector Lavoe and Jose Feliciano, throwing in the ‘Thriller’ intro before going into ‘Mack the Knife’ (the only English song of the evening). He paid tribute to Facundo Cabral (the legendary Argentinean songwriter, who was murdered in Guatemala earlier this month); to Colombian salsa star Joe Arroyo (who’d died just a day or two earlier) and to Amy Winehouse. Later on, he talked about the mass murder in Norway as an introduction to an anti-racism song.
The older I get, the more I appreciative I am of people who love full lives – and I found Ruben’s life story (or at least the little of it he shared with us) quite inspiring. Neither of his parents made it further than the sixth grade (someone has to explain to me what the British equivalent of that is), but “we were never poor, because poverty is something up here.” He went to university in his native Panama, but left the country before his graduation – and is proud of the fact that he never served as a lawyer “under a dictatorship.” Most inspiring of all (to me, anyway) was the fact that he’s getting ready to head back to college, to do a doctorate!
I learned a few other things as the gig progressed. I learned that Gabriel Garcia Marquez (whose Love in the Time of Cholera is sitting in my office, waiting to be read) is a musician as well as an award-winning author. Ruben told us about their friendship, then played us a song they’d written together. I learned that the volume at salsa gigs goes up gradually – and if you haven’t got earplugs in at the start, you’ll certainly need them by the end (but then that could just be the Empire’s acoustics). But above all, I was reminded that you’re as young as you feel, and you’re never too old to learn something new.
Yep – I had a great time tonight. I want Ruben’s leather jacket. And his trilby hat. And to look that good (and move that well) when I’m 63…