SHAKE! – Art and Activism at The Stephen Lawrence Centre

Last week has got to be the most inspiring week of the year for me. Not sure it can be topped.

I was lucky enough to be a part of a pilot project coordinated by the Platform with the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust where 13 young adults under the stress of exam results engaged with  big issues of racism, capitalism and war and unity through film-making, Poetry and DJing. They wrestled with institutionalised racism of the Stephen Lawrence /McPhearson report and the Court case of human rights abuses by Shell Oil, Chevron and  the corruption with in the Nigerian government and turned the outcomes of serious debate into art.

The artists fortunate to be facilitating were DJ Eric Soul from Afrogroov, and Simon Murray from African Writers Abroad, and Ana Tovey from Chocolate Films. The SHAKE!  brainchild belonged to Ben Amunwa and Jane Trowell,  from Rememeber Saro-Wiwa and  Platform. And volunteer, Ed Lewis, brought a calm and focused energy tot he sessions. Jane and Ben were very democratic coordinators giving us the artists a lot of room to lead and shape the the way the week went according to the needs of this dynamic group of young adults. And young ADULTS they are.

It was a truly lively week and enlightening week. Their minds were focused and  fully  engaged  with the art forms and the topics that made me want to go read more  and brush up on my writing skills. The demanded that I up my game asking challenging questions and reaching brilliant conclusions without me. (third wheel comes to mind). However what was wonderful was the feedback they gave which affirmed my role as mentor and facilitator. As the leading artists we primed the ground, and that’s all we’re supposed to do. Till the soil and encourage the shoots to grow.

The SHAKE! blog has some of their poems, written and audio, based on those big themes and the about the relevance of the death of Stephen Larwence who would have been 36 this year. His birthday is the 14th September.

The blog provides insight on how much of an impact projects like this can have on young lives and in a time where the future seems so gloom – no jobs, war and greed etc blah blah…THEY NEED US adults to inject  hope and lightness  in to our ways of being and WE NEED THEM to squash cynicism and rejuvenate positive faith in humanity. They want  and deserve so much more. It was an inspirational time.

FESTIVAL, SHAKESPEARE AND CO – and my lost voice

Shakepeare & Company Book on Paris Left Bank

I’ve been gutted about missing performance, trains, planes, friends gigs and birthday parties before, but I have never been so disappointed at being denied to perform at a gig because of illness. I had been Scheduled to read/perform between, Hanif Kureshi and Yusuf Kumonyakaa and my voice had deserted me, left me with what sounded lke sandpaper being dragged across the back of a miserable toad. Gutted. I was in Paris, it was the coming into Autumn, the air was fresh, the festival buzzing and my voice was gone. The festival organisers were really cool and told me to take it easy, “take the pressure off”,  relax. they realized before I did that I had been working to hard. My voice folded half way though a performance of my one woman show “Security” at the Shizoka Theatre Festival in Japan. I attempted to sing. Toad croaked instead.

But I had a great interview that got me tracking my career path, investigating why  had reached a point of exhaustion that my voice packed and went on vacation without me.

Click for Festival details

Zena E’s Festival Interview by Adam Biles

“I fell into poetry when I was training to do stage management. I did the lighting and designing for a group of dynamic, young, black writers. I went to the group for a while and started re-exploring my writing, which was something I had always done as a child. But there wasn’t much of a scene in London at the time, and it wasn’t until I was in South Africa eight years later, working with a musician friend of mine, that I started writing some poetry again. I went along to a night called Monday Blues and got up and read this rough little poem I had in my notebook, and I really enjoyed it. So when I got back to London I checked out the spoken word scene and found myself falling back into it again, and it escalated from there. I never believed it would get me to the point when I could come to a festival like this. I was just having fun, but people kept inviting me back.

“The scene in London has exploded over the last seven years. There are so many circles that occasionally overlap. I’m lucky enough that I can pretty much move through all of them. There’s a spoken word cabaret scene, a spoken word comedy scene, another very literary scene, a black scene, a music and spoken word scene, which is huge in London now.

“London is a great place. I’ve got a love-hate relationship with it, but I definitely wouldn’t be the person I am if I hadn’t endured the tensions and joys of that city. It’s a place of Continue reading

MOHAMMED ALI’s – WRITING ON THE WALL

Com – passion,
latin, com – together, passion – suffering
together we suffer, we suffer together
endeavour to weather
the breadth and the depth of the storm
For long are the nights for the lost, forlorn,
the broken, the tired,  the quietly enraged
lashed by the warring that keeps us engaged
with  anger and misplaced hate, bated by false truths,
Baked to break truce with all that is love, all that is compassion

Unity could drown in oil slick politic rhetoric
quick to commit Unity to the ghetto of gimmick
cuff link it to anarchy for kicks to profit from the sale of
battleship, bombshells, bullets more heavy artillery

An ocean of hands can move a mountain
and rock the cradle of the future for a child unborn, spiritually sworn
we spray prayer on resplendent edifices sprung from the earth
birthed by the song of a billion tongues speaking, singing as one.” – Written by Zena Edwards copyright

I can remember the day that Jonzi D got in touch with me and asked if I was interested in a project that involved a graffiti artist in the warehouse space of the Birmingham Rep. It was going to be  a gritty, guerilla style, performance installation piece hailing the craft of  graffiti with a Muslim perspective. My diary said I was available and I was up for it. I had to see how this idea of live graffiti art, light display with spoken word was going to work. Plus I wanted know  how a Muslim graffiti artist reconciled his faith and his unorthodox craft. Mohamed Ali blew my mind with the sheer scale of this undertaking,  how was he  going to turn a cold, grubby theatre production workshop space into a work of art.

To be working with the power houses of poetry Dreadlock Alien(B’ham) and Amir Suliman (US), along with the strong, distinct direction of  Hip Hop pioneer Jonzi D (London),  was an opportunity for myself, as a female poet toplace the resonance  of feminine energy into the  realm of war, religion and terrorism – political debates of  too usually dominated by men. What also struck me was the plain overt positivity of this event was a going to be.

There will soon be a screening of the film showing the writing/rehearsal process and the performance itself but Mohammed sent me the link to the website taster. I’m looking forward to revisiting the many  moments that were monumental  for many reasons, but notably for what is possible for poetry in unique and fresh contemporary cross art form collaborations.

The feedback on the impact of  the final performance on the audience was moving. The show evidently tackled crucial issues  about society and the perceptions about Muslim faith. As we thought, my presence was particularly appreciated. Women AND men commented on my contribution, not just because of what I did as an artist but purely because I was a woman doing what I do as an artist..

A  young girl in  a full  hijab  showing only her  expressive, bespectacled eyes, came over to me with her mother, who kissed me and hugged me and spoke with a gentle defiance. Her daughter translated. “My mother is so happy for you, so proud that you sang tonight.” It meant a lot.

The event itself was empowering because we as artists were  stripped down to the bare essential of our beliefs around  Love, Peace, Unity. To do that, we had to explore war, hate and prejudice. Even to the degree of fully engaging in the battles that go on within ourselves. (There was no room for ego and fortunately there was none of that amongst us.) We had four days to make this work. We knew it was going to be massive. It couldn’t flop. It had to be brilliant. More than brilliant.

From the film  trailer, I sense  that inner story is told too. We had agreed  to be a part of Mohamed Ali’s gargantuan,  heartfelt vision with a message – chosen because of what and how we do what we do. He had dug deep into his emotions, his memory, using  the stamina of his mental and spiritual willpower to make this project happen – not seeing his family, unable to grieve properly for his father’s recent passing. The physical toll on his body, only he knows – painting 13 – 16  hours in a day to finish in time. His passion and dedication is to be admired and respected.  So our agreement meant complete surrender  for us too. Surrender  to our roles  as modern day storytellers and as artists, and most significantly, to the real meanings of these archaic themes , Love, Peace  and Unity, and what they really mean in this day and age.