There were around eight to ten of us in the cell at any given time. The door was heavy, metal and loud. I remember it well because the first time it shut behind me and I heard it lock, my chest tightened. The cell was small. There were five bunk beds which housed all ten of us. Since I got there last, after being extra searched, I was relegated to one of the top bunks. I’d seen in prison documentaries where inmates would fight for their ranks and beds in jail, that your strength decides your place. But as I looked around at the tired women who had also just been through Israeli interrogation, I decided instead to just make my elevated plastic covered mattress home for now.
Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre is a detention centre for foreign nationals awaiting deportation from the UK. Let’s be straight here, the term “detention centre” is just a diluted way of saying prison. We get locked up, given very little freedom or information and then told what will happen and when. Walking around without the company of a guard is forbidden. There are things they don’t tell you and then you’ll get reprimanded for doing what feels normal. But they’d rather do this than tell you that you’re effectively imprisoned. In addition, the sisters in Yarl’s Wood do not know what their status is or how long they will be there. They are commanded by a predominantly male guard staff and are frequently mistreated.
The other women in the cell with me were mostly Ukrainian. I’m not sure why they were in Tel-Aviv but it was clear that they were not going to be there much longer. Neither was I. The conditions weren’t great, but they weren’t abysmal. The guards were ok, some nicer than others. For two days, I watched women come and go from this tiny cell and the only things I could think to do was meditate, smile and try to make them feel less scared than they looked. But the refugees and immigrants in this country get a much harsher deal.
Yarl’s Wood is being run by private firm Serco and maintains that though they recognise that many of the “detainees” are vulnerable, they say that offering care is a priority. They have healthcare that is accessible 24 hours a day but, unless something has changed since 2015, it’s actually been outsourced to another private company called G4S. Is that how important healthcare is to them? Meanwhile G4S is a company that has no clean record when dealing with immigrants and refugees, including the death of Angolan brother Jimmy Mubenga in October 2010 while he was in their custody. Former “detainees” have stated that medical staff will frequently treat them with suspicion and as if they only pretend to have medical issues so that they can stay in the country. This is just one of many stories of refugees in the UK.
Counterpoint Arts is a leading organisation which supports the arts by and about migrants and refugees. Refugee Week is co-ordinated by Counterpoints and is the UK’s largest festival celebrating the nationwide contribution of refugees, and promoting understanding of why people seek sanctuary. This year, 2018, highlighted the 20 year anniversary of the celebration of Refugee Week. Counterpoints Arts held a night of HipHop and spoken word at KOKO in Camden to celebrate the closing of Refugee Week. Lowkey headlined the event with support from Mohammad Yahya & Native Sun, as well as EbsilJaz; a Palestinian hiphop duo now based in London.
Mohammad Yahya and Native Sun engaged the crowd. As I watched the faces of people watching Yahya’s set, I realised that they were winning people over as they performed. Yahya and his band are reaching for a unique sound. I could feel where they were coming from and where they were trying to go. I could sense something deeper in their efforts and though it doesn’t feel to me like they have hit the full flow of their potential, if they continue focusing their energy, they’ll hit something that puts them on another level. One thing that is for sure is that this act leaves a lasting impression. Their music is a clear reflection of who they are and as long as they stay true to that, they’ll continue to create understanding and awareness.
EbsilJaz encompass something else for me, something deeper, something I’m not entirely sure how to articulate and that’s kinda frustrating since that’s pretty much my only job here. They are both from Palestinian refugee families. Basel grew up in Syria and Jazzar grew up in Lebanon. Much of the Palestinian Diaspora moved to the surrounding territories in 1948 when Israel claimed independence. Perhaps displaced peoples share a common thread; share the common feeling of loss and connection to something that can no longer be pinpointed, maybe that’s why there’s a pull on the strings from my soul. They performed two songs. One of which was in collaboration with Lowkey and Mohammad Yahya called “Escape from Yarl’s Wood”.
The song is a role play with each rapper playing a role surrounding a woman named Sara who is detained in Yarl’s Wood. The song portrays a reality that has unfortunately become the norm.
Basel himself has an intense story which he sat down to speak to me about. His grandparents left Palestine in ‘48 as refugees and headed to Syria. Since then their family lived in the Yarmouk refugee camp. The recent war in Syria saw airstrikes destroy Yarmouk and Basel’s family has once again been made refugee by conflict and war. “I had left Yarmouk before the airstrikes, but it was the home of my family and friends.” Basel lost both his home and people he knew. Most of us will not see the type of heartache that Basel’s family has seen. Most of us don’t lose our homes the way so many people are losing their homes right now.
“The most difficult thing about being a refugee is feeling stuck. Most countries won’t give us visas, places like Lebanon and Jordan. This isn’t a good feeling.” Though Basel has now settled in London with his wife and daughter, he still seeks to visit his homeland. Most Palestinians hold a strong sense of identity and maintain their right of return to a land they once called home. It’s a struggle that many displaced people inherit; a strong sense of dislocation that feels like grief.
People were ready for Lowkey as DJ Awate hyped up the crowd. People had come specifically to see him perform and hear the music they’ve grown to love over the years, to hear the songs which have spoken for people like us. I’ve heard him perform songs which have become soundtracks to different parts of my life. Sitting on a balcony in East Jerusalem listening to “Long Live Palestine”. Sitting in my room researching BAE systems while listening to “Hand On Your Gun”. And most recently listening to “Ghosts of Grenfell” while in the midst of heart-wrenching loss and grief.
I looked out at the sea of faces as ecstasy rose to greet the young rapper when he burst onto stage for “Soundtrack to the Struggle” as the set opener. There was such a heightened swell of energy and love in the room. KOKO is a beautiful venue; with a two tiered balcony all painted blood red. I saw the faces of the front row and I couldn’t take my eyes off them. They were full of awe as their bodies recognised the vibrations being pumped from the speakers. It was the perfect song to open the set, just as it remains the perfect song to open its namesake album.
“Terrorist” and “My Soul” followed up and had the crowd singing along on another level. In the live performance, the genius of these tracks is in the hooks. Seeing, hearing and feeling people singing along to these hooks is like a prayer procession. It’s like the chanting of a mantra, like the healing of year’s worth of insults against our spirits. “You might take my life, but you can’t take my soul… You might take my freedom, but you can’t take my soul.” Lowkey sways into these tracks easily and effortlessly; dancing the audience through them like a conductor leading an orchestra of willing participants.
The first time I saw and heard Lowkey was when watching 1Xtra’s “Fire In The Booth”. Something shifted. At the time I was doing youth support work, and I remember feeling unable to answer certain questions. People like Lowkey and Akala made me feel like I wasn’t alone in saying things that I thought needed to be said. They helped me feel more confident about my voice because they had the audacity to be people of colour, who were willing to say what they really thought. Hearing Lowkey’s “Fire in the Booth” performed live was a full circle moment that I can only be grateful for.
Kids on the Green (KOTG) is a community space set up by two youth workers who aim to provide a safe space for young people and families to come together. The hub was set up after the fire of Grenfell Tower and has since lent its efforts to aiding a young community in trauma.
At this point in the evening, Lowkey introduced the group from KOTG who had their own song to sing along with spoken word from one of the young sisters. There was an outpouring of support that the room was filled with when these kids were on stage. In meeting some of them I saw how sweet they are and how they’ve been cushioned in protection by the people around them. These kids are not my own and nor are they my youth group; but I still feel so very proud of them. I still see loss in their eyes and want nothing more than to wrap them in love until the wounds close and the lessons are learnt.
The next song was “Ahmed”. In 2016, Lowkey returned after a four-year musical hiatus with a single entitled “Ahmed”. The song encircled Europe’s response to the refugee crisis and the death of migrants attempting to cross oceans, and is told through the story of a young brother named Ahmed. The name “Ahmad” in Arabic essentially means praiseworthy or one who receives praise for good character. The sadness in the song is that essentially we see some humans as more worthy of life than others regardless of their character.
To be honest, I avoid this song where possible. I like the song but it weighs about eight tonnes and injects grief into all the softest and unhealed parts of my heart. I’ve seen it performed live twice now and both times it has wrung the wretched sadness out of my soul. I don’t know what Lowkey experiences when he performs this song, nor do I know what he went through in crafting it but I do know that he must be someone who feels the world around him very deeply. Perhaps the spirit of sadness and grief knows his soul a little too well and he has found a beautiful way to transmute that darkness into a beam of light that helps guide those who see it.
And it didn’t get any easier.
The encore song of the evening was “Ghosts of Grenfell”. If there’s any song that will tear me to shreds it’s this one. Even writing this now feels like… well I guess there’s no words since I’ve just spent five minutes staring at this sentence while dissociating and having flashbacks.
“Flowers for the dead, sometimes I still hear your voice inside my head. Wishing you were here instead.” The opening lines of this song sung by Kaia and accompanied by Karim Kamar on piano are heart-wrenching from the top. It isn’t just that this event was so tragic that it makes us sad; it’s that this event is a stark physical illustration of the de-prioritisation of human life as it played out before us in a burning building. The song is a fitting and familiar tribute to the Grenfell community as Lowkey invited the KOTG family back on stage to sing the hooks, which they did so beautifully.
The second version of this song was recently released on the Grenfell first anniversary and one year later is still echoing the very same sentiment. Reni Eddo-Lodge said of Grenfell that it was an “overtly political tragedy that I want to be weary of politicising lest I trample insensitively over heartbreak.” And I feel her sentiment deeply, still feeling the trauma and pain that hasn’t been seen, validated and healed. Any organisation and call for action is difficult to respond to when your soul is screaming for you to stop and nurse your wounds. Both songs strike a balance between anger and sadness and force us to ask the question which echoes the saying, is there truly any justice? Or is it just us?