REVIEW | LOWKEY LIVE AT @KOKOLONDON FOR REFUGEE WEEK @RefugeeWeek @CounterArts

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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?

 

 

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Aisha Afifah

Aisha Afifah

Aisha Afi­fah is a Writer and Research­er based in Lon­don. She has spent over a dec­ade in the enter­tain­ment industry. She has dealt with enough bull­shit to feel like she can give an opin­ion. She Thanks you for read­ing.

About Aisha Afifah

Aisha Afifah
Aisha Afifah is a Writer and Researcher based in London. She has spent over a decade in the entertainment industry. She has dealt with enough bullshit to feel like she can give an opinion. She Thanks you for reading.