Photography: Michael Kirkham / @MrKirks

Figures from within Liverpool’s cultural and creative community share their opinion on the Black Lives Matter movement and the potential for change at a local level.

Jennifer John – creative director, music mentor and manager of Sense of Sound Singers

When you look at your own organisations and lives, how many people of colour do you employ and are in your networks? If the answer to that is none or very few, then you need to do some work.

Is diversity just a word that pops up every so often when the reality of a situation for marginalised people is glaringly brought to light, or is it something that actually matters to you? Only you can answer that.

Do you have an operational equal opportunities policy that you constantly refer to and adhere to? If not, why not? If yes, are you implementing it effectively?

Has racism even been an issue to you until the modern day lynching of George Floyd or have you just reacted to it now? Please answer truthfully.

Is proactivity towards equal opportunities for all on your list of priorities on a day to day basis? Is it an intrinsic part of your thinking and intention? If the answer to that is no, then you are a part of the systemic racism that I have been asked to talk about.

People in positions of privilege need to look inwards and do some research themselves so that they have a true sense of responsibility to make honest, sustainable changes if change is something that is genuinely cared about. Otherwise questions [what are your views on systemic racism, slavery education?] are the same questions that I, and other black people – when we are actually included, remembered and respected – always get asked. When dealing with this issue, in order to avoid becoming an added part of the systemic racism – that for us is a constant and for you is an unknown quantity – the changes have to come from you.

BLM: “THE CHANGES HAVE TO COME FROM YOU” Image 2

The murder of George Floyd was just the tip of the iceberg. Black Lives Matter is a long time coming. When I was looking at the march the other day [Saturday 13th June from L8 to St George’s Hall], I was really heartened; this is the first time in my life I saw what I perceived to be a majority of white people on a march. To me that is a huge step towards taking some responsibility for that the fact it is a human issue. It’s not us and them, which it has felt like. This is the first it has felt the most humanitarian. To continue the movement, for me, continual dialogue is far more important than this one isolated incident. The continuation of dialogue all the time with people who are different.

People who are different from each other need to be sitting around tables regularly and talking about what life is like for each other, because that is the way you sustain the conversation and keep learning, all of us from each other. That’s what diversity means.

My observation is that it takes something extreme for people to come out of the woodwork, but then what happens, it dissipates again and it does not continue. Why I wrote what I wrote at the beginning of this piece, was to say: is it part of your intrinsic thinking or is it a reaction? Is it something you are prioritising or just feeling a surge of energy about right now, but in two week’s time it will be gone? Because that’s what life is like; something else will take over and it will be forgotten. We can harness this energy but what are we going to do as a community to keep change? You can have diverse board of directors, but do they get an equal opportunity between them?

If an organisation is in the position to make a change, they need to a decide whether they actually want to make that change truthfully, not just say because they think they should. They should say something, but own it too. Otherwise it is just lip service. It is therefore a case of considering what does my organisation look like, what do I want it to look like, what do I want the heart of my organisation to be? Work from the inside outwards.

I know for a lot of black people it is a given we are thinking about diversity. It’s not even something we have to think about, its just part of our dialogue, our soundtrack. It is not the same for white people. I have sat on numerous boards and I always see the same thing. I know why I have been invited because I do what I do, but also because it ticks a box for diversity. But then when it comes to having my voice heard, I am often forgotten. I know it’s not embedded in people’s thinking; I have to remind people that I am here. There is a disconnect. It is not in the psyche of the people who have the power to make equality the number one priority. If they did, it would be different.

Education is important. I sit on Song Merseyside which is the Merseyside music education hub. I was talking recently how lockdown has been great for me as it has allowed me to think strategically about the things I want to say and how I want to say them. I’ve found that everyone being at home and witnessing George Floyd’s murder meant that everyone’s attention was focused in a way that perhaps it would not have been in any other normal circumstance. I think that is why so many people were outraged. But, at the same time, I was thinking about education, about young people and how they learn. For me, emotional intelligence – by that I mean all the things that cover basic humanity, compassion, respect and the ability to listen and ability to be heard – all those basic fundamental human qualities that make the world a better or worse place.

"In order to avoid becoming an added part of the systemic racism that for us is a constant and for you is an unknown quantity, the changes have to come from you." Jennifer John

Children are taught facts, they are taught to pass exams, they are taught history in a prosaic way, but they are not taught things within relevancy and how it compares to today. And so, there’s a huge gap within people’s understanding of each other. If you watch the news too often, you believe the concept of ‘them and us’. The perceptions that you have in history – they, black people had to work up to our level – right from then you believe there is a them and an us. I think therein lies the problem. It is divisive. The news and marketing are designed to make us to think in certain ways, as opposites. If it wasn’t seen in this binary way, politicians would not have a leg to stand on.

The public is caught in the crossfire and depending how sturdy or not you are, you believe what you are told. What was so great about the march from L8 was people standing up and having free thought, outlining their disagreement with mainstream narratives. Collectively there was a lot of people who thought the same, in opposition to racism. People wanting to learn and support. That is what is heartening.

When it comes to ownership of culture, everyone has a right to creativity. Everyone is influenced by everything. I think collaboration is the way forward, like I do with conversation. When people work together, the flavour is always going to be better and always will be – in my personal view.

In music, historically, record labels tell us what we can and what we cannot play, tell us who to be and what to do. The age-old model of the traditional record industry, where they take you in when you are in your formative years, and because they like you, they proceed to change you and categorise you. One of the major categorisations, and a bug bear of mine in England, is black music. Black music is never really understood or supported fully. Recently it has changed a lot with Stormzy, but up until then people didn’t know what to do with black music. It was diluted or sanitised. In America, it is more forward thinking in that sense because you have black music infrastructures where people take charge of their own music. Hip hop was the original example, where black people took ownership of their own creativity and made it black owned. Therefore it had power in a way that never really happened with black music in England.

Everyone has the right to make the music they want to, but I don’t think it is right when black people are denied to make music in the way they want to make it, or marginalised because of it. Often it’s viewed as ‘these are the genres that black people do’ and nothing else is really considered or respected.

"Hip hop was the original where black people took ownership of their own creativity and made it black owned. Therefore it had power in a way that never really happened with black music in England." Jennifer John

I manage a multi-cultural choir called Sense Of Sound Singers and we have collaborated with so many different people over the years. However, I have noticed something: if, for example, a mainstream venue in the city has an event and it’s a black event, they will call me to my choir involved. They will not call my choir if it is a ‘white’ event. That is a part of the assumption they make. Black music is viewed as black music; that is what they are, they only do black music. It’s a categorisation that happens in lots of areas, not just music.

My ensemble is so versatile because I wanted it to be able to work in lots of different genres. I have got opera singers next to soul singers, next to spoken word artists, next to beat boxers – yet I don’t think many people actually realise that. I think they just think Sense Of Sound is that choir which focuses on black music. It is a shame because that is not what it is. If people delved a bit deeper, they would see a bit deeper. Instead, it becomes marginalised.

It’s similar in the sense that black music is pushed under its own umbrella. There are individual genres and components, like soul, jazz, hip hop; but, generally, it is all seen as black music – one homogenous group. It’s part of an image. It’s what’s expected from black people.

So many cultural labels are applied under the white gaze. It may not happen to me so often now, but I can be having telephone conversations about business, and on quite a few occasions when I met them in person, they would say, ‘Oh, I did not expect you to be black’. I find that outrageous. What did you expect me to be? What does that actually mean? What does black sound like? What are we/you presuming black should sound like? These presumptions on what black people sound like, what they don’t sound like, are racist. And yet, it’s seen as being so subtle, people would never think they are being racist – but of course, they are. That is the nature of systemic racism. It’s covered up and passed off as nonchalance.

There needs to be a lot of honest conversations, fearless ones, between people who are perceived to be different. That is the only way we will get closer to a sustainable understanding and equality.

@jenniferjohnUK
senseofsoundsingers.com

This piece is the second of a series of features on bidolito.co.uk.

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