BLACKFEST was conceived by Blue Saint and Jubeda Khatun in 2017, when the pair met at a regular artist night by Eclipse Theatre, a company dedicated to enabling black actors to access parts in Liverpool. As Jubeda tells me, “BlackFest was a creative response to the lack of representation in our institutions.”
“Liverpool’s a very multicultural city, and it’s got a lot of talent, but you don’t really see a lot of people coming together,” says Blue. Jubeda and Blue recognised a disconnection between the artists of colour in Liverpool, and the institutions who hold power and resources. Jubeda is a freelance workshop facilitator, director, spoken word artist and producer; Blue is a rapper, singer-songwriter, poet, spoken word artist, actor, designer and producer. The two decided to combine their formidable ability and experience to create a festival dedicated to black arts – and their ambitions for it know no limits.
The seven-day programme begins with a launch party at Unity Theatre on 23rd September, with dance, music, spoken word and scratch performances of two new plays. The next day continues with a screening of independent LGBT films at FACT, with a Q&A afterwards, followed by a healing day at Blackburne House with Lush, including workshops for meditation, movement and writing. 24 Kitchen Street welcomes BlackFest’s musicians on Wednesday night – co-founder Blue Saint takes the stage along with Dayzy, Paper Plates and Bido favourite Kyami. On Thursday in the Everyman Theatre, BlackFest artists will perform a selection of Hear Me Now monologues, a groundbreaking collection written for actors of colour. The spoken word performances at The Bluecoat on the Saturday begin from 6pm – five artists take us through their personal black British experience. It is a poignant setting for the performance – the Bluecoat School was famously founded by slave trader Brian Blundell. Even though there hasn’t yet been public acknowledgement of, or apology for, the shady foundations of that 300-year-old institution, any step in the right direction should be applauded, and here, BlackFest are facilitating that step.
Two of their events are not geared towards the public – much like the Women’s Empowerment workshop Jubeda is facilitating in the run-up to the festival, they are geared towards developing community engagement and participation. On Friday 27th September in the Kuumba Imani Millennium Centre, there will be an Arts Council presentation on project grants open to all artists, followed by open surgeries for one-to-one support from Arts Council England, with slots for individual artists. Artists of colour looking for support should contact firstname.lastname@example.org to apply for these sessions.
Finally, on Sunday 29th September Diversity Dialogues will take place in the International Slavery Museum. This is a panel event and open dialogue about representation and visibility for artists of colour in Liverpool. “Whenever you go to organisations, wanting them to include more people of a black and ethnic minority background, a thing that’s commonly said is that they don’t really see a lot of them,” Blue explains. “But the thing is, there is a quite a lot there, but it’s just about giving a platform.” The co-founders both see art as a crucial part of a thriving community: “The arts are great for social inclusion, for confidence building, self-esteem growth, and the power of art, for me is transformational,” says Jubeda. “It creates free thinkers, and that’s what we want.”
In trying to solve a very practical problem, BlackFest was created. Jubeda tells me, “We felt like we just needed to do a festival, coming together in unity and solidarity to celebrate what’s great about black arts in Liverpool. As much as we have a lot of great things that are happening in Liverpool, there used to be more programmes around leadership, allowing artists to look at things like funding. And there was a bit of social anxiety, I felt, in social spaces.”
Blue is adamant that investing in artists of colour by supporting them to feel safe is worthwhile: “If the opportunities are made for being creative, where people feel open enough to show their art, then more of those faces would be seen. It’s all about representation. The diversity and range of Liverpool has to actually be shown.”
We chatted with a few of the artists ahead of their performances to learn more about what they’re planning, and what BlackFest means to them.
Monday 23rd September at Unity Theatre
ASHLEIGH NUGENT is a writer, rapper, actor, spoken word artist and community educator who will be performing a one-man play centred on Locks, a book he wrote based on his life. It tells the story of a mixed-race boy who grows up in a leafy, middle-class suburb on the outskirts of Liverpool in the 80s and 90s, contending with racist police and low expectations from teachers. He moves to Jamaica to find that he doesn’t fit in there, either – with a stint in prison teaching him that lighter-skinned people like him are considered white by many of those around him. It is a coming-of-age story about belonging, that elusive treasure. It tells a tale for all those people who find themselves suspended between two different identities, feeling like belonging is something meant for other people.
Could you tell me a bit about the show you’re planning?
The show tells this story of coming to terms with the fact that you don’t necessarily fit into either of these binary concepts of identity, and you have to find your belonging in some other way. And that maybe creativity, and that unconscious connection to something greater than the facade of identity, is a deeper way of finding connection and purpose.
That actually describes my experience in a lot of ways too. [As an Iranian Scouser]
[Laughing] Does it? I think there are quite a lot of us. I’ve found, performing with other people, that everyone can identify with it, cos everybody has issues with these simplistic binary concepts of identity. Male/female, black/white, gay/straight, this class/that class – it doesn’t really mean anything, and what happens when you strip that stuff away? Nowadays, young people who are brought up in middle-class families find themselves living on working-class estates because they don’t have the same opportunities as their parents and the Baby Boomer generation had. Plenty of people are questioning their gender identity and their sexual identity – it’s more than just race, this is our story. It’s about mixed-race identity, but it’s about identity in general: how we define that, and how we look a bit deeper when trying to define who we are.
What would you say about the value of putting on something like BlackFest in Liverpool?
There’s a massive value to it. It’s really important to get the extra help that is needed. Jesse Jackson said something about what they call affirmative action, what we call positive discrimination. And he was saying, look – you’ve got a 400 metre race, and you’ve got half the people in the race have had shackles around their ankles for the first 200 meters. Then you take them shackles off for 200 metres, and say, ‘What’s up with you? Just go and catch up’. History and culture, what has happened: it does matter. In fact, it’s not even history, it’s the now – the way that this community has been subjugated, it is happening now.
There’s no science behind the categorisation of race – but yet, here it is, it exists. And because of the tone of your skin, you are judged. So, we have to have things that give people a voice, that put money where money needs to be; to allow people to share their experience with the rest of the society.
Do you think a younger you who was experiencing these issues would have been helped by watching the play you’ve written?
I think it would have helped massively. There was a film called Babylon, for example – a black British film, that was sampled at the beginning of Rebel MC’s second album, Black Meaning Good. The film starts with this guy being chased down the street and harassed by the cops, just for being a black guy walking around at night. I saw that film when I was young, and things like that – where all of a sudden, someone is representing something that you’ve experienced yourself, that you don’t see represented anywhere – do allow you to realise that other people are having the same experience, and to find some mode of expressing what is going on.
I was 21 before I ever got on a stage and performed as a rap artist – but I’ve written hundreds of these things, inspired by the likes of that movie, and people like Rebel MC. Seeing people like that gave me a way of expressing myself, that wasn’t just through pure anger and aggression and hatred – which I did express for many, many years. I was incredibly violent. But then, as soon as I started getting on the stage and expressing these songs I’d written, I didn’t really have a desire to go and be violent towards people anymore because I could express this experience in a way that I felt people were actually benefiting from. People were being helped, rather than being damaged by me.
[Now] I’m 43 years old, I work in prisons and tell my story all the time – and you have 50-odd-year-old blokes getting really emotional, saying no one’s ever expressed my experience in the way that I do, just to be honest about it. And not only that, but to say that this doesn’t have to hold us back – this can be the making of us. All superheroes have a backstory, have something that happened to them, and they used that thing. We don’t have to be perfect but we can do something with our experiences that helps the rest of the community in some way – and by doing that we help ourselves. Because the happiest people in the world are those who work to help others.
HEAR ME NOW MONOLOGUES
Thursday 26th September at Everyman Theatre
Leeds-based LEAH FRANCIS and KEL NKONDOCK, who moved to the UK from Spain a few years ago, are both mixed-race actors who will be bringing to life a ground-breaking collection of monologues written by and for actors of colour, in order to generate better audition material than the stereotypes often thrust on them. Produced in 2016, Tamasha Playwrights teamed up with writer-producer Titi Dawudu to bring together actors and writers in order to develop fresh, diverse characters.
What’s your monologue about?
Leah Francis: It’s quite deep. It’s about a woman who is going through domestic violence and she’s trying to figure out how to explain what she’s going through – and then it kind of has a twist.
Kel Nkondock: Mine’s about a girl who works in a bar, and who witnesses how her friend and colleague is being abused by a guy. It’s called Foam, and it all happens in a nightclub, so it’s all blurry. She starts talking about the friendship, when they were kids – and at the same time, she’s mixing it with what she’s seeing at the moment. But she’s kind of paralysed, she doesn’t know what to do to help her. It’s a topic that is very relevant today and very important. More and more girls are coming out about experiencing this type of abuse.
What do you feel towards the character you play?
LF: Scared [laughing]! Like, she’s a bit psychotic, I think, she’s got that edge to her. So, I’m a bit scared of her but also intrigued by those feelings that she has – and it’s so nuanced, the monologue, so that even though it’s only about three-to-five minutes long, there are so many emotions and deep stuff that you can dig out of that.
What does it mean to you to be part of BlackFest?
LF: It’s just great to showcase voices of colour, because there’s such a lack of representation in the industry and I think it’s important to showcase that as much as possible. It’s empowering, as an actor, to be part of something like that, and I just think more of that should be done. We should have it over in Leeds, we should it have it everywhere, as much as possible.
KN: Last year I didn’t know it existed at all. Jubeda told me about it not long ago, and asked me if I was interested, and I said yes, not knowing what it was – but just the idea of it sounded really interesting. Because, honestly, personally as a mixed-race person I’ve found that I couldn’t audition for certain parts, because it’s a story about a Caucasian family, or stuff like that. I obviously can’t really do it, so this opportunity for visibility, I think it’s really great. So far, I’m really enjoying the whole process and seeing everything coming together. I can’t wait to see the final result.
BlackFest runs between 23rd September and 2nd October, with a range of events taking place across multiple venues.