A lot has changed this year for MC NELSON, and it’s not even summer yet. He started it by quitting his full-time job in London and moving to Rotterdam for a residency with Liverpool arts organisation Metal and art charity CBK Rotterdam. The three-month project, titled Residency… At the Waterfront, was set up for two artists from four European port cities: Liverpool, Marseille, Naples and Rotterdam. The residency is based on the ideas of Gyz La Rivière in his book titled New Neapolis, a meditation on these four cities and their similarities. When we first arrived in Rotterdam, we find him sitting at the table of a bar with Nelson.
“I have visited all of these cities and they all have the same type of energy, the same sort of spirit,” he tells us. These ports all have similar histories, shaped by the decline of their main industry as business shifted away from the docks. Left to their own devices, these once thriving cities have all undergone periods of neglect in the recent decades. The individuals who live in these cities also share a certain independence of spirit which endures and fuels a constant effort to re-establish the life and energy that was once abundant here. Gyz wanted to invite artists from each of the cities to live and work in Rotterdam, with enough resources and connections to focus their artistic practice, because he believes in the strength of these cities and their creative culture.
When Nelson’s application for the residency was successful, he couldn’t say no. “I went to my job and was like, ‘Yo, I’ve got this dope opportunity, is there any chance I could take a little bit of a time off and maybe come back afterwards?’” They made it clear this wasn’t possible. “I was just like, ‘Peace out’. It came at the perfect time, when I wanted to do something new and just dedicate all my time and energy to making tunes and rapping. I’ve always been in full-time education or working. I’ve never been able to just, fully prostrate myself to rap music.” During this time, he’s performed in cities across Europe and finished his first cohesive project, Anglosfear. Once the residency ends, he is returning to live in Liverpool after years away and his work with Metal will continue once he gets home – in conjunction with Metal, Bido Lito! have commissioned MC Nelson to produce an original piece to be debuted at the bido100! Inside Pages festival.
WATCH: Leech travelled to Rotterdam to make this mini-doc about Nelson’s residency
Staying with Nelson, and meeting the people who set up this project, is enlightening. These independent programmes investing in the growth of artists and turning disused spaces into creative hubs are exactly the kind of thing we believe Liverpool needs more of. Metal is one such organisation; operating out of Edge Hill railway station, they set up cinemas and art spaces in neglected buildings and forgotten parts of the city. Parts of our stay in Rotterdam feel like a great model for what Liverpool’s future could look like. The places we see and the people we meet inspire our belief in how Liverpool could be transformed with a little imagination.
The building itself is a bungalow named Paviljoen …aan het Water (Pavilion… On The Waterfront), an abandoned cantina which had long been out of use. Kamiel Verschuren, who owns and maintains the building, has restored over 100 disused buildings across the south of the city, where artists live for a small membership fee. The structure stands a little apart from anything else on a broad-set street in South Rotterdam. The charming wooden seating area in front of it is populated with flower pots, with a red LED light display above the house showing an art text written by Kamiel. What had previously fallen into disrepair is now a functional creative base with good acoustics for recording, well-lit and spacious with large windows overlooking the waterfront. The current residents have filled the living room with dozens of instruments and recording equipment, and having no close neighbours means the music can go on all night. As I find on my borrowed mattress at 4am, the only resident nearby has no moral high ground when it comes to noise complaints; several roosters announce the sunrise every morning, their call reverberating through the walls.
While we’re staying here, we get chatting to Nelson’s temporary housemate and fellow resident, Mak, who brought most of the instruments. “It’s allowed me space and time to focus on creative projects in a fantastic environment, in a different city, being inspired by different things, and feed the flavour and vibes of that into the art.” Nelson has similarly used the rare opportunity to create at an unprecedented level. “There was a period of time where I was, like, living inside of this mixtape that I’m making, and there wasn’t really much else going on in the world,” he tells us. “It was dominating all my thoughts and everything, and just general maintenance of yourself and life, all the other things, just fell by the wayside.” This is his first extended release, and it feels momentous for the artist: “It feels so good to finally get it out my system. This is me planting a flag in the ground to say, ‘This is what I am trying to do’. Obviously, it’s not a perfect project, but I feel like this is a good summation of my general philosophy, beyond trying to do like, rappity-rap-rap or just rapping fast, or whatever.”
The project’s philosophy is a meditation on national and cultural identity. “It’s not a linear story, but all the lyrics reinforce each other to tell a story, and reflect on England and Englishness, identity and immigration.” The ability to consider England from a distance was useful for gathering his thoughts on a topic that had consumed his life as well as his work. “This is the longest I’ve ever been out of the country in my life. Even though so much of Anglosfear is about bouncing about England and being English, a lot of the project did change being out of England, and seeing more of the world made me more reflective because it was a different perspective on shit.”
Different contexts change the way identity is received and experienced. “You get to be a different person that you’re not at home – just the way you’re treated. In Liverpool, because we’re all Scouse, I was a black guy. When I moved to London, then I’m a Scouser, and then out here, I sound like an Englishman.” He imagines what he is feeling is something like the experiences he has read about in historical accounts of black ex-pats: “A lot of old black writers from America, when they all used to fall in love with Paris and move over there – because they just get to experience a different perspective and a different life, you’re not just shackled. I dunno, stuff that happens at home is just way more painful.” Distance from the culture he is writing about allowed him a kind of breathing space to work, and these questions of identity are lucidly explored in Anglosfear. He takes us through from darker tracks like England to the more utopian Immigration, making the project a space for exploring a full spectrum of emotion and analysis, all executed with Nelson’s characteristically crisp flow and wordplay. Besides completing the project, Nelson has used the residency as a base to perform across Europe. “I’ve done loads of gigs this year, but I’ve not done one in the UK, which is mad,” he laughs.
The country he will be returning to at the beginning of April is one in political turmoil and uncertainty. There is a justified worry that resources are about to become very scarce, with consequences for the poorest. In these circumstances, funding for the arts is often axed, considered a luxury. The south of Rotterdam is a historically underfunded, densely multicultural area which has been shut out of institutional representation and allowed to decline. The work of people like Kamiel considers how art might extend beyond the representational and enact real change. They used a €100,000 grant to set up a ferry connecting the south of Rotterdam to the north, a free service which allows for connections to be made over the water; a channel for people and exchange information on a frequent journey which also connects them to the rest of the city.
The Paviljoen is a subsidised bar and eatery in the summer, allowing local residents to participate in public life at a low cost. Kamiel’s work with disused spaces is part of a movement to redefine empty spaces in terms of potential for new ways of living. He explains the underlying concept to us: “If you want your art to be leading society, then you have to find tools that allow you to be leading and not following the art world. It’s about being in control of how things are happening and why things are happening.” He uses a network of DIY experts to turn squats into liveable workspaces and maintain them, creating a self-sufficient network of artists living without high rent costs. In the absence of infrastructural support for the arts, they have turned infrastructure into an artistic project. They set the projects running first, proved that they work, and then linked their infrastructure with official governments. “It’s art but it’s also real, there are people living in it,” Kamiel says, smiling. These endeavours tamper with accepted ideas of what it means to be an artist, bringing it down from a theoretical realm to earth.
The Scouse artists on this residency are on a similar wave; Nelson has designed Black History workshops for schools; he hopes to fully embody his role as a researcher and teacher, which underlies his musical practise as an MC. Mak talks to us at length about how combining art and education can “change the face of the human planet”. Aside from music his lifelong passion is in education; after teaching at LIPA for several years he continues to offer workshops, which use the arts to teach. Like Kamiel, for Mak it comes down to critical thinking: “An artistic way of being is something that can be applied to anything, and should be applied to everything.” He sees musicality as a metaphor for the fundamental principle of harmony. “By teaching kids how to think instead of how to tick boxes, you unlock a different way of thinking which is based in seeing the similarities in things as opposed to the difference in things.” He expounds upon ancient classical education systems: the trivium; the quadrivium; multidimensional thinking which transcends the constraints of time and space. “It’s about finding harmonious processes for different things to sit together, and we could do with a bit more harmony in the world.”
The approach taken by organisations like Metal, CBK Rotterdam and individuals like Mak and MC Nelson is ultimately an optimistic one. They look at empty spaces and evidence of societal failure and see opportunities for growing, building and learning. Nelson will be returning to Liverpool with a wealth of empowering experiences: “It’s honestly mad. And you think about all the spaces in Liverpool that are disused, that nothing is happening in, that could be a boss centre – like that cinema on the bottom of Park Road – things like that, all these spaces that could be transformed into something, but they’re just left as eyesores that nothing happens with.” Liverpool is full of untapped potential; if government is failing, art organisations can play a role in imagining new forms of infrastructure which enable new modes of existence. While governmental and European funding dwindles, we must search for self-sustaining enterprises which create the sort of freedom and productivity afforded by the Rotterdam residency.
“There’s a nice energy in Liverpool at the minute,” Nelson observes. “It feels fertile. There are loads of great acts, and if we all just come together a little bit more, there’s enough talent for an incredible scene.” Without a certain degree of funding and investment in the arts, possibilities might be limited. But as we witnessed in Rotterdam, artists working in the city have the power to push for changes and be instrumental in enacting them, expanding a city’s understanding of what is possible and creating futures we want to live in.
MC Nelson performs a special music commission at Inside Pages on 22nd June, as part of bido100!: tickets available now at ticketquarter.co.uk.