“Political and social revolutions won’t happen without culture” – An interview with Namiwa Jazz and Aaliyah Hasinah
Birmingham is often lauded as a freer, more entrepreneurial alternative to London. But framing it against the capital does it a disservice when there are movements emerging in and of themselves.
‘Afro twang’ singer-songwriter and BAME artist advocate Namiwa Jazz, and black women’s champion and cultural polymath Aaliyah Hasinah are two examples of this self-starting generation. Both women fiercely subscribe to the ‘all the boats rise’ theory of success. Through cultivating the talents of fellow PoC their aim is to install a sustainable creative model that’s watered by the continued artistic growth of generations to come. When you win, I win. This is what true success looks like.
They have recently been profiled in Eventbrite’s Generation DIY series – spotlighting young event creators aged 25 and under making real change in the UK. We spoke with Namiwa and Aaliyah about Birmingham’s social-political climate and its interactions and conflicts with its DIY arts scene. The desperate need for a radical revamping of the city’s fractured cultural landscape pitted by racism, classism and ignorance. As well as the need to build infrastructure that endeavours to level out the playing field, whilst taking the time to celebrate black joy through art.
What were the motivations behind you guys becoming promoters? And was there a particular genre or area you particularly wanted to see grow?
Aaliyah: I wasn’t seeing communities represented, valued or paid equal to their white counterparts. That’s literally why I’m in Barcelona now looking at ways of creating spaces that are decolonial and exploring how they can be turned into exploitative models. That ethic underpins all my work. Whether it’s exhibitions, producing events or making films, I want to unpick the current story and reimagine it for black/brown people. Music of black origin is what I’m most interested in; soul, UK rap and experimental. It’s interesting to see who gets to be an artist in these genres and who’s getting the success, particularly with the appropriation of grime.
Namiwa: I did a lot of work for small organisations with a lot of outreach to young people, which took a funded approach to putting on events. We looked at area codes, people’s living circumstances and their ethnicities to understand why they would come to an event and how to target them. That shifted my thought processes towards looking at areas of deprivation within Birmingham and that encouraged me to naturally go to those sensitive areas where people looked at me.
Aaliyah – you co-curated #DecoloniseBrum’s The Past is Now exhibition and Decolonise Not Diversify Festival, could you tell me a bit about that?
AH: Both those projects opened up a lot of discourse on the representation of PoC and looked at ways to dismantle the racist structures we’re faced with internationally, in the city and the country. The exhibition looked at Birmingham in relation to the British Empire, as a city which produced all the things that were sold to enable slavery and for imperialism to thrive. We brought out storylines like Joseph Chamberlain, who is the glorified Mayor of Birmingham, and we reframed it so instead of him being the Mayor he was Colonial Secretary. People were in their feelings about it. We got a review from The Times saying, “a more radical exhibition would’ve looked at the benefits of Empire”. Well that’s really cute if we forget about the millions of people that died and the genocide that resulted from it.
Namiwah, what is the purpose of your organisation Change Formation?
NJ: The purpose of the company is to inspire and encourage BAME women in Birmingham through the arts and give them access points and opportunity to self-educate and self-learn.
Why do you think it’s so important for women of colour to have a platform?
AH: I’ll be asked to do a piece of work by a company and I don’t know how to do all aspects of it. Instead of me quickly trying to learn, I’ll send that bit of work to another woman of colour who can do it. In this way we create ecosystems, building a community and moving as a unit. The world is messed up as a result of othering, hate, racism and so much disparity. When we are platforming it’s so we can all win. Black women represent so many intersections and having them in senior positions of power is what will challenge the racism within so many art institutions.
NJ: Educating, empowering, enriching a young woman of colour has the potential to radically change a whole area code, city or industry. If you’re looking at it artistically from the perspective of Birmingham right now, what Namiwa’s Change Formation has set out to do is fill a massive gap. There is no female artist-led organisation that currently works to support and galvanise BAME women from a multi-arts platform. Finding access points for me as an artist, I struggled a lot. It’s about stopping that struggle to make things easier and more accessible and that also has the same visual aesthetics as any other well-established professional organisation would – and pays homage to the people it’s working with.
What role can promoters play in social activism?
AH: The use of art as a vessel is as valuable as people writing academically, they are different modes of teaching and learning. Promoters can harness cultural spaces for people to flourish artistically. Political and social revolutions won’t happen without a cultural element. If we look at the history of all revolutions and societal changes, culture has always been at the forefront, with people promoting progressive art. It can flip the script or change the story. I’m tired of seeing black trauma, now let’s see black joy i.e. the Nigerian movement Afrobubblegum or Michaela Coel and Chewing Gum, even if it’s celebrating trivial things in daily black life it can be really powerful.
“Educating, empowering, enriching a young woman of colour has the potential to radically change a whole area code, city or industry”
Do you feel there’s a role for promoters in youth intervention in regard to knife crime?
NJ: Yes. Depending which side you’re approaching knife crime – institutionally, through the police or personally, through the lived experiences of the people involved. A promoter can use their imagination, creativity and team to produce something which could potentially save a life. The way I try to reach young people in terms of intervention is through events that are rejoicing, delivering a message doesn’t have to be so serious, it can be a haven for them.
It’s true, not always lecturing.
AH: Yes, people dictating how others should live their life or the issues we’re having around drill music right now with it being abolished. These artists are discussing their reality and even if it’s hyped up that’s still their reality. After all, what is it about the society they’re living in that’s making them want to hype up these certain things?
It’s that whole ‘image gang’ social media aspect.
AH: Yes. It’s about being critical of what’s being fed to us. We hear a lot about ‘multicultural Birmingham’ and ‘tolerance’ of races but we need to be having the deeper conversations. Art is a vessel through which we can move from ‘multiculturalism’ to ‘interculturalism’. I don’t want you to tolerate me I want you to understand me and not just my aesthetics.
Do you think Birmingham’s youthful DIY approach stems from it being the youngest city in Europe?
AH: They’re definitely connected. Birmingham is a post-industrial working class city that’s very conservative but we’ve got the most under-30s in Europe so there’s a strong DIY scene looking to build sustainable artistic models. We want to build a fluid place for creativity that doesn’t pigeonhole people as filmmakers or artists, and we are unapologetically Brummie.
How do you go about nurturing artists so they can freely develop their craft?
NJ: I have a very bespoke person-centred approach. I try to understand what the artist wants to achieve, discuss their plans then creatively brainstorm. I determine whether they need a mentor to sit with them or practical support. Do they need a sick producer or to go to some gallery exhibitions? Everybody has an ethnographic approach because everybody is coming with lived experience and you need to take the time to figure out what it is they want. As an artist myself, we all have different ideas of good or not good art, it’s all perception based.
How diverse and inclusive do you feel Birmingham’s cultural scene currently is?
AH: I don’t think it’s inclusive, [the scene is centred] around the aesthetics of blackness. White promoters putting on events centred around black music do better a lot quicker as they’re seen as the acceptable face of promoting that music. Again, they’re cashing off unpaid artists, the exploitation of blackness and that labour. Since the rise in knife crime, the artistic landscape has changed; things have been shut down, there’s a lack of provisions for reoffenders and no governmental support given outside of the communities themselves. The biggest issue we have in Brum is PoC not getting the same funding or being legitimised as equally as their white counterparts for the same level of work.
NJ: Absolutely, and money talks.
How did the partnership with Generation DIY come about?
NJ: Off the back of the Wile Out open mic night. It’s one of the only nights that screen films by the black Afro-Caribbean community in Birmingham. They had one that was exploring black girls in dancehall, another was the experiences of people in Afropunk. Along with that, we had live art, music… I took all that information and put it into a gallery exhibition which became a really good navigation tool for us.
Do you feel Generation DIY will play a role in making Birmingham more ethnically inclusive?
AH: I hope so. We had a panel discussion for Generation DIY and I felt some people there tried to derail my argument and pretend racism doesn’t exist. We have different realities. I don’t want to marginalise white people as it goes against my ethics – since that’s what they’ve been doing to us, and it isn’t the reason why we platform black artists. I just want black artists to be seen on an equal level, so we can move together and not be seen as rivals. The revolution will come from black women – by fire, by force!