HomeNews › Blog by Sarah Hughes: “I don’t know you and you don’t know me… but we are listening”: Reflections on a community exchange project.

Blog by Sarah Hughes: “I don’t know you and you don’t know me… but we are listening”: Reflections on a community exchange project.

Blog by Sarah Hughes: “I don’t know you and you don’t know me… but we are listening”: Reflections on a community exchange project.

29th April 2016

I attended a musical exchange between young people attending Base 33, a youth centre in Witney, Oxfordshire and Campsfield House Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) as part of my ongoing PhD research project. I’m based in Durham University’s Geography Department and research the role of creativity within the UK asylum regime. As part of this work, I was interested in seeing how a community exchange project worked, in particular the implications of music travelling between two groups who do not meet. This reflection is focused upon these encounters and draws upon my ethnographic field notes taken during the exchange.

Workshops at Base 33

Workshops at Base 33

On the first day of the exchange, workshop leaders Oliver Seager and Kenny Mangena explained the concept of immigration detention to the young people participating. The group asked lots of questions about what it was like inside, if everyone spoke English, and whether they’d committed a crime. We answered their questions for a while, before playing messages from the detainees that had been recorded earlier that afternoon. I had wondered what the reaction of the group would be to hearing the voices from detention, but I wasn’t expecting to find it so moving myself. Out of the laptop on the desk came a clear male voice: “hello, my message to you all…about the journey of life, everyone has difficulties but you have to just focus on what you want to achieve…I don’t know you and you don’t know me”. I found this unexpectedly touching; his voice seemed so clear, and yet also as though he was far away.

There was silence after Oliver paused the recording. He asked the group what they thought and I was again surprised at what they said. Myles spoke up first saying that it sounded like the man was speaking from a big empty room, as you could hear it echoing. He asked what the room was like (I’ve actually been in that room and it is pretty big and would echo). I thought it was interesting that that was the first thing he picked up on, imagining the space from which the detainees were speaking, rather than the words that had been spoken. Other people jumped in explaining that it was so positive, and they weren’t expecting that. They thought the idea that life was a journey was something they could all relate to, and the fact that the detainees had hope that tomorrow was a different day was amazing given the situation they were in. Base 33 member Megan explained, picking up on the detainee’s words, that hearing the recordings made her feel as if "I don’t know you and you don’t know me…but we are listening".

Over the next few sessions the group developed pieces of music, listening to the recordings from the detention centre and responding to them with raps and songs. I found that the lyrics that were written were really powerful, as the group began to engage with some of the realities of the detainees’ situations.

How can we call this humanity?

We dive into these guys’ souls,

Destroy their personality, no individuality

One thing that can’t be touched is love

For this music

Life’s a proper challenge

But let’s help each other through this

Must be hard to be forced to feel alone

Just to be thrown when you’re grown

But I hope you know

You’re not on your own

You need to be heard and my voice is pretty loud

My message will be heard

 [Chris, Base 33: from 'Head In The Clouds']

120 plays

Head In The Clouds

Rap, Pop, Grime

In one of the last sessions, Oliver and Kenny wanted the group to record some messages for the detainees to take into the centre that night. I think what I found most interesting about this was how everyone was initially quite nervous about saying something into the microphone. It was as though the reality of speaking to someone had suddenly been realised, rather than listening and responding to the detainees’ music. Myles stepped forward and sat on a speaker chatting into the microphone, he was much more serious now, not joking around as he had been earlier that session. He wanted to know about what the impact of them hearing the music was. Base 33 leader Stacey then suggested that the group send the detainees some good words that they knew would be understood. Kenny suggested ‘freedom’ first so we all shouted ‘FREEDOM’ over and over again until it dissolved into laughter. Someone then suggested ‘love’, so the group shouted that over and over again. Base 33 member Megan then suggested ‘hope’ so the group chanted that loudly at the microphone. Oliver then recorded us all saying ‘We wish you in the Detention Centre…’ so that he could put that at the beginning of the music and take it from there. People shouted other words afterwards (keep the faith, love, good food, safety) and everyone clapped.

In one of the last sessions, Oliver asked if there was anything else the group wanted to know about detention? Chris asked “what happens after this is done?” Kenny explained that there are other projects in other centres and Music In Detention does regular workshops in detention centres as well as community exchange projects, but that they are not able to be in all the centres, all of the time. Chris then stated that “I feel bad that when this is over we’ll just be back to our normal lives and that doesn’t seem fair”. Ollie agreed with him and reminded him of the first message that was recorded from the detention centre on Monday, about how everyone is going through different things and how no lives are untouched by things that go wrong. He chatted about how when the detainees are listening to the music and the messages “just for that moment they are really touched”. Megan suggested that you can tell they are thankful from their manners on the clips we have just listened to and Kenny agreed, saying that it is amazing that they are not giving up hope.

Mobile studio

Mobile studio

The group then thought of a common word or theme that linked them with the detainees, something that united us all. Base 33 member Tiffany suggested “we are all put into categories of bad characteristics, or stereotypes”. Megan thinks that this is about labelling, or being labelled and Chris piped up with “you know that could have been us, if we were born somewhere else”. I found this touching; the group were empathising with others on the level of their shared humanity, not in a simplistic ‘music makes everything better’ way, but in a situation that was messy, complicated and where the politics were not lost. Here the group had paused in the middle of the chaos of the workshop to reflect on what it  actually means to be doing this, and how their actions might, or might not, resonate with those being held in detention centres.

From this exchange a CD has been produced entitled ‘World Upon My Shoulder’ which contains the fantastic songs and recordings put together by the young people and detainees. The focus groups that were held after the workshop in both the detention centre and with the young people showed an increased awareness of each other’s situations and discovering common interests (e.g. hip-hop, rap and feeling excluded) with one young person explaining:  “it makes you think that they’re just like us”. Yet there are other less tangible outcomes of the exchange: the impacts for the young people, detainees and those who hear the music produced cannot ever be fully known – and I think there is something quite exciting about that.