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ArtWorks Fellowship: Ambition is critical

Published 18 December 2017 - By Rufus Mufasa
Only I could return from NYC and stop all press to talk about Swansea and Stormzy. I visited a few days before my New York trip, an accidental encounter because of a misunderstanding with the sat nav. I was on my way to Dylan Thomas’ boat house in Laugharne, but ended up near his birth place, 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, so I had to call in.

Sat in the very parlour made famous by DT’s Christmas story, sipping tea from vintage china, sucking in the surrounding artefacts and memorabilia, I truly was delighted to be in the house where two thirds of Dylan’s published work came from. The music room and study with bountiful books where Dylan worked and hosted meetings with the Kardomah boys, tended to by Dylan’s attentive mother. I got lost imagining the conversations that were hosted here, and the back window that inspired Holiday Memory totally sucked me in, as did the bathroom where he’d like to indulge in a long soak contentedly smoking Woodbines. I felt his mother’s anguish in the very room Dylan was born, while his critically ill sister was in the room next door. Dylan Thomas and Harry Belefonte are two of my earliest influences. Dylan’s beat is so on point that I question my own writing journey, what came first, the poet or the rapper? During his visit to New York in 1952, Dylan first recorded his poetry onto vinyl, nobody else was doing this. The city was experiencing a musical revolution, forging a style called Be-Bop, which would heavily inspire New York’s hip hop movement. Was Dylan’s visit the very start of rap? I really like to believe so. So when you wear your hip hop uniform inspired by our American cousins, know that our man DT took his poetry and virtuosity to that melting pot. Dylan Thomas truly is one of the best, and both a precious son and a father figure to the city of Swansea, and to Wales.

My most recent visit was to perform with my hip hop crew, Dope Biscuits, for a Pryme Cut event at The Lemon Factory. I was mega excited. I have amazing memories of Swansea. Busy streets, raves at Escape, shopping, character-filled independent cafes, good music, good times… But I was left heartbroken. It was like an encounter with an ex that’d you’d once been infatuated with, to see years later and realise that time had not been kind to them or their soul. I was faced with a Swansea that looked battered and bruised, tired and used, dated and decaying. I mean you no disrespect Swansea, I love you. I’m saying this in your defence. You deserve far better. The castle, so charming, a true treasure, being bullied by a big towering, overpowering BT building. Next to the castle is Laser Zone, once Laser Quest. I remember this place so well. My father took me there regularly, back pack, laser guns, plan of attack, strategy. The train station looks in good shape to be fair, compared to the ghettoised version I fondly remember. And then I see it, Dylan Thomas’ words, “Ambition Is Critical”, words I’d seen many times before years ago, words so important, then, now and always, words surrounded by greyness and spotted white chewing gum clinging on fiercely like a stubborn cancer, words of a prophet treated with distasteful disrespect, words that appeared in Twin Town, changed to “Pretty Shitty City”, words that have never been better fitting. To the right is an old haunt, Bartori and Rabaiotti Espresso Bar, also featured in Twin Town. I am amazed it is still here, and looks exactly the same as I remembered from over fifteen years ago, both inside and out. It was like stepping into intoxicating nostalgia, the décor, the setting, the menu. It was like visiting a really old batty auntie who refuses to adhere to the times and you loved her more for it. But the lady that runs the cafe does not look anything like a batty old auntie, far from it. She exudes a timeless class and style, a total juxtaposition to this dated, run down building. Time has been so good to her; she looks exactly the same as 15 years ago. Her name is Emilia, made even more beautiful by her Italian accent with a hint of Swansea, and she tells me she’s 77. I tell her how amazingly beautiful she is to which she replies modestly “It must be the Italian gene”. I tell her how fabulous her taupe lace tights are and that they totally compliment her outfit. She tells me “They are twenty years old”. I am so happy to be here but baffled by how nothing has been updated, like time stopped. Emilia tells me that her father in law, Mr Domenico, opened the café in 1960 and was told he could only stay for three to four years, but the family is still there 56 years later. During this time they have been told that nothing is secure and not to invest any money in the upkeep, and their time here has been consistently uncertain. Now the council plans to bulldoze the building for the train station to have a better eye worthy welcome for passengers. The building has been left so long without investment that it is beyond repair, and the bulldozers are welcome. So sad. Despite the city’s disarray and dishevelled streets, there is an exciting art project “Art Across the City”, that breathes fire back into Swansea’s once thriving vibrancy and the pieces propel the city’s potential and ability to regenerate. Volcano Theatre, a company I have been inspired by for a decade, have set up an amazing base on the High Street, so Swansea, I urge you to find strength and guidance in the creative arts and trust that they can move you forward far faster than consumerism, which has crippled your true prosperity. Swansea, your “ambition is critical”.

 

So we get to The Lemon Factory, and there is a cypher in full swing. A guy steps up. He is part of a crew from Newport that is on the line up. He’s good, a bit crazy but entertaining.

There’s a row of people recording him on their phones. Then his content turns derogatory, and not only is he full on female hating, he’s directing it at me, in front of a room full of onlookers. I’ve never met him before, and how is he to know that my skin is tough enough to take it while he indulges his own fantasies about my mouth being big enough to house his greatness? Does he care? I smile and take it like a G, there’s nothing a man can throw at me that I’ve not heard many times before. Usually I would have taken centre stage and shown him exactly how to merk a mic, kicked him in his “greatness” lyrically, but I genuinely had to preserve my snot infested energies for my performance. The room feels it too and people feel uncomfortable, and despite it not being a direct disapproval they put away their phones and stop recording him. It’s a start, right? I remove myself from the situation, as do my crew, and we roll our eyes at this primitive pants that plagues our scene. It is rather unfortunate that said MC did not stick around to broaden his insightfulness on the roles and abilities of females, spitting stronger content that he could only dream of penning, with the strength of ten bears and the soul of a lion blessed by Jah. Our performance at the gig was well received and the audience totally engaged with us and were refreshed to welcome a female voice to the stage. Female voices are massively underrepresented in music and this is something we all need to address. Women are not a token gesture.

The event, hosting some of Wales’ most exciting hip hop, provides a platform for grime. For the diehard hip hop head, grime can feel like being dropped into a K Hole. You either dig grime or you don’t. The event’s organiser Ryan Daly did good having both genres on the bill, but as a community we need to work on how we all fit in together, we are the same community and there is strength in our togetherness. My most recent participatory practice has been heavily influenced by grime and if I’m totally honest, I struggled. Working with young people, with extreme talent and potential, with an uncompromising pre- requisite that grime is the only genre that they will entertain. My love for hip hop beats was futile in their domain, coupled with their unwillingness to accept that they were the same family, grime was the only disciple they were faithfully adhering to. My problem was not with the beats, but with the content, laced in violence, call outs, sexism “I’m going to take your girl and make your girl my girl” caveman crap that has been said so many times before and endorses women as loot, gang references and so much slagging off of people’s attire. Following one session, despite amazing consultation on the realities of where they live- “I live next door to a drug dealer, and they all cook up in the kitchen, but his little boy is starving”, and “Five generations not working, seven children, five dogs, whole house has fleas” and me screaming “Yes, this is real stuff, let’s use it”, it was not what they wanted to use for their tracks, and would much rather send fighting talk back to another rapper, or slag off his girlfriend and the lack of Adidas in said girlfriends wardrobe. I did have a head bashing moment back at HQ, followed by a participatory practice light bulb moment. I had to really understand their language, their influences, how moving away from this talk would leave them exposed to their peers and maybe they weren’t strong enough for that? So I studied grime, hard! I got a new grime beat made up at HQ and wrote furiously, based on my consultation with the group. Both parties needed to address that their practices were two of the same thing.

We can’t ignore grime. It is fundamental part of our music in the UK. It is the very foundations BBC1 Xtra is built on. It is our sound. It demonstrates immense entrepreneurship. A genre that is doing it without the support of big record deals, owning social media and staying true to the old skool pirate radios and mixtapes. Whatever your opinions are of Kanye West, or his performance at last years’ BRIT Awards, the fact that he acknowledged grime and its pioneering artists was a profound gesture that has been lacking by the music ‘powers that be’ here in Britain. A decision to ignore grime is truly criminal. My research led me to Stormzy, who I have to admit I am slightly besotted with. His real talk, his sound, his flow, his success. Stormzy has two MOBO’s, is touring hard, representing the scene and has recently bagged an acting role for the new Brotherhood film. Casting at its finest. Stormzy has hooked up with Latimer for a sexual health awareness campaign, and recently attended Oxford University as a guest speaker. They questioned him about grime’s content, its attitudes to women and the language used. He admits this is something we need to address. But the question that wasn’t asked…when in a position of so much power and influence, why the heavy endorsements from Adidas? Adidas, first claimed and stylised by the people, an iconic player in hip hop culture for decades, which revolutionised the relationship between performer and consumer when Run D.M.C. received a million dollar endorsement, both parties cashing in on a thriving culture. We can’t deny that Adidas unites us, but it is bitter sweet. Total look sportswear is synonymous with hip hop culture, where artists look like their neighbourhood, their fans, the genre. I understand Stormzy’s “ambition is critical”, but by promoting Adidas to the very streets he’s representing, along with the perilous challenges our youth are experiencing during these troublesome times our governments are imposing in our societies, keeps our young people and their communities in the very chains we are trying to free them from. Grime and hip hop (lets really try to get our heads around them being the same thing) have an amazing platform for social change and justice and represent peer education at its finest. Instead of putting so much energy into fighting each other with wasted words, exactly what our powers that be would prefer, it has the catastrophic power and potential to speak terrifying truth. Yes grime is truthful in the sense that it is says it is more appealing to be shotting in the ends and the instant gratification that offers, in comparison to studying at university for several years running up massive debt. Grime is truthful in that it demonstrates Adidas being an epidemic, as dangerous as street skunk and sugar, and truthfully highlights that women are objectified and gives a licence to do this freely. Grime, shine and pioneer the way, I beg of you, to show us that same kind of truth about Palestine, hate crimes by positions of power, suppression, marketing violating self- esteem daily, the very truthful content that blew me away at the Nuyorican Poetry Café NYC, so heavily attended that people queue around the block for an hour in the hope to squeeze in, seats so broken in they collapse beneath you. This kind of realness is refreshingly received and highlights that we, both sides of the globe, are not a representation of the people making decisions for us, and we don’t wish to be judged by their standards. We certainly don’t want to sell those standards to others.

Grime, hip hop, poets, people, let’s get a clear understanding of hip hop culture. Let the culture be free from sexism, homophobia and all other discrimination. Let’s develop an even clearer understanding of the differences between hip hop culture and the hip hop industry. I’m pleading with you all to recognise your duty of care as role models and to always question your content. It has the potential for greatness. Be like beautiful Emilia, exuding so much class and grace in a falling down building. Develop a craft that is as timeless as her style and as withstanding as her tights. Ask yourself daily, what are you selling? Careful it’s not your soul. And in the wisest words of Dylan Thomas, “…rage, rage against the dying of the light”.

 

Poems

Wild Swan from No.8

Not sure what the stars are for

In this decaying city where I was once outlawed

My memories mirror back to me

The bone yard of ambition

Shitty Pretty City can no longer scream.

Bare legged, coat less flesh

Claw like unkempt toe nails display disarray

Selfish for survival

Digging deep into the earth of tarnished tradition

Ambition crucified

In this Lovely Ugly Town.

 

Graveyard of Ambition

I bury my head in a book

You bury your head in the sand

I had to bury my best friend

So what part of “I don’t give a f@@k about your sh*t” don’t you understand?

They’ve buried nuclear waste

All over sacred land

We forage in hope for the fallen

While they continue to plot and plan.

You tried to strangle our language

Then cash in on it when it suits

We thought we had a game plan

But then you poisoned the fruits.

Then you poisoned the water

And set fire to our dreams

But we are still standing

In this place where life’s not as it seems.

 

Mic Manifesto

Black skit, trembling lips,

Conservative prejudice,

Kanye’s BRIT’s leading lights

Riotous line in the sand two finger salute.

Jaws drop, hoods up

Guerrilla injection veteran kicked the door off bars and beats.

Urban power sea change

Hit love, encourage, embrace- Be British!

Victory! In own skins

Roles amplify artistic patriotism

Celebrating unapologetic brilliance

Buzzword impact born out of the dark.

Genuine movement London time

Lord of the mics

Radio, raves, rare tapes

Lyrical dexterity, beats hit hard.

Raw power step up

Notorious 696 risk assessment

Bassline drops a new acceptance

An art form here to stay.

Originators hype freestyle focus

Born into a scene- chasing art not status.

Bound up in authentic

Brixton be going to work for me.

Personality, tireless dedication

Go studio

Hard work is in fashion

Grime’s key

Your autobiography

So in touch

Can’t contrive fire outside the booth.

New breed break boundaries

Dominating hood rat agenda.

ArtWorks Fellowship