Went to London Liming @ the Queen Elizabeth Hall. It was beautifully curated by Melanie Abrahams and I appreciated the video intervals during which various teens talked about what ‘liming means to them’. One (very articulate) girl in particular said it means ‘giving yourself to the world, but not necessarily the people in it.’ Stacey Makishi was the highlight for me – she performed one of the best pieces of live/interactive art I’ve seen in a while. Throughout her piece she blew in to her balloon until she reached the point in the story where her character would have to burst it. The whole audience was in uproar. Who’d have thought that a woman blowing in to a balloon could cause such a visceral response.
The headlining act was Ursula Rucker, who someone later described as ‘politically correct’. I couldn’y help but agree. It was much of the same old fist-in-the-air-Jesus-peace-love-”ain’t I woman” stuff that despite the conviction with which it is said, is actually very shallow. My concern about this links very nicely with a book I’ve just finished reading – ‘No Place like Home’ by Gary Younge, who chronicles his journey from Stevenage (just outside London) to the American deep south, following the route of the freedom riders. As a piece of journalism, I’ve read more remarkable things, but it was interesting to see many of the strange, bordering abstract, experiences I’ve had articulated by someone else. It was resonance. Reverse catharsis. He talks about his upbringing which was rooted in education; his lack of affinity with his peers; his irritation with white people telling him that his views on race are outdated, paranoid or that he has a chip on his shoulder. But mostly the premise of the book was the most appealing. He was searching for racial identity and sums up his innate failure to tessellate with “In Stevenage I look foreign but sound local, in the states I look local, but sound foreign.”
There is more black tradition in the United States. I felt it when I went to New York and people would exclaim that they were American, where in the UK I have trouble putting my blackness together with my Englishness. They have universities and businesses over there. They have jazz. But when it comes to Spoken Word that sense of tradition is a hindrance. In the UK we’re atomised – I might come from Manchester and you might come from Hull; we have a few historical aspects in common, but we’re out trying to be individuals. Thus UK spoken word artists tend to be more experimental. There is invariably a thread linking us together, but it is more shadow than substance, and practically speaking we stand alone. Either we innovate or stagnate. Of all the American artists I’ve seen, very few stand out to me because I sense tradition in the subjects they talk about, the intonation, the rhythm, the narrative arc. A girl I was talking to after the show described it as ‘linguistically boring’, which contrasts – possibly contradicts – the fact that so much of Black British conversation moves towards the US. Who are the heroes? Who are the great artists and musicians? If I speak for myself, then I’d say that I look to the US because, by virtue of it being a superpower, its influence is exerted all over the world. As a nation – including the spoken word artists – it has a strong identity, one that is pervasive and difficult to observe for being so close.