“Each of us is like all of us and like no one else”
― Kamand Kojouri
Sitting in Barcelona airport waiting for my flight home, I find myself opposite what can only be described as a child of the elements: a charcoal haired girl of four or five, her skin so repeatedly kissed by the sun it is now a dark toffee shade, her mind a ferocious storm as she flips between bursts of outrage and boredom. We are complete strangers; on the surface of it we have next to nothing in common. Our skin, a different colour; our language, a different tongue; our age, entire decades apart. And yet, I know all too well the sense of anguish she displays as she tumbles in frustration. I too have felt the dull twang of boredom which refuses to fade. We may appear to be completely different, yet here we both are – trapped in the same airport with nowhere to go until our respective airlines give us the green light to travel back to reality, whatever that may be. As storm child chokes back another round of tears, I mull over the concept of human connection. What unites us, what separates us, and what really matters? There’s no denying that each and every one of us is utterly unique, but why should our varied experiences be called upon as a reason to segregate us?
Just over a month ago, a divergent crowd gathered outside a formerly dilapidated theatre in North Edinburgh to unknowingly explore just such questions. Children queued alongside grandparents, lawyers next to rappers, tracksuits aside chinos. For inhabitants of a city as small as Edinburgh, attendees of our first social project trod paths rarely intersecting. And yet, here they all were – together to witness a showcase of creative talents from a wide range of backgrounds, each as deserving of the limelight as the next. For those gathered together to watch the Creative Riot, they were about to witness a one time only event; behind the scenes, the project was the outcome of many, many months of groundwork – at times upsetting, near constantly challenging but always unquestionably worthwhile.
With storm child momentarily still, I’m granted a moment of peace to think back upon all which led us to this point. How this can possibly be summed up, I have no idea. My brain feels like knotted ship rigging just thinking of the task at hand – there are too many intricately linked stories to possibly cover, too many anecdotes, moments of elation and – admittedly – tears. Is it feasible to attach words to the feelings of awe, wonder and empathy felt upon first hearing Zesh’s pain laced lyrics? To explain the understanding and connection forged upon learning Chriis Wood would rather forego sleep than miss an hour of time he could have spent writing? The feelings of admiration and awe stirred up upon seeing Ashley Jack’s Mini Jackers spring to life are akin to no words fathomable. boom projects will always belong to those involved, and yet there seems no way to tell this story without getting personal and explaining the many, many different iterations which eventually led a sundry gang of dreamers to come together and create an experience so unforgettably electric.
From the very beginning, the project was an ongoing meeting of minds. Having constantly been quizzed on our mission statement, our four year plan and our very raison d’être, I eventually nailed our colours to the mast with an aim to use creativity to inspire and empower – the act of doing so taking a different guise for every project undertaken. Perhaps one project would involve live street sculpture; another, favela painting. For this, our first, a number of various threads pulled us to North Edinburgh, in particular Muirhouse, Drylaw and Pilton. The promise of numerous up and coming dancers in the area planted the initial seed; with few connections and even less knowledge, starry eyed naivety nurtured this to grow a plan for project 001: the street dance spectacle. How wrong that would prove to be.
From day one, the position of outsider was an unshakable shadow; the term “parachuting” haunted me constantly. I am not from North Edinburgh and whilst I never thought this an issue, it worried me to be told I sounded different, looked different and acted in a different manner from those born and raised on the streets of Muirhouse Crescent, Pennywell Medway or Easter Drylaw Gardens. Standing in my kitchen in Comely Bank, I initially laughed at the suggestion of practicing pronouncing Muirhouse as “Muirhoose”; as soon as I was let loose to pound the streets, this education soon became a string I very much wished I’d added to my bow. The potato in the strawberry patch, apparently my difference was clear for all to see. Quickly, it became obvious that making connections would be vital – and, more importantly, hugely rewarding.
Pilton Youth and Children’s Project would prove to be one of the main conduits, their work at the forefront of those trying to make a difference in the area. James Riordan and Katie Grover, two of the best youth workers operating within a sector too often populated by box tickers, soon became our allies. With teachings to never underestimate the power of human connection, they based a lot of their work on trust, loyalty and understanding. The majority of the time, they received the same in return. And yet, there is no denying their ongoing work flags up major concerns regarding the care of the youth of today’s society, and the state of the world we have crafted for them to live in.
Just such an issue was brought to light one evening, when the group of teenage boys spending the best part of their day at PY sprung to life around a phone screen – Katie guessing they’d be pouring over a meme, YouTube clip or something similar. But internet sensation this was not, as was discovered when I momentarily found myself watching a filmed gang attack where a faceless man was stabbed to death. Struggling to take in what was unfolding on the cracked screen in front of me – thinking the torso looked too torpid, the blood too sparse, for this to be real – I grappled to keep my eyes on the screen. Stealing a glance up at the youthful faces crowded around, I realised there was no shock, no sadness, no distaste evident. In spite of their creaseless features and monotone mops of hair, I wondered if these “boys” were all older than presumed; perhaps too war torn to be affected by such an event based on their many years on this admittedly cruel world. As the video ended and they casually segued their way back to food fights and football, the facade cracked; boys they were, many of them not old enough to even legally watch a graphic fight scene at the cinema never mind witness something so shockingly close to real life action.
In spite of the scenes so apparently humdrum to them, these boys proved no different to many others. As their tenderness, compassion and thoughtfulness began to shine through, the conversations had over the upcoming months proved more and more unbearable to suffer. Sitting in a crisis meeting in Drylaw Police Station, it was laid down that anyone over the age of sixteen was to be “given up on” as they were too “dangerous” to attempt to help. Stories of entire families evicted due to a single child’s misdemeanours came to the fore – along with an insight into public spending which would surely cause many an eye to water. With evictions taking place on a weekly basis, the average cost of £20,000 per family soon racked up to a weighty sum far outweighing any string of small thefts which had led to such a measure. From the youngsters themselves, tales of how they “could not go” to the centre of the city they called home – they did not belong, were not welcome. How on earth I could begin to combat such feelings, I had no idea. Input from other local organisations proved on occasion helpful, on occasion intolerably frustrating – the behemoth elephant of public funding so often throwing unimaginable spanners in the works as I consistently caught the undertone that many people knew what needed to be done to help; it simply wasn’t a thing which fitted neatly into a funding application box.
The frustration only grew as our often apparently apparitional dancers began to fall by the wayside – some uninterested, some heartbreakingly with lives too chaotic to possibly schedule around. And so it was we trudged back to square one, reassessing why on earth we were attempting such a task. This project was for the community – it was to them we needed to look for answers. It was their interests, their desires and their needs we needed to appeal to. Who were the artists they cared about? Who did they know, support? Whose skip were they at? And what did these talents need from us?
So began many months of hanging out at hip hop nights, chasing down elusive artists, keeping one eye on the outcomes of rap battles and running all around town on the hunt for parkour pros. On occasion, such missions felt hopelessly doomed; standing outside North Edinburgh Arts in the pouring rain having been simultaneously stood up by three different acts was a particularly low point. And yet, there would be no giving up, no throwing in the towel; with utter belief in what we were attempting, no amount of setbacks, frustrations or hurdles could have stopped us.
As storm child and her mother are joined by the rest of their group, I’m reminded of the reason we made it through: the crazy visionaries brave enough to agree to come on board with our consistently over ambitious plans. Architects Woodside Parker Kirk never once shied from our near unfathomable scribblings; not even when 3D jigsaws and hydraulic stages were thrown into the mix. The addition of Civic Soup – a collective of recent architecture graduates – to the build team only egged on our wild ideas, which at one point involved an outdoor performance inside a massive inflatable bubble. What better way to sidestep complicated council permissions and the like? Creative collective 131 Northside were on board with almost every idea we hurled their way, thankfully continually working their set around a range of different concepts. It was only when Ashley Jack’s Mini Jackers, a dance company with more vim and vigour than many would think possible, came on board we had our first request to strip things back. Where we had envisioned multi-level staging, moving components and vibrant projections, it was requested that nothing more than a large open space was given. Thankfully, this proved a pivotal request in securing what would come to be home for our first project.
In need of a space large enough to hold a growing collective of creatives, it would have been easiest to lean towards the obvious, Google favourited locations. Yet city centre venues were wrong on a multitude of levels – practically, they were massively out of our price range. Visually, far too prim and proper. And geographically, bang slap in the centre of a city which had made so many feel so out of place. On a whim, we called in a favour and lined up a recce at Leith Theatre – the formerly grand Art Deco theatre then sitting disused and in disrepair, all but forgotten against a backdrop of large scale wall murals and cut throat barbers. Edinburgh’s much loved Hidden Door arts festival were doing a grand job of breathing life back into the old lady, yet there was no escaping her obvious shortcomings: no power, no PA, no lighting. But what she lacked in specificities, she more than made up for in pure charm. With a handshake and a prayer, our first project secured itself a venue, a supporter and, most importantly, a home.
Admittedly, we may have been a little overambitious when planning exactly what would be possible in such a venue; however, I strongly stand by Norman Vincent Peale’s stirring call to shoot for the moon. How many incredible ventures could have been blighted were simple common sense deemed the order of the day? And so, with a horribly tight self-funded budget, severe lack of time, bodies and equipment, we embarked upon pulling off a live community block party combining performance parkour, rap, space graffiti and more in the breathtaking shell of a venue which once played host to icons including AC/DC, Thin Lizzy and Kraftwerk.
The plan of action was canny in its simplicity – equipment would be begged, borrowed or something else when necessary. We would pull in as many favours as we possibly could, drive the hardest bargain with the ‘anything and everything’ store on Great Junction Street and make do and mend wherever possible. A dream team of helpers drilled, swept and painted the theatre into submission, somehow creating a setting so perfectly apt for meeting our needs it was hard to believe it wasn’t dreamt up just for us. The stage became just one in a number of performance spaces, Leith Theatre all set for a show packed with dynamism and power.
With terrifyingly little time to rehearse, we placed phenomenal levels of trust in our performers. Running order finalised, audience gathered and cables taped, it was with nothing left but sheer hope that we readied ourselves for the performance so many months of work had culminated to bring to fruition. With no money left for ‘cans’, we were relying on Facebook messenger for cues, prompts and communication – looking down at my phone on opening night I remember realising with horror it was at 17%. But there was no going back now; at any minute Studio Ember’s specially mixed “Frequency” track would kick in, Edinburgh Parkour’s first performance of the night would begin and the word riot, as we knew it, would undergo a serious image change.
The event itself passed in a blur of fear, elation, pride and awe- something I’m told by those in the know is quite common. It exists now only in my memory, and in the recollections of others. Friends speak of the movement, the dynamism of the performance, and I can’t help but wonder how many attach this to the real purpose of our first project: the performers hidden amongst the audience to question just why so many talents are so often overlooked whilst in plain sight. Ellen Renton’s hauntingly beautiful spoken word was juxtaposed with Zesh’s hard hitting bars to break down the barriers of artistic discipline, yes, but also to interrogate the barriers of status, education and background so often prevalent within our day to day lives. How many people have you attached a preconceived notion to? How many of them have the potential to surprise you if only you gave them the support to do so?
The Mini Jacker’s piece, ‘Frequencies’, toyed with the concept that different areas of the city operate on different frequencies – making communication, understanding and empathy difficult, if not impossible. As the dance company’s well rehearsed routine kicked in, they sprung to life like gigantic robotic ants; instantly sweeping aside the all too predictable choreography of many all-female groups. As their hips popped and their limbs jerked, the tone of the evening was set: a questioning of creativity as we know it, wrapped up in a fresh, raw showcase of incredible talent.
Dominique Haig and Christie Russell-Brown’s exploration of love through the eyes of a child was performed whilst running through the audience, quite literally tying them to a questioning of their own experience. During the performance, I couldn’t help but think back to the many young people whose own experiences of love, or all too often lack thereof, had so shaped what was now playing out under the crumbling curves of the theatre. It’s barely an exaggeration to say you could almost hear the hearts break as Chriis Wood’s gospel choir honed melodies reverberated from underneath them, any previous misdemeanours or challenges suddenly deemed beyond irrelevant. For tonight, sheer talent was all that mattered; all judgement, reputation or history left at the door. As the performance was brought to a close with the synth filled euphonies of 131 Northside ringing out from the main stage, it was with dull acceptance we realised the riot was over, the dust soon to settle; but the legacy seeded with promise.
In moments of weakness I still ponder whether the defeatists were right and we are all from different worlds. Try as we might to empathise, we will never have the life experiences of any other person – we have not been witness to the events, people and ordeals they have, in the same way they have not bore witness to our own successes, failures, struggles and triumphs. But maybe that’s OK. Yes, our experiences are different. Whilst we may never fully understand another person’s life, as far as I know there’s nothing in place to stop us from trying. Build a team, a movement, a raison d’être; call it what you will, at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter outside of a funding application. But do it. Shout, perform, flyer, riot if you like – just do something to start the change because, at the end of the day, we’re all in this together. It’s with perfect timing that I pen these final words, looking up to catch storm child smuggling back into her possession the sugar filled treats her mother has now taken from her countless times. As my cheeks pinch, we share a knowing smile which vanquishes any barrier of language, education, status or background placed in its path.
Photography by Jaz Jagdeo and Holly Wesley