I anxiously waited in my front row seat as the force that is Kweku Sackey (of KOG and the Zongo Brigade) entered to the side of the stage, drum in hands, anticipating what was to come. Powerful rhythmical pulsations of African percussion took me by surprise opening this quick-fire poetic monologue from spoken word artist Sipho Dube. Together they told an audio-visual story (with excellent use of stage lighting on the beat of drum gunshots), evoking vivid depictions of a community affected by gun crime, and sadly, in keeping with the current reality, a black man as the target.
The piece, commissioned by the University of Sheffield for the Festival of Social Science aimed to interpret Dr Hartman’s academic research on American gun control into something that could be understood in human terms and most importantly, felt by an audience. It did just that. Did it matter that it was American research? No. The prevalence of violent crime is on the rise in the UK and we can’t kid ourselves that we are that far away from the US in terms of criminal and state behaviours when it comes to the use of weapons.
Reminiscing on convenience stores, pubs and parks, Dube reaffirmed the hope a community holds onto even in the midst of upheaval. “We just want to live somewhere we can trust.” he said looking to us, the audience, for understanding.
Whilst watching Dude, spotlit, afraid and under siege, I was taken back to memories of myself as a teenager, angry, displaced and ready to inflict the pain I had carried for so long on someone else. I was frustrated and tired of the abuse I was facing at home and in school. Insecurity and vulnerability led me to arming myself with a knife, aged 15, in the misguided hope that just its presence would stop continuous bullying and let people know – I’d had enough.
Whilst watching Dude, spotlit, afraid and under siege, I was taken back to memories of myself as a teenager, angry, displaced and ready to inflict the pain I had carried for so long on someone else. I was frustrated and tired of the abuse I was facing…Insecurity and vulnerability led me to arming myself with a knife, aged 15, in the misguided hope that just its presence would let people know – I’d had enough.
In retrospect, I wasn’t looking at the severity of the consequences, only the false perception of the safety and power a weapon could give me as someone who felt powerless. But, young, angry and impulsive as I was, what followed was an attempt to seriously hurt someone.
I am very blessed to not have been charged with attempted murder by the victim’s mother, and from her strength, only in later years did I learn the true power of forgiveness and unconditional love. I often think of how she would have felt had she gotten a phone call to say her child was gone.
Believe me, I look back with regret, but each time I do, it strengthens my passion for empowering and encouraging young people to choose better and to transform their anger or feelings of injustice into art. The medium of Gun Clap itself, poetry, particularly spoken word, has been my saving grace, the means by which I can channel my vulnerabilities in a transformative and powerful way. It’s strengthened my passion to encourage parents to build strong and healthy channels of communication, and relationships with their children – to better understand them. But, more significantly, teach them that pain cannot exist where there is love. Education and empowerment begins at home- this is how we build confident, resilient and compassionate individuals – future autonomous leaders and pioneers.
As the performance continued, I raced to note down the truths and logic spoken by Dube. There was one line in particular that stood out to me the most, “The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun”. This reminded me of a reverse of the old folk wisdom often said by my mother, you can’t fight fire with fire, and opened a floodgate of questions in my thoughts – is it actually better for a good guy to apply force? What constitutes a good guy? Can we really fight fire with fire?
…I raced to note down the truths and logic spoken by Dube. There was one line in particular that stood out to me the most, “The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun”. This reminded me of a reverse of the old folk wisdom often said by my mother, you can’t fight fire with fire…
We are human, so in being human we are prone to change and volatility – I know this first hand, a bad guy can become good, a good guy can easily change sides, a good cop can easily become a bad cop – so is there any real logic in using violence to bring about peace?
As we have seen in America with Philando Castile, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner, to name a few who’ve died at the hands of police fire in the role of the ‘villain’, the stats tell us – let people in a society carry guns or have access to guns – and they will be used. Fear of being shot is the reason police say they fire after all. And I know, only too well, that the stats are against certain people, groups, backgrounds in terms of who holds a gun or knife and why. If we had the same access to guns, police and civilians in the UK, I’m aware my own story of violent crime could have been very different.
But even without guns, there are always knives, as in my own story. We must look at why people pick them up. And let’s not forget, as demonstrated in the racially motivated murder and stabbing of Stephen Lawrence, without the so-called ‘good guys’ treating all people as equal and deserving of justice (Lawrence is our most high profile case of a life failed by institutional racism in the UK) a society, in reality, controls nothing but it’s people. It is how it does it that matters. If the very institutions who protect us cannot be trusted to bring peace – what is the real solution?
At Gun Clap, it saddened me that much of the audience were likely far removed from the issues that might lead to violence and weapon use, only a bus ride away, so I was particularly humbled by the presence of young men of colour who ushered themselves in a little late, but nonetheless were ready and eager to take part and to voice their own experiences of violent crime.
We ended the night on a note of hope. After the show, I stayed for a discussion with Sipho, fellow poet, Warda Yassin, Vicky Morris from Hive, Kaltum Rivers the first female Somali Green Party Councillor, the young men I mentioned, their mentor Saeed Brasab and other youth engagement officers from Unity Gym.
We discussed the need for our grassroots projects and what we did. I spoke about Nyara Collective – the project I am forming around the Cinema for All project I’m doing through Hive. I want Nyara to empower young people through community cinema and creativity in Burngreave so we can impact young people to lead positive and healthy lives.
Events like Gun Clap and research such as Dr Hartman’s are important insights into the society that we live in today. It is of the utmost importance to come together to understand and tackle the root causes that force growing numbers of young men and women to arm themselves. There are varying and complex factors as to why violent crime has grown at alarming rates in the UK and around the world in so-called civilised nations. Marginalisation of BAME communities, the cuts to youth services, declining mental health, austerity and many socio-economic factors all contribute.
This is why organisations such as Hive and Unity Gym are so important- they champion young people and tirelessly strive to create platforms for us to safely bring ourselves in our entirety, to give us hope and opportunity to discover our best selves. Moreover, they challenge us to be the change that we strive to see in our communities. I was thrilled to find that both organisations were invited to the performance by the university and I hope that in future the university can consider touring the piece in places where particularly young people are affected by this issue, or bringing school groups together. I’d like to see many more coming togethers and communities working with big institutions like universities to find solutions for a brighter tomorrow.
Words by Danae Ife Wellington
Further discussion – Words by Warda Yassin
It was a night of important discussions where spoken word artist Sipho Dube used his words, body, music and a single red light to capture the current discourse about gun violence and its impact on men. Reminiscent of the video for This is America by Childish Gambino, he used the space to turn himself into a victim, perpetrator, and shooter whilst repeating the ask – do you care? It was up to the audience to decide, the masses, whose apathy creates and ignores this violence.
I was 15 when I first heard gunshots and didn’t register the loud noises (thinking somebody had set off fireworks) until it was later confirmed by locals. My first thought was – this isn’t America. Gun violence has historically been viewed as a problem across the pond due to UK controlled gun laws which prohibit handguns, semi-automatic and pump-action non-rim rifles. But this is not the case. Our friendly and safe city of Sheffield has seen a rise in both knife and gun crime. Over the past year alone it saw 5 people murdered within 13 days in March 2018. Most people I know have either heard of, or directly heard the sound of, some form of gun violence.
I was 15 when I first heard gunshots and didn’t register the loud noises (thinking somebody had set off fireworks) until it was later confirmed by locals. My first thought was – this isn’t America.
Although these issues are increasing, awareness and discussions around them are seemingly not. There appears to be few spaces or events which aim to bring people together into safe discussions (with youths at the heart of it), so Gun Clap was a welcome change.
Malcolm X famously said “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman.” and I have found this statement to be true for black men too, particularly in western countries, to this day. They are often associated with crime and at the receiving end of damaging stereotype. It is not unusual for people to clutch their bags in false anticipation, walk a little faster for no apparent reason, and for young black males to be marked before they speak.
So naturally, I’m looking for discussion that looks beyond this false rhetoric and probes into the larger picture, asking the much-needed questions as to why there is an increase in violence in Sheffield. I do not want to be privy to another conversation implicating or blaming young black boys and refusing to acknowledge them as the main victims of gun violence. I want to hear dialogue about the emergence of apathy towards these boys, who are killed in undeserving ways, at tragically young ages, for the statistics in the research to include the young black boys murdered at the hands of police officers who are meant to be responsible for keeping them safe, the lack of justice and the fractures it creates within disillusioned communities who are less reluctant to approach law enforcement for support.
I want to hear dialogue about the emergence of apathy towards these boys, who are killed in undeserving ways, at tragically young ages, for the statistics in the research to include the young black boys murdered at the hands of police officers who are meant to be responsible for keeping them safe…
The audience was a mixture of students, academics, community workers, poets and some really proactive youth who volunteer in their communities. It was their insights and our after discussion with the latter that gave me hope. In it, one shared his voluntary role as an intermediary volunteer with health officials on how to talk to victims of violence. This young person revealed how he coached them to not immediately coerce them to share information and to show more compassion. He stressed how they might not be ready, and about how they may fear repercussions of what might be perceived as snitching. It highlighted the generational gap and how those in power must listen to the voices of young people when they are showing them how best to support them.
One asked “Do you think there is a correlation between the closing down of youth clubs and the rise in violence?” another asked if “data in gun violence and its research somewhat dehumanised people.” as it did not focus on these individuals or communities. Dube was warm as he encouraged the audience to speak to local politicians, write to academics about their research and be proactive in the change we want to see in our communities.
An older youth mentor poignantly ended the discussion with a reminder: we need to teach our children to love and to fall in love with softness so they can spread this love out into the world. He was brave and honest as he shared his past transgressions and how he raises his son to see the goodness in everyone. I left the event different to how I entered, less pessimistic and sheepish about how gun violence might be explored, and more hopeful about how the younger generation were teaching each other and if given support, they can change things.
Words by Warda Yassin
Danae Wellington & Warda Yassin are emerging young writers working with Hive through the Hatch programme.
Thank you to all: Sipho Dude, Dr Hartman, Amy Carter, Lynette Hodge, all who came, particularly the young men and their wonderful mentors from Unity Gym, and the University of Sheffield for hosting such an insightful event.
Gun clap is a powerful and thought-provoking spoken word performance commissioned by the University of Sheffield bringing together the research on attitudes towards gun-control by Dr Todd Hartman and the artistic voice of SMI student Sipho Dube. To encourage debate and discussion around gun-control and highlight the value of quantitative social science research to the big challenges in society.” If you wish to read the research paper by Dr Hartman click here
Event photos courtesy of John Seddon | click image below to view gallery >