Strictly Harlem at the Black-E

This wasn't was I was expecting to be doing when I first approached News From Nowhere about doing a documentary project on a bookshop. 

When you set out to capture the life of a bookshop Lemn Sissay's views on funding, Salena Godden's views on who's tits are the most feminist tits, or a Bronx hiphop violinist, or indeed Lindy Hop are not the first things that spring to mind.  I didn't really know where this project would go:  Maybe people looking at books in a trendy bookshop, maybe the staff dealing with some interesting people, may be some of the customers would agree to have portraits done.  What I was not expecting was arts performances at the Black-E with a list of performers who quite literally excite and inspire, and deliver hope for a better world.

I came away from the Black-E with something I thought I had lost on the long road to becoming a middle-aged white man.  I can rage against X Factor, The Voice, The Daily Mail, a sanitized and corporate 'art', against the things that disconnect us from a life worth living, a community life that extends beyond our TV Screens, because there is something better.  There are intelligent, eloquent, entertaining people out there who should be the life-blood of our society.

Driving home I listened to the midnight news on Radio 4 and suffered a long and exhausting piece about the VE Day celebrations in London.  I remembered covering the 50th anniversary events at Cardiff Castle during the years I worked for the MOD. I relaxed in to the drivers seat, thanking my lucky stars that I found News From Nowehere and was photographing Strictly Harlem and Lemn Sissay rather than listening to Military Bands and Vere Lynn impersonators.  What the BBC gave us in cooperation with the MOD and other government organizations was a sanitized version of what they think we should think about Great Britain, it's life, history and soul.

It's not that I'm against these celebrations, after all, the veterans are still alive and we need to honour their sacrifice, but for me, listening to Salena Godden do her Voodoo excerpt from Springfield Road spoke to me in way that Vera Lynn never could.  I have no shared history with Salena, other than we both did a lot of our growing up in the 70s, and I'm neither qualified nor willing to review her work or comment on her personally.  All I can say is that the poetic lines she blasts in to the darkened room made me laugh, smile and feel better about about me, my life, and the experiences that continue to make me who I am.  Salena Godden comments on the state of the nation as it really is, not on some simulacral corporate propagandist version that delivers nothing more than anesthesia.

Lemn Sissay's performance flew past in a high energy blur.  The one thing that sticks in my mind is that he speaks with the passion, volume and gravity of a southern preacher - "campaign shouting like a southern diplomat" (sorry, that's a Chuck Berry line - another great black poet).   Lemn read Mornings Breaks, a poem so resonant with meaning that I am still listening to it on YouTube trying to get to the bottom of it.  I am a truly awful critic, but this piece seems to speak to everyone who ever had a job, which is pretty much everyone.  But for me, it takes me back to voluntary redundancy and his parting words that he was "growing wings all the time, and I can fly" should be a rallying call to everyone to believe in themselves.

Sissay has said that we are all a collection of memories, and I am privileged that he, and all the other performers, are part of the collection of memories that makes me me.  I have been a member of many communities of the years, some long standing and still going strong without me, some transient, some are long gone.  The joy of documentary photography is that that I get to pass through communities, to revel in the joy of the new, and to move on. 

The best a documentary photographer can hope for is that their work does some kind of justice to the community that they are temporarily part of.  We are welcomed in to other peoples worlds and we collect precious souls along the way.  As this project evolves, and I have no idea what's coming next, I can only hope that you begin to see the soul that is News From Nowhere.

Strictly Harlem produced by WOWFest in association with News From Nowhere

2 Responses

  1. Malik Al Nasir
    | Reply

    You mentioned every performer on the set apart from me. Does that mean you missed it or you hated it?

  2. Stuart Bingham
    | Reply

    Hi Malik, apologies for that, but I was at Strictly Harlem all day and there were several performances that didn’t get mentioned and didn’t appear in the pictures. This is simply because I needed to write something that I thought would convey the flavour and atmosphere of the day while highlighting the performances that resonated the most. For example, the Chester Himes reading and discussion where superb, I just couldn’t weave them in to the very short narrative allowed by a readable blog, and I didn’t get any pictures that I thought were good enough. None of this has any bearing on the performances. I have added a picture of your performance to the gallery and I hope this helps. Many thanks for engaging with the work and for your comment. Stuart.

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