Here is a blog by Izzy Finch, who is one of our music leaders on GemArts’ Youth Music funded East by North East music project. Izzy gives fantastic insight into working with young people from Syrian communities living in Gateshead to develop their musical and life skills, whilst providing a safe space for young people’s voices to be heard, develop leadership skills and for them to be empowered.
As project musicians, Pav and I first developed a relationship with members of this group when they had been in Gateshead less than one year whilst working on GemArts’ Dispersed Belongings project in collaboration with Durham University. Our initial sessions were based around the concept of belonging, identity and feelings of home. The participants had no previous experience of music making and we were working with an interpreter. During those early sessions we talked a lot about identity and I realised that there is a complexity of emotions surrounding belonging for most of the participants as there have been interim homes between Syria and Gateshead. Working on this project has changed my perception of not only belonging, home, identity but the value of music as a tool for discussion.
I am comfortable knowing that over time we created an environment where the participants developed trust and were invested enough to talk in depth about their aspirations for the project and were given a platform to write songs about things that were important to them. I think sometimes there is a fear when working as a music practitioner with marginalised communities that our own agenda/ expectations will interfere with the creative hopes and dreams of young people. We were careful to navigate a balance between guiding and leading, making sure participants were not exploited with the content of what they write about.
One of the first songs the group wrote is titled Syria. The lyrics to the song describe the country as their mother and Aleppo as their blood. It is a love letter to Syria. In the very beginning when we first started working together I facilitated an exercise where participants would describe colours, sounds, sights and smells of home or a significant memory. The group seemed unsure at first but soon everyone was writing in Arabic and absorbed in the task. I hadn’t prepared myself for how emotionally raw the content would be having elicited those feelings. I realised afterwards that I had expected the content to be about dislocated items or events but instead we uncovered that there is still a strong and prevalent sense of belonging to Syria and that this is something that the young people want to share and write about. One member said “I want to deliver a message to the people here about the situation in Syria” and continues to bring new lyrics in each week exploring this.
Sometimes a song idea will begin with a young person showing the group a song they like and we will begin talking about what aspects of that we like and what we will use as inspiration to create an original piece. For one song, we used Eminem- Stan as inspiration, and sampled the sound of rain to evoke emotion and used the structure of Eminem’s hit as a template with Arabic verses poetically describing a lost love and a chorus in English featuring female vocals working as a call and response.
Our session structure changes depending on the ideas of the young people. Sometimes we all have an instrument and work as a band collectively, and other times we will use a MIDI controller and laptop to make electronic beats that vocalists want to put lyrics and a melody to. Within the current group, there are multiple song writers and the participants are self-motivated when it comes to organising their time within the session. For example, if we worked on one member’s song the previous week, they will talk amongst themselves and decide fairly that it is someone else’s turn to have their song rehearsed. New members are always welcomed and encouraged by the group to suggest ideas or lead a rehearsal. Lyrics are often in Arabic and sometimes have an English chorus with themes around the war in Syria, politics, nostalgia, love, lost love and friendship.
This year the core group are brimming with confidence and creativity. The sessions are very much participant led and we are preparing for a performance in a few months and introducing Arts Award. The group enjoy sharing and communicating their ideas in English, we rarely use the interpreter although sometimes we need one to translate lyrics and help with meaning but I l love that Arabic lyrics are a constant thread in everything we create. If new members come along and are struggling to speak English or understand what we are doing, the group enjoy interpreting and helping each other articulate their ideas.
It is a pleasure to be able to work with these young people and help them achieve self-belief and provide a creative outlet. I feel that this project has demonstrated the capacity Gem Arts have to meet the growing needs of marginalised groups within the North East.
East by North East is a Youth Music funded project led by GemArts. Building on the success of previous projects, during this third phase, we have expanded the prorgramme to provide more opportunities for professional musicians and young people living in challenging circumstances from BAMER and wider communities across Newcastle and Gateshead to work with one another, sustaining high quality music making regionally, and addressing community needs and issues. A key element of the programme is to further diversify the music skills and workforce of music practitioners in the North East through offering CPD, training, peer to peer development and mentoring.