Last week, Apples and Snakes moved our event with Afropunk’s Brixton Takeover from the Ritzy Cinema, to the Black Cultural Archives.

There is an ongoing dispute between the Picturehouse Management (Cineworld) and the Ritzy staff over London Living Wage (LLW) and Apples and Snakes received requests to boycott the venue.  During our conversations around the issue of LLW and additional disputes and appeals about unfair dismissal and union representation at Ritzy, poets expressed significant concerns which we wanted to address.

Our Artistic Director Lisa Mead and Producer Tobi Kyeremateng share our conversations and questions from the last week.

Lisa:  Running through the core of the organisation is the belief that artists should never work for free and should get paid properly, it’s in our constitution.

As an organisation we are signed up to London Living Wage (LLW) but for many venues and organisations, LLW isn’t paid. 

So here’s the dilemma: as an organisation, where do you stand?   If you believe in everyone being paid LLW then surely you only work with venues that pay LLW, right? Of course. But can we say we do that at the moment? Hand on heart, not sure we can.

We just didn’t want to be hypocritical, jumping on a campaign to be seen to be doing the right thing when we knew we had events where we may have the same issue. Did we cancel all of these?

We had some complex conversations, both as an organisation and with the poets on the line-up, about LLW, and the unfair dismissal of staff and boycotting the venue…would it have an impact?  Is there a better way to raise awareness?

We talked through our options – we were really concerned about the implications for our poets – if you cancel an event and the poets aren’t getting paid, surely that means we aren’t staying true to our core mission of poets earning a living.

If you move an event to another venue, would we be sure that all staff working on the night were being paid LLW? we had some conversations, and couldn’t be confident of this.  If they weren’t being paid LLW, we weren’t in support of anyone.

And so the thinking goes on…nothing is as black and white, cut and dry, this or that, as we think. There is greyness that needs exploring, and complexity that needs questioning.  Everyone involved in the Afropunk event had different opinions to add to our thinking, every time it felt that we knew what decision to make another conversation threw something else into the mix…

We spoke to locals who said despite gentrification in Brixton,  the Ritzy had remained a space for black cultural activity and they felt it  important to do the event there – even though those people had been on the picket line in the early days of the campaign.

 If at Apples and Snakes, we amplify unheard or ignored voices, then surely a space that supports that is exactly the type of space we want together work in.

On social media, raising awareness about the boycott turned personal. This raises an interesting debate about social media and political debate – how do you have nuanced discussion over 280 characters, status update or quick reply. We are all guilty of supporting a campaign through adding a ‘like’ or sharing it, but does it really result in any real change? Is armchair activism enough? I don’t know. I am as guilty as the next person for pressing the ‘like’ icon, but I am hoping that our current work, Rallying Cry, will help explore some of the ‘crunchy grey areas’ (Director Rob Watt’s phrase) of current debates and make us think a bit.  And maybe take action.

In the meantime, I’ll be thinking about how as an organisation we continue to put poets at our heart and how we choose the organisations and venues that we work with.

TK: I have been attending Afropunk since I was 19. The idea of a Black space, set up for that very purpose, was unimaginable to me. I go to Afropunk for that simple reason – to be surrounded by people that look like me, celebrating Black cultures we share across the world.

Black communities in London, Paris, New York, Atlanta and Johannesburg will have their own sentiments about what Afropunk means to them and who they think it serves. For me, living in London – as diverse a city it is – predominately Black spaces are few and far between, and this isn’t a coincidence. Black spaces are known to have been targeted and attacked by authorities and racist communities, meaning there are few consistent spaces for Black people to congregate in without being seen as threatening.

Campaigning for the visibility of Black artists and access for Black audiences has always been a personal key mission of mine. Apples and Snakes’ collaboration with Afropunk was an opportunity to create an intergenerational Black poetry space which didn’t exist for either our artists or our audiences. It was an opportunity to invite people I know would never come to a regular open mic, but would come to this because of the context of who was in this space and who it belongs to at that very moment. It was an exciting venture for the organisation as a whole, to be working within something as prolific as Afropunk.

Within my community, it’s recognised as a home for Black cultural events, despite the violent gentrification of Brixton.

When the campaign came to light once we announced the event, the first thing I did was email the artists and give them a call to let them know about what was going on. I noticed that artists were personally being tagged in posts on social media about the event, and I think assumptions had been made that everyone involved had the exact same level of understanding on the issue, and that just wasn’t true.

It was important for me to make sure that the artists knew what was happening and why, and how we were planning on dealing with it, even if it meant saying “I don’t know”.

As a producer, my priority is about safeguarding these artists. Nuance is important here, when we consider that this is an event full of Black artists of all ages and social backgrounds, the stakes are high when these Black artists are being implicated in a situation of which they all have varying levels of understanding. Some knew what was happening and chose to carry on with the event. Some are residents of Brixton and have stood on that very picket line.  Some pulled out of the event.  Some simply didn’t know what to do and felt like they were being rushed into picking a side. We’ve all learned a lot through our conversations in the last weeks, personally as a producer, and organisationally which will feed into Apples and Snakes in the future.

All decisions that were made by these artists are ones that I support, and I would never willingly implicate artists in something, or not give them the choice of responding to that situation however they saw fit.

Poetry isn’t new to politics. Poetry has always been used as a tool to speak up, to engage, to educate, to rage and rant, and poets on the Afropunk lineup are examples of exactly this.

Photo Credit: Preye Dontai