The More We Blend, The More We Move Forward: In Conversation at We Out Here
This year we ventured back to the grassy hills of Cambridgeshire for We Out Here Festival, hosting a panel to talk about all things music, identity and travel. The discussion unfolded to a backdrop of soul, hip hop, jazz, afro, electronica and house, curated in ode to London’s bright-burning music scene.
Over the weekend, the cultural programme at The Talk Tent planted the seed for big conversations that continued beyond its tented walls, Trippin’s hour-long contribution being Unpacking The Connection Between Music, Travel and Identity. Co-founder of Trippin, Sam Blenk, guided the conversation between genre-defying musician Obongjayar, multidisciplinary artist Almass Badat, DJ Arya Rinaldo of Eastern Margins and DJ-cum-broadcaster Vanessa Maria. The chat swerves between the personal and the political, delivering new ideas on how to mediate different aspects of identity through sound, in the most ethical way.
We kicked things off by chatting about what makes a trip impactful before moving on to explore how sound acts as a bridge between cultures, dissolving borders built by politics from there we touch on how physical place shapes creative output and the impact of globalisation on music. The bottom line? The sharing of sound pushes the music scene forward into unknown territory, creating space for experimental sounds and new faces, and when done right, the original sound only gets louder, as Arya put it, “The more we blend, the more we move forward.”
Sam: Travel is a beautiful thing, it's a window to see what’s happening around the world, so if we can open our minds and travel better then hopefully we can understand the world better. Today at We Out Here, it felt right to talk about music and how the relationship between traveling and music can impact identity. Firstly can you introduce yourselves and tell us about a trip that has positively impacted you?
Obongjayar: I’m a musician from Nigeria but I live in London now. The trip that’s had an impact on me recently was visiting America for the first time. I’m Nigerian, I was born and raised in Nigeria and hadn’t left until I was 17, which is when I made the journey to London, so I’d never been to America either, and America was such a huge part of my growing up culturally. In Nigeria, all the music we listened to and the movies we watched were influenced by American culture. Having not been to that place felt like a huge gap in my identity to a certain degree, so going to America and visiting L.A. and New York was of huge importance to me. It opened a window for me.
Almass: I’m an artist across a lot of different mediums; I work in audio and the visual arts as well. The trip that was most significant to me…I think it’s gonna be two fold as I grew up in Zambia and I’m of Indian heritage. So in 2019 I went to India for what was meant to be two weeks and I ended up saying “Mum I’m not coming home for Christmas,” and in the end I ended up staying up in the mountains and gigging. It was a chance for me to really learn my own heritage through my own lens and not through my grandma who had come over in the 60s, her idea of India was from the super conservative 1960s. I landed in 2019 and said “You guys party way harder than what my grandma said.” I ended up getting over a lot of fears around my own identity and how I would connect that to the arts and expression, and then most recently in January I spent two months in Ghana, and although it’s not where I grew up, I was able to reconnect with a lot of my friends in their homeland and learn about the culture.
Arya: I run a label/collective called Eastern Margins and we do Eastern Asian music. A trip that was probably the most impactful on my life was when I moved to London 10 years ago. I was born and raised in Indonesia and had been there my whole life, but moving to London was the first time I got to meet people from different backgrounds, I was only really introduced to different kinds of music through going out in London, discovering different music in clubs, I didn't even know the genre, I’d just go to places and hear all these sounds, which really opened my eyes and influenced how I am today and the stuff we do as a label. London is definitely the place.
Vanessa: Everyone’s so cool, I love that! I’m a DJ and producer, and I work within music and mental health. The trip that has been the most impactful for me was my trip to the South of China. I went there when I was 18, and I didn’t know I was out there to teach English, I thought I was on a school trip with a partnership from school. I got there and basically had a job, I had to take care of 60 kids and teach, I was like “what the hell.” It was the first time I had a lot of responsibility and got thrown in the deep end. It was also the first time I was driven down a motorway the wrong way and I literally screamed for my life and the guy was like “I’m so sorry.” So… There were a lot of moments there where I had to grow up and feel appreciation for a different side of life, adopting a different perspective and a different way of living. The main thing was the humility of the community, it felt more collectivist in the way they ate, talked and just socialised; I really took that with me when I went back to London.
Sam: Arya, can you talk about your experience with your label, Eastern Margins? How do different cultural sounds influence your music taste?
Arya: That’s a mad one cause it’s still something I’m trying to wrap my head around. We put out all kinds of genres from rap through to pop, but also place a huge emphasis on electronic music which is homegrown in Eastern South East Asia which includes various genres, some from the Philippines, some from Indonesia. I would describe it as this very lo-fi but high energy music that’s usually created in the street, you would hear it in internet cafes as you walk down the streets and it would play from street vendors and minivans. If you travel there you get to hear these sounds, so what we do – I still pinch myself sometimes – is go DJ and play these sounds in cities like London, it’s mad cos I feel like that’s the idea of taking up space via sounds. I also do this as a way to reconnect with the sounds that I never paid much attention to growing up because you play it alongside the background noise of sirens, but here there’s more intent behind presenting them as sounds from back home, sometimes blending it with other stuff. One thing I noticed in terms of the production of the music itself – because I love music, electronic music especially – in Asia it’s played outdoors not in a club, so there’s less reverb because there’s no walls for it to bounce from. You get more of a punchy bass and a strong melody like symphony stuff, it’s less kind of airy. Outside, the sound is immediately heard.
Sam: It’s amazing how music can act as a bridge, joining the dots between more established Western cities across the global North and places that may not get opportunities to showcase amazing talent. Almass, I know you worked with Boiler Room on their first broadcast in Pakistan. I wanted to hear your perspective on music as a bridge, and what role you think music plays in uniting cultures and communities?
Almass: I first went to India in 2015 to create a documentary about the transgender community. I’d been going back and forth from India and I also had the privilege of going to Pakistan, if you’re familiar it’s not easy to go to both. Anyone native to Bangladesh or Pakistan can’t enter India. My family migrated from India to Pakistan and then eventually to Bolton, and then Hackney. I was in India in May on my own travels, and Ahsan & Ahad from Dialled In were in Pakistan at the same time. As part of the Pakistan trip Dialled In started speaking to Boiler Room about broadcasting and doing the first ever stream from Pakistan to the world. Broadcasting music & hosting gigs was a new challenge altogether because we had to make sure that we had covered all possibilities of being shut down and having extra generators - we couldn’t just stream live because the power could cut out - which it did, twice. On that trip, Nabihah Iqbal, an amazing producer, musician and broadcaster, was on the decks and kept on getting electrocuted by the decks, so Daniel from Cape Monz Records kindly gave her his rubber sole sneakers so she could carry on playing! But these are the kinds of things that we have to consider when we are programming and doing things in other countries that may not have access to the same hardware or software that we take for granted over here. It makes expression – especially electronic music – so much more radical when you’re trying to navigate through it in places where it’s actually against the law. The Karachi Community Radio are doing amazing things and both teams said it was one of the most meaningful experiences that they ever had.
Sam: I feel like Dialled In and communities like Eastern Margins are doing great work to bridge that gap and provide opportunities for amazing people. Travel allows us to connect with like minded people who maybe don't have that same privilege. I recognise being a white man and having a British passport gives me a certain leg-up in the world and everything we do at Trippin is aimed at understanding that, exploring it and leveling the playing field a bit. I know that OB has quite a different experience when travelling– when we talk about passport and passport privilege, you have a Nigerian passport which has created barriers. Can you talk about your experience with that and unpack how your passport influences your personal identity?
Obongjayar: I got my leave to remain in 2010 and at that time, they put an expiry date on it which stated when you had to leave the country for the visa to be valid. But looking at it now when you look at my visa it looks like my visa is expired even though it says “indefinite leave to remain.” A lot of the time, when I travel, they’re like, “Your visa is expired, what are you doing here?” kinda thing, they treat you like you’re some rogue, about to illegally enter a country or something. That really affects how you view travel. The reason I’ve decided not to get a BRP card (UK residence card) is because I want the challenge. It is shit, honestly speaking it is really shit that a lot of countries have to deal with that and for no real reason. It’s difficult to get visas, you can't travel on a whim, you have to apply etc. To go to Paris I need to apply for a visa. It’s affected a lot of my work when I’ve had to do stuff for fashion week and they were like “Can you come to Paris tomorrow?” and I just can’t. It affects me and it becomes part of my identity as a person, and as an individual you have to make a choice: do you wanna cave in? Or do you wanna stand your ground and fight every single time? I love the fight.
Sam: OB, you recently got blessed with a US visa, do you think physical place influences creative output?
Obongjayar: Absolutely. It’s a different environment, there's always a different energy.
"Every place you go to has a different heartbeat so it instantly changes your perspective and how you see things, and will eventually alter your creativity and how you create within those spaces." - OB
Sam: When we talk about travel and exploration I think of home. What music were you listening to growing up at home, and how do you think that influenced your identity?
Vanessa: My dad was actually a DJ back in the day and he had his own sound system, lovers rock. He had a lot of reggae at home, but my dad loved everything, so we listened to reggae, Elvis Presley, we listened to a lot of German schlager, because my mum is German. My dad would just mix it up and we used to have dance parties on Sundays, we would just be dancing in the living room and he would be on a fake mic, maybe a cucumber, and we would just be smashing it up in the living room. When we were talking I was thinking about a post that a DJ called Bambi put up a few weeks ago, she spoke about purism within music, and Black and Brown female selectors. She spoke about the fact that people often worry about what they play and worry often comes from the idea that a white man 15 years ago put a lot of pressure on what it is to have purism in music and what music purity looks like in a set. But she said that as Black and Brown women, we are often left out of those conversations, we were never considered in the first place and I relate to that a lot cos I feel like I was never considered in terms of what it means to have that taste, like my selection is very free and it’s very eclectic from a bit of Shakka, to a bit of Elvis Presely a bit of Lady Gaga. I was never considered in that conversation, and that’s given me a lot of freedom to explore connections between home and those dance parties with my Dad.
Sam: Almass, what about you? Being Indian and growing up in Zambia then moving to London, what does it mean to be a local and “at home” somewhere?
Almass: Right now, I feel like a child of the universe and I’m quite happy with home being wherever I feel at home. But it’s been a long journey. I grew up in an Indian Muslim household in Zambia, so for a lot of the time I didn’t have music around, it made me really love Backstreet Boys and Spice Girls because I would come here in the holidays and see my cousins. I was introduced to a lot of percussive sounds and live music played at weddings and ceremonies. My mum who grew up in Hackney was always very curious about different cultures, so she would always send me to local activities or celebrations, whether they’d be in the wider South Asian community, so Sikh and Hindu celebrations, or the local celebrations with the Zambian community as well, specifically Lusaka. It took me a while to gain confidence because when I arrived in the UK I'd missed out on the early Destiny’s Child, I came in the Get Rich or Die Tryin’ 50 Cent time…I was passing up all these opportunities for growth and just testing stuff out because I didn't feel I knew enough music and felt like I was constantly playing catch up. I did grow up with music, it just wasn't the same as where I'm at now. I fuse all that stuff together to make my DJ sets and programming, and to just be curious. It makes its own identity.
Obongjayar: The beauty of not knowing is that you can do whatever you want, and you create a new thing, because you have no idea what you’re doing. You have your own taste, you know the stuff you like and what gets you moving, and you don't have to know what's cool within the circles that you’re rolling with. If it's stuff that you know and they might not know, you’re introducing and you’re teaching people about your heritage and where you come from and the stuff that you like. That’s the gorgeous thing about not knowing, coming from somewhere else and being other or being outside.
Sam: I want to talk about the debate around the fusion of cultures, and the impact of globalisation on music. The version of modernity that we are driving towards, do you think in some ways it’s almost a negative thing?
Everything starts blending into one and potentially becoming a bit boring. Maybe we’re losing the purity or cultural significance of genres, because they’re being adopted by new people and turned into new things. Do you think we should be fighting against it, or embracing it?
Obongjayar: There will always be the originals. The blending and the mixing will be new, but the stuff that it started from will always exist. No matter how we start mixing or blending stuff together, it won’t take away from the things you’re mixing from.
Almass: There’s a tension between the two all the time, but as tastemakers and music lovers it’s important to come from a place of confidence instead of lack or insecurity, then you know the rhythm will always be there.
"The more we blend, the more we move forward. We love sharing as people so we will always be like, “This thing comes from here, this thing comes from there,” and that’s never going to disappear. We can always be confident in sharing because nobody can ever take away that core and the base of it." - Almass
Arya: It’s a global conversation. I love what we do, apart from local sounds we do localised versions of western sounds. We release something like a Tokyo Grime record, which will always be grime but we put a spin on it; a different kind of flow to a different kind of beat. I see it as adding more colour to the campus. It comes from a place of sincerity and respect, as opposed to making a sound and thinking “I’m doing it my way.” The more we share sounds and collaborate, the more we know of the context and where certain sounds come from.
Sam: Do you think someone needs to come from that identity group or be seen as a local from that place to then use that sound or influence in their art?
Arya: I can’t speak on behalf of all music but what I can say is if you’re interested in doing research into the history and the practitioners, make that an integral part of your practice.
"Travel into the scene and into the sound, know where it comes from." - Arya
Vanessa: I think globalisation is nuanced. The purpose of globalisation is to enhance economic trade between different nations and countries, so it promotes consumer culture which often means that profit is at the heart of a lot of it. When we’re talking about music and the music industry, globalisation is great because it generates more money for the artists and labels, but with that, there is a danger of cultural traditions and customs being lost in the way that music is made, and most importantly who is profiting from the music. It’s important that local acts and originators are getting the profits that they deserve, and when we talk about global artists using sounds that they might not be attached to, there’s a danger because the local artists who are creating these sounds might not have the means to build those global audiences that the stars are doing. Essentially, are the rich getting richer and being able to build their brands, while the people actually creating it aren’t able to do that? I often think about South Africa; they have a quota on radio where 90% of music has to be played from local artists. That’s an amazing solution to counteract some of the negative aspects of globalisation.
Sam: I guess that’s also restrictive in terms of what people can listen to.
Vanessa: There is a positive aspect of globalisation in that if you can’t mix and blend music then we wouldn’t have the sub genres that we have today. I think it’s about the intention, being an ethical consumer and understanding where, who and how people profit: having more of a sustainable approach.
Obongjayar: In terms of blending, when I was talking about it being ok to do that, it’s more when it comes from an experimental point of view, not trying to catch up on the latest sounds and blow up from what’s going on right now. More, “This is really cool, how can I…what if I mixed this with this, added this to this and made a new sound.” That’s where it gets exciting. When it’s a complete rip, and you’ve never been to the place or have no idea of the history of the sound, that’s when it becomes a problem. You haven’t got to be from the place, I don’t think. If it’s done purely, and you love the music, and you love the artist, then you know who they are, have a wealth of information about the subject, then fucking do whatever you want. It’s music, it doesn’t have to be complex, but it does become complex. I become pissed off when the label tells you, “This is what’s going on right now, this is what you need to make,” that’s when it becomes a problem.
Arya: If it’s a grassroots approach with communities and scenes talking to each other and sharing music then that’s the kind of organic sharing we are championing here. Rather than the corporate side of it.
Almass: From a South Asian perspective, there’s a big colonial hangover back home. Even though I am a Brown woman, I’m still British, I speak English, I have access to the internet, the currency I work with is quite strong which means I can move differently when I go back home. There’s a certain sensitivity that’s required when I go back to India, connecting with people and bringing the sounds back over here, and really trying to make sure that as much as I am repping my heritage, think about whether I’m repping the diaspora or the native. There’s a difference, and sometimes we get homogenised into one group and that in itself erases the people back home.
Sam: Do you feel tension between the native and diaspora communities?
Almass: Short answer, yes. Rightly. Going back to our point on identity, everything points back to self worth, and having to fight and say that “I matter” in this space, and that’s so tiring. When I went back, it was a battle. I kept telling my friends that the source is actually here, you have the heart beat, we’re just looking to you and that’s where all of our inspirations come from. But their response is “We want to be on the platforms in the UK and we want to be known in the US.” I get that because in terms of exposure and money, and moving in the industry, the West leads a lot of that. I try to combat that in my work; I got a booking and my friend in India played, but he got offered a significantly less amount and the only reason was because they could put UK next to my name on the billing. I decided to split my fee 50/50. Even though I might have been a headliner, I understand what it means and how that money can really help someone doing their craft, whereas I was doing it more for the culture. There are ways that we (as diaspora) can take responsibility and work within the structures that already exist and push slow, positive change.
Sam: Vanessa, let’s chat about the relationship between travel and mental health. I know you’re a big advocate for mental health, and you were telling me a bit about a trip to Copenhagen and how that had quite a profound effect?
Vanessa: I went to Copenhagen in April. Prior to that, it was a very weird, emotional and turbulent time in my life. I went through a breakup situation and on top of that, I had a really difficult situation with my Dad. At that moment I was just a little bit lost in where I was, relationships, trying to deal with the idea of where I’m going in life, and figuring it out on the way. I got a booking in Copenhagen. I wasn’t going to take it, but I was like, you know what? Maybe it will be good to get out there. I was out there, I played my set which was fun, but the aftermath of that, going on a solo trip and really taking some time away from the hustle and bustle of London and connecting with myself – and the places I was visiting – was really important. That trip, being able to take that time out to detach from my career, my goals and being “on” all the time was really important. I let a lot of my ego go on that trip which was so important.
Sam: If you’re going to go travelling to a new place, what’s the best advice you would give to people to connect with the musical scene and tap into subcultures, or hear certain sounds?
Vanessa: The first thing that comes to my mind is community radio. Check out community radio stations and ask to connect or do a guest mix. Pop down to the station and listen to what everyone is hearing in that city, space or region.
Obongjayar: Go to the little restaurants and bars. Go to the little kiosk that sells drinks and listen to what they’re playing there. If you have Shazam but it doesn’t work, ask the guy behind the counter.
Almass: Just start talking to people. Radio is great. There’s nothing wrong with going to the place where tourists go, or where the diaspora goes for example. It’s about balance. In Ghana for example, you have Polo Beach Club, but you also have Purple Pub which goes off. It’s just locals, there are no rules. That’s where you get to soak in the sound, you won’t be able to trace the song but you’ll have to ask someone which makes you embrace being curious and not knowing.
"The best thing about travel is being able to go somewhere and it be the one place where you have permission to be like, “I don’t know what’s going on, so why don’t you guide me,” and a lot of people are really proud about where they’re from, so if you allow yourself to be taken, you’ll go places." - Almass
Editor’s Note: This is a shortened version of the full interview.