Words by Keith Jarrett
I’ve had a big lunch already but I inch towards the table of coffee and biscuits; I always go for the snacks when I’m nervous or excited. I claw at the custard creams as the room around me begins to fill. There are hugs and other greetings, and a sense of expectation. Note to self: never say hi while scoffing a mouthful of crisps.
I’m at Free Word at the Black Flamingo Salon, supported by Free Word and Spread the Word, and organised by Dean Atta. This will hopefully be the first of a series of salons aimed at interrogating our practice and networking. There’s a big sheet of flipchart paper blu-tacked to the wall with the question: ‘Who are we?’ There’s another: ‘What do we need as a community?’ Another still: ‘What do you need as an individual?’ Clearly, it’s going to be a reflective session.
So, who are we? We’re a collection of eight black, queer poets and performers, living in the UK. Most of us know or are aware of each other; it’s a small community, after all. I’ve shared a stage with nearly everyone in the group in the last few years, in different towns and cities. And then it comes to me as something of a surprise that we’ve never met in this context before.
In fact, there’s something conspiratorial about a bunch of black, queer artists meeting up in daylight, just to connect with each other, to share our work and our provocations. I’m keen to see how the session will go; I also want to know what everyone is doing at the moment, all the different creative endeavours we’re pursuing.
Unsurprisingly, as the afternoon progresses and we discuss our hopes and challenges, we discover how much our experiences converge. Despite the myriad of ways we navigate our existences as professional artists, we’re situated in an environment that doesn’t always appreciate our nuances, especially when we integrate our blackness and queerness into our work and into our communities.
Some of us are educators, some run workshops or performance spaces. Our assorted approaches to work make for a rounded discussion on what it means to be us as artists right now, and how we want to shape our futures. As we share our work and questions for the group, there’s a back-and-forth of ideas, experiences, and genuine warmth.
Too soon, and two hours have passed. We break, and I head towards The Apocalypse Reading Room, a crowd-sourced library of life-changing literature, also part of the All the Ways We Could Grow season. The rest of the afternoon flies by. The flipchart pages are filled, the snacks disappear. The creative energy is palpable, even before the brief writing exercise.
More than ever, this has truly confirmed how necessary it is for artists to bounce ideas off each other, to recognise we’re not alone! It’s also vital to have spaces like this, where black, queer creatives can come together and strategise, re-energise, reflect. This salon feels long overdue. And I hope there are more like it.
Before we wrap up, there’s time to share events we’re involved in over the next couple of months. I know I’ll be performing alongside Dean and Lasana Shabazz for the Black Flamingo Cabaret on the 18th April, inside this very space. I make a mental assessment of the dimensions of the room, think about all the high-energy ways I can ramp up my performance on the night.
The afternoon has been an affirming experience, in ways that don’t fit in a six hundred-word blog post. I just hope this isn’t seen as a one-off, or a beginning, but a continuation of an ongoing dialogue between artists, and one that builds community.