This week, BYP resident blogger Dami Fawehinmi (Journals of Dami) interviewed BASS 2019 festival curators RTKAL and Aliyah. The powerful duo has made a significant and amazing impact in their city and are working towards further enhancing the black creative experience through inclusive and educating events and their own personal projects. For six days, the BASS festival will focus on the black narrative in music with an exciting line up within the thriving creative Birmingham community.
What drew you towards your careers?
RTKAL: For me, as a curator and a facilitator, I was trying to facilitate how I felt as an artist myself, and what kind of views I wanted for myself. In my city, I got to a point where I wanted to create the environment in which I could operate in as opposed to just be within one and lock into a system.
ALIYAH: I’ve always been involved in going to see exhibitions. The first exhibition I’ve ever been to was at my grandparents’ house, in my grandma’s living room. The stories that would come off everything that was in everyone’s houses and being able to really appreciate the visual aesthetic. I would spend a lot of time in museums and galleries and then coming into curating it’s been quite DIY. In 2016 I was with my friend Olivia Brown; we organised the Black Lives Matter march in Birmingham and then after that I decide to get some of the photos and take them on tour across different cafes in Birmingham. So, I guess that DIY spirit continued across the projects that I’ve worked on in terms of curating off of exhibitions and then working with them in art galleries, just seeing a vision and wanting to complete it.
Where did the inspiration for BASS come from?
RTKAL: BASS has been running for over 12 years and happens every year and recently there’s been more focus around Black History Month. It takes on interesting themes and concepts for festivals, each year there is a different concept. There has been a big shift in the city over the last couple of years; creatively and business wise through young entrepreneurs coming up, so through the narrative of Punch Records, “the future” would be the most relevant concept for us to do this year.
Because this interview will be coming out before your event I don’t want to give too much away, but what was your most exciting session from the 5 days? Personally, mine is Beats and Bakes - as a fan of GBBO and music I’m excited to see the combination on the day.
RTKAL: Overall, what makes this interesting is that it’s not like a traditional festival that focuses on one day or two days, it’s a span of events that will operate throughout the whole city with different art forms and disciplines. It’s hard to measure them as they all stand alone in their own right, but I think what makes it special is how these different disciplines will flow together.
ALIYAH: We’re excited to see things programmed in Birmingham that have never been programmed here before. We want to make things super special at each event that will be remembered after - it’s the little details we’re excited about.
RTKAL: The aim is to work with black artists and black-run venues. We’re really trying to promote the narrative of a black creative ecosystem in the city as well, so a lot of the events will be held in really interesting spaces that people might not have been to in the city, but walked past on a regular basis.
What inspires you to keep creating?
ALIYAH: I need to write, I need to curate, I need to do all these different things to keep myself sane but also to find a way to understand my thoughts, understand myself and understand what is going on around the world.
RTKAL: Being creative, art is my preferred medium of communication. Anything outside of that is where I become a baby, there I’m experiencing and learning and I’m a humble student. Creativity and the arts is the biggest definer of our identity at the moment. The world is warming to and waking up to Birmingham’s unique culture.
ALIYAH: People are just getting up and doing stuff without asking for permission, it’s something that gives me hope. With the black tradition to create high quality art or creating something other people can chip into to continue, we’re holding the baton and passing it on.
How do you seek out opportunities relating to your careers?
ALIYAH: I think it is about showing what you love on the scene and just keeping an eye out, and also not thinking you know everything. It can be quite easy when curating or producing to make the same things again and again, so you’ve got to be engaged with what put your heart there in the first place. If you love poetry, go to open mic nights - you’re still seeing who’s coming up and doing their thing. In terms of opportunities, say what you want and speak it into existence. Also, shoot your shot. If you send an email, the worst that could happen is you get a no. “No” isn’t necessarily a negative in my thought space.
RTKAL: Be friends first and foremost. Before being artists, the people I’ve met over the years, we’ve travelled together and they’ve inspired me. A lot of them are musicians I’m proud to call my friends and mentors. There should be a lot of light shone on them in this community, I’m grateful they support us, and we support them.
What is your proudest achievement?
ALIYAH: Acknowledging that my failures are my biggest learning point. I feel like I used to get very caught up with it and I didn’t learn the lesson, I had to come to a place where I was comfortable with learning those lessons and becoming vulnerable in this industry and this city. My biggest achievement was coming to a point where this didn’t stress me out as much, still stressed *laughs* but in that knowledge.
RTKAL: My biggest achievement personally is building resilience; I’ve been here for a long time. Being able to adapt and change, facilitate and participate helped me with my creativity.
What is your biggest failure?
ALIYAH: It’s quite hard to say because of the space I’m in currently in, in terms of failures as lessons. But, my biggest failure was constantly trying to collaborate with people who weren’t on the same page and weren’t on the same wavelength. I’d think “we have to work together because of this common goal!” but I would always be misunderstood. Now, I’ve grown and started curating with people like RTkal who are on the same page and understand and respect what we want to curate. I spent a lot of time collaborating with people who weren’t on the same wavelength to the determent of myself.
RTKAL: I wouldn’t call it a failure because it’s a lesson, but I think the thing that took my dad until the age of 50 to understand, took me to the age of 25 to understand and I hope for the next generation, that time is shortened to the time they’re 10. Eventually, maybe people can be born with that self-esteem and that confidence to go out there, create and achieve straight off the bat, so it’s about facilitating and projection. I wouldn’t see it as a failure but something to improve upon.
What kind of things need to change in the creative industry to better accommodate black artists?
RTKAL: The main thing for me is black artists being able to be themselves, rather than having to code-switch outside of their own natural selves in order to reach success. One of the main things I try to do in the space that I’m in is to be authentically myself and not code-switch, because this will make it easier for the next person coming up behind me to be who they are, without them having to jump through any hoops. That’s one of my main responsibilities - to continue to look into the community and be mobile, to also build the Birmingham black pound and being able to build with more entrepreneurs in the community and unite.
ALIYAH: Similarly, there’s a newspaper in South Africa called the Chimurenga Chronicle. Just being able to come as you are, but in order for that to happen we need to continue to build black infrastructures that enable us to be creative without asking for permission and understanding that the things we have to say are valid. The thing is, infrastructure is being built, but why isn’t it being talked about? The community in Birmingham is very political and the people who are given funding and spaces, the spaces that amplified don’t end up being black-owned. To see black people amplified for just being and doing what they want is what this industry needs to focus on.
RTKAL: Historically, there’s a bit of a struggling artist culture here and that keeps us on a certain rung, it’s us that can’t be presented in our full worth. We need to learn to self-invest in our own community, we don’t need someone to get behind a project before we believe and get behind the person or project and have that faith in each other.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
RTKAL: Keep your eyes open, don’t take things so personally. As art is so personal, your art is an extension of you, so criticism of your art can feel like a criticism of yourself. The more we can trust one another in this industry and be more mindful of each other.
ALIYAH: Everything is going to be okay. It’s not all or nothing you don’t have to go ham, look after yourself and take your time. Try to get better at your craft and become more disciplined. So often, it’s more of a scarcity mentality in the industry and in this city if we just marinate things become so much richer.
Would you be able to tell us about your plans for the future?
RTKAL: As part of the BASS festival we are doing an event that will be held over a black room space and a team of other Birmingham individuals. The place is called ‘The Vault’ and it contains a couple of other businesses such as the NCB which is a shop and venue space. We also have a creative music, entrepreneur and employability course called Beats and Barriers and a record label/studio called ‘Lost On Green Mile’ all held in the same place. And new music coming soon!
ALIYAH: Listen to RTkal's music - it’s incredible! We have a couple exhibitions a part of the festivals with three emerging artists. I’ll also be curating the work of Olivia Twist at ALT Gallery next Spring as well as a couple other projects! I just got back from a research trip in Barbados, Brazil and New York looking into de-colonial curatorial practice and coming up I will also be beta-testing the idea of the black curatorial labs; one in London, one in Birmingham and one in Nottingham and looking into how black curators can make plans without waiting for institutions and how to navigate those spaces without having to sit in a space of wallowing and upset. Often it can get depressing, so hopefully this can bring light to the work black curators and spaces are doing. That project will hopefully be launching in November.
Would you like to add anything?
RTKAL: Come to Birmingham and see what’s going on! The world is expanding here!
ALIYAH: We’d like to say a huge big up to the team at Punch, especially Nikki who’s done amazing things.
Buy tickets to BASS here.
Follow Aliyah here.
Follow RTkal here.
Follow Dami Fawehinmi here