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Peter Badejo OBE interviewed by Zhana
Acknowledging History for a Solid Future
Peter Badejo OBE, founder of Badejo Arts, raises questions about Black history and how it informs identity and the need for African-led arts institutions in the UK.
For a long time, the history of Black people was not taught here in the UK. But we should know our history and build on it. Then maybe we will have fewer distractions. Distractions are being pushed on us daily, through the television, through the adverts, through everything. But in the United States, Black History is not only is it taught, it is practicalised through the family. A lot of things they do in America - they live almost like people live in Africa, in terms of family values.
I am not one of those romantic Africans, no. In Africa, there are certain things we need to change. But there are certain values we can take and utilise in our new contemporary environment.
That is what I am saying in my productions.
I did a production called ‘The Heart of Dance’, which is about the coming back of Black people. It is a kind of juxtaposition of Conrad's Book Heart of Darkness, in which the journey began in Greenwich (South London) and went to Africa. He talks about exploration of the 'dark continent'. I started in Greenwich, too, going into Europe. We started on a boat, got all the audience on a boat - Caribbeans, Africans - and the whole of the journey from Greenwich to the South Bank was storytelling about our coming. At the South Bank, we gave birth to New Britain. And that took over the outside of Queen Elizabeth Hall.
I used all the cultures that are present here just to symbolise that Windrush was not the first coming of Black people here. There have been Black people in the UK since the Roman Empire. So, when we came, we met these people - Indians, Asians - it was a celebration of our coming.
Then, in the last part of it, which I did not want to forget, we went to the rooftop of Queen Elizabeth Hall, which is a very harsh reality. It is a concrete space, there is nothing there. That is where we enacted our experience here - 'No Blacks, No Dogs', all this sort of thing. Which was the reality of our lives at one point. But in the end, I finished it in a positive way. Despite all the problems we have had here, we have progressed. We have lawyers, we have doctors, in all facets of life, we have our people.
If we look at African dance in this country. When I first came here, I did not even want to start my company. There were loads of African dance companies and African Diaspora companies that I wanted to work with, to share my ideas with them. I did this for years before I established my own company.
How many are left now? Adzido is gone. Quite a number of us have lost our funding, because the system is now saying, the new thing that represents African people is street and Hip Hop. This is a new venture.
You don't base a whole people's expression on something that is in the passing. It's disposable. It's fine for people to do break-dancing. But you have to remember, where is it coming from? What is the background of the people?
Anything that will not make the audience here think beyond your physical presence on stage is fine for the system, but it is not good for the doer. The system is not challenged. The moment you begin to inflict knowledge - when you say, wait a minute, when you see me contract and release, there is something behind it, it comes from such-and-such, you begin to talk about background.
When I used to teach in schools, some white parents used to say, 'I don't want my child learning this. My child came home and started singing some mumbo jumbo'. The moment you go beyond just the artificial razzle-dazzle, it becomes a problem. You are beginning to give messages that go back, that challenge even the perception that has been given to the children.
I think it is because the foundation of some parents is not solid. We make a lot of assumptions. 'He comes from Africa so he is knowledgeable'. No. He could come from the heart of Africa and yet not even know how to spell Africa. The Diaspora needs to learn from the Continent, the Continent needs to learn from the Diaspora. And until we can merge these two experiences, I think we have a long way to go.
Each culture needs to be understood and respected...
...especially when you are in a culture that is being bleached gradually, daily. For example, there is nothing wrong with people becoming British. But Britain is a multicultural society, for heaven's sake. I think each culture needs to be identified, understood, respected. Otherwise, when you call it 'multicultural', there is no equal attention given to what is multicultural. Then it becomes a follow-up cultural. It becomes one culture tagging the others along, which is the same thing which has happened in the education system.
Occasionally, the system wakes up and says, 'Hey, wait a minute, are we going the right route?'. Then you begin to find little programmes being sprung into the education system. That is a little bit of waking up to it before problems happen. So that is there. We need to look at our roles and redefine them and see how they help in building the family.
In ‘The Pain of Aspirations’ I looked at the young people here, and I said, something is wrong. The young people seem to be losing it. They want to buy this, they want to buy that, they want to go here and there. Are those the aspirations of our fathers who came here? I don't think so. We need to properly revisit our family values. We need to revisit our culture. Culture is not something we should be ashamed of.
Culture is supposed to help us move from our past to our present and from the present into our future.
I think the Saturday schools are wonderful. But it looks like there is a bottleneck. You start from a very wide base, and it narrows down until you cannot breathe anymore. It needs to develop into foundation courses, diplomas and employment so that the people who leave the Saturday schools will never forget those experiences.
I hate using the word 'Black' in this country.
To me, the word 'Black' has meant a lot of deprivation, and it should not be that way. The system finds it comfortable to have a common name for our people. But when it comes to giving resources, 'Black' becomes expandable. So I am reverting, recoiling into my Africanness. First and foremost, I am an African from Nigeria, I live in Britain and I am British.
We are trying to develop a more comprehensive idea. England has a way of squashing you into some kind of compartmentalisation. 'I'm a dancer, I'm a singer, I'm a musician'. Whereas, as a cultural ambassador, I believe that one should go back and revisit the non-compartmentalisation of our own expression.
Now, I am developing the first African dance technique, based on a particular dance from Nigeria called bata. And bata is a dance that has gone beyond Africa. You find it in Cuba, America, Brazil and all those places.
So it has made its inroads. But in terms of it becoming a technique, which can be studied, that is what I am developing here. I am doing that at the University of Surrey, where I am a research fellow.
I am working with young dancers - because I am not intending to close the company, and I am not intending to stay here forever. So when I move on, the company will be run by young people who appreciate the importance of understanding Africa. Knowing where the performing experiences originate from, and moving them on into the new world.
Three years ago, I was given an OBE by the Queen for my contribution to the development of African dance. It is an honour that, to me, is not limited just to myself.
I think it is more for the sector. I have met people here who were doing African dance 10-20 years before I came. But fortunately, my work was highlighted. I did not just work in dance, I worked in drama, music, etc. And it paid off.
[Accepting the OBE] was a difficult decision, it is very controversial. I received a letter from the Prime Minister's office saying, "Will you accept this honour?" I thought, 'this is a tricky one' because of the name of it - the Empire.
It was an honour tied to my contribution. My wife and I talked about it and prayed over it. Refusing it - what would that contribute? Accepting it - what would that contribute? We weighed the two. I remember discussing Benjamin Zephaniah's rejection of it. I decided that there is a meaning to this award over and above the damage of the Empire.
This is an honour for dance and for my contribution to dance. Nobody has ever been given an OBE in dance. So I decided not to reject it. Suppose they used that to dishonour other people?
We cannot reject some of these things, even though we don't like the titles. Because a lot of people have been honoured - people from the Caribbean who have come here and really worked at things. Are we then going to say they should reject their honour simply because it is badly titled? So it is debatable and it is a decision that individuals have to make.
If I were not in African dance, I would have been given respect beyond what I have.
An artist of my calibre and experience, if I were not in African dance, I would have been given the kind of respect beyond what I have. That to me is a form of enslavement. We are enslaved because of our colour. At the same time, there are certain expressions we want to make. We don't even have an institution that deals with our own experience, our own expression. Not Caribbean, not African, nothing. Nigeria is a country three times the size of Great Britain, and has more than 50 languages. Each culture and language carries its own dance expression and musical expression. And I am not even including the derivatives from the Diaspora.
If that is not recognised, and given a place of intellectual study, I think this is a mistake. The only way we can change things is to shape our own contribution. A colleague and I just wrote to 100 universities around the world offering what our experience is in the development of dance in Britain. By approaching it intellectually, bringing our ideas to the forefront, I am hoping that we will be able to find ways of developing an institution for this expression. We don't even have Black theatres in this country. In New York, there are lots of Black theatres, lots of centres where you can pick and choose what African dance expression you want to look at and study. But we do not have that here yet. We are beginning to enlighten the audience about what we do. I see that as an emancipation.
I would expect an African or a Diasporic choreographer coming up to think from language, from verbal understanding to a physical language, which is dance. So they would have to understand self, where they are coming from. The individual self as well as their culture.
Your culture can only be seen from you.
Then you have to bring in the technical expertise. Choreography in the West could be movement, but from an African point of view, you have to look at the relationship between music and movement. How the two merge together. So you look at self, culture, and then technical interpretation. That would be my advice.
Within the African dance tradition, there is still individuality. That will be there even when it is institutionalised. We are doing the same dance but we are individuals. It's not like Swan Lake, where all the hands have to be at a particular angle.
My plan for the future is that we will establish a community for the company, where we will be able to build a sense of belonging through the work we are doing with young people in the community. Give them a sense of pride. Give the non-Africans who are participating a sense of understanding of where our own cultural expression is coming from, and maybe the community can grow into some kind of institution.
Peter Badejo since 1990 has made a dramatic impact on British arts in general. Artistic Director of Badejo Arts, he was awarded an OBE in 2001 in recognition of his work with and commitment to African people's dance. Companies throughout Africa, Europe and America have commissioned Peter Badejo's work. In this country, Peter's list of collaborators and commissioners includes Adzido, Kokuma, Irie, Sakoba Productions, H Patten, The Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, Cambridge Arts Theatre and Pan Project. Choreographer, performer, teacher and academic, his commitment to the field of African performance arts has also involved research conducted through the Universities of London, California, Ghana and Ahmadu Bello University.