sounds of a black future | full interview

July 14, 2013

Xana (pronounced “zah-nah”) is a nonbinary, London-based live loop musician, sound designer for film and theatre, web designer, and organizer. When I first saw them perform, Xana invited the audience to say their most recent tweets into a microphone and looped our words until they turned into jams. Xana is also passionate about data - one of their projects translates statistics into audio and questions whether black people are included in those numbers. Recently, I talked with Xana about their childhood in South London, which they describe as a “country in itself,” gentrification, their community projects, which center black women and queer and nonbinary people, and their hopes for the black future. Eavesdrop on our chat:

Ifeanyi Awachie/Globetrotter Magazine: What was it like growing up in South London?

Xana: Peckham is a voice. Camberwell, Brixton, Lewisham, New Cross - it’s a voice, it’s a movement of people, a manifestation of what a movement of people can do, and how they can settle their identity into a place that didn’t want them to call it home. You have people describing Brixton as Little Jamaica, Peckham as Little Nigeria, and stuff like that, but it actually feels like that. You have the guy right next to - I think it’s like, a Costa in Peckham not far from the library, and right next to it, a guy selling Nigerian films in a little booth! And there are like people selling yams and plantain, and there are loads of different really small businesses still making a living, still being able to provide for their communities, ’cause when you have these little businesses, they’re providing for their community as well, and they’re representing what the community looks like, what the community sounds like.

And you have this larger influx of larger businesses that do not cater to the community. That’s clear from demographic that sits in their coffeeshops - it’s very much wood with white, chrome with black. And [it’s] seen as progression in a neighborhood when white middle class people can come and sit there and have their three-, four-pound coffee or something like this, and be and feel close to the neighborhood, feel close to the otherness, or the othering-ness, but not so close that they feel it’s an affront to who they are.

Peckham, Camberwell, these different areas - there are sounds, and that’s part of where the influence of my practice comes from. A lot of amazing music came out of these neighborhoods that really shaped music today - people in, like, council flats shaped an industry. Having grown up, like, playing in my dad’s estates, and people having, like barbeques every Saturday, like opening up their cars so the sound could blast out into the neighborhood - that’s more than an aesthetic for me, that’s a feeling. And I think that places that are trying to replicate that feeling, and failing - it’s just truly a white-washing and a social cleansing of the neighborhood, which is quite sad.

What inspired you to get into sound design and live looping?

My dad used to be a coach driver, so he used to take me with him on the coaches to France, and I loved traveling - we would drive for hours on a coach full of people, but I didn’t care, I just loved that feeling of being removed from something that seemed so permanent, and into something else that was much more fluid and more flexible. So I went traveling around Asia for almost two years, and traveling - it’s a limb, like, I can’t not do it. And it is one of the things that inspired me to live loop, because traveling is a collection of all these different experiences, and being exposed to all these different people, being out of your comfort zone in so many different ways, and [being] challenged in so many different ways. [I had] that feeling of, either I move or I am moved. I have to change, and I have to collect, and I have to experience, and that has influenced the way I approach my practice, the things I’m interested in.

I’m really interested in tech and tech is notoriously white. There’s been so many kind of shallow developments being lauded as diversity, and there’s actually no real inclusiveness. If you look at a lot of tech company’s websites, there’s a few POC, there’s loads of white people, and they’ll post pictures of their teams, and even post a picture of a dog, and they won’t have a black staff member at all. And that really kind of categorizes how the thinking around this actually is, and how the racism within it is so insidious. And the thing that’s drawn me to tech is, where am I in technology? Where am I in discussions of tomorrow? Why is it that I can only imagine myself in the context of being magic or alien or being something out of this world - what about the present that I’m in right now? Why can’t I form the languages that are going to shape what I’m going to think about, what I’m going to think of myself, what future people are going to think about?

That kind of feeling of not having access to something has made me feel like I need to create my own access. I see code being developed and create my own code. And it’s the same for sound - it’s not approaching sound in a conventional way. If I’m going to make music, that music is going to come directly from me, from my body. When I’m live looping, I’m scratching the table - I put all of that into my music because I feel like these places are not meant for a face like mine, not meant for a definition like mine, so I have to then redefine those spaces, and if they aren’t going to be moved, then I will make my own, actually, and they will move anyway, because they will see what [I make], or [what] other forward-thinking black people [make], and [they’ll] want to be a part of that.

Could you say more about how you got into tech and data?

I got into tech because I was into something that I wasn’t really meant to be - I was playing a lot of, like, video games, PlayStation, which is primarily supposed be a boy’s thing. I was really interested in machines, like, why does this work this way, how is this happening, how are they making it work like this? I went to university - for like three months - to study interaction design, ’cause I was really, really interested in, how does this relationship develop, actually, between the user and the platform, and how are they going to continue to engage with it in ways that reflect the changing landscape?

When we’re talking about tech in general, the default isn’t built with a representative view, because the default has always been whiteness. And you build off of that, then everybody else adapts. Mimi Onuoha is doing really interesting work on missing data sets, [which is] data not being collected. Think of big data as a massive pile of information - it might look useless to you or me, but to someone else who’s interested in that collection of data, there’s a pattern within it, you know? The pattern could be to serve a capitalist agenda to sell people more stuff - this is what people are searching for, so this is what we’re going to send them to get them to our websites, products, et cetera. Now, what about other data that nobody’s using? Like the amount of people who die in police custody, the percentage of people that have committed suicide or died as a result of policy changes [by the] government, like the bedroom tax, disabilities being cut - where is the data on that? Obviously, they wouldn’t collect [that data] because it’s to their detriment, it shows that their policies didn’t work, that their policies impacted a lot of people and impacted them greatly. So you have these data sets that just aren’t existing, they’re just not there. So we end up collecting it ourselves by reporting these things that have happened, by saying another person has died. So we’re actually archiving ourselves, on a wider scale, and I’m interested in, when these patterns emerge, how can they actually help us?

I’m interested in how to translate data into sound. So [imagine] if you were listening to garage or grime, and the instrumental was about the statistics about the amount of knife crime in London or something. It’s very important for black people in particular to be aware of what big data actually means, because big data is one of those things that, it can skew how people vote - that’s how President Trump got into the White House, and it’s the same with, like, Brexit, it skews how people vote, and it skews how people have access to resources, and it puts more people under surveillance, and the more we’re visible, the more we’re open to assault.

What inspired your community event, Hair Today, Here Tomorrow?

I wanted to have a space where, for example - not every black person knows how to canerow hair...

I don’t.

Exactly! It seems like a shame or a kind of very secretive thing that you have to admit, and I was like, I want to create a workshop where black people can come and canerow hair, where the whole space is talking about things not seen and really prevalent in our community, but we don’t have space to talk about it because it’s always centering around whiteness and our experience of whiteness and working through the internalization of whiteness as well. I just got really frustrated. I am tired of having to work my whole identity around this one concept that I’ve actually started not to believe in - the concept of whiteness - and so basically, I just was like, okay, I want a space where it’s all black everything, the food, the people selling stuff, the people doing workshops, like everything. And I think so many of us are doing these amazing initiatives, and I was like, I would really love if there was one space where I could go and everything was black-led, black black black, everything. It was just this need to find my people, and find out what they’re doing, and for them to find each other.

I just wanted to make this event where we could all celebrate each other, ’cause I feel like we don’t do that enough, we just look at the things we’re failing at, or the things put on us for us to fail, but how can we think about, the grind that we’re doing, actually? How are we celebrating that? And I wanted [the space] to be all black, but to have representation of all different forms of the community. I wanted people who were straight, queer, trans, mothers, fathers to come and be around people they don’t normally hang around with, and I specifically wanted it to be focused on the work that black women and black nonbinary people, queer people, people who are female identified and stuff, trans women, because I feel like they, out of our community, they are the ones that are holding our community up, that are putting the work in, and who are the silent, kind of - not silent in nature, but silent in terms of recognizing the work that they’ve done. And I wanted to put them at the center and focus on the stuff that they’re doing - that we’re doing - ’cause it’s important, it’s relevant, and we need to give credit where credit is due. I wanted to celebrate them.

What prompted the recent discussion on class and impostor syndrome?

Impostor syndrome is really important because so many of us have done so much work, and yet we turn around and tell ourselves we haven’t done anything at all. That shit does not make sense. It was really heartbreaking because I sat in this room full of people who ran companies, who ran talks at Google, who were still telling themselves they weren’t good enough, because they were often in a space where they were the only one, and they were constantly reminded that you are holding up your entire community, that you are lucky to be here, that you’re only here because of your race, not because they’re good at what they do, simply because of their color, simply because the organization they’re working with is opportunist and colonial, not actually because this person is really just amazing. So that was why it went to class.

Class is closely linked to impostor syndrome because [that syndrome] is linked to the feelings of not being valued, being judged for your accent, for the ways in which you dress, interact with people, see the world. If people interpret you as somebody who is of a lower position simply because of your accent, and determine your intelligence based on your accent, that’s a failed society. People should be judged on the basis of their character, and the way in which they treat people, not simply because of the area in which they were born. In order for them to be successful, they have to assimilate, they have to forget where they came from, what they’ve done to get there, and that’s just rubbish. You should be able to be successful and have a southeast London accent in your mouth, and have people listen to you and not deem you unintelligent, and not feel that you’re an impostor because you don’t speak like [them]. You should be able to feel that this, what you have in your mouth, is what allows you to connect to so many different people on so many different levels.

What are your hopes for the black future?

I think one of my hopes for the black future is forming now. I didn’t know I would live in a time, as a queer black person, that on a Friday or Saturday night, I would have options. That I would have a multitude of places to go to that all welcomed my body, that welcomed my way of thinking, that had a community. And I do. I didn’t realize I would be living in a time where so many people would be breaking down binaries in the way they dress, in the way that they speak. I didn’t realize that I could essentially express myself however I want and black people would welcome me, and it wouldn’t be kind of a, “This person’s kinda strange, but it’s okay ’cause, they black.” It’s more like, “No, this is another way in which black can represent itself, another way in which we can see it, another way we can experience blackness and another way in which we can think about the futures it can form.”

I hope that I can live in a time where young people [are] challenging authority openly, and [being] critical of it, and I had one of the best conversations with a 15 year-old on the bus yesterday - she was talking to her friend, and her friend said something like, “Racism isn’t as bad here as racism is in America,” and she was like, “No no no - you’re black, you should have the same rights wherever you go. Racism isn’t about quantifying experiences of it, it’s about your not having to feel like you’re entitled to racism, it’s about being entitled to the same equalities as everyone else.” I was like, “Oh my God!” None of these young people [is] having a passive experience of the world, they are seeing, engaging, challenging each other in their circles as well. And I was hoping - as I’m growing closer to 30 - that I could live in a time where I could hear conversations like this, and I’m hearing it, and it’s so wonderful.

I’m also hoping for a time where the older generation can become more involved in conversations like this. And maybe not expecting every cis black man to accept queerness, but [expecting them to] be open to it, and for queerness to also be open to having conversations with cis black men.

I think the black family has been terrorized, and I hope that we can form a new vision of the black family that isn’t always dependent on the matriarch. That’s one of my hopes, is that that person, that matriarch, that mother, people who are effeminate or femmes existing in queer communities or structures - anybody that’s embodying that feeling of mothering - is also getting cared for, because we don’t realize how much work that person is doing. And I hope there is more recognizing of this, more caring for this person, and [more of the idea] that we’re sharing, not helping, sharing in this work, because we’re all accountable - it’s all of our responsibilities.

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All photos c/o Eric Gyamfi and Xana