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Hear Anna Out

A conversation with Anna, a lead artist for Hear Me Out

Anna De Mutiis is a percussionist, drummer and producer from Italy, and facilitates music workshops with charities across the UK, US and Europe, collaborating with migrant communities. Anna has worked with Hear Me Out as a lead artist for over five years.

How did you get involved with Hear Me Out?

In 2013, when I’d just finished my master’s degree in Migration and Diaspora Studies at SOAS, University of London. During my master’s, I worked on the connection between music and migration, and there was a call for volunteers to join the team of artists who would go inside immigration removal centres (IRCs) to deliver music workshops. Firstly, I just supported them as a volunteer assistant, later on I became one of the artists myself. During that initial volunteering period, I had the chance to see different combinations of artists doing their brilliant work, with many different styles and approaches. During the workshops I had the chance to observe the whole room, its different interactions - both social and musical. I gained a lot of insights about the specificity of the environment we were working in, but also about the ways different people, from participants to officers, including artists as well, engaged with the session.

I have learnt different ways to approach and engage with participants who seem in distress, or feel left out, helping them to participate in any way they felt comfortable with. Sometimes, we would have just met for a few minutes, but because we had sung together or were preparing a chorus or a rhythm together, we started to chit chat. After a little bit, a participant might tell you their story, and then I would end up telling them my story. Suddenly, our conversation became deeper, ending up discussing important and at times existential topics and, we kind of connected in a different way than initially expected.

What is it like to go into an immigration detention centre to run a music session?

To run a session, you must arrive early. When someone passes through the initial screening, the officers in charge at the reception take their passport and all the objects that cannot be brought in - that could be keys or anything that detainees could use to harm themselves with. The guards check all the bags and then it’s time for the frisk. Sometimes, if not around, we have to wait until a female officer comes around to frisk me.

A central feature of entering an immigration detention centre is waiting. Waiting is basically one of the most powerful tools of control that exists in detention.

Because people inside are waiting and waiting. If you go inside, you will have to wait. Wait for the right person to do the right paperwork, waiting for the people in charge to check whether you have been authorised to be there, waiting for the right officers to check or frisk you, to open you the gates, to take you to the toilet and so on. You’re just constantly made to feel that you are not in control of your life and your destiny, that you're not in control of whatever happens next.

Once the officer who's been assigned to be there for our music session arrives, I try to bond a little bit with them, because, a few times, it turned out that some officers were great musicians. Sometimes, they actively joined the sessions, playing or singing, and it was a great way for the detainees and the officers to have a different interaction beyond their everyday formal roles they have within the centre. On a more practical level, for a music session I, sometimes, know what equipment is going to be there – if I've been there previously. Other times, I don't know what I will have access to. If I’m going in with the idea of recording a track, then I will bring equipment to record. If I want to do more of a live session, then I would bring more instruments.

We've done music sessions in all sorts of spaces, in highly equipped music rooms, in the TV screening room, in the internal courtyard, in a music room labelled as ‘quiet room’ and, a few times, we did sessions in the gym too. It was a great experience, the gym was packed, and all the guys who would normally just train at the gym came there, some to play and sing, some just to watch what was happening. The room in which we deliver the workshop does also affect the outcomes, always with unexpected results. For example, in that session in the gym there was a unique interaction amongst the participants (and us as well), as they were closer to each other due to the size of the room, the exercise machines scattered here and there, and a very odd acoustic was also a factor.

Describe a workshop that sticks out in your memory.

I remember this one time very well. We were in Campsfield House, with my colleagues Yiannis and Ollie. Yiannis can play a lot of Balkan, Greek music, and he also knows a lot of Roma tunes. At the session, there was one participant, I believe he was from Romania, and he was Roma. He told us he was going to be deported the day after, it was a sad and difficult situation. He soon started chatting with Yiannis, who then started playing a tune. The Romanian participant knew it and he started singing wonderfully with a lot of charisma. Suddenly, a lot of people came to join the session.

During that same session, there was also a Polish participant who, at the beginning, was frowning and standing on a side of the room. At some point, I gave him a tambourine. And he just started grinning and playing that tambourine and, at the same time, dancing so joyously. It was just amazing. Everybody started dancing. It felt like if, for the time being, nobody cared about where we were and who we were and what was going to happen. It was absolute chaos and madness, and at the same time a very strong moment of release, and I loved it. When the session finished, reality just kind of kicked back in, like, ‘Oh, yeah, we're here. I get to go back home tonight, and this guy who made a full room dance is going to be deported tomorrow’. We hugged the singer and said our goodbyes. It was tough.

Anna, Ollie, O'Neil, London Spec and John at the Music After Detention Residency in October 2019.

What is it like to work with people in detention?

Doing music workshops in immigration detention centres is very particular. You might meet a lot of different people that have ended up there for all the most different reasons. It has always amazed me, all the different people I've met. I met university professors, I met some people who knew some of my colleagues from doing other music projects outside, a lot of young people who clearly spent all their lives in the UK, some others who had just arrived in the country. Once I met a guy who seemed very angry and, during a music session, he started singing very powerful songs. At the end, he told me that he was supposed to give a TED talk that same night, but he couldn't do it, because he was locked up in an immigration removal centre.

In Tinsley House we delivered a workshop with very few participants, we had initially only two people, and we created a tune - I Want to Run Away. One of these two people was a very young man from Nigeria. I started the session as I sometimes do, asking, ‘What would you like to write about if, imagine, tomorrow we have a concert in front of 20,000 people? What is our message?’ And he said, ‘The only thing I can hear in my head is that I want to run away’. My immediate thought was to connect this to the need to run away from the detention centres’ walls and run away from all that it stands for.

But it turned out that actually his whole song was about climate change, and how planet Earth has been destroyed, and we are treating it so badly that ‘I want to run away’, but there is nowhere to run away from this ongoing destruction. It’s a great song. It's just all about, ‘What are we doing? We're destroying everything. We need to change everything. We need a revolution, you know.’ It was nice to catch my own naiveté - his actual urgency was to speak to everybody, his message sort of being: ‘We are locking ourselves in a bigger prison here.’ And that made me think a lot. I think the song got a Koestler award.

What do people write about when they come to a session?

Participants usually want to write about many different things, some people are already lyricists and poets, rappers or trappers. A lot of people want to write about freedom. They will talk about discrimination, often about love, sometimes about their everyday life before being detained. Everyone, if put in a condition of feeling in a relative safe space as the session strives to be, can express themselves in the way they want, from lyrics writing to singing, from playing to dancing, or just being in the room and listen.

There is often a lot of support between those who are taking part in the session. If someone goes ‘Oh, I'm out of tune, then I would jump and say ‘Okay, I'm out of tune as well, let's do it together’. Or if someone doesn't find a rhyme, someone else helps suggesting some ideas. It also can be a very intimate moment: sometimes someone tells you things about themselves through a solo rap, they sing about things that they might struggle talking about face to face.

For example, in one session there was a participant who was not an experienced rapper as were most of the other guys in the room. He started recording his rap lines as an improvisation. Only after listening to the lyrics a second time more carefully, I realised he was telling us about a bereavement he had experienced within his close family that really affected him. It was an emotional bomb somehow and he just dropped it there, but it was great and inspiring how everyone else in the room reacted to that. Everyone was very supportive, complimenting him on his rap delivery; some were also checking in if he was feeling okay and so on. I believe that for him, the fact of just voicing his grief out loud was in itself quite cathartic and therapeutic. The song is called Mind-Blowing.

I remember in that same occasion I felt moved and honoured that he decided to share that with us. For me that meant that the session was a space, nice and safe enough for him to feel at ease and open up. It's those moments that I realise how much of an impact I might be having as music workshop facilitator, even if it's just for a very short amount of time.

What is one of your favourite songs that you have produced in detention?

I really like the song, I Want to Run Away, as I mentioned before. And then there is a great tune by an artist who used to go by the name of Black Prince, he's a great artist. It’s called Is Peace Only a Myth?. He recorded it as a spoken word piece on its own, and Ollie, my colleague, later layered it on top of an instrumental guitar track recorded by another participant. But I saw his performance live in one of the Centre’s rooms. His performance was extremely powerful, everybody was just silently listening to him. The poem just speaks to everybody. And he does a whole reflection on the issues that plague the world we live in, from injustice to institutional racism, from inequalities to war. Then he just says, ‘Can the leaders answer me this, is peace only a myth?' And yeah, it's just a very nice piece of poetry and of spoken word. It always stayed with me as, ‘Man, this guy should have a bigger platform out there.’ It was just very, very powerful.

Why is Hear Me Out’s work important to you?

Hear Me Out's work is very important to me because I can use the knowledge and skills I have acquired both through my studies and through my music experience to connect people (and myself connect with people) in a different way. For me it is a great privilege to participate in these workshops as a facilitator who can help foster talents and confidence. I love the act of collectively building a temporary space where we can all create something together in a way that everybody can have their voice (or instrument, or dance move, or presence) heard, and feel at least partly included. And truly, what is important for me is this attempt, as much as we can, to be collaborative. What I try to do by making music together is kind of temporarily disrupting some of the power imbalance that the place in itself is imbued with.

For me it is quite powerful to see that - given the condition and the place - we do our sessions, and we are trying, we are fighting to create something together. And, at least for a bit, we stop waiting.

Hear Anna's music

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