Listen to or read O'Neil's story
I was born in East Jamaica. My mother was the poorest person in the district. We lived in the countryside, which give me more advantages than if I was born in Kingston because it is more dangerous there and you can lose your life in a day. And growing up, I was an academic person, probably the most academic person in my village. So even though I was the poorest, I had a gift of education, and I was in the country, the safest place to be. But there was no opportunity. And my mum was murdered. She was young, and I was very close to her. So when I was 30 years old, I came to the UK to better myself and to help my family. I came here on a Virgin plane to Gatwick Airport on 26th May 2014.
My first job in the UK was a cleaning job, until I got a job in McDonald’s in customer care. And I remember one night, seven men and a woman came for me at my home. I was in my bed, I was going to be working at nine the next morning. But it was when the Windrush thing was going on. And they were scraping up everyone.
In all, I spend seven months in detention centre. The longest seven months ever. First, they put me in Morton Hall in Lincolnshire. I spent three months there. Then they bring me to Harmondsworth. At Morton Hall, I remember there was this youth named Lari. He tried to jump off the building and they had put him in my cell. And when I woke up in the night he was ripping out all the hair in his head, he was just rooting out his hair. They lock you up with anyone, and anything can happen.
So, you see, I started learning – what am I going to do to survive. That's why I come up with music, it is always the music. I started singing and people just started to come by my room and we get a big crowd. I was there just 10 or 20 minutes. And then they said I was becoming a gang leader. But I was just doing the music. I was finding a way of survival – because there’s nothing else. I was just singing.
When you enter detention, they bring you to an introduction room. That’s the first process. The immigration officers come and visit you, and they give you this paper to sign to go home. And you either sign it, or you don't sign it. Many people tried to go for asylum. Many people tried to fight the case. Some people just go back. I know people that go back and die.
I remember when they gave me my first solicitor. I reasoned my case with him, and he told me I should go home. He was a black man like me. But he wasn’t listening. So I tell them I don't want him for my solicitor because he wanted me to go back. He might as well be working for the immigration that locked me up. So I start to represent myself, and when I go to the court, I would go by myself.
But they also give me a case worker. She was Asian and she was telling me that I should go home too. Now, I had learnt that deportation is different from removal. Removal is when they just want to move you from the country, probably because your visa is up, or you have no more sponsorship. Deportation is where you have committed a crime, or you have done prison sentence and they don’t want you in the country no more.
"They lock you up with anyone, and anything can happen."
I couldn't understand why she, my own caseworker wanted me to be deported so bad – when I have done nothing wrong, I’ve never been convicted. Never, ever in my life. So I said to her, “Maybe you need to go home too? If I am to go home, maybe you have to go too.” She said to me she was going to end the interview. And I’ve never seen my case worker since, never talked to her apart from that interview.
I was introduced to Hear Me Out when I was inside. We did a song called When the Music Stops. When I met these artists, they already had the music right and everything. I just drop it in my unique style and my culture. So even if you’re not writing the music, you can still get a vibe from it, because it’s the word, and I’m the one just singing the word – you’re gonna feel it. So I get vibes from the song that I write and sing in the detention centres.
All my life man, music is my thing. At that Hear Me Out session, it was like coming together with so many musicians who have different qualities. To be honest, it was a great experience. When you are out there and you have your craft in music and you meet five or six people who have a different craft, that song is yours – or even better than yours. It’s always a blessing to meet other artists in the detention centres.
So sometimes even in the worst place, you find good people. Like Zoe, you know, Zoe always encouraged me too.
And with Hear Me Out we could express ourselves and get admired – it make us feel like we’re somebody, because you feel like you are nobody in detention. I mean, you went around and people admire you – they admire your singing and they admire that you can draw and you can paint. And that just bring you up, build your spirit. You’re in this place, but you meet people that see something in you – and you know that it’s there – but then you discover it again. And that alone can save you.
The day I leave detention centre, they gave me a ticket to London. And that was it. The first thing I want to do is go and look for a friend I met inside. And I remember at the station, I asked 17 people for a phone call. No one even looked at me. But the seventeenth person gave me that call and I call my friend. And we link up – and it’s back to life, back to reality. My face was just smiling and I felt so happy.
But they, the Home Office, said I must not work. They said I must not study. They said I must not claim no benefit. Nothing, no recourse to public funds. Because they said that my visa was curtailed in the court. So I'm not eligible for nothing.
"From the moment the Home Office come in my life, it’s like Satan or the devil passed through and my life has never been the same."
I’m a distinction student in accounts, and I end up living a life of taking. You never can show people that help you, that you respect them because you're never in a position to give to no one. It's the worst position to be in only receiving and not giving. And that's where they put me now.
But I still have music.
I went on the Hear Me Out tour – it was called Music After Detention. And I remember meeting Oliver and the team in Dover. They have such positive energies and I feel that musical connection and I went into it and it was like magic and I could sing, I feel good. It was with Oliver and a few other artists, musicians and instrument players. It been a very long time before I’d felt that vibe – it was one of them good times after coming from detention.
Photographer: Julio Etchart