DYCP – Blog 4: JAGUAR KIN pt.1- A poem becomes a song…

The seed for this collaborative project was planted at the end of April. I met up with friend and fellow writer, Oluwafemi Hughes Jonas (aka Femi), who had also been a part of the Tenebrae: Lessons Learnt In Darkness project (see my last blog for more info) for Brighton Festival. Although we’d been in the same workshop groups and we’d chatted throughout March about the project, we hadn’t actually seen/heard each other’s finished lamentations yet! So we met up in a park on a sunny spring day and shared our poems with each other. 

At this point, I already had a few things in mind for what could become the audio/visual aspect of my DYCP activity time. I had some poems I’d written that I was beginning to imagine visuals for, but nothing that really felt right quite yet. I’d also been asked by some musicians – Riphco and Moemar, aka Cyan Sphinx – if I’d be interested in writing lyrics for a track they were working on. I really liked the track so I was interested, but wasn’t immediately clear on the lyrical direction. They’d begun working with vocalist JezClavi who had come up with some melodies and a repeated word that seemed to belong in the chorus section ‘Running, running, running…’ 

A still from the film Harriet, directed by Kasi Lemmons

When Femi read me her beautiful poem Wind Wheels Turn in the park that day, I straight away started seeing vivid images in my mind – as I often do when I hear Femi’s words. In her poem, there’s a repeated line “I saw a woman as a black jaguar, run…” and as we chatted in the park, Femi told me how she’d been inspired by watching Harriet – the film about Harriet Tubman – which was the last film she’d at the cinema just before the first lockdown started last year. The image of Harriet running across the land in search of freedom had stuck with her. Amongst her witness’s account of lockdown in Brighton, Femi’s poem honours several black people of past and present.

“Honouring and remembering: Joy Gardener and Leon Briggs, whose breath was brutally forced from them in the name of ‘law enforcement’; Harriet Tubman and Amanda Gorman, whose creativity, courage and spirit brought freedom and agency – restoring hope for future generation.” 

– The footnote that follows Femi’s poem in the Tenebrae collection

Cyan Sphinx’s music and JezClavi’s melody came to mind as I listened to Femi read her poem, and I started imagining it becoming a song, and a video… 

“What do you think about me making your poem into a song, Femi?”

She was keen!

Over the next few weeks, I spent some time listening to the music and playing around with Femi’s poem – rearranging the words and thinking about rhythm. I wasn’t really thinking about melody too much as I knew JezClavi would have that part down.

First, I printed a copy of the poem and whilst listening to the music I went through saying/singing lines along and crossing out or highlighting as I went. After a few different attempts at this, I moved to my notebook to rewrite some verse ideas. Finally, I moved to my laptop to type up a version and move it around some more.

With almost 550 words in Femi’s poem Wind Wheels Turn, I knew I was going to have to make some tough choices with which lines to include in the song. Another challenge was the fact that there are several serious themes explored in the poem, but the music I was restructuring it for was fairly upbeat. However, I had also been moved by the hopeful element of the writing – themes of healing, growth and empowerment – that I also felt from the music. I needed to think carefully about how this would be balanced within the sensitivities of loss, pandemic grief and the trauma experienced by racialised bodies – all themes also present in the poetry that I wanted to keep in the song. I was aware I wanted to include Femi’s voice in the recording and so made a decision to keep the beginning and end of the poem intact in the song as spoken word. 

Along with the nods to Joy, Leon and Harriet, Femi also referenced Amanda Gorman’s poetry and performance at the US inauguration ceremony. In my restructure, I changed this line to instead reference local poetic heroes Aflo. The Poet & Priss Nash and their poem Wake Up. As we were making a song that looked back over lockdown and 2020 – during which all the collaborators had been in Brighton & Hove – it felt fitting to reference poets closer to home who were also prominent in activism last year.

After several weeks of experimentation and drafting different versions, it was time to share with the others! 

…and JAGUAR KIN was born!

Over a couple of sessions in June, five of us – myself, Femi, Riphco, Moemar and JezClavi – sat around and worked through the lyrics to create a song. After being inspired by Quiet Down There’s ‘First we eat’ (which is itself inspired by Mary Fisher’s quote ‘First we eat…then everything else’), we started each session with eating lunch together. The whole process of working together felt very organic, with everyone chipping in ideas here and there – whether it was a slight lyric change or an idea about rhythm, melody or delivery. I learnt a lot and there’s some things I’d do differently next time (like, be sure to record absolutely everything from the beginning of the first session). I was so impressed by how well everyone worked together, particularly with how Jez came up with melodies with us all sitting right there!

Riphco, Moemar & Femi excited by the ital stew we’re about to eat for lunch

Meanwhile, I was also planning the video. I did some filmmaking and video work at university (2008-11) and have also made a few amateur music videos since then – most recently with Sick and Tired in 2020. But this time, I was keen to create something more professional and thanks to the ACE funding I was able to pay collaborators. After doing some research, asking around and a lot of pondering, I reached out to a dancer I’d been following on Instagram and had seen dancing on Hove seafront – Lya aka Blk Diamond Dance. After chatting with her about the project, her energy felt like a great fit and I knew she’d create fitting choreography, and portray the courageous, wild woman/creature I was imagining. I also reached out to Munya Muchati at Thirty10Arts, as I knew I would need to collaborate with somebody with more experience in directing, producing and most importantly (where I have the least skills) actually shooting films. And it turned out Lya and Munya had worked with each other before which made things flow really well between us all.

JezClavi & Riphco listening intently

Once Jez’s vocals and Femi’s spoken word were recorded, it was time to add some other elements that Riphco and I had been imagining – in particular, backing vocals and saxophone. For the sax, Riphco already had someone in mind – Yebga Dikoba, a fantastic player who he’s played with before. It’s been a while since I’ve done any singing, but I recorded a few backing vocals to be worked into the mix and then found out that Lya aka Blk Diamond was a singer as well as a dancer! This was just perfect, and meant Lya got more of a connection to the song she was dancing to, and her voice also works really beautifully with Jerry and Femi’s.

Riphco, JezClavi, me & Femi – listening back to what we’ve created

Keep an eye out for…

JAGUAR KIN, pt.2 – Filming a video with Thirty10Arts & Blk Diamond Dance

coming soon to a blog near you!

(this blog right here)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s