United Struggle Project: The Journey Update
Giving a voice to displaced people through music
With a suitcase sized recording studio in hand, my 7 year old son Bassi Brown and I set out on a 5 month tour to record trax and make music videos in the far corners of the world in refugee camps slums and prisons..
enjoy the journey
So the recordings started in Calais France where refugees and migrants from many war-torn places are hiding in squats and camps on the run from constant police harassment. We recorded with Afghani, Kurdish, Sudanese, Nigerian/UK, Indian/UK, Chadian and Eritrean.
Monkeymarc, Fran and I joined forces with No Border collective to put on the festival ‘Halfi de Bla Hudud’ (music with out borders)
During the recordings we got evicted, chased, equipment broken and arrested. I was sent to a detention center to be deported to Australia without my child. It was hectic to say the least. Luckily for me No Border crew got my passport to the authorities in time. But unfortunately for many of the people I met, escape from Calais was not that easy .. the difference is in a piece of paper.. The injustice and racism I witnessed from the government police and the local community towards the migrants and towards groups working in solidarity with them was extreme. It reinforced my commitment to braking those borders with music.
Im still wondering when ‘making music’ officially became illegal in France…
Palestine was the next stop. Dahaisha refugee camp where I met and recorded with an inspiring young hip-hop group called Palestine Street . We put on a concert called ‘Voice of Freedom’ in the street on the back of a very large semitrailer at the entrance to the camp, the show featuring some traditional music, Bociott, Palestine Street, Combat Wombat and some deadly local kids on the mic.
We also did a show with Palestinian artist Simira and G Town in an Anarchist Bar in Tel Aviv. The bar was run by an inspiring group of Israeli activists who among other things had served prison sentences for refusing to serve in the army, that’s sole purpose is defending the lie of which is Israel, they were also involved in weekly solidarity actions with Palestinian communities.
I witnessed the intensity of apartheid inflicted by the ‘jewish state’, the complex nature of the situation and the dichotomy between one side of the wall and the other.
Through my friends, who had spent most of there lives hostage with in the walls of the refugee camp, I witnessed the trauma of this apartheid. When they saw their holy land Jerusalem for the first time and realised it was no longer the place the grandparents had spoke of but western jewish metropolis. I saw the pain in them that this war has inflicted on generations, but despite it all I saw a lot love and generosity resilience and strength in the people I met.
We discussed plans for a ‘Breaking the Borders’ Tour of the West Bank for next year and the potential to build a permanent recording studio in the Dahaisha Camp.
In a 24 hour stop over in Egypt we managed to record a track with an artist Mohamad Wafi from Gaza now living in Cairo. This track now also features artists from Kenya and Ghana.
We are now in Kenya, United Struggle has been in high demand every day people coming to our headquarters in the ghetto wanting to record. It has been almost overwhelming.
First song we recorded was “United We Struggle” with Insect RanD and myself and it has become a bit of a theme song for the project. Other collaborations I did was My People with Fly High and Joestyles and FD System with Vulivuli. While in Kangemi I also made videos for Mr Fixit – Realize Myself, B.O.G – Say Yes, Agent Shujja and Vulivuli – Again we also recorded and produced videos for Wanga and Shiro – Where Would I Be and Shake yo Poom Poom by Fly High.
This weekend we are launching the movie Ghettomoto on the streets where it was filmed in Kangemi with a road show of local artist, acrobats and dancers.
Ghettomoto launch – we didn’t find out till the day before that someone had eaten the money for the permit but we went ahead anyway.. we brought the stage by hand cart, it was a little muddy but it soon cleared up and the show was a great success with so many deadly performances, with more artists hustling to perform than we had time for. The event ran from 10am to 9pm. It was great and highly fitting to see Ghettomoto the movie on the big screen in the street where it was filmed in front of the community that had inspired it. Big thanks to every one who helped launch Ghettomoto true ghetto style.
We printed and burnt 100 dvd’s of Ghettomoto that were distributed between the artists involved in the production and 20 United struggle T-shirts that were so popular even mine went missing off the clothes line.
Nairobi West Prison
United Struggle has teamed up with Sauti Academy (Natalie and Insect) to run workshops in Kenyan prisons, it has had an amazing response from the prisoners, so much talent and enthusiasm. It has been an uplifting experience for all involved. To see a whole room of prisoners up dancing and rapping was wild. We have recorded 4 songs so far and many more to come.
Next up we are planing our trip to Daadab and Kakuma refugee camps with a crew of artists from Nairobi.. so stay tuned 4 some deadly tracks .. p.s.. thanx to all those producers that have been sending beats.. keep them coming they are much appreciated xx
Message for our friends out there; we are doing fine Bassi is at school here in Kangami he has a crew of about 20 kids that follow him everywhere and is as wild as ever with extreme sports in open sewer jumping (a little stressful at times). Life has certainly been epic but hay thats the way i like it and i have been blessed to meet so many amazing people and overcome numerous difficulties with just enough seconds to spare. So thanx for all your love and support sorry i don’t write so often coz i still type with one finger. The proof of the mission will be in the music and video that I’ll be sending your way soon xx big luv and fine adventures xx izzy
Ghettomoto dancers were started by my housemate in Kangemi Jane aged 14 and her friend Martha when they were dancing around the room testing out their latest dance moves. She may have been inspired by the event a week before, I had been performing at a concert in Kibira and had brought Jane along to check it out. There she saw a dance troop of girls her age performing. So after seeing her enthusiasm for dancing around the house I told them they should get a group together. Well they took this suggestion very seriously and started recruiting half the neighborhoods teenagers and insisting on rehearsing everyday in the small room we shared.. Dance rehearsals became fierce competition to any recording and even cooking in such a confined space. Next came costumes, mini skirts, matching bandanas and trips to the salon to get there hair done at 5am, teenagers can be high maintanence at times but worth every super I fed them. They rocked the stage at the Ghettomoto launch and drew the crowds at Mukuru, even after the generator died the second time, they danced all day and at every birthday and church event from that day forth.
Poverty Transition Initiative
One night in a matatu (taxi bus) I met a fellow named Fredric Ohduimbo he is a kenyan political activist who had been beaten and tortured by government security after confronting president Kabuki about issues of poverty. He invited me to come to the orphanage school he is supporting. Insect, Farouq and me recorded the song Haki with Fredric and the students in solidarity with his project Poverty Transition Initiative.
Daadab Refugee Camp
After waiting in suspense for weeks to see if we had obtained permits from the U.N to visit Daadab refugee camp near the border of Somalia we (me, my son Bassi and 3 artists/film makers from Nairobi -Timo Insect and Fauouq ) finally heard 2 days before we where due to leave that it was on.. After having no success in obtaining a 4 wheel drive for free with such sort notice we decided to revamp the old pergot 504 I’d spotted sitting in pieces in Faruoq’s studio in Nairobi. It had been his fathers car from the1980’s and had a cracked wind screen, missing light, flat tyres, a lot of rust and numerous mysterious engine issues (some never solved up to today). It was a bit of effort to get her on the road. After two solid days of fixing and a midnight graffiti mission during which we practically lost a wheel she was ready to role. We set off at dawn and after braking down about 10 times on the first day and being towed by a public bus some where near Thika it had become apparent that we had missed the armed U.N. convoy we where supposed to travel with through the supposedly bandit ridden roads on the way to Dadaab and were left to make it on our own.. we were determined and after fixing the car about 20 more times on random roadsides we made it to Garissa.
From Garrisa we were told it was impossible to get to Daadab with out 4 wheel drive and we could not afford to hire one.. we were at a loss, I’m sure the Aid organization we were supposed to be working with had given up hope of our arrival since we had not appeared with the convoy. I roamed the streets of Garrisa asking random people about 4 wheel drives but to no avail. Then we found out that there was a public bus so we took from the car as much as we could carry and headed for the bus station. It was a hairy ride as busses raced neck and neck through sand dunes.
At last we arrived. Daadab it was very hot but we were keen to get to work. We went to the gate of the UN compound to try and find the crew we were supposed to be working with, unfortunately everybody’s phones where off so it took a while for the guards to locate anyone. The compound instantly made me feel uneasy, we were surrounded by 2 layers of razor wire fencing on the far side of the fencing, I could see children playing and my son waved to them, as they waved back I wished there was not these big fences between us so that at least they could play. As we waited in limbo for instructions from some higher authority, it struck me we were hostage by a million dollar beuroracy of air-conditioned officers in a razor wire compound of double standards.
We waited at our allocated tent in the Care compound for further instruction, later that night we where informed that it was illegal for me to have a child in the compound (even though his permit had been approved) and having him there was putting the aid organization at risk. We were told to leave on the first bus in the morning, we were not allowed to leave the compound to record or film anything. After much debate we were prevented from relocating into the local community and then were forcefully escorted to the bus.
The bus was hectic, so bumpy it felt as though ones bones would fall out, half the passengers were arrested and taken off into the desert at random check points never to be seen again and it took 6 hours instead of 2 with constant ID checks and harassment of the Somalli passengers who could not afford to bribe the Kenyan police for there safe passage out of the camp.
Once we got over the initial despair of our experience in Daadab we decided to find some locals in Garrisa to record with while we waited to hear back from the aid organization if we could come back or not. On our first morning back I awoke to the sound of the cleaners scrubbing the stair case and singing so sweetly in their baggy uniform in the morning light. Due to my lack of local language and considering what I was explaining being an abstract concept I don’t think the girls fully understood my invitation to come and record. But Insect managed with a bit of flirting in there local dialect to convince them to come back in there lunch break and record a song, they were very shy but we did manage to record a beautiful chorus with them before they had to go back to work..
Insect met a guy named Zabu in the street near where we were staying, he invited him to come and record, he had never recored before and was very excited, by the end of the next day we had recored his song “See My Life” and filmed the music video. This session made being stuck in Garrisa all worth while.
A reggae artist named Shoeshine Boy approached me about organizing a concert in Mukuru, a slum on the east side of Nairobi. It was short notice but we pulled it together. We got a sound system crew from Kangami and headed over. The morning began with a dead body on the road in Kengami followed by a flat tyre, on the way in to Mukuru there was so much mud we had to get out of the car and walk in, so that the sound system didn’t get bogged.. it was grey and rainy and on arrival we discovered there was no power (and hadn’t been for a few days), after much searching we hired a generator but it broke just as the crowds had gathered. We managed to find another one and by the time we got the party started the sun had come out, the Ghettomoto dancers brought back the crowds and Mukuru rocked on with their impressive line up of local reggae stars.
Kakuma Refugee Camp
Latest report ..just got back from Kakuma on a public bus which was over 24 hours of roads so bouncy my teeth felt loose and with a small but heavy boy with diarrhea on my lap. But it was all worth it. We were blessed to meet a Sudanese artist on the bus by the name of Lionman who invited us to stay with his family inside the camp. The hand-built mudbrick hut made a hot but great recording studio.
Within the first hour of our arrival we recorded a Reggaeton song about H.I.V. and another song about drug abuse with a Sudanese artist called Bolingo. The only problem was no electricity and the lap top battery was flat. The studio was already in high demand with artists from Congo, Burundi and Eritrea awaiting there chance to record.
So we hit the main street of Kakuma camp in search of a shop with electricity to charge the laptop. Unfortunately we were apprehend by some rather drunk security guards who loudly reported over and over on their radios that they had caught a ‘white lady’. Our Sudanese host Lionman attempted to explain to them that I was his producer and was there under his private invitation. But they insisted that because i was a ‘white lady’ I had to have a permit from the U.N. or my presence was illegal, at this stage they had paid little attention to Farouq, my Kenyan colleague who with his mass of dreadlocks did not look particularly like the other refugees either. I told them to close there eyes and then we could all be black together and it would not be a problem.
We where eventually taken to the Head Guards office who was an obnoxious fellow who made all sorts of threats and accusations of being arrested at gun point and air lifted out. He then left us waiting in his office while he went to do who knows what.. I made the most of this and charged the laptop batteries in his absence.. By now it was getting late and hunger and tiredness from the big journey where setting in. My son who still recalled our traumatic experience in Daadab, was feeling wary of this man and our fate of waiting in offices and began winging to go back home to the mud hut and other children.
After negotiating a bribe for the equivalent of $5 he changed his tune and said he would escort us to the police station and negotiate our release as opposed to us being collected at gun point in the back of a truck. So off to the police station we went as we were now apparently arrested. Here, we and our host were reprimanded for our naïvety and told we had to go to the office first thing in the morning and make arrangements.
We attempted to do the right thing and went to the office the next day only to find it closed, we then returned later that afternoon to meet with the boss who said we could only get permission to be in the camp if we had permits from Nairobi.. Well we weren’t about to go back to Nairobi for a piece of paper that they probably wouldn’t give us and the processes to obtain one by email was lengthy. We were out of cash to engage in any bribery so sencing his hostility to our pleas for help, we decided to cruise back into the camp… via the back way… down the river bed and through the maze of prickly fences. We knew now attention had been drawn to us so we had to lay low. From that point we were hiding out and on the run. It seemed ironic to be the persecuted minority on the run from the authority in a refugee camp. I’ll be claiming for asylum from the UN for being persecuted for my belief in music and disregard for bureaucracy. Its enough to get u locked up these days if your a ‘white lady’.
On our way back to the mud hut studio we met a group of Congolese artists, we wasted no more time with any bureaucracy and recored 2 songs with Chis Black and Innocent – Kifo Cha Mama (this was about losing his mother) and Ukimwi Kawaida Unaunwa (about H.I.V.). The
next morning we recorded a song with another Congalise artist Makiwa Fanatic King of Music called Ukimwi ni Hatari, this was also about H.I.V.
We then proceeded with a gang of kids and others we picked up along the way to film a music video for Lionman called Stand Together, a song he had recorded in Nairobi about rebuilding Sudan.
We had many dramas related to electricity (next time I’m bringing a solar panel). So we waited at the Congolese house for the rest of the day for power to come back on. In this time we had a wicked freestyle cypher and put together the group track ‘Life is the War’ featuring 8 artists from Congo, Sudan, Burundi and Australia. The power at last came back a bit after dark and after an epic recording session we snuck back to the secret head quarters for a feast of engera and meat from Mama Junia.
The next day we roamed the river bed with a massive posse filming the video for Life is a War, we were then invited to a Sudanese cultural event to film the festivities. There was a lot of talking then some great cultural dancing and singing from the women.
We sat down to a massive feast with the community and then we were again questioned by the same security guard who seem surprised to still find us in the camp.. with the support and a few words from the Sudanese community he soon left us alone. Perhaps we were again getting a little too comfortable and from now on we were defiantly on alert. I was later told a story that in 2002 the Kenyan police had killed many Sudanese in this part of the camp, the Sudanese had fought back drawing the UN’s attention to the issue, making it a bit of a no go zone for the Kenyan police since that time.
The cultural event soon turned in to an all night disco driven by the most distorted pair of small hi-fi speakers I’ve ever heard but I still managed to dance despite the fact that I could barley recognize the songs through the distortion. In between the all night disco we returned home to edit the events of the day and Lionmans video, we were leaving the next day for Nairobi.. i had strategically erased the endurance test of the bus trip from my mind.
So many people wanted to record, it was heat braking to turn them down but I promised I’ll be back. The demand is huge, the talent immense and an honor to work with such survivors. I was still burning CD’s for the artists at the bus stop up until we left.
I’ve have just been informed that the the afternoon we left security forces raided the camp where we were staying, unable to find us they took our hosts in for questioning.. I’m yet to hear the full story but it makes you wonder what it is they thought we were filming and more importantly what is it they have got to hide.
Back in Kangemi
After another arse flattening ride back to Kangemi Nairobi I received a call from Paul aka M-baba a blind guy from Handicap International who we met working in Daadab. He was disappointed things had gone the way they had on our visit and was keen to record a song. He made his way to Kangemi and amazingly on arrival freestyles 2 tracks ‘Stop the War’ (in Somalia) and a drum’n’bass techno party track called ‘Katika’, he is like the next generation Stevie wonder.
Up until the last hour in Kenya I was still receiving calls from people wanting to record. I hate to turn down any creative endeavor so we were busy till the end when I handed over the recording equipment to Insect to continue the United Struggle Project in my absence. Next time (with your continuing support) maybe we will have the mobile solar powered studio bus and have enough equipment that we can leave recording set ups with people we train in each location coz the demand is great and the power of music to unite, educate and heal is so far reaching… even border braking… if given a chance.
Truly amazing, amidst a sea of sieges assassinations and suicide bombings was a bubble of creativity good times and rock n roll that managed to stay unshaken by any of the resent attacks.. down in a crusty basement in kabul with just a strobe light minimal oxygen and few guitar amps were rock gigs every night of the week leading up to soundcentral festival, featuring bands from Kabul Harrat Uzbekistan and Kezecstan the vibe was somewhere between an indie kids gig in their parents garage and an early 90’s squat party in berlin, power cut mid set ended in a crowd of afghans beat boxing as i continued rapping in torch light.
I found my self at a reggae party and even a techno party, Afghanistan was the last place i thought id be dancing and drinking the night away. It is a place of the most extreme dichotomies as the kids play in the street and the old man sells water melons on the corner and life goes on under the shadow of black hawk helicopters.
Sound Central brought together 4 afghan bands and numerous other local artists for a week of workshops prior to the festival. We ran a series of workshops from guitar sound effects, to stage presence and I even ran an air guitar workshop. We split the bands up, forming 4 new bands with different members from each group and gave them 4 days to write a new song, merging many different genres. It was certainly creativity put to the test, to throw young afghan artists off the deep end in the world of freestyle jamming and experimentation, but the results turned out to be very interesting.
I recorded a Tom Waits cover with altered lyrics in Fasi of a very political satirical nature with Morcha from Harat who are band from playing in the home town and who i all so discovered are anarchist. (the only ones I came across in Kabul.. so far)
I also got them to record a Hip hop song Voice from Afghanistan in response to a song a played them” Message to you” by Shikira a14 year old Aboriginal girl from alice springs.
I was lucky to be staying at the hotel with all the bands that had come from other parts of Afghanistan and the other ‘Stans’, This lead to nightly hotel room jams of gin drinking hashish smoking kebab eating mayhem and cross cultural song and dance exchanges.
I was honored to have the experience to hang out with the MMCC, Mobile Mini Circus for Children, a circus school in Kabul and tour with them to 2 schools to perform, a girls school in the city and a school in the old city outskirts of Kabul, I got hang out and share my limited acrobatic and fire juggling skills with kids and bare witness to the safe haven of colour and life and the loving fun learning environment created by the dedicated crew at the mini circus home base http://www.afghanmmcc.org/
The festival ran surprisingly smoothly once it was underway to the relief of everybody especialy Trav and Ellie who had only managed to confirm the venue the day before. The venue for Sound Central was amazing open air castle like structure with views of the gardens from the surrounding walls and rocky mountains towering up behind the stage, The power source was a little problematic with electric shocks coming of the microphones and a single bare wire plug running the hole show, but the concert went a head only stopping for 15min intervals for the call to prayer. The concert opened with Morcha from Harat and was followed by my band the Puppet government doing a freestyle rap metal thing.. i was sweating under that burka . the next two bands White city (ex pats) and tears of the sun from Uzbekistan both featured rockin’ female vocalist that broke many of the stereotypes of how women are expected to behave and had amazing crowd response and enthusiasm from both male and female punters alike.
Afghan bands white page and kabul dreams performed for there many dedicated fans who started a wild mosh pit chanting ”white page, white page” and pouring water on their heads.. It felt a bit like ‘big day out” then you look up and see the security with giant machine guns standing on all corners and remember where you are. Eklektika and District unknown played into the night with emo rock and doom metal.. wow we did it.. and its looking like an anual event. http://soundcentralfestival.com
20,000 people have been displaced from the Boeung Kak
lake area in iby Shukaku inc. the development company headed
by a senator of a ruling Cambodian Peoples Party,
These are the voices of these brave women and there families who have remained to protest these forced eviction as there homes are being destroyed and the lake filled with sand
Peace love and music.. and dancing xx
This trips budget was $2500 from benefit concerts in Melbourne and $2300 from private donors all of which was spent on putting on the events in each place and on the equipment I left behind to continue the project. All artist received copies of there songs and videos. All United Struggle crew and participants where totally volunteer. Thanxs so much for your support, we got big dreams and want to make this sustainable. Maybe a “United Struggle” record label.. I’m no business person but if there is someone out there with skills in that field and can donate there time to promote the artists and maybe market a compilation CD/DVD of there work let me know…. I’ll keep the tunes coming.
For all these songs and more go to