Writing to one another and talking on zoom over the course of a month, Oscar and Portrait discuss their political and artistic motivations for writing about migration, and highlight some important voices and initiatives for people to support.
Oscar Jerome is a London-grown guitarist, vocalist and composer whose work pays homage to the greats that came before while always striving to reach somewhere new. Brother Portrait is a writer, artist and musician, and a believer in the importance of cultural production, expression and archiving. The session was shot by Sonder Films, featuring Lily Carassik on Trumpet, Ayo Salawu on drums, Crispin Spry on percussion and Tom Driessler on Bass, with styling by Chaniel Abwola and Milam Huynh.
Brother Portrait: Hey Oscar, hope you and yours are safe and well. I’m excited to get this video out. We made it last summer during that window when lockdown was lifted, but the song itself is a couple years old now. When did the idea first come to you?
Oscar Jerome: Hey Portrait, all good thanks, I hope you are too. It’s been a bit of a long process… thanks for the patience!
The original motivation for writing this song came from visiting my brother in Paris a few years ago. I noticed the many Syrian refugees sleeping in metro stations and under bridges along the Seine – a situation we had been less directly exposed to in London. Walking by the river I found myself standing in front of Notre Dame Cathedral, a symbol of the Catholic ideology and wealth that France was originally built on and still benefits from despite the public division between church and state.
The first thing that sprung to mind was Mary, Joseph and Jesus fleeing Bethlehem for Egypt to escape persecution as refugees, depicted on the walls of this iconic French building as holy and virtuous. Yet the people I had passed minutes earlier, who have been through unimaginable challenges and deserve nothing but respect and care, are forced to sleep on the streets. The blatant hypocrisy was mind-blowing.
The song is not meant as a criticism of France alone, but of Europe’s failing asylum system as a whole, and how media representations and statistics enable many of us in Europe to separate ourselves from the individuals making this journey.
BP: I think one can become numb to the numbers. The reality is that each represents a life linked to so many others; each is a person who is dreaming, hoping, scared. But for me, ultimately, that’s also the point of connection. Each is a life like mine, just in a different space and time. The way that the asylum system reduces people to numbers and responsibility to quotas is awful and dehumanising.
And I hear you on the hypocrisy. I remember in 2019 when as much as $1 billion was raised in the blink of an eye after the Notre Dame fire, while migrant camps on the outskirts of Paris were demolished. Just recently the Paris police violently broke up an occupation by migrants and activists protesting the forced eviction of the Saint-Denis migrant camp which left about 1000 people homeless. I can’t help but see such events as related. It’s a reminder that the resources, the means, are available. The question is: who has them and where they are directed? What are people willing to defend? What appeals to our sense of moral duty and responsibility? What do we value?
So is the ‘saint’ of the song’s title solely a religious reference or does it speak to something or somebody else?
OJ: The perverse and destructive “civilizing missions” of the 15th to 20th centuries were most often in the name of Christianity, so the ‘saint’ in the title and the biblical references throughout the song are a criticism of European powers – like France, the UK and Portugal – for not recognising how their colonial histories are directly linked to unrest being experienced all over the world.
And now, reflecting on this in the current context, I was interested in how capitalism has become a religion of sorts. As you said, to whom or what do we assign value? Money and power are worshipped as saints, and the most vulnerable are either exploited by the system or rejected by it.
BP: We’re in a neo-colonial world; the mechanisms may have changed, but the present often appears to me as a shape-shifting past. The fact that the UK exports arms to countries on its own human rights watch list shows the ease with which it is still contributing to destabilisation and destruction.
OJ: When I first approached you to collaborate on this song, what came to mind? I’ve always looked up to you and your ability to tell stories, empathise and transport people through your work, so I knew you would be able to bring an insight and perspective that the piece would benefit from. What were your motivations in working on this?
BP: I was probably a bit fearful, but that is often my reflex! Doubting I could or should be attempting to write on an issue of this magnitude. It always feels like a big responsibility and I never feel up to the task.
But similar to you, I balk at the dehumanisation I witness and want to see in its place empathy, understanding and listening. Human history is a story of migration, movement and exchange. I’d rather us be a collaborative rather than combative species, less manipulated by fear and scarcity.
Furthermore, I’m a product of migration. For my parents there was a hopefulness I’m sure, though their country was collapsing economically and politically. For the generation of Sierra Leoneans that followed, almost half a million fled during civil war with millions more displaced within the country. A time many I know still find difficult to talk about. Yet I see the beauty in their strength and resilience always.
When you first asked me to write something for this song, I don’t recall you telling me about the experience you had in Paris – though I knew you were writing about refugees and forced migration. Why did you go down the route of using the metaphor of the river Styx?
OJ: In a sense, it had to be metaphorical and abstract because there is obviously no way I can actually know what this journey is like. The metaphors I used came from observing that the path people take into Europe from North Africa and Turkey holds many similarities with the journey that souls take to the afterlife in Greek mythology.
The notion of ‘damned souls’ walking along the river Styx also reminded me of the UKIP posters seen around the UK in June 2016, showing a long line of people walking through Europe with the caption ‘breaking point’. It’s images like this in the media that dissolve into the minds of the public and law makers and eventually result in the violent and dangerous responses we see on Europe’s borders. For example, the EU’s border agency Frontex has recently been illegally helping Greek authorities violently push people back into Turkish waters before they have even had a chance to apply for asylum.
Our media is also guilty of merging a huge spectrum of personal experiences into one, often conflating the terms ‘refugee’, ‘migrant’ and ‘asylum seeker’, almost always with negative connotations. Ahmad Danny Ramadan, a Syrian-Canadian author and LGBTQ-refugee activist, puts it like this:
“The word ‘refugee’ has become a polarized and politicalized word that carries a certain conflict: people have the space to jump in and decide based on their limited lived experiences what a refugee is and what kind of a life we lead. People find it completely normal to decide what fates we should have and what roads we should take… It gets hard sometimes, when we are simplified into one segment of who we are, when our identities are merged and melted into the word ‘refugee’.”
What was the story you were seeking to tell in your verse, Portrait?
BP: It’s a verse that talks about fear and despair, of having to leave behind everything you know. It’s a scale of loss I can’t begin to fathom. How much courage and faith that must require.
Lyrically I tried to meditate on the sea of feelings present in anyone making such a journey, keeping it fluid between metaphor and reality. Like with “now home is a burial ground / testing faith and grace”, which on the one hand is a reference to descending from an earthen grave into the Styx, and on the other is about the horrors of fleeing a war-torn country, cursing the heavens for your plight, arriving in Europe and facing a new Hell.
I know we both share the same sentiment, that the story isn’t ours yet the issue is one we wish to speak on and are impacted by. We have an emotional response, a feeling of anger towards the actions taken in our name as citizens of this country.
OJ: Yeah, the position and purpose of someone outside the lived experience of a refugee or migrant is definitely something I’ve thought about a lot since we started writing this. As a white cis male European citizen the reality is my voice is so much more protected than that of a refugee or migrant. As musicians in the UK we can help in presenting a different narrative to the one of demonisation and dehumanisation that we so often see in mainstream media, without silencing those who can amplify their own struggles. As European citizens we have a responsibility to hold our authorities to account for the awful things they are allowing and enabling.
From 2014 to 2020, just over 26,000 people were resettled in the UK. All refugees and pending asylum cases in the UK combined make up less than 0.29% of our population. Compare that to the 3.6 million that Turkey is being paid to detain on the edge of Europe. We have the capacity to do so much more.
This is just a song and is ultimately not going to directly impact the crisis, but if it can encourage people to have conversations, write to their MP, sign petitions, protest or give support to some initiatives, then that is a good thing. What would you hope to be the legacy from this piece?
BP: I have humble expectations really. Like you said, this isn’t a song that will change the world, but I hope it opens some ears and hearts. I’m a firm believer in the ability of art to do that, to give insight into the lives of others. Fiction and creative non-fiction has done that for me many times over, most recently through the latest London Migration Film festival; I watched lots of films on the programme during lockdown. The Migration Collective runs this and has done some other great projects that centre personal experiences of migration.
Art is just one angle, but a necessary one, alongside support networks, advocacy, campaigning, protest. It must come from all sides.
There’s a line in the song I want to ask you about: “a scholar caught in the rain/unnoticed unnamed”. What are you saying there?
OJ: It refers to the normal lives that people were living before being forced to leave their homes – not only the many scholars that have had to leave their studies, but also the bakers, shop keepers, farmers, carpenters, teachers, doctors, lawyers, scientists, artists, musicians…
In an Amnesty International article about her family’s resettlement in Norway, 29-year old Syrian musician Sherihan Kahraman said: “In Aleppo our life was simple, we went to work, made dinner, and spent time with family or friends. I played the flute at a music institute. I had many dreams. We were saving up to buy a nice car and big house – a place to raise a child. You know, stuff that everyone wants.”
In your verse there is a line “All missed calls and calling.” What are you saying here?
BP: I had in mind the image of someone trying to maintain contact and connection – to home, lost ones and loved ones. Someone who is lost trying to connect to others who search for them still.
OJ: I want to thank you for working on this track and having this conversation; I’ve learnt a lot from you in the process. This is probably a good point to wrap up the chat and highlight some initiatives that people can support:
Sea Watch Crew – Patrolling the Mediterranean Sea and safely bringing boats to European shores.
Now You See Me Moria – A migrant lead campaign to draw attention to the conditions in Moria Camp, Lisbos.
Fairbeats – A charity based in South London giving music education to children refugees.
The Migration Collective – A group using art and expression to share experiences of, and challenge the mainstream rhetoric on migration.
Refugee Youth – Dedicated to improving the lives of refugees aged 14-20 at different points in their journey. Building emotional wellbeing, confidence and community through creative projects designed and developed with young refugees.
BID – Bail for Immigration Detainees – A charity challenging immigration detention in the UK through free legal advice, information and representation.
The Bike Project – Donate your old bike to help refugees travel for free in Birmingham and London.