Arts + Culture
Tobi Kyeremateng. Photo by Gabriel Mokake.

'I See Theatre as Babylon': Tobi Kyeremateng Is the Producer Celebrating the Impact Black British Youth Have on London Culture

In our conversation with Tobi Kyeremateng, we learn about her upcoming BABYLON Season at the Bush Theatre and what it means to truly champion black and brown voices in creative spaces.

As a second generation person of African descent, the arts and its various creative mediums provide a safe space for the diaspora to come together to explore the nuances of dual heritage and the far removed, presumed career choice pressures of being a doctor or a lawyer. For cultural producer Tobi Kyeremateng, her life experiences living in this said duality have informed why she is the powerhouse she is in the UK's creative scene—where she focuses on theatre, poetry, festivals and film.

Born to a Ghanaian father and a Nigerian mother in South London, Kyeremateng was brought up on a strong soundtrack of Whitney Houston, Pentecostal church songs and afrobeat. After joining OvalHouse Theatre at 16 and reading the BAFTA award-winning random by Black British playwright debbie tucker green during college, these catalysts started her formative journey into producing for the stage. She has worked with The Roundhouse, Glastonbury Festival and collaborated with The Prince's Trust. Recently named on the The Stage 100, a list reflecting the most influential people working in the theatre and performing arts, Kyeremateng is also the founder of the Black Ticket Project—and program that provided free access to London shows for black young people and BAMworks, an initiative which connects minority ethnic producers across the UK.

The forthcoming BABYLON Season at the Bush Theatre in West London is a program the burgeoning producer co-created which encompasses a celebration of black and brown cultural innovators and a ground-breaking production which fuses live-streamed performances around the globe. The season opens at the venue from Feb. 4 to 9 with BABYLON Festival—a week-long takeover which celebrates the influence of black and brown people on London culture.

We speak with the BABYLON co-creator and executive producer on taking over the Bush Theatre, championing black voices and what to lookout for at the forthcoming festival.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Christian Adofo for OkayAfrica: I found this quote about you from a few years ago when you were starting out—"You have got a passion for finding emerging talent and have a great eye and ear for identifying artists with a fresh perspective and voice." How does sitting at the intersection of race, class and gender inform your search for new work?

Tobi Kyeremateng: I think in this industry, I have seen a lot of stories from the same kind of people. I think inevitably you will get to a point where you think, "Do I even exist?" It was less about where are the stories about me and more like feeling invisible but super visible at the same time. Yeah there are no stories about you on stage, but at the same time you're still sitting here and working in this building. You're still a part of this sector and so I think I just wanted to see that because it exists. There are lots of things I've watched which don't have elements of my identity on stage, but when you do watch something that is encompassing of all those identities I think something very special happens. I want it to be the standard and I wanted to know that I could go to any venue and see myself represented in some kind of way. So I make it a mission to look for those stories as they're my stories and as long as I'm existing as a human being those stories have to exist as well.

Photo courtesy of Tobi Kyeremateng.

With regard to that, I've always felt theatre as an inaccessible network but it's also one of the rare mediums where you can still feel fully immersed and not look toward your phone. How do you feel about theatre at present in the wider arts landscape within the UK?

I think the industry is at a real place of flux. I feel like this flux is a little bit accidental and I don't think as an industry we were intentionally progressing to get to this stage. I think we've arrived at this stage and everyone is a bit like, "Oh we should be doing more to get further" but no one knows how we got here in the first place. We are seeing more artists of color as artistic leaders of physical venues; we are seeing work on stage that represents a wider demographic than historically the industry has.

The last couple of years have been monumental for that and seeing those stories on bigger stages, so more people will have hopefully seen those stories. I don't think we should take that for granted. The real work starts now about how you keep that consistent so it isn't just a case of lip service and then we're just gonna revert to what we were doing before anyway. It feels like there are lots of really important conversations happening around class, artistic leadership, around critics. That for me feels like that there is a sense of community here. Things are being interrogated in a way that you have to respond to and I think stuff like that is going to be a catalyst to make some big changes in our industry.

After having the critically acclaimed Misty transfer from here (Bush) to the West End, Trafalgar Studios and Nine Night go to the same venue. How do you move on from a point where it's a landmark play being the first, to it being the norm alongside plays that have been performed for years?

I feel like that's what we'll see over the next 2 years whether that consistency stays. I think the venues are realizing that there is capital in this work—business wise it makes sense and these audiences want to see these shows. That's why they are programming all that work and when you think about it, it's bittersweet as it means that they are still testing the waters and it means that there is still a kind of racialized risk around that kind of work.

I think time will answer that, but venues need to stop looking at risk in that way and they need to start seeing that it makes sense. They need to commission more new writers and not just program the same person over and over again because you know their work is good. More new work on our stages that can grown and have a life.

How have you found the response from young people being able to access theatre since you started the Black Ticket Project?

When you start to see those stories on stage you can relate to and are in a form that you understand which you feel something about, it does change how you think. When I read random, I was like, "Oh this is there, and you don't know what you don't know." I think as more young people start to see work, they start talking about it more and a lot of that audience growth is down to trust about seeing people that they trust, talking about a piece of work and going to see it off the basis of that. That word of mouth in that community is important.

BABYLON Festival artwork courtesy of Tobi Kyeremateng.

You were selected onto the Up Next program as an executive producer at the Bush Theatre and this takeover has culminated in co-creating BABYLON. How have you found the process of building the festival from scratch?

It's been a rollercoaster. Thinking about leadership in this way has been amazing. It was really brilliant to sit under Madani (former director of Bush Theatre) and really watch closely what his leadership looked like and how you develop your own artistic leadership model, ethos—how you get an organization to back that and support that. That's the whole point of Up Next [in terms of] what are the barriers that are stopping people from getting into artistic leadership roles and it gets to a point where it's all about nepotism. There are a lot of things I've learnt about myself, things I've had to fight for—which has been the most interesting thing for me in terms of what my priorities are, what things I am willing to let go and what things I will absolutely will fight to have.

The term BABYLON has many different connotations particularly when referenced from the Rastafarian context and talking about the West. Why did you choose to settle on this name?

I think we really liked the fact that Babylon has so many different meanings. There isn't a way to capture all of those meanings in one thing so I feel it was nice that people could de-code it for themselves and approach it from a different perspective. For me, I wanted to amplify the people who are affected by this the most and in a way that was celebratory and wasn't about trauma but was about joy, cultural innovation, being pioneers and being influencers of several cultures. That's the thing I wanted to amplify. I see it in a similar context as you do. I see theatre as Babylon. Being a microcosm of London as Babylon. The UK being Babylon.

The program blends theatre alongside many creative mediums via poetry, music and even voguing. Amidst Brexit and the rapid gentrification of London, how important is it to take up space and provide commentary as the daughters and sons of black and brown migrants?

A consistent space which is taken over by black and brown people in Europe doesn't exist or is constantly under threat in some kind of way by different authorities. For me, also looking at theatre specifically and theatre venues knowing that a lot of our spaces are publicly funded. Knowing that we are contributing to these spaces being open and being alive but we are simultaneously excluded from them. That doesn't make any sense to me. For me the question was always how do we take up space, what does it mean to take up space and what a consistent space looks like being taken over by that community. For me it's a space which is fully taken over by that demographic doing what they want to do and they're living their best lives and they're bringing people with them and the space is just inhabited and taken over and what the possible legacy of that might be.

What do you recommend we look out for in BABYLON?

I'm really looking forward to Skin Deep's Sonic Transmissions which is part music gig, part live interview with an incredible artist called Moses Boyd. Cocoa Butter Club are going to be amazing. They're doing a cabaret show, a nipple tassel making workshop and an afterparty. I think that's gonna be so fun (laughs). Touching Bass are going to be amazing and I am excited. Also N-Erd Council. The nerd world isn't my forte and I don't know much about it, but I feel like there is something for everyone.

Lastly. What does the future hold for you after the festival?

I honestly have no idea but I'm very much going with the flow. This year I'm playing around with a lot of different things that I haven't done before. I'm doing some films stuff which is cool, producing my first independent show about carnival that's happening in the summer. Doing a guest lecture. I feel like all these new things will inform the rest of the year and where it takes me.

The BABYLON season runs from Feb. 4 to 16 at the Bush Theatre in London. Check out the full program here.

OkayAfrica and B4Bonah Share New 'B4Beginning' Capsule Collection

We've teamed up with the Ghanaian artist ahead of the release of his debut project for some colorful new merch.

Rising Ghanaian star B4Bonah, premieres his catchy debut track "See Body," and to mark the song's release, OkayAfrica has teamed up with the artist to share a new collection of tees, that'll fit nicely into your summer wardrobe.

The artist's latest track is a party jam, that sees him flowing "over an earworm flute melody and afrobeats percussion," using "his rasping flow to celebrate the girl of his dreams." The track was produced by J.Rocs.

B4Bonah - See Body

In conjunction with the song's release, two new shirt designs are available for preorder at our Okayshop. The vibrant shirts feature the artist's image on colorful blue and green colored blocks, with the words "B4BONAH B4BEGINNING," on the back—referencing the artist's debut mixtape, which is slated for release in late July. The project features Medikal, Mugeez (R2Bees), Amaarae & Ivy Sole.

B4Bonah is an artist to watch, as he continues to make his presence known in the Ghanaian music scene.

Watch the music video for "See Body" above, and head to now to pick up to pre-order a shirt (or two). You can also preorder B4Bonah's B4beginning mixtape here.


Watch EL, Joey B and Falz' New Video for 'Ehua'

Ghana meets Nigeria in this hilarious new clip.

Ghanaian rappers EL and Joey B connect with Nigeria's Falz for this addictive new collaboration and music video for "Ehua."

"Ehua" is built on energetic afro-electronic beat work produced by EL himself. Joey B handles the hook while Falz kicks things off early with a solid verse.

The eye-catching and hilarious music video for the single, directed by Yaw Skyface, features EL as a policeman, Falz as the 'oga' bossman, and Joey B as a worker for the Electricity Company of Ghana (ECG).

Falz takes Joey B's woman by showing off his money and status, so Joey B enlists policeman EL to get back at Falz. The plan backfires however as the officer decides to stick around and party with the rich instead of helping the everyday worker out.

For more GH hits check out our Best Ghanaian Songs of the Month roundups and follow our GHANA WAVE playlist on Spotify here and Apple Music here.

Watch the new music video for EL, Joey B and Falz' "Ehua" below.

EL ft Joey B & Falz - Ehua (Official Video)

News Brief
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images.

Nigeria's Super Falcons Were Forced To Threaten a Sit-In Protest Over Unpaid Bonuses After Women's World Cup

After negotiations, the Nigerian Football Federation have agreed to run the players their money.

Nigeria's own Super Falcons had a great run during the Women's World Cup. But instead of the players heading back home or to their respective professional clubs after losing to Germany 3-0, they were forced to strong-arm the Nigerian Football Federation to pay what they're owed.

According to ESPN's initial report over the weekend, the Super Falcons threatened to stage a sit-in protest at their hotel in France until all of their unpaid bonuses dating back to two years ago were paid, along with their World Cup allowances and bonuses.

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