Rachael Cox, Refugee Week
It's easy to think that Rachael Cox, the Programme Manager at Celebrating Sanctuary Birmingham may be more than one person, covering so much ground, accomplishing so much. Moving seamlessly from one challenge to the next. And... entertaining us with the amazing musical events she assembles, most recently of course in the midst of a pandemic lockdown, with the Celebrating Sanctuary Bitesize series of live streamed concerts featuring incandescently brilliant musicians. Millicent Chapanda, Amadou Diagne and Niwel Tsumbu are just some of the names you might have seen. Rachael should have her own stage a WOMAD! How thrilling then, that Rachael found the time to talk to Outsideleft about all of this, and more, and here's how that went...
OUTSIDELEFT: First of all can you talk a little bit about what Celebrating Sanctuary Birmingham (CSB) is, what it does, how it came to be?
Rachael Cox: CSB is a diverse music and arts organisation that supports and promotes the work of refugee and migrant artists. We run a year-round series of World Music events, including the Refugee Week festival, which takes place in venues across the city and aims to promote and celebrate the contribution and resilience of refugees, and to highlight some of the stories and campaigns; We support artists through artist development and collaboration opportunities; We engage with refugees and asylum seekers through our community projects.
CSB was set up in 2002, initially to run the Refugee Week Festival, but over the years the organisation has developed its function and mission to include a much broader, year-round programme.
OUTSIDELEFT: How did you come to be involved?
Rachael Cox: I've been involved with CSB since 2012 when I started as Artist Development Officer, working alongside co-ordinator Isata Kanneh and Artistic Director Sid Peacock. When Isata moved on in 2014 I took over as co-ordinator. I came from a music background and had been part of a community arts collective called PALS Arts & Media. I had also worked for a number of arts organisations. Through PALS I got to know about the Refugee Week Festival and CSB. I loved what they were about and was really excited when I got the opportunity to become part of the team. Over the years the organisation and team have grown and we are now 4, with me as Programme Manager, Sid Peacock Artistic Advisor, Leonie Smith Production Manager and Millicent Chapanda Programme Assistant.
OUTSIDELEFT: How could someone get involved with CSB? How can people help you to do what you do?
Rachael Cox: The main ways in which people can get involved and help us is to support our activities and spread the word. Come along to events when you can and see what we are about. Support the artists we promote and check out their work. We want to share the work of these great artists with as many people as possible.
OUTSIDELEFT: The musicians you work with are so astonishingly accomplished and contribute so much through teaching, sharing, performing, and entertaining. CBS works with two of our absolute favorite musicians Germa Adan and Millicent Chapanda. But The pandemic, of course, the pandemic, has caused you to move some musical activities online with your really great series of Bitesize shows - that can’t have been easy…
Rachael Cox: We are so honoured to have built relationships with some amazing artists from refugee and migrant backgrounds, who as you say contribute so much to our regular programme. Last year we had a whole series of live events planned with some new artists from a range of backgrounds. It was difficult to have to make decisions about postponing and cancelling events and with very little time we managed to bring together an online Refugee Week programme in June. This was something we'd never done before and we really had to learn on the job! But it was important to us to continue supporting and promoting refugee artists through this time. Some real positives came out of this which prompted us to develop our Autumn Livestream series and our Bitesize Spring Series. We wanted to find a way to keep performers performing and to keep audiences enjoying great music.
We've included a combination of artists who we regularly work with: Germa Adan, Millicents Chapanda and Nifeco Costa, but also some new artists like Ava Band, Elias Kacomanolis, Ilias Lintzos and there are some who we've only had the pleasure to work with once before such as Amadou Diagne and Niwel Tsumbu.
Millicent Chapanda and Rachael Cox at Mosely Folk
OUTSIDELEFT: And how has pandemic caused further difficulties for refugees. It seems that for many people their situation was already bordering on impossible…
Rachael Cox: Some of the refugee groups, who we would usually engage with through workshops, invitations to events and other activities have not been meeting, so on top of covid restrictions they've been in real isolation. Also, we often take performances into Initial Accommodation hostels, again this has not been possible since early March 2020, so we have missed being able to offer a bit of light relief to people in dire situations.
OUTSIDELEFT: Although there seems to be a lot of support from the public towards refugees, it’s easy to get the feeling that these quite heroic people I think, once you hear any of their stories, are quite disparaged by the very agencies that could make their lives less difficult. What changes would you make that would improve the situation for refugees once Boris puts you in charge of the program…
Rachael Cox: As a nation, we need to be welcoming and supportive, the UK has a history of migration and of offering sanctuary to people fleeing persecution, going back centuries, and Birmingham is a great example of this. But for so many people who settle here, including the Windrush generation right up to newly-arrived communities, their lives are made very difficult and they often face hostility and prejudice. We need to educate and deal with institutionalised racism and discrimination.
We need to address the global issues that cause people to become refugees in the first place, and understand that if they do, it's not by choice. If more people could look into their own hearts and think, “what if it was me and my family in this situation?” maybe they would feel differently. We need to make it a safe and dignified experience for those who find themselves in this situation, not punish them and make them feel unwelcome!
OUTSIDELEFT: What’s next for CSB…
Rachael Cox: CSB is currently developing our online programme, including some more great performances and artist commissions coming up. Our sights are set on Refugee Week at the moment which kicks off on 14th June. We are planning an online programme plus hoping for a few live events over the summer and into the Autumn, fingers crossed!
2022 is our 20th Anniversary and also The Commonwealth Games in Birmingham so we are hoping for a full and diverse programme showcasing refugee and migrant artists from across the UK and celebrating the diversity and quality that Birmingham artists have to offer.
Millicent Chapanda at the Outsideleft Night Out (Tabla Jedi nearby!)
Celebrating Sanctuary Birmingham here