Daar zat ik dan, in Hilversum, studio 24, met kriebels in mijn buik te wachten totdat het mijn beurt was om de coaches te overtuigen die rode knop in te drukken en hun stoelen om te draaien. De zaal zat al vol en ik kon horen hoe de host van de avond het publiek opwarmde en met hen een zo hard mogelijk applaus oefende. Elke keer wanneer het publiek applaudisseerde voelde ik een vlaag van opwinding door mijn lijf gaan. Na enige tijd en een aantal goede tips van de host aan het publiek, (“Ga niet in je neus zitten peuteren, je zult net zien dat er op dat moment een close-up van je wordt gemaakt” en “Steek je hoofd bij die staanplaatsen niet te ver uit, want hier komt een camera loeihard langs rijden!”) werd het ineens doodstil en stapte de eerste kandidaat het podium op.
Via een groot scherm aan de zijkant van het podium kon ik samen met de zes andere kandidaten alles goed meekijken. We hadden warme rode dekentjes om ons heen en een visagiste liep constant rond om onze voorhoofden bij te poederen. “Wat is het podium toch klein!” dacht ik bij mezelf. “Op televisie lijkt alles veel groter…”
De kandidaat begon haar nummer. In spanning keken we mee. Ze had een grote bos krullen en een spetterende outfit aan. Het nummer eindigde, maar geen van de coaches had gedraaid. De tweede kandidaat, een jongen van eind twintig, was nu aan de beurt, maar ook hij eindigde zijn nummer zonder een van de coaches te hebben overtuigd om te draaien.
Ik voelde me rustig, iets wat de weken vooraf aan de auditie wel anders was geweest. Wekenlang liep ik met een knoop in mijn buik en elke keer wanneer ik aan de Blind Audition dacht voelde ik die knoop strakker aantrekken. Ik oefenende m’n nummer de héle dag door en kon nog geen film kijken zonder ondertussen minstens drie keer naar m’n piano toe te rennen om mijn nummer nóg een keer te zingen. Ontspannen was het allerminst. Toen ik eindelijk de tijd nam om te kijken welke gedachte me zo deed stressen vond ik hem: “Ze móeten omdraaien!” En natuurlijk alle stressvolle gedachten die bij deze hoorde, namelijk wat het allemaal zou betekenen als de coaches níet zouden draaien; “Ik kan niet zingen”, “mijn carrière is ten einde”, “niemand zal me ooit nog serieus nemen”, etc, etc, etc.
Na enige reflectie kwam ik tot de conclusie dat het eigenlijk helemaal niet mijn zaak is of er iemand zou omdraaien of niet, dat was namelijk de taak van de coaches. Míjn zaak was het om een geweldig optreden neer te zetten en er zoveel mogelijk van te genieten. Toen ik me niet meer druk hoefde te maken met wat de coaches zouden moeten doen voelde ik een enorme druk van mijn schouders afvallen!
“Neda, je mag met me meelopen”, hoorde ik een van de productie medewerkers achter me zeggen. Vlinders fladderden wild door mijn buik. Ik deed het rode dekentje van mij af en liep naar de zijkant van het podium, waar ik zag hoe twee jongens een zwarte vleugel het podium op rolde. Na een seintje van de productie medewerker was het zover. Ik stapte het trappetje op en liep naar de vleugel toe. Ineens leek alles zo onecht. Ik voelde een enorme vreugde en opwinding door me heen gaan. Recht tegenover me, achter de stoelen van de coaches, kon ik mijn twee broers en neefje zien zitten. Hun gezichten glommen van spanning en trots. Ik lachte naar ze en ging zitten achter de piano. Ik nam diep adem en voelde m’n voeten op de vloer. “Wat fijn dat ik die hoge hakken toch nog heb omgeruild voor slippertjes”, dacht ik nog vlug.
Ik sloot mijn ogen. Gedachten waren er niet meer, en na wat leek als een aantal minuten, opende ik mijn ogen weer en begon te zingen.
“Music means life to me. Its what I will do forever. I don’t think I could ever stop, cause its life to me. I feel it.”
After four days I finally manage to get an interview with ‘King I’, a kind and always smiling artist who stay’s at the Music Crossroads centre. Every time we were about to start the interview, someone would interrupt with a job for him to do. The president of Music Crossroads generously offered him a place to stay at the centre when he heard him record one of his songs in the studio one day. During the week King I works at the centre, hands out instruments to the students, cleans the music rooms or gets airtime for the people at the office. In the weekend he got music classes of his own and he can make use of the recording studio.
“I live as a Rasta”, he says with a big smile on his face, “but you don’t hear it so much through my music. My music is Reggae with a fusion of Malawian traditional music. My Rastafarian culture come’s mostly out in who I am, how I live and how I stay. I don’t eat meat, I don’t drink alcohol and I don’t smoke cigarets. It’s who I am.”
When King I became a Rastafarian people thought it was madness. “They would try to put me down and tell me I would die if I wouldn’t eat meat,” he says.“But it’s my life and my choice. I just live and don’t compare myself with others and I have peace. If they don’t get what I’m saying I just move from them, take my guitar and play music.”
King I explains me how it is actually not strange to have dreads, but very natural. “Just think,” he says, “if someone is born and he will never shave his head, he will have dreads. So everyone has dreads but they cut it. And when they comb their hair they damage the dread. If you don’t comb your hair, you’ll have dreads, it’s natural!”
He let’s me hear one of his songs in which I can clearly hear from his lyrics how much he loves his own country. “Off course we are struggling with poverty”, King I says, “but we live in peace. There is no war. You see, there are other country’s where they are always fighting. And they got so much money and things. Here we are poor but we living peacefully and free. That is why I love Malawi.”
When I ask him if he has any advice for all the country’s in the world who are at war right now he gives me the most simple, but most perfect answer. “They should just stop fighting!”, he says. “We must live as one people. No matter how we appear, or what jobs we have, we are all equal.” He points at my hands and says “You got hands, I got hands. You have nose, I got nose. You have eyes, I have eyes. We are the same! Human is human. That is how I feel.”
When I ask the warden if it’s okay for me to interview one of the boys, he goes and comes back with Michael.
Michael is a 17 year old boy who speaks perfectly English and who is the lead singer of the choir. He is in prison now for 15 months and will be released next year’s may. “Life is very hard”, he says. “It’s hard to even describe how it is cause there are many problems each and everyday.”
Having seen the prison myself, I have no trouble believing him. “The food is not good and the cells are overcrowded”, Michael continues. “The biggest challenge?” he repeats my question. “This”, he says and he shows me his hands. I see that his hands are covered in a kind of rash, and it almost looks like there are small white holes in his knuckles. “They call it prison decease”, he explains me. “We get it because the cells are too overcrowded. They are really painful.”
Micheal tells me how happy he is with the workshops Young in prison and Music Crossroads offer them. He started with dance and HipHop classes and is in the choir class now. “Time goes by so much faster this way”, he says. “It’s hard to stay strong sometimes but there’s gonna be a time where I’m gonna be outside.”
When I ask him what he will be doing when he will be outside, I see his eyes lid up. “When I’m out I will go back to school. I want to finish my education and become a journalist.” “What about the first day you’ll get out?” I ask him. “The first day I’ll get out I will go home and enjoy with my relatives. Next day on the weekend I will ask my father to throw a party for me. We’ll celebrate with my friends. And a lot of food.”
When I step inside the prison cells I can hardly believe this really is where these kids spent most of their days. A very small space, with nothing in it except for a few folded blankets. “This cell holds 42 prisoners”, the warden tells me. I see two boys playing a game, sitting on the stone floor.
The cells surround an open space, where the boys are released from 8 in the morning, till 3 in the afternoon. All of them are wearing white uniforms and I see about ten kids who’s feet are cuffed together. “This is a very mild punishment for when the prisoners misbehave,” the warden explains. I notice how the warden isn’t referring to them as ‘boys’, but strictly as ‘prisoners’. I ask the warden what they did to receive this ‘mild’ punishment and he explains they were trying to sell soap to the other prisoners. When I ask the warden what happens when the boys are getting a harder punishment he replies: “When the prisoners seriously misbehave, we take them back to court. Yes, back in the days we used to beat them, but we don’t do that now anymore.”
When I see the boys participating in the different workshops Young in Prison has to offer I can only imagine what a relieve it must be for them. An hour and a half, two times a week, they can fully engage themselves in a choir, dancing, or band class. The workshop facilitators are amazing. They don’t see the boys as prisoners, but as kids. All the boys are participating with great enthusiasm and the groups are growing bigger every week. “Before Young in Prison and Music Crossroads were here, it was a lot harder to control them,” the warden says. “There were a lot of fightings and even escapes. We notice how good it is to keep them busy. Their days go by a lot faster that way.”
I’m singing along with them in the choir until it’s time for us again to move out. While singing ‘God is holy, God is Mighty’, the boys form a line and the big iron door to the prison cells opens up. The boys step inside the walls, I step outside the walls.
“What a treasure freedom is”, I think to myself.
This is Victor, a 24 year old singer and one of the guys from the postrelease group – a group with guys who just got released from prison. In a session of two hours they all had to make a brainstorm field about their life. After this, I asked them to summarize the most important things and make an introduction, a middle part and an outro. Victor got up second and started telling his story.
“When I was three years old, my father died. He was the only one making money, and after he died, my aunts and uncles took all the money, leaving me, my mother and my three siblings empty handed. After I finished secondary school I wanted to go to a music college, but couldn’t afford to pay for it. When I turned eighteen, my mother also died. I decided to get a job for myself to save up for my music college. At a certain point I got involved with the wrong kind of friends and thought ‘there must be a faster way to get this money!’One thing lead to another and not long after I found myself in jail.”
Victor was telling his story at a tone as if it was any ordinary tale, something I found strange at the moment, but thinking back at it, I sadly think it actually is kind of an ordinary story for the people around here. Looking back at his notes though, I found a touching piece he wrote that I didn’t hear back in his first speech. “After I got arrested I saw life as very bad and I even wished to die. Nobody came to see me when I was in jail. There was very little food, little luck of good water and no freedom to walk out alone or express my own views…”
While in prison Victor got in contact with Young In Prison, who gave him singing and guitar lessons. When he got out, he started to become a roll model for other youths in prison as a lifeskill facilitator and started to focus again on his music. He just recorded a song with a famous Malawian singer, which is playing on the radio right now!
“I hope my story can let other people know that everything’s possible, no matter what obstacles are on your road. Keep moving forwards and don’t look back.”
This is Menes la Plume. A young slam poetry artist I met at the Music Crossroads centre. Menes was forced to run from his homeland Congo, because he was making “political incorrect” music. ”You could go to jail for that?” I ask him. ”You could die for that”, he replies. He arrived in a refugee camp in Malawi where he’s staying now still, together with 15.000 other refugees.
“In my poems I talk to raise awareness about Africa. For instance, nowadays, we all need tablets, smartphones and laptops. Those things come from Africa (Uhhh….I thought everything just comes from China, but after a lil research I find out what he’s talking about is Tantalum, a mineral that is needed for all computer devices and that is mostly found in the East of DRC, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Damn I didn’t even know this and I felt a lil weird later when I was typing this story on my laptop, using the recordings I made of the interview with my smartphone…) Big company’s in Europe and America give money to the war so that people can kill each other and they can have those resources. Not only Tantalum, also Colton. They can have it easily without spending a lot of money and then make a big profit. More then 9 million people past away from the war and it’s not written anywhere.
In all the magazines, we see Rihanna, Shakira, and those people, but you never hear them talk about millions of women getting raped and killed. Everyone’s happy to use their laptops and smartphones, but they don’t know that people are killed for them to have those. Every time I write I’m trying to raise awareness to let people know that in other parts of the world, there are things happening they don’t know about.”
“I hope that the day someone sees a refugee they will see a survivor, not a beggar.”
Check out one of Menes amazing poetry performances “Imagine” right here (chicken bumps guaranteed): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1JFTNgJA1_k Please share!!
“I will not just be famous. I will be even more famous then all these celebrities. You remember when the South African president died and it was on the news all over the world? That’s how it will be when I’ll die. I promise you that.”
I’m listening to the story of David. A nineteen year old boy who is in the post-release program of Young in Prison. When he was very young, his father died. His mother had to work and he was left to be raised by his grandmother. A couple of years ago, he stole money from his mother, who reported him and sends him off to jail for three years. “She blamed me, I blamed her, but in the end, I know it was my fault. She puts me in prison and then she died while I was in there. It was very hard for me when I lost my mother when I was in jail. I couldn’t even go to her funeral.”
Life in prison was clearly not easy for David. As I’ve seen now with my own eyes, the Malawian prison looks like hell compared to our Dutch prisons. “I thought I would die in there. We would get food only once a day; Nsima (sort of like mashed potatoes but then from corn flower) and beans. Every day the same thing. We would sleep on the hard floors with nothing to cover us.” He’s showing me with his footsteps how big the cells were. Something like 5×4 square meters. “We would sleep in one cell with more then 30 boys.” Although David had a hard time, he’s now seeing things from the bright side. “Apparently it was God’s plan for me to go to prison and become a changed man.”
When he met with Young in Prison he started to develop his acting skills and even got his certificate. After he got released he felt like a different person. “I felt like I was born again. Although I sometimes do look back and blame myself for spending such a long time in prison.”
David went back to school and is now determined to become a famous actor. When I ask him where he would see himself in ten years from now he replies: “Ten years? That’s way too long. Let’s say five or seven years. I’ll be very famous. The whole world will know me. I will change the lives of people in prison, in hospitals, and many more. I believe in myself. One day I’m gonna make it and believe me, I’m gonna make it!”