Featuring the blistering poetry of AFLO. the poet and Priss Nash, and directed by Brighton based filmmaker Sam Parish-Rookes, Wake Up earnestly questions the resilience of the many who stepped forward as allies of the black community in the wake of George Floyd’s death, only to return to a state of apathy once the hashtags stopped trending. Resolutely performed direct to camera and punctuated with jarring news clips and mobile phone footage, DN is honoured to turn our pages over to the trio today to learn how this powerful collaborative project was conceived and delivered, and why your continued focus on and dedication to the Black Lives Matter movement is most definitely required to enact lasting change.
After attending the Black Lives Matter protest in Brighton on June 13th I wanted to do anything I could to help, I’d spent far too many years not paying attention to the mistreatment of Black people whilst actively benefiting from a system that upheld me whilst holding others down purely for their skin colour. Shortly after the June 13th protest BLM Brighton posted on their Instagram stories that they were looking for people to volunteer to help with the next protest, I sent a message saying I was a director and if they’d be interested I’d love to make a film of the march/larger movement, to which they said yes.
They sent me the poem and it blew me away, we didn’t change a word of it.
My plan was to film the July protest and intercut the footage with authentic Black voices (as a white person I was very aware that this isn’t my story to tell) providing the narrative backbone. I’ve always loved spoken word poetry, the range of emotions it can ignite, the unique rhythm and the power with which it can be delivered, so I thought that could be a fantastic way of telling this story. I reached out to AFLO. the poet via Facebook laying out the rough idea which she was on-board with, she mentioned another spoken word artist who she thought would have a good approach to the piece, and that’s how Priss Nash became involved. The three of us met up a couple of days later and discussed the idea further and kept coming back to the sentiment of “you say you’re woke, now stay awake” which then morphed into Wake Up. It was a really great meeting and we went our separate ways, around a week and a half later they sent me the poem and it blew me away, we didn’t change a word of it.
The day of the July protest came and myself and a crew of 4 (3 shooters on Sony FS7s & 1 person capturing stills) arrived early to capture the day, the June protest had been so huge I wanted a large crew to make sure we could get as much coverage as possible. But the number of attendees had plummeted since June, social media feeds had returned to normal and it appeared that a lot of people felt like they’d done their bit and had moved on. This isn’t to take away from the day because the protest was still incredibly powerful, I got to see AFLO. perform for the crowd at The Level and saw numerous other people speak, it was amazing. My crew filmed the entire thing and we got some really powerful footage but it was still frustrating that people seemed to be over it, the very thing AFLO. and Priss had so beautifully and honestly expressed in the poem was unfolding right in front of us.
I wanted to show all these individual moments that make up a bigger picture of pain, hatred and inequality.
The next day AFLO. & Priss came to The Brighton Studio to shoot their performances, crew wise it was just myself and the DP Liam White. We shot the performances on an Arri Amira with 50mm and 85mm Zeiss Ultra Primes, for lighting we used 2 Aladdins and a panel light, there wasn’t any point in overcomplicating it! We spent around 4 hours in the studio running the poem over and over again, watching AFLO. and Priss perform was phenomenal and it became quite emotional at points.
I started editing the next morning and the performance came together quite easily (it helps when your artists absolutely nail it). The piece of music used (Carved In Mayhem by Luke Atencio) is something I’ve loved for many years and I instantly knew it would be perfect for this. It’s full of emotion and has a real propulsion to it, but it also has a tenderness, it really bolsters the poem whilst still allowing the words and the performances to dictate the flow, which can be really hard to pull off with something like this.
I planned on putting the performance sequence together first and then laying the protest footage over the top but when it came to it, it just didn’t work, it felt like it was just one tiny part of this huge story. I started watching the edited performance and as it got to the section where AFLO. names some of the Black lives lost I felt like I wanted to see them, just for a brief moment, to remind myself and the audience that these are real people, not just a hashtag or a meme or a name to shout out at a march, real people who lived and who were crushed by a system that didn’t value them because they were Black.
The first clip I found was CCTV footage of the arrest and death of Rashan Charles, I placed it in the edit and when it flashed up (the clip I use is only 10 frames) with AFLO. saying his name with all her rage and passion I knew it was the right direction to go. I started combing through the edit to pick out moments that I thought would work effectively and started hunting for news clips, phone footage, photographs and screenshots.
I didn’t want these bursts of violence and suffering to sit nicely in the edit, they’re meant to be abrasive and jarring.
Black & white has a timeless feel and although this is a very current piece of work, born out of this explosion in 2020, it’s also heavily inspired by the past, so black & white felt right. I remember reading a quote from Ben Wheatley about shooting A Field In England in black & white, I’m paraphrasing but it was along the lines of “there’s something about it that focuses the image, you’re not distracted by the colours and you can hone in on what’s happening on-screen.”
I decided to keep all of the news/phone/CCTV footage in colour so they were in direct contrast with the black & white performance. I didn’t want these bursts of violence and suffering to sit nicely in the edit, they’re meant to be abrasive and jarring, which is also something we tried to amplify with the sound design, not giving any indication they’re coming, just slamming straight into it with a hard cut and jolt of sound. The majority of the clips flash up and are gone in under a second, I wanted to show all these individual moments that make up a bigger picture of pain, hatred and inequality. It may not be a picture that a lot of people recognise, but it’s the one we’re all living in and we all have a responsibility to do something about it.
I’m really proud of the film we made and I’m honoured AFLO. and Priss trusted me to tell this story with them.
AFLO. the poet
When Sam initially approached me about the project, Priss was the first thing to pop into my mind. Priss and I have admired each other’s work for a while and become close friends this year, brought even closer together by recent traumatic events. Writing has always been a solitary process for me and we had batted around the idea of writing a poem together for a while – Sam then offered us the perfect opportunity. I’m really proud of this piece and feel so blessed to have Wake Up as my first experience of collaborative poetry; it’s in our roots to work collectively and we really are stronger together.
For me, it was important to use our voices in unison to convey an important message throughout the piece. Sam suggested the concept of ‘waking up’ and, in all honesty, I wasn’t head over heels…however, as we continued discussions, we found that ‘waking up’ came in many different forms for a multitude of people. What does it mean to wake up to the atrocities of colonialism and racism in 2020? What does it mean to wake up on the day of the protest with a newfound energy for anti-racist endeavours? What does it mean to not acknowledge your privilege has allowed you to be asleep all this time? What does it feel like to wake up to your Blackness every day when your lifelong struggle has been brought to the forefront of discussions? What does it feel like to march with thousands of people, only for their timelines to return to ‘normality’ the following week? What does it feel like to wake up after the protest and walk down the same streets where you felt so much power, only to feel like nothing has changed? We’d initially decided 3 minutes would be a good length to aim for – but there was just too much to say in relation to those two small words!
What does it mean to wake up to the atrocities of colonialism and racism in 2020?
Since May 25th 2020, I’ve woken up and quickly been reduced to tears every morning. Whether it’s remembering the recent cases, remembering old cases that have been forgotten, or scrolling semi-conscious to stumble across yet another case demonstrating the devaluation of Black lives, my mind is buzzing at every moment. There was a time several weeks ago when I didn’t feel so alone in this, but that time seems to have passed. Numbers are dwindling at demonstrations and there isn’t the same presence on social media feeds. White acquaintances are no longer popping up in my inbox asking “what can I do” and, now that the pubs and shops are open again, some folks seemed to have dropped their new anti-racist hobbies. Even though it’s predictable, the experience of witnessing this as a Black woman is exhausting. I need to stop looking at my phone in the mornings, then maybe I wouldn’t feel so tired when I wake up.
There is a certain caffeinated energy in the air at protests and demonstrations. There is energy, drive and determination but, just like coffee, I can often leave a protest with a slight headache. This isn’t caused by the noise, if anything, it’s caused by the lack of noise on UK issues. I do not intend to dismiss US racism and police brutality – we come to the streets in solidarity with our American siblings, but we must also come to our streets demanding change for our streets. By now I would hope everyone knows George Floyd’s name, but not enough people know the names of Joy Gardner, Simeon Francis, Rashan Charles, Sean Rigg, Edson Da Costa, Olaseni Lewis, Sarah Reed, Kingsley Burrell. Thousands of people have marched in our hometown of Brighton without knowing the story of Jay Abatan and it really isn’t good enough. As we continue marching, we will continue to face opposition from those who believe “racism isn’t that bad here” – it is our duty as protestors to remind them that the UK is not innocent.
For this piece I was determined to name UK victims of police brutality and mention an essence of their stories in hopes that listeners will research any names they are unfamiliar with in order to learn about their cases. 27 years ago, police officers wrapped 13 feet of adhesive tape around Joy Gardner’s head to silence her – I refuse to let her and her case be forgotten. Too many of our people have been suppressed, stifled and murdered in an attempt to keep us quiet, and I will use my craft to keep shouting for justice on their behalves.
Sometimes I’ve left protests feeling awakened and strengthened, but the majority of the time I leave with a heavy heart. Where were all these thousands of people before? And now that we’ve made it to August, WHERE ARE ALL THE THOUSANDS FROM JUNE?! Do we have to wait for another Black person’s dying breath to be caught on camera for support to increase again? This movement isn’t just about protesting at demonstrations – it’s about demonstrating anti-racism every day in multiple forms.
It is our duty as protestors to remind them that the UK is not innocent.
The process of filming was so cathartic. Sam is an incredibly thoughtful and considerate director – he made it clear from the beginning that he is aware of his privilege and even expressed his concerns about giving directions to Black women on how to express ourselves. Priss and I gave our consent for Sam to guide us and we worked so well as a team. Sam really helped Priss tap into a place of pain in her final few takes and I struggled to stay silent as I quickly descended into a blubbering mess. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched the film back now but I still burst into tears every time. I cry thinking about all of the people and stories we referenced, and I cry for the lack of justice in every case. I cry because the content is so powerful and is conveyed in a way where it’s impossible to ignore our underlying messages – and I cry because I’m so damn proud of this. I’ve been writing and performing for less than 18 months and this piece is definitely my greatest achievement to date – made even more special through collaborating with people who made me feel less alone in these trying times. When the world sees this, I hope they see our pain as well as our passion – I believe this piece has the potential to reignite dwindling fires and contribute to the push for real change.
Our lives mattering shouldn’t be a trend – this isn’t a summer of 2020 thing – this is a no turning back thing, and we need every single person to play their part to make sure we stay heading in the right direction. While we appreciate the wide-reaching support, we encourage those who are ‘waking up’ to continue to do so – anti-racism is a journey, not a destination, and we implore you to edge closer towards it each day.
When we (Sam, AFLO. and myself) were thinking of the concept for this poem, we originally had the idea of “waking up” on the day of the protest, having the poem take us through the journey on a day of protesting for Black Lives in the year 2020. For the opening verse, I interpreted it as waking up as a black woman to the world in which I have to protest for my human rights. “Every day I feel the candour stuck between my teeth when I’m forced to censor my ancestors who are speaking through me, I’m heavy. And my back is breaking from all the wounds I’ve been carrying. The cries of my great-grandmother echo within”. I wanted to write about the heaviness I feel on a daily basis; as black people we carry around so much trauma inside of us, some of it that doesn’t even belong to us, and it’s exhausting. Generational trauma is so real and since the resurge in attention to Black Lives Matter and the death of George Floyd, there were days where I’d feel so overwhelmed and helpless to feeling the pain of seeing a story I’ve seen way too many times to people who look like me. For me the poem’s first verse symbolises the monotonous pain black people have to endure every day.
In the second verses of the poem, AFLO. and I were both determined to talk about the violation of human rights and injustice that takes place here in the UK. I feel like a lot of people only associate Black Lives Matter with the police brutality that takes place in America and are reluctant to consider (or are uneducated about) the very same events that happen in Britain and have been happening for decades. For the first few weeks after George Floyd’s death, I kept getting so angry when people who’d only discovered racism still exists were flooding my inboxes with “what can I do to help? I’m so sorry, I had no idea how difficult things are for black people and people of colour! Tell us how to be better!” because it felt like: 1) people were asking for free labour of an emotionally exhausted black womxn 2) everything black people have ever said about the mistreatment we endure had been completely ignored and the world wanted to be spoon-fed the answer to “ending racism”.
As black people we carry around so much trauma inside of us, some of it that doesn’t even belong to us, and it’s exhausting.
I wanted to convey my rage about how so many people have the option to learn about racism instead of experiencing it. “Like the veil has been lifted and they finally see the disparity we’re subjected to, everywhere on the daily. Baptised in disrespect and austerity. What took you so long for us to finally be believed like we haven’t been screaming? For the justice of those who survived the fire of Grenfell building”. Writing this section I was outraged that other people weren’t phased by the many horrible events that happened way before the 25th of May.
“Wake up and exorcise yourselves of those colonial demons, take a long, hard look at the anti-blackness that resides within. Ask yourselves will black lives still matter in the spaces you’re inhabiting. Will you still post black squares while giving black women death stares?” One thing I was adamant to talk about in this poem was the internalized anti-blackness we unfortunately all have, some more than others. I’ve seen too many people portray themselves as the good Samaritan online, doing their bit to be a “good ally” while still throwing micro-aggressions at the black people they know and interact with in real life – I had to call it out and let it be known that Black Lives Matter means going out of your way every day to dismantle the systemic oppression that black people face, which includes abandoning the internalised misogynoir that so many black women are victims of. It goes beyond the internet. It isn’t a trend. A few days before writing the poem I heard the term “allyship fatigue” and I had to laugh. What could possibly be so tiring when the racism isn’t even happening to you?
When it came to filming the performance of the poem, I was uncertain about how I wanted to portray the piece. I had so many emotions running through me I wasn’t sure which one(s) to focus on, then getting frustrated that I wasn’t delivering the poem to the best of my ability. In between one of the takes, Sam asked me what mindset I was in when I wrote my parts of the poem and I responded with about six different emotions. He simply replied “Channel that. Imagine all the people and systems you’re mad at are in the lens of this camera. Don’t hold back” and that was more than enough to unleash my brutal honesty, hurt, anger, grief, exhaustion, irritation and trauma. For so many years I’ve made sure I never fell into the “Angry Black Womxn” category, but when you’re having to consume all this trauma, mistreatment and misogynoir on a daily basis and still have to censor yourself to achieve being perceived as palatable and “less threatening”, it’s almost impossible not to feel a certain way about it. I wanted to be completely transparent in how it feels to be a black person in 2020, all the pain and microaggressions that come with it and how we’re so tired. We’ve been tired, the world needs to wake up with us.
I wanted to convey my rage about how so many people have the option to learn about racism instead of experiencing it.
I feel incredibly proud of the work AFLO., Sam and I produced on the Wake Up film, every time I watch it back it gives me goosebumps. When filming, Flo and I were both a little apprehensive about how close Sam wanted the shots to be, but after watching the final edit we saw how the extreme close-ups of our faces and mouths made it all the more effective and powerful, making it almost impossible to look away. With every sentence you can literally feel the pain and frustration we carry and Sam captured it all so beautifully. When planning this collaboration we wanted to create something that was honest, emotional and educational, especially in regards to the UK’s history with racism and I feel like Wake Up embodies everything we needed to say – we hope it resonates.
We are two young Black women working hard and juggling multiple other responsibilities alongside our poetry. If you feel like you’ve gained something from our work and are financially able, we welcome any donations(/reparations) via PayPal.
Every year INQUEST helps hundreds of families bereaved by state related deaths. They are independent of government, and entirely reliant on grants donations to continue their vital work. Donate to INQUEST here
The Black and Minority Ethnic Young People Project
BMEYPP work with young people aged 11 to 25, providing safe spaces where they can share their experiences, learn about Black histories and develop a positive sense of identities. Delivering a number of projects and activities to support their physical, spiritual and emotional development. Both AFLO. & Priss are working with the BMEYPP to raise funds to secure premises in order for them to carry out their much needed work. You can support BMEYPP here