Creating harmonious communities in Northern Ireland

end-sectarianism

Founder of Beyond Skin, Darren Ferguson, on why he set up a global education arts and culture organisation to tackle sectarianism in Northern Ireland.

Nine months on and we can see the impact the project is having in the community: when SRD and Beyond Skin musicians play together in areas once plagued by the Troubles, history is made. This is still a very sensitive project, with tensions spanning generations, but it’s just one of many projects that prove music can succeed where words fail.

As an organisation Beyond Skin pioneers the development of diversity and global education projects through music, arts, dance and new media. Our aim is to address issues of racism and sectarianism through a creative team of professional artists, facilitators, global educators and multimedia specialists, who are passionate about using their gifts for the greater good.

Beyond Skin was founded in 2004 and was inspired by a combination of positive and negative social and artistic elements. The defining moment which made me commit to my vision was in 2004 when Belfast hit the international headlines as the ‘race hate capital of Europe’. Up until this point Northern Ireland already carried stereotypes associated with the sectarian conflict, so being labelled as a racist place to live was something I felt personally compelled to address.

At the time I was working for Concern Worldwide and, along with friends that shared an interest in music and development education,recognised that the arts combined with a development education philosophy, could assist greatly in easing local issues of sectarianism and racism.

I was inspired by other artists: in 2004 Human, the sixth album by Mercury Music prize nominee Nitin Sawhney (a British-Asian musician), was released. This reminded me of the influence and message of his fourth album, Beyond Skin. Nitin’s 1999 quote, on the album, struck a chord with me: ‘My identity and my history are defined only by myself – beyond politics, beyond nationality, beyond religion and beyond skin’, and it was this idea that served as a starting point for our organisation.

Endorsed by a few close friends I adopted the name Beyond Skin. I was also drawn towards Nitin’s passion for promoting human rights and equality, he was honoured with a Commission for Racial Equality Award in 2003.

Around this time I discovered an audio-visual project produced by 1 Giant Leap that was being talked about in the music press. English-African electronic music duo Jamie Catto (a founding member of Faithless) and Duncan Bridgeman, aimed to find unity in diversity through a narrative of music and spoken word.

Beyond Skin’s first project was a two-week Belfast programme of 1 Giant Leap cinema screenings, discussions, and special guest events, topped off with a concert featuring Jamie, Duncan and the 1 Giant Leap band.

The project was a great success: the 1 Giant Leap visuals gave recognition to the amazingness of everyday people, something we have embedded in the character of our organisation. To this day all our projects are designed to have an immersive interactive approach for participants of all abilities and ages.

A recent example of our work is a project called Music Unite, aimed at engaging Loyalist Bands in Northern Ireland. If you don’t know the context of the Troubles, Northern Ireland’s Loyalist Bands and Parades have been a contentious issue in the country for many years, especially in Belfast, oftentimes resulting in violence.

SRD agreed to take part in the project and we organised for them to start working with musicians from Kurdistan, India, Ghana, Slovakia, Jamaica and also an Irish musician, for everyone involved it was a really bold step

The relevance of loyalist band parades has long been an unresolved issue that divides politicians and security forces. At the beginning of January 2015, we partnered an organisation called Centre for Democracy and Peace Building to approach the Shankill Road Defenders (SRD), a well-known flute band in Belfast. It was a move that rankled a lot of intuitions and raised concern in the community. SRD agreed to take part in the project and we organised for them to start working with musicians from Kurdistan, India, Ghana, Slovakia, Jamaica and also an Irish musician, for everyone involved it was a really bold step.

Nine months on and we can see the impact the project is having in the community: when SRD and Beyond Skin musicians play together in areas once plagued by the Troubles, history is made. This is still a very sensitive project, with tensions spanning generations, but it’s just one of many projects that prove music can succeed where words fail.

And it’s a way of working we have rolled out abroad: in 2013 we began working on an ambitious innovative project called Parallel Versing, with partner Shalini Wickramasuriya (director of the Music Project in Sri Lanka). The project uses music to change the life trajectory of children whose quality of life has been impacted by the legacy of conflict and works by linking children from Northern Ireland with children from Sri Lanka.

Like any other country, Northern Ireland’s post-conflict peace process is very complex and fragile but Beyond Skin, along with strong partners such as The Music Project (Sri Lanka) and the WOMAD Foundation in Northern Ireland (www.womadni.com), is a prominent driver in flagship intercultural community relations arts programmes, especially those that address conflict in a creative and unique way.

beyondskin.net

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