As media partner for NON XCHANGE, Nataal headed to the ICA for a day of radical talks, film and music

If you ever wondered what the UN’s General Assembly would be like if DJs, musicians, artists and radical thinkers ruled the world, then NON XCHANGE at London’s ICA is the answer. The multidisciplinary event is the brainchild of maverick African and diaspora musical collective NON Worldwide, exploratory event curators Thirty Three Thirty Three and the ICA. Their shared aim was to host a coming together of minds that challenge existing power structures in society through intersectional solidarity. This debut in London has travelled onto Berlin and heads to Cape Town and Johannesburg later in the year.

“It comes from the idea that the black experience is somewhat isolated in the realm of experimental electronic music,” says Morell Mason, Thirty Three Thirty Three co-founder. We’re backstage as the sound check rumbles in the theatre out front, which has been transformed into an avant garde assembly space. “Working with NON’s network of incredible black creatives on a project of this magnitude, in an institution like the ICA, is quite riveting. It puts them in a position that they deserve to be in a city like London,” Mason adds.

Matt Williams, ICA curator, concurs: “The ambition of NON is important and collaborating with them has been a positive experience. They think about sound as a form of political representation to highlight issues that are often taken for granted. What we hope to do here is shift expectations and attract a diverse audience.”

I find US producer and NON co-founder Chino Amobi still working hard on his laptop in the ICA bar. It’s been a challenge pulling this event together due to several of his artists from South Africa being denied visas to travel to the UK. But his remarkable juggernaut could not and would not be stopped. “We’re bringing people together under unifying principles as well as diverging principles. Not everyone agrees on aesthetics, or even fundamental ideological viewpoints, but this is a place where we can celebrate our ideas and where we overlap,” Amobi explains. “The aim is to provoke thought around black and brown bodies being change agents. I want to celebrate ourselves and walk away knowing that we did that to the best of our ability having sewn seeds for what is to come.”

What is imminently to come this evening is his first NON XCHANGE line-up of sound activists. “Tonight should get pretty live,” he says, smiling. “You’re not going to get two performers who are the same, which means you don’t know what to expect. They’ve come from around the world to create a union and diversity of voices that you don’t find everywhere. Each performer will feed off the next one and there will be energy throughout the night.”

“The aim is to provoke thought around black and brown bodies being change agents. I want to celebrate ourselves and walk away knowing that we have sewn seeds for what is to come”

Proceedings begin with the spirited and enlightening panel discussion Language, Symbolism And Power, bringing together New York’s Juliana Huxtable and Professor Akwugo Emejulu from the University of Warwick, and chaired by curator Osei Bonsu. In this dangerous political moment where we’re faced by a populist backlash internationally, Emejulu urges us to rethink how we join together for social change, whether protesting on the street or in the white cube. “Do not silence disruptive others for the sake of unity. Build new forms of collective identities as a resource of struggle for justice,” she says. Responding to a comment from the audience that the discourse around sexuality, race and gender should move beyond labels, Emejulu is categorical: “If you’re serious about injustice, you can’t run away from naming it and identifying it. A colour-blind world would necessitate our disappearance.”

Huxtable discusses how solidarity of blackness through cultural production is inherently linked to political action. She grew up feeling excluded from black radical debate as a queer and trans person but through reading the theories of Fred Moten and Frantz Fanon, she was inspired to find different forms of resistance through her performative practice as a DJ and artist. “We talk about our shared grievances but we should also focus on our shared joys and our relationship to dance and music,” she asserts. “What happens on a dancefloor is just as important as what happens on a battlefield or in a courtroom.” For her, rhythm - its history in Africa, and the ownership of it in contemporary electronic music - is a meaningful structure through which to form alliances, communicate and self-heal.

The talk is followed by the debut screening of Practice, a short film by Harley Weir and Grace Wales Bonner with a score by Devonte Hynes. It follows award-winning South African ballet dancer Leroy Mokgatle as he goes on a fantastical journey through Johannesburg and Cape Town. From shopping malls to bedrooms, and from car seats to stripper poles, our protagonist reveals his life, movements and interactions with other dancers via the film’s woozy, seductive storytelling. Bonner first discovered Mokgatle in 2014 after one of his performances in London. “Leroy’s appeal was immediate and obvious to me,” she says. “I was drawn to him as a young black male excelling and challenging expectations of what he could be. I found him relatable, and although he was young, he had the knowingness of someone much older. Although it started with Leroy, we explored dance both high and low, and in many iterations between spaces.”

As night falls, the NON music roster line up and begin to roar. Bathed in red light, London’s Farai sets the tone of rebellion with her post punk performance fuelled by rock guitars, 80s synths and primal screaming. She slays the audience with songs from her recent Kisswell EP, including The Sinner (“Black god, so dark and so pure… you better watch out or the white devil will stain your soul”) and Lion Warrior (“Even lions cry too”) and left us with this salient point: “If you don’t vote for Jeremy Corbyn, you’re a cunt.”

Brooklyn-based singer songwriter Embaci breathed a soulful, angelic spirit through the room with her feminist sonics. Sounding like Björk colliding with comet in another dimension far, far away, her voice soared, echoed and reverberated with a ghostly vigour over harpsichord strings and eerie whooshes. Beautifully discordant, she cast a hypnotic spell on NON XCHANGE.  After her, the crowd dived into uncompromisingly dark and intense sets by Juliana Huxtable and Chino Amobi. It's true, rhythms can do all the talking.


Photography Brian Whar

Published on 08/06/2017