OPINION: Black Lives Matter protest in Birmingham

Words by Jobe Baker-Sullivan / Pics by Chris Neophytou & Jobe Baker-Sullivan

As far as I’m concerned, the police in America might as well be a terrorist organisation.”

I was spellbound by the thousands of people who gathered in Birmingham for the Black Lives Matter protest. There were people of all ages and races. There were children, and even a few pet dogs. It was in response to George Floyd’s death – which has caused shockwaves in cities around the world. I was proud to be there for Birmingham’s show of solidarity.

Initially, it was a scary experience. On my way to Birmingham Library, where the speeches took place, I was handed a slip of paper from an organiser with ‘advice on arrest’. I became anxious as the crowds gathered momentum – lest we forget, there is also the possibility of being infected with coronavirus.

But the intention of this protest was noble.

People chanted in full voice: “George Floyd, remember his name!” organically, along with other slogans. There were signs containing anti-establishment messages, messages of hope – some tongue-in-cheek, some with wise quotations. The one that resonated with me was the powerful, ‘They want our rhythm not our blues.’ As a musician, I believe that a vast amount of popular music owes a lot to talented, pioneering yet anonymous, often intentionally uncredited, black musicians. And as a white musician, I believe we stole their music but we didn’t alleviate their sorrow.

By chance, I spotted some people I know from Erdington. Pastor Rasaq Ibrahim from the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) joyfully handed me a free face mask, before disappearing into the crowd to give more to strangers.

Feeling fully equipped, having brought my vinyl gloves and voice recorder, I joined the crowd outside the library to hear passionate speakers selected by the Black Lives Matter group using a portable PA, often doubled with a megaphone. It was only audible if you were very close to the action, but people were happy to start chants in their own pockets of activity. I caught most of the speeches, with various speakers commending the multi-ethnicity of the crowd, the fact that this protest cannot be the last, and getting the crowd to kneel as a gesture of solidarity.

The fight is not black verses white; the fight is not black verses Asian. The fight is not black verses any race. The fight is against racists,” one speaker sermonised, followed by rapturous applause.

A couple of hours later, we marched, from Centenary Square, along New Street, to protest symbolically in front of the Lloyd House Police Headquarters.

An acquaintance of mine spotted me in the crowd. Like all the following speakers, she is black and wishes to remain anonymous. She is from Castle Vale: “Everyone’s out here. Black, white, Indian. Fighting for the same cause. It’s like the most peaceful protest I’ve ever been to. The message is clear. All anybody wants to have is an enjoyable life, and some people are robbing them of that.

Me personally, I feel like Black Lives Matter is inclusive to everyone as well. As far as I’m concerned, the police in America might as well be a terrorist organisation. The George Floyd incident was filmed, but it’s like, this has been going on for decades. This protest is saying, stop it. Just stop.”

I too had fear that this day would not remain peaceful, having seen the news of tear gas and looting in America. Trump’s response was to threaten to send in the army to cease the unrest, yet here in Birmingham I see an army of well-meaning citizens mobilizing to bring positive change.

One man, from Moseley, tells me: “As you can see, everybody’s behaving and respecting. Not many police officers. In general, I’m quite blown away because also, nobody with grey hairs like us! The majority of people are under 30. It’s mixed like hell mate! Proper mixed… It’s been an excellent day, a great day.”

We stopped our conversation to admire the marching crowd as it circled around Colmore Circus. Buses had come to a stand-still, and cars sounded their horns as they drove by in solidarity.

This is different from every other one [protest] because it’s worldwide. And it’s unfortunate that the people who commit the crime are telling other people to be peaceful!”

Another male I knew from Erdington was a little more sceptical of the speakers present at the protest: “to be honest, I think it’s just a façade. There was no direction on the mic in what they were saying. There were people on the mic saying: ‘if you’re not down with XYZ then you’re not XYZ’.”

Black Lives Matter itself as an organisation is not without its criticisms. It has been accused of being militaristic, police-hating, and has had a history of confrontation in the public domain – a prominent Black Lives Matter activist and writer, Shaun King, was banned from Facebook in 2016. Although King’s censorship was later redacted by the social media giant and labelled ‘a mistake’.

But whilst agitation can be seen as an important part in evolving debate, it can also lead to messages getting blown out of proportion in a media frenzy – a difficult balance no doubt Black Lives Matter, and many activist groups, will be all too familiar with. And if you need an example of how this can go wrong, just Google ‘Katie Hopkins’.

But the response to the George Floyd murder, for that’s what it is, has been the most recent flashpoint of a whole history of anti-human abuse. Black lives do matter, and as offensive as it is to even need an organisation to clarify that the conversation about race needs to be kept alive, by everyone.

And personally, from my corner of the crowd and community, it was important for me to be part of this historic event in my own city. And as a musician, and a human being, I can only pray that finally a change is going to come.

For more on Black Lives Matter, visit www.blacklivesmatter.com

Jobe Baker-Sullivan is an Erdington based musician and arts ambassador, leading the Erdington Arts Forum and the Active Arts Evenings of Creativity. For more on Jobe Baker Sullivan, visit www.facebook.com/JobeSullivanMusic

For more on the Erdington Arts Forum, visit www.facebook.com/groups/cafeartsforum/

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FEATURE: Death and social distancing – the grief of funerals during lockdown

Words by Jobe Baker-Sullivan / Pics by Ed King

The UK’s funeral industry is estimated to be worth around £2billion annually, with an estimated 4,000 directors conducting 600,000 funerals each year at an average of £3-5000 per service. Britain’s death economy is big business.

But honouring the dead is also paramount for people’s mental health and society’s social fabric – a respectable funeral is a helpful step in the grieving process, allowing people to say goodbye to loved ones whilst offering the emotional sanctuary of a traditional service.

During the COVID-19 crisis, however, funerals have taken on an even more sombre tone, as death tolls rise whilst places of worship across the country have been closed to stem the spread of the virus – building a backlog that has seen some funerals held weeks, even months, later than normal.

Along with the Government restrictions being imposed on funerals of all faiths, whatever your beliefs the COVID-19 pandemic has completely changed the way this vital part of human society is carried out.

As someone who would play the church organ at funerals pre-coronavirus, sometimes three times a week, I was interested in exploring the drastic changes people now face during this important part of the grieving process.

It feels like their bereavement is suspended,” says Father Simon Ellis, the parish priest at St Margaret Mary’s Church on Perry Common Road, who has officiated over six funerals since the start of lockdown – unable to make two, as he was recovering from coronavirus himself.

It’s been agonising… It feels like people have said, you go, I’ll stay at home. The overwhelming thing I’ve heard is that ‘they deserve more’… Normally there would be 50, 60, 150 people at the church or the crematorium. Now we can only have six,” the maximum number of mourners allowed, at that time, according to Birmingham City Council.

And if someone has died of COVID-19,” continues Father Ellis, “people are not permitted to see their loved ones in the funeral parlour. They’re not permitted to touch the coffin. It’s something that will have people struggling with their mental health.”

The Government guidelines have been put in place so that ‘mourners and workers involved in the management of funerals are protected from infection,’ according to the .Gov website. But this has caused anguish for many families, with some having to make tough decisions about who attends the funeral of a loved one and who does not.

But despite the hardships during lockdown Father Ellis has noted, “generally families seem to be sticking to the rules… All the families have been saying there will be something at a later date – whether that’s a memorial mass, a memorial service, or something followed by a proper reception. There are plans for the future.

I feel genuine sorrow for people. Whether they’ve lost a person through COVID-19 or some other reason, they’ve been hurled into this new world…

It is very hard to experience this extra burden people are carrying. But it’s also remarkable how resilient and high-spirited people are being.”

The coronavirus crisis has also seen ingenuity, as people embrace digital platforms to combat the widespread physical restrictions. “Perry Barr Crematorium did have a system where they could relay the service outside,” tells Father Ellis – explaining a shift in how the funeral is conducted which allows more people to gather outside of the chapel area.

Some funerals are also being livestreamed for the benefit of those who can’t be attend in person, and Father Ellis has taken on the challenge: “[livestreaming] has always happened, but now there are more people are involved. What you’re trying to do in the service, which I’ve never done before is start at the beginning of the service is saying ‘if you’re following remotely, you are most welcome, we are thinking of you’. It’s just something to say, ‘we know you’re there.’”

But for all those who are grieving during the coronavirus crisis, it has been a whirlwind experience; as if losing a loved one wasn’t difficult already, not being able to have a conventional funeral has been a great shock to many mourners.

Steve Lafferty, who lives on Lambeth Road in Kingstanding, lost his brother, Charles, on the 4th April after a seven year battle to cancer. Under normal circumstances, there would have been a ‘receiving in’ ceremony the evening before the funeral, wherein the coffin of the deceased remains in church, St Margaret Mary’s, overnight.

We’d have liked him (Charles) to go to church first, to St Margaret Mary’s,” explains Steve, “for the overnight, and then the service… then the funeral mass, in the church, then up to the crematorium for a little service there.

We’d have had the hymns in church… he wanted certain songs, his kids wanted certain songs, so we’d kept them for the crematorium. But because we couldn’t get to church we give them the songs that they wanted, that my brother wanted, to go out there.”

Part of a strong Scottish family, Charles Lafferty had many mourners wishing to pay their final respects. But with the numbers of attendees restricted, the family he left behind found themselves – like many across the country – having to make some difficult logistical decisions.

He had six grandchildren, so the eldest grandchildren were to go,” tells Steve, crunching the numbers usually reserved for a wedding planner – Sandwell Crematorium, where Charles was cremated, are allowing a maximum of 10 mourners at each service. “Then his three children, his three brothers – his son’s partner, she came. But then my wife came, my other’s brother’s wife came…”

They were quite good actually at Sandwell, they gave us a link,” continues Steve – explaining the digital streaming service Sandwell Crematorium were able to offer, “because I’ve got relations in Scotland and all that there, and they said the link was very good as well.

They give us a code to put in – they set it up straight away, then told us – in a few weeks time – to just click here and it will automatically go through. It was really good. Where the camera was you had the coffin, the priest, the people that were there… it was really, really good.”

For Charles Lafferty, his funeral was to be well and widely remembered – despite all the coronavirus roadblocks now in front of a regular procession. But fortitude deserves fanfare, and whilst working within the Government guidelines the family were still able to say goodbye in their own way.

I went down to the undertakers, Unwins on Rough Road,” explains Steve, “they said look Mr Lafferty, with the circumstances we’re in you can only have this, this, or this… no cars, only a hearse. And because we’re Scots we had a bagpiper performing.

So, what we did… where I live on Lamberth Road… I told all his friends to come, but they must keep social distancing all along the road. Don’t go to the crem, but do it along the road outside my house – and then the bagpiper played him up to my house.

The three bothers and his family there, we walked in front and others walked behind, all the way up. Then they stayed outside my house for about five minutes for anyone who wanted to come up to touch the coffin – it was the only time anyone was allowed to touch the coffin – then I went down in front… You had the bagpiper, me, the lady from Unwins, and the coffin then followed me down the road and we were off to Sandwell (Cremetorium).

I can’t knock Sandwell, and I can’t knock my undertakers down the road, especially under the circumstances. They were very, very good.”

For more information on how ‘births, deaths, and ceremonies’ are being conducted across Birmingham during the coronavirus crisis, visit www.birmingham.gov.uk/info/20016/births_deaths_and_ceremonies

For Government guidelines on ‘managing a funeral during the coronavirus pandemic’, visit www.gov.uk/covid-19-guidance-for-managing-a-funeral-during-the-coronavirus-pandemic

For more from Unwins Undertakers, visit www.urwinsundertakers.co.uk

For more on St Margaret Mary’s Church, visit www.birminghamdiocese.org.uk/st-margaret-mary-perry-common

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FEATURE: Saturday night cabin fever – how Erdington musicians are coping in the coronavirus lockdown

Words by Jobe Baker Sullivan / Pics courtesy of individual musicians featured

Lampstands, sofas and surprise appearances from family pets – the new performance stages for musicians as they stay at home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Requesting songs from Alexa or re-runs of Glastonbury just aren’t the same as the live-spirit that comes from a craftsman with their tool – a musician and their instrument.

Musicians want to keep the ‘food of love’ in constant supply, and live-streaming is helping feed the community.

Erdington Local caught up with three Erdington based musicians to see how their lives have changed since lockdown.

When she’s not in high profile business meetings or adventuring around Asia, Jo Baldwin (37) is usually gigging 4 times a week with her band The Jo Baldwin Project (JPB).  From pubs, bars and functions of all kinds, Jo’s weekends are often enthralling and exhausting. The JBP tend to perform rock and pop covers from the 1980s-present, and Jo singing for 3 hours with only short breaks.  

“Music has done wonders for my mental health” she says, her beaming, proud smile almost audible over the phone. Jo openly reminds audiences that she went through a dark time and that music was her constant companion.

Now she’s at home, she has found time for her three true loves: her black Labrador, Josie, her one-eyed Turkish cat, Emre, and her music. Her pets are enjoying the attention, and she’s always assured an attentive audience of two whilst in lockdown. Jo has taken to live-streaming regularly, and self-isolation has meant she has found time to work on her own original songs – and the band are finding it good fun working remotely.

But this is not enough to keep Jo occupied. She’s working from home as the key account manager for a pharmaceutical company and she’s gone the extra mile with her company’s “voluntary redeployment position” – she delivers medicine to patients, and she finds it a humbling experience. “Patients are telling me how happy they are. One was over the moon he didn’t have to catch two buses to the clinic.”

The next few weeks of self-isolation for Jo look positive. Sunshine and dog-walks, time for beloved music and to work on her album. She’s also now“into Tik Tok.”

For some, music is their full-time job. In the Chancellor’s speech on the 26th March, Rishi Sunak said:

I know that many self-employed people are deeply anxious about the support available for them. Musicians and sound engineers; plumbers and … through no fault of their own, risk losing their livelihoods.”

Perhaps this will have assuaged musician’s fears?

One such full-time muso is Reuben Reynolds (29), who before the lockdown, was in demand by schools and bands around the country. He spent his professional time teaching in Leicester and Brixton.

Like Jo, his weekends were dominated by gigs – he tends to back R&B artists, pop artists, gospel bands, and it’s not uncommon for him to be performing for 100s if not 1000s of people at concert venues.

So, what has Reuben been up to?

“I’ve been sleeping a lot more,” he proudly states over the phone. The odd hours musicians have to work – not just the gigs and the teaching, but rehearsals and preparing material, can often dominate their lives.

“I’ve found more time for study and rehearsal, as well as working on some recordings.”

Rueben has always used social media to share his beautiful music and advertise his incredible and varied guitar abilities, and he thinks “it’s important to share and connect” with people.

He seems pretty relaxed about his earnings, too: “I’ve been enjoying the lockdown!” he laughs, “initially, we’re just looking at the next few months wondering where the income is going to come from. But the Government seem to have plans in place.”

He explains that one of his schools are preparing for lessons on Zoom so they can continue to teach students following the Easter break, so he hasn’t escaped work completely.

It’s difficult to predict when this lockdown will end, but Reuben, like many musicians, would be devastated if the country is still in lockdown in August – prime festival season.

It’s saddening to hear of all the postponed-weddings and funerals with so few people attending, wakes are not an option. That also means putting the kibosh on musicians like Edwin Podolski (24) from Kraków, who now lives in Erdington.

He’s a violinist/violist who graduated from the Birmingham Conservatoire. He was in huge demand in orchestras, quartets and string-related music groups – and all bookings for his regular groups such as MAKK and Bollywood Strings have been cancelled or postponed. He was especially looking forward to a big concert in London this April, where he was top of the bill.

The lockdown has allowed Edwin to develop his creative side, arranging English folk tunes for string duo.

He’s been trying to teach his private students over Zoom, but he’s not a fan, “it’s so frustrating. The delay, the bad sound”. No replacement for real life!

Edwin’s been rather excited to find more time for exercise. Before lockdown, Edwin would attend a Muay Thai boxing group, although it’s difficult to train without a partner.

There are so many other people who work in the arts and rely on face-to-face business, as well as people who consume it and make these interactions part of their routine. Erdington MP, Jack Dromey has said: “after food and medicine, isolation will be the big issue – and I want the Arts to play a big role in it.”

All these musicians and art-types may yet have a role to play in the weeks to come. Music plays such an important role in human culture, and these Erdington musicians won’t let a pandemic stop them from creating art.

To find out more about the artists featured in this article, click here for more on The Jo Baldwin Projectclick here for more on Reuben Reynolds, and click here for more on Edwin Podolski.

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LOCAL PROFILE: Jo Bull – founder of the ‘Erdington local community response to COVID-19’ Facebook group

Words by Terri-Anne Fell / Pic courtesy of Jo Bull

Jo Bull has been living in Erdington for 13 years. Since she was a teenager, she has been creating handmade cards which she sells to raise money for Erdington’s YMCA. Itching to be a part of her community, Jo volunteers as a peer lead for mental health service users in the area, encouraging vulnerable people to create friendships and gain creative skills they wouldn’t normally have.

When the COVID-19 lockdown began, Jo realised very quickly that services she and many others turned to in their hour of need would have to close – so she took to Facebook to look for an online community she could be a part of, to help in any way she could.

Noticing other areas in Birmingham had created response groups, Jo created the Erdington Community Response to COVID-19 Facebook group. Since its inception last month, the group has amassed over 600 members. Currently, the group has supported over 400 households and has 63 active volunteers.

Jo’s role in the group is to provide online support to people who need somebody to talk to, and she signposts to services she knows can help vulnerable people.

Erdington Local is proud to recognise and celebrate Jo Bull – a fantastic member of our community and a well-deserved Erdington Local Hero.

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EL: What’s your relationship with Erdington, how long have you lived/worked in the area?
Jo: I’ve lived in Erdington for 13 years; I live on Watt road and it’s the longest I’ve stayed in one place.  I moved here in 2007, just after theological college, where my first job was working in Erdington Job Centre for the Department of Work & Pensions. I remember noticing when I started working at the Job centre that almost all of my colleagues didn’t live locally. They all thought it was strange that I did!

EL: If you could shout about something in Erdington so loud the whole of Birmingham could hear, what would it be?               
Jo: Eden Café. It’s my favourite.  They are fab. They’ve been open for about three years and are attached to the YMCA. It’s just a really nice place to visit and to be a part of. I always have a latte, and any day they have good cake is my favourite day! They are friendly and have quite a few regulars who like me have various issues and disabilities. They are good at getting to know their people and catering to all of our little quirks.

EL: In your spare time, you’ve been creating handmade cards. How long have you been doing this for?
Jo: I’ve been making cards since I was a teenager. I’m 42, so I started nearly 30 years ago as I got really frustrated with finding the perfect card in the shop. I’d open them and find they’d say things inside that had nothing to do with the person I was sending it to! I thought because I can’t find what I want, I’d just do it myself. They sell my cards in Eden Café, and the profits from sales go to the YMCA.

EL: Whilst the UK is in lockdown, you’ve set up the Erdington Local Community Response to COVID-19 Facebook Group, what made you want to set up the group?
Jo: As the UK went in to lockdown I realised everything I was a part of in the community would be stopped, which made me feel absolutely devastated and lost. I thought to myself that people in Birmingham are going to need a way to talk to each other, people were setting up local COVID-19 groups and someone asked me if there was one in Erdington. There wasn’t, so I made one.

EL: Did you anticipate the group would gain the traction it has?
Jo: I wasn’t expecting people to join. To start off with I just added people I knew from the day centre and gave the link to a few people who were asking for it. For the first two days I was the only one posting anything; I was a little bit gutted so I went away for a few hours and when I came back to the group there were 30 people wanting to join, it was like the cavalry coming in. I didn’t know who they were, and they didn’t know me, we all just wanted to help.

EL: How have you managed to keep the support consistent as the group has grown?
Jo: As the group was growing, I realised I couldn’t be the only admin. I didn’t know if my mental health would hold out and if I got sick I didn’t want to leave people on their own in the group. I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have all the other admins.

EL: In the group you’ve said you mostly provide online support for people who may be struggling with their mental health, why did you decide to take on this role?
Jo: At the day centre, I volunteer as a peer lead for mental health service users. So, I worked out with the other admins that it was OK for anyone to chat with me if they needed an emotional offload.  You never know who you are coming in to contact with when on deliveries and you may meet really vulnerable people and not know what to do.

I’ve spoken to people who have been really suffering whilst in lockdown, and people have come to the group saying they don’t know whether they’ll be able to get through this. I’ve found I’m able to signpost people to organisations that will be able to help them easily and I’m great at being able to motivate people.

EL: Speaking of motivating people, you’ve been using your handmade cards to spread joy to volunteers in the group. One of our writers received a card and it was so lovely!
Jo: I seem to be chief card maker for the group,  I’ve already given cards to people who have helped me personally during lockdown, but David (Owen) had the idea of sending every volunteer a thank you card and I did 23 cards – one for every active volunteer at the time.  I thought my hand was going to fall off, I wrote a proper message in all of them. They are all working hard and they deserved a handwritten personalised thank you.

EL: As the person who created the Erdington COVID-19 Community Response group, do you think other organisations in the area are doing enough to help the fight against coronavirus?
Jo: I think it is phenomenal that people are able to do anything; however much we do I think there will always be something that still needs to be done, we can’t fix everything. I would say, are we all going to bed having done what we can today?

If we focus on what we are doing and what we have done, rather than what can be done, then we are likely to help more people. We do what we can, and not what we can’t. As long as I know people are getting help, I’m happy.

To visit the Erdington local community response to COVID-19 Facebook group, where you ask for help and support during the coronavirus crisis – or offer your services as a volunteer, visit www.facebook.com/groups/625073991557017

Alternatively, you can get in touch with Erdington Local via phone or email and we will forward your details to the Erdington local community response to COVID-19 Facebook group.

For all our contact information, visit www.erdingtonlocal.com/contact-erdington-local

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