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We Spoke To Afrikan Boy About His Gig In The Migrant Camp In Calais

The British MC performed to hundreds at the camp, using just a generator, a PA and a USB stick.

The population of people in Calais migrant camps currently sits around 4,000. Those who are there are fleeing their war-torn countries in search of a better life, perhaps in the United Kingdom, Germany, or elsewhere in Europe, and are putting themselves through desperate and horrific conditions in order to do so. The situation has been front-page news for months now, and frequently those headlines dehumanize the people in the camps. But that's not right. The people there are humans; they're just searching for a way out of a predicament that's meant it's unsafe for them to remain in their own country.

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In order to bring some respite to those in the migrant camps, last week UK grime artist Afrikan Boy - a second generation Nigerian immigrant living in London - put on a performance in partnership in the area nicknamed "the Jungle" with Secret Cinema. Afrikan Boy's presence in the camp feels fitting; his songs are well placed to describe many of the issues migrants are facing.

Watch the video of Afrikan Boy's performance after the interview below:

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Noisey: Afrikan Boy! Hi! What were your thoughts of the plan to play in the Jungle camp before going?
I speak a lot about migration and immigration visas in my music, and my new release, "Border Business", was a track that really speaks a lot about these issues and themes. We'd only dreamt of going to Calais, we'd spoken about it a few weeks before Secret Cinema sounded us out about doing something. It was the right time. I dropped everything I was doing. In terms of expectations? I had no expectations. Like everyone else I'd seen the images in the media but I'd never been to a place like this before. I just went with an open mind.

Did it feel like something you needed to become involved in?
My UK background means I've grown up around all the talk of fake passports and visas. Now I'm older I'm aware of the impact that migration and immigration has on the economy as a whole. The majority of my music talks about the issues they face, like "Lidl", like "Who Stole My Visa", like "Paper Planes", "Border Business" and "Kunta Kinte". My music is almost about identity and displaced identity. I was born in the UK but my family is from Nigeria and I feel I was made in Africa so I grew up with dual identity.

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Did you have any concerns about coming to perform here?
I didn’t know what to expect. I'm not one that likes to tune into the media but I have to be cognisant of what is going on, so I was thinking: "Is there is a reason why no other artists wanted to come and play there?", "Is this such a good idea?", "Do I know who they are?", "Do they know who I am?"

How do you even play a gig in a migrant camp?
I knew the technicalities of the show were going to be basic. I was going into a camp called "the Jungle" that was in a remote place and I had to deliver a show. So I had all sorts of thoughts going on in my mind. I thought I was going to be in the trees and bushes! Secret Cinema were already going out there and trying to deliver entertainment to these people. I knew that at least from a humanitarian perspective they were aiming to do something positive, and for me, if there was people out there doing that, then I gotta come out and support it. Describe what happened when you arrived at the camp?
It was like being in Africa, but with European air. The rawness of how these people are living, it's very basic. I found it interesting that all the nationalities were naturally split up. So you have all them people from Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Syria and all the Sudanese people. Having travelled to the Sudan earlier this year for two shows, one in Khartoum and one in Port Sudan, immediately it felt like I was back there - but I'm not. At points it just felt like I was at a festival. Moving from tent to tent and walking around. It was definitely surreal and I don’t feel like I saw all of it.

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Were people ok with you being there?
I was very surprised by how open it was. And also I expected it to be a guarded place. I thought the authorities would be watching them. But they are walking up to the town and they're everywhere. They are in this camp by choice. Not that they have an abundance of options or culture at their disposal. What kind of resources are available to people in the camp?
The first thing I noticed as I walked into the camp were the shops, the trading, the hustle and bustle of the camp life. Loads of people on bikes! People carrying luggage, people carrying Lidl bags, people carrying tents with pots and pans. Just a lot of movement. Further into the camp I saw people playing football and a lot of people on their phones and charging their phones. I saw a prayer tent and a church. I saw a small, tiny community in its most basic form. What message were you trying to convey by performing?
I wanted to simply deliver my music, as it already carries a message for them. And that message was for Africans in the diaspora, travellers, but people still connecting to the whole world. Even though I had just one USB, and I was pressing stop and play by myself, I wanted to give a sick performance as if I was at Glastonbury. But there is a huge difference between me singing that song to people in the UK, to Calais in front of the Sudanese. I have to change the perspective from which I'm singing the lyrics as I'm not telling the migrant story to other people, I'm repeating their story to them and it has to become 'we' or 'you'. When did you write "Border Business"?
I wrote Border Business around 2008 / 2009 and it came up on an EP called What Took You So Long that I made when I was studying for my degree. I didn't write it as a response to the current climate. I wrote it because the situation has always been happening. Music has always been my visa. If I hadn't made music then I wouldn't have been invited to come to Calais to play and then write more music that relates to that situation. Music has always been my school of discovery and it is my source of connection.

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How did this performance go down?
They were enjoying it; the crowd were ready and attentive and really gave me a lot of energy that I propelled back to them. Music has the power to distract you but also deliver a powerful message.

Did performing here there have an effect on you?
I was writing tracks when I was back in the car on the way to the ferry in Calais. I have so many thoughts in my head now. What surprised you about the people in the camp?
The spirit. I was invited to eat. People wanted to show you that: "Yes, we are in a shit situation, but hey come and eat with us!" I saw some dark things too, though. Injuries, people being in fights and obviously have been beaten up by the police. Or those who had cut themselves jumping over the fences and not clearing their leg, then people calling ambulances but not being able to speak French. It can be chaos. But this was also a good time to come; the Ethiopians were celebrating New Year.

I met one guy from Chad called Idris. He came from Chad on a boat from Libya, then eight days on a boat to France. No toilets, shitting in the sea, sleeping standing up, you wouldn’t wish those conditions on anyone. And he was talking about his ambitions and why he was running. He was split up from a little militia, got caught and jailed for eight months and then had been running ever since. Some of the stories here are too hard to conceive.
Yes, and winter is coming soon. It will be raining, some of their tents are in hideous places and when the rain comes it's going to be awful. I know some people argue that they've chosen to put themselves there but that's not true. Not everyone has chosen to be there. So while I'm travelling, enjoying my bed, making music, the reality is that those people might be there for a long time.

How important is music and culture to maintaining a sense of humanity?
One of the most striking things I noticed was the level of humility going about their every day lives. Amongst everything that is going on politically and socially, they are there, they are human, they have to move around, they have to eat, bathe, take care of their children, make a means of living and even to earn a bit extra doing what they can. But the cultural aspect was strong; it felt like being in the Sudan because they brought their culture with them.

I was even there to bring a bit of British culture to them. I am a grime artist and I wanted to bring that to them and say: "Yo! I'm British and this is how we do it in the UK." I could see people looking at me going: "Is he from Sudan? Uruguay, what?"

"No! I'm from the UK, I'm a grime MC, I'm called Afrikan Boy and I can relate to you guys."

A film about Afrikan Boy's trip with Secret Cinema to the migrant camps will be relased soon.