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April 27, 2022

You cannot talk about blackness while ignoring the social class issue

The voice of Ariam Tekle, interviewed by Sara Manisera, FADA Collective

Blackn[è]ss fest is the first festival in Italy which presents a re-elaborated version of the African lineage universe. Events and roundtables are organized both to think about the concept of being black, following a path of decolonization of the language, and to discuss topics such as mental health issues linked to racial profiling, discrimination, racism, and also music, cinema, media and representation of black people . 

Voice Over Foundation chose to accompany the festival in this path and it decided to tell stories about it through the protagonists' voices during the whole year. 

Interview with Ariam Tekle, film director, sociologist, co-author of the podcast Blackcoffee and of the Blackness festival.

Q: Could you introduce yourself? Who are you and what do you do?

A: I am Ariam Tekle, a sociologist and an Italian-Eritrean filmmaker. I was born and raised in Milan. I graduated in International Relations and in 2015 I completed a Master in Sociology and Anthropology in Brussels. I am one of the creators, together with Emmanuelle Maréchal, of Blackcoffee, the Italian unfiltered podcast on black identities together and of the Blackn[è]ss festival.

Q: Let's talk about the second edition of the Festival. What will it be about, is there already any date and which will be the topic?

A: Yes, we have some dates: from 23 to 25 September 2022. The festival will be organised by Blackcoffee in collaboration with Kirykou. We have a lineup that was developed based on the experience of the first edition and we decided to deepen the topics of the discussion panels that were rather generic. In contrast to last year's, in this second edition we want to keep the same themes, but give them more space for discussion, so we can explore their various dimensions. For example, the music roundtable: this year we are going to broaden this topic, exploring the genres that are most interesting to racialised artists. Another example is the table on racial profiling and the effects on the mental health of those who suffer it. The latter is a very difficult topic to address and reflect on, especially due to the lack of available data. We want to give space to all the complexities related to these issues that racialised people face on a daily basis. 

Q: Have you already decided which topic will be further explored in the mental health panel? 

A: Since we want to discuss the topic in detail, the speakers will focus their sessions on their personal experience and expertise. For example, Ronke Oluwadare will talk about her experience as a black psychotherapist in a white society. Ariman Scriba, on the other hand, will discuss the use of drugs and their implications through her personal sphere, since she is a witness to an event that touches her very closely. When I look at the set list again, I realised that there is an underlying theme that ties all the topics together: the social class of each of us. We still have to work it out as best we can, because talking about class is not easy, since there is often only one, especially when it comes to culture or art. But with the festival, all the artists who will participate come from different backgrounds and classes. It will be very important to see the participation of people with backgrounds more similar to mine, coming from the working classes... This was a small personal satisfaction. For example, I mentioned the theme of music earlier: classical music, rap, suburbs and clubbing from the 90s to today will have a place. Or, another interesting theme in this regard will be 'the representation, visibility and commodification of the black body'. 

Q: Indeed, today there's almost a brand construction around the blackness concept...

A: In fact, my personal reflection concerns how to take advantage of the visibility of the festival without damaging its cause. When there are realities that involve racialized people and they are paid by a company to be represented, it's fine. But the important thing is to create an alternative to the recognition of that kind of institution. I represent that company not because of the recognition it gives me, but because I get paid properly and because I survive on that. Blacknèss starts from this very premise: to create an alternative to institutionalised recognition. 

Q: Please, better explain why do Blackn[è]ss was born.

A: On the one hand, to be able to connect members of different groups, which have existed for generations in the country, and which do and say similar things to each other, but which find it difficult to meet. For example, since the "#CambieRai" campaign started, the network has seen a very strong increase in connections, both in Milan and the rest of Italy. Given the awareness that these realities exist, we decided to try to make their conversations public. It is a growth in a path that is not only individual but also collective. On the other hand, it was born as a need to have a safe but open space. I felt there was a lack of an event that remained open but did not compromise on the language and themes we wanted to use and discuss. For several years there have been many institutionalised events that provide inclusive spaces and themes trying to engage racialised people. Blackn[è]ss is an alternative to them, with the aim of knowing and recognising each other. 

Q: What are your expectations for this year?

A: Actually, like last year, we threw ourselves into the organisation of the festival without having any expectations. In fact, it doesn't want to be an inflated event, where too many people participate, just for the sake of having fun. Sure, there will be DJ sets and light moments of fun, like last year. But we also need moments of silence and reflection on what will be talked about around the tables, and the first edition was a proof. In fact, when we discussed the event's budget, we did not go looking for sponsorship. I am keen not to fall into mistakes that could damage the sense of the festival. And in this respect, the set list also has the priority over the whole organisation. I try not to make mistakes in this respect either, and that's why it's so important to talk to other people around me, because the exchange with others is fundamental. There are experiences that I have not had, topics that I have only just started to explore. So the comparison and the contribution of other people - both from the Blackn[è]ss team but not only - in the programming is really fundamental. I'd also like more people to come from outside Milan, but it depends on our funds. On the subject of funding, it goes without saying that we don't want any of our workers to be exploited, we want to pay everyone a fair wage even if we're not a billing company. We want to overcome the normalisation of payment in visibility or experience, because we do not share its values. 

Q: Is there any surprise you could disclose for us? Or any name of the participants?

A: We want to give more space to music. As last year there will be a concert by Omar Gabriel Delnevo, pianist and composer, but this year it will be a two-handed concert together with Ian Ssali, also a classical pianist. But I can't reveal too much... The thing that's always nice to say is that those who are contacted are happy to participate, and it underlines their need to connect, confront and recognise each other. 

Q: Do you think that the social class is a central element of the Festival and, more in general, of your path as racialized people?

A: Yes, because it is clear that you cannot talk about blackness or accessibility while ignoring that the underlying theme is that of class. If you omitted it, it would be an incomplete discourse and an end in itself. It becomes that situation of compromise, where for example companies espouse a social cause without touching the issue of class: they don't do it because it becomes counterproductive. At the festival, if this issue was not mentioned, it would fall into simple conversation, and there is a risk of turning everything into marketing, of making blackness seen as a brand. Like the fact, for example, that the word "inclusiveness" is fashionable today. 

Photo credits: Giulia Frigieri 

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