To close his Fact Residency, Julianknxx comes together with producer Happy Cat Jay and the Zimbabwe-born, London-based soul musician THABO for a climactic performance.
Julianknxx, THABO and Happy Cat Jay begin We Are What’s Left Of Us with the sound of breathing. “The air is different now, we need to think about how we breathe,” the poet reminds us as he reflects back on a year that redefined breathing for the whole world. “Now that the pandemic has happened we’re thinking about space, we’re thinking about our health, we’re thinking about our connection to nature, breathing healthy air,” he explains. Living in fear of the very air that we share with those around us has reframed our relationship with our breathing, dictating in part how we live our lives in what’s left in the wake of COVID-19. “We have to breathe differently,” he asserts, “so this is what’s left of us.”
It’s a sentiment that connects back to his poem In Praise Of Still Boys, where, upon glancing the Atlantic Ocean through the window of an aeroplane, he thinks back to the days of that ocean’s slave trade’s Middle Passage, wondering how it could possibly hold the millions of Black bodies that crossed over it at that time. The waters of the Atlantic became a space in flux for those slaves shipped to the New World from Africa and a more permanent resting place for those thrown overboard during these journeys. As Christina Sharpe puts it in In The Wake, “the atoms of those people who were thrown overboard are out there in the ocean even today.” It is during this contemplation that he is struck by the words: “You are what’s left of us. You are what’s left of us.” What is left of his culture, in both his birth place of Freetown, Sierra Leone and his current home in London, and who among his friends and family are left, breathing differently, are the fundamental themes Julianknxx speaks to with his poetry.
“You carry this memory in your body, it’s something that you carry,” he explains. “I walk into certain spaces and I have to double check myself sometimes. Where am I? How do I speak? How do I breathe in this space?” In order to answer these questions the poet considers the significance of his birth language, Krio, an English-based creole spoken mainly in Sierra Leone. Derived from the Yoruba phrase “a kiri yo”, which Julian translates as “aimless yet satisfied wanderers”, Krio itself serves as metaphor for the poet’s life, its nomadic roots casting an ironic light on the poet’s own uprooted origins and Freetown’s colonial past. “You know, my name is Julian Knox,” he points out. “On a certain level I feel like I belong here because of my name and because of my history, but on the other hand I can’t really say I’m British.”
According to Julianknxx, to be Krio is both “to know life / full of impossible / unicorns in the rainforest,” as well as “to know violence is a sliced history / on the tip of a Yoruba tongue.” As much life force as the poet can pull from his birth place through his connection to the foundational stories and language of his hybrid culture, his black light also necessarily must illuminate the wake from which he speaks. Whilst it is true that “to be Krio / is to be boundless”, an aimless yet satisfied wanderer, what is left to the poet on the other side of his journey across the Atlantic is a “mourning identity / a hard freedom”. It is through his interdisciplinary poetic method that Julianknxx is able to connect these dichotomies within his own history from below. “This gaslight city tears you apart,” he says of the difficulties he has faced with cohering his formative experiences with his life in London. “Even though you feel it, you can’t really talk about it, you can’t speak plainly about it, which is why I use poetry to have these conversations.”
“To be Krio is to know violence is a sliced history / To be Black is to know violence is a sliced history / To be African is to know violence is a sliced history.” When we think about what it means to breathe in contemporary times we think not only of the global pandemic but also of George Floyd, who was murdered by a white police officer with a knee on his neck, as well as Eric Garner, Javier Ambler, Manuel Ellis and Elijah McClain, all of whom repeated the phrase “I can’t breathe” before they stopped breathing at the hands of the police. Our thoughts are also drawn to the memory of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, a nine-year-old girl who back in 2013 became the first person in Britain to officially have air pollution listed as a cause of death. Living with her family next to South Circular Road in Lewisham, Ella suffered from severe asthma and was hospitalised more than 30 times during her life, her lungs collapsing on five separate occasions.
Christina Sharpe identifies one kind of wake work to be, “in the midst of the singularity, the virulent antiblackness everywhere and always remotivated, to keep breath in the Black body.” She understands this “wake work as aspiration” in several senses, the primary of which is the “audible breath that accompanies or comprises a speech sound.” In this way, We Are What’s Left Of Us can be understood as a poignant enacting of Sharpe’s configuration of aspiration, a deep inhalation drawn before speech and song. As Julianknxx identifies, “the air is different now, we need to think about how we breathe.” When THABO exclaims: “Who will fight for us? Who will die for us? Who will dance for us? Who will cry for us?” it is clear that the breath taken at the beginning of the poem was part of the poet’s answer. “We will.”
We are What’s Left Of Us was filmed at 180 The Strand, where Julianknxx is an artist in residence.
to be Krio is to know life / full of impossible /unicorns in the rainforest / the sketch of an ocean / we came here by order of lost clocks / to kick start time / before Africa was another world / to be Krio / is to know the place before us / children missing from wombs / stories / mouths keeping wool / a place where the sun empties itself over the black of bodies
to be Krio / is to know violence is a sliced history / on the tip of a Yoruba tongue / a kiri yo / aimless yet satisfied wanderers / to be born dotted around the blue / missed moving lips / recoiling from swords / bullets / cannon fodder / to make your house in a nation / unclear
to be Krio / is to be boundless / fragments of dear Africa / permanent shapes in the Atlantic’s belly / waiting to spill their ghosts / mourning identity / a hard freedom / a new world with black of the ancient. / there will be no fire
bringing us back / who invents beginnings / anyway
I plant a seed / to lift a death / a killing / a birth / to be Krio is to be a clamour in a revolution / shaping time / dreaming inside a strange thing / they blind your past/ & you shape a garden with your eyes
Direction & Visuals – Pedro Küster
Camera Operators – Alice Sephton, Laima Leyton and Kamil Dymek
Sound Mix – Happy Jay Cat
Sound Engineer – Cam Deas
Sound Equipment – Fold Sound