Many Voices Q&A with Ica Headlam
As part of her Many Voices project, Arusa Qureshi speaks to industry figures in Scotland to hear their thoughts on diversity and the inclusion of underrepresented voices in their respective fields
One of the main purposes of this project over the past few months has been to speak to and spotlight creatives of colour in Scotland, amplifying not only their voices but their many contributions to arts and culture across varying mediums. Of course, there are plenty of individuals and groups who have been doing exactly this for some time, and one such example is We Are Here Scotland. Led by Aberdeen-based creative practitioner Ica Headlam, the platform officially launched last month with the aim of supporting BIPOC artists across Scotland. Prior to the launch though, Ica had already been sharing the work of talented creatives, from artists and poets to musicians and DJs, both on social media and via his podcasts.
Originally from London, Ica’s own background is in art and design but since moving to Aberdeen in 2004, he has been involved in social work, providing vital assistance to the local community and young people in the area. Aside from his full-time work, he is an accomplished podcaster, encouraging collaboration and connection while pointing to the absence of underrepresented voices in the mainstream arts scene via his Creative Me podcast and small business Big up the ‘Deen. Now, with We Are Here Scotland, he hopes to provide the type of support that will alleviate hurdles in funding and opportunities, while also creating an ongoing space for discussions around race and racism in Scotland and beyond. With this goal in mind, We Are Here has launched a GoFundMe campaign to create a monthly fund where two BIPOC artists/creatives can apply for a one-off £500 grant each towards their practice and professional development. In this Q&A, Ica elaborates on the thinking and mission statement behind We Are Here and why he hopes there won’t be a need for the platform in the future.
Can you tell us a bit more about We Are Here and why you felt it was important to set up the platform? How have you found the response to it?
About a year and a bit into doing my Creative Me podcast, I was being invited to exhibitions, showcases and events and it was great; I was developing good relationships. But I was very much aware that I was the only black face in these spaces and I did feel that there was nothing that represented me on the walls of many of the exhibitions I was going to. I liked the people and their work but on a deeper level, I was thinking there’s no one behind this that actually looks like me or runs these organisations or even, anyone that is at a level where they have the respect to organise something like this and get the funding for it.
I realised that I needed to actually do a bit of work and start amplifying the voices of the people like me and other minority creatives as well. Through the podcast, I managed to connect with a lot of people and We Are Here was originally going to be a podcast separate from the Creative Me podcast. I thought maybe I’ll get funding to do six to eight episodes in a year and that’s it, that was the plan. But then in May, when a lot of the Black Lives Matter protests kicked off, I felt that I needed to shift the focus of We Are Here Scotland. As well as supporting and amplifying the voices of BIPOC artists in the creative community, it also had to be about our lived experiences, which is part and parcel of what a lot of us navigate in these creative industries in Scotland. So I decided to speak on lots of different social injustice issues that are related to people of colour, which I still do, but now that things have settled a bit, I’m more focused on drawing light on the lack of representation that exists. I speak on it because it’s important to me.
I’ve had a lot of encouraging messages and support, and the platform has been getting shared. But on the back end of that, there have been some people describing it as “playing the race card”, which makes me think I must be doing something right if it’s annoying certain people! It’s all good though because I’m doing something that benefits people that look like me and other people of colour and I like that. There are always going to be people with old school dinosaur views thinking that this is like political correctness gone mad and while it’s annoying, I’ve realised that the trolls that send hate are in a way the biggest marketing team for me as well.
The hate is sadly going to be part of any kind of success. And I’m getting more of a thick skin; before I’d have an emotional attachment to it, because someone you don’t know is attacking your character, who you are, your belief system. But the key point is that it’s someone you don’t know. When it’s complete strangers behind a faceless image and they’re trolling, the reality is I don’t have anything in common with them to try and get them on my side. I’m not going to feed into what I call dead energy because it’s not going to go anywhere in terms of dialogue or conversation.
In terms of getting started in the creative industries, have you seen a change compared to when you first started out? And do you think young creatives can be put off by lack of mentorship or support
Culturally, there’s a shift now with the younger generation. When I was growing up, it was all about getting a good education or if you’re not academically minded, getting a good job and working your way up and just doing the best you could. Then you’ll have a good life and you can have a nice house and other stuff; basically that older generation kind of mentality.
For some people, depending what age they are, there might have been some apprehension in their early years in terms of doing something creative and that they really enjoyed because of the scrutiny they’d get from their family members. But equally, there was that element of many spaces not being that welcome from the outside in. The way these predominantly white institutions are set up can come across as intimidating sometimes. For example, if you’re filling out a funding form or application form and there are just so many questions, questions and questions. With my Creator’s Fund, I just wanted to do a simple Google form for details, why people are applying for this kind of funding but not overcomplicate it because that puts people off. I think a lot of these white institutions have to deeply think about why people like us are probably a bit apprehensive in engaging in some of these spaces and why they’re not more welcoming. I’m very much for inclusion and representation, but not when it’s a kind of performative or tick-box exercise.
The right person should absolutely get the job regardless of where they’re from. But when there aren’t many people that look like us to begin with, opportunities can be harder to reach for. There may only be one or two people of colour over a number of years of employment in these kinds of organisations and institutions. For me it’s strange because I see so many people that I follow by association online and they run their own organisations and projects. But they could easily be doing something within these mainstream institutions. So why isn’t someone contacting them?
How open do you feel the Scottish creative industries are in terms of discussions of diversity, equality and anti-racist work?
Sometimes in work situations if I’m sitting down with some of my friends or associates and they bring up race, I think great, I didn’t bring this up, they’ve brought it up so I can speak freely. But then when I do, it’s like I’m speaking a foreign language. These topics are being spoken about now because people are being confronted with it. Not just via We Are Here Scotland; there are various other platforms highlighting issues of race in the arts like Onyx Magazine, ROOT-ed Zine and Dardishi. There are lots out there and people are speaking out but if we weren’t in a pandemic, I don’t know how much people would be listening. Before, I think people would be apprehensive, nervous and avoid discussing anything that’s related to inequalities in Scotland’s creative industries.
There’s this thing I think with Scotland and the UK in general, of just not confronting the relationship with racism and all the atrocities and horrors of it as well in terms of transatlantic slavery. Scotland hasn’t fully come to terms with addressing its role in slavery, although work is being done by institutions like Glasgow University, who recognise that the fruits of their labour as a university came about on the back of slavery.
When we started the project, we expected that there would be some people with certain responses, which is so disheartening. But I was expecting the response to be worse to be honest. For those of us that have that forward-thinking, progressive mindset, we’re always going to try and create a little corner in the world for ourselves. My view is get on board with this movement, try to educate yourself and understand what is actually going on and not close your mind off. The whole of the UK has a lot of work to do because we very much feel comfortable under the guise of “oh look at America, they shoot people.” But then we’ve had hundreds of deaths in police custody, even in Scotland and no one gets charged or arrested for these things or given prison sentences. So the relationship within the UK in terms of racism, inequalities and so many other issues is swept under the carpet to some degree. I don’t want another inquiry; I know what racism looks like in the UK, let’s speak about it.
One reason individuals don’t pursue such an industry is because they don’t see people of colour in senior/management positions and don’t feel as if they could ever be in those positions as a result. What’s your opinion on this? Is it a concern you share?
I do feel like there’s an element of when you don’t see anyone that looks like you in the industry that you so want to be involved in and want to thrive in, it could be easy to say actually no, I don’t want to try. But then here’s me in the northeast of Scotland doing social work. I’m one male black social worker and there’s another male black social worker in another team in another part of town. There are not many people like me in the room in the northeast of Scotland and in Scotland in general. So basically, I look at myself as a rare commodity in a positive way in that I try to flip the script on its head.
I’m always a big advocate of actually doing things, even when you think it falls out of your usual remit or your comfort zone. I think that’s the only way that things can move forward and things get changed. You did this and then the hope is that over the years, there’ll be like five or six or 12 more people who follow that one person.
Do you feel hopeful for the next generation of creatives in Scotland?
Yes definitely. I’m approaching 40 next year and in terms of years, I know I can take this as far as I want to take it and do much as I can. But the plan in my mind is that hopefully I can take it far enough to inspire someone, the younger generation and that they can be like that guy did that, so we can take it to this level. In the whole online environment I see the younger generation being so in tune and receptive to what people are looking for and what people are needing.
I want to inspire people to look at We Are Here and to create their own platform. I’m seeing a lot of people who are doing stuff like this and it’s really good to see that we can create a community online and push it forward as much as possible. I think things will change, but probably when I’m long gone. But I feel like there’s a small shift happening in the world right now. I’m seeing lots of connections happening online and I’ve been making introductions myself. I’m always speaking to organisations and institutions and saying this can’t be performative. If you want to work with We Are Here Scotland to amplify the voices of black and other underrepresented minority creatives, we have to sustain something that becomes normal.
This is my mindset as well; I’m doing this regardless of what anyone says, with no budget or very little budget but I’m very much of the view that I don’t want to be dependent on these institutions, because that’s when I feel like things can get a bit corrupted. I recognise the power that comes from using your own voice and how that can transcend.
What can be done to get more creatives of colour involved in the arts in Scotland in a way that is genuine and not tokenistic, with attention also given to sustained support?
I’m always a big believer in paying it forward. It’s about volunteering the time so for me, I’d contact local schools or community groups to say these are my skills, I’d like to volunteer a couple of hours each week and you don’t know what that can do. It could influence someone else to say I might want to go to college and actually study art or photography or something. I think it’s very important that this is how we inspire the younger generation as well and move things forward. That person in the arts may be volunteering their time, but they’re also influencing the younger generation and people who might think that the arts have never really been for them.
But also on the organisational side, it’s about them doing their due diligence and actually doing the research and the work and not just kind of picking someone randomly. Because I know there are organisations of people in Scotland who’ve been doing their thing for specific minority groups for a long time, and charities too. So I feel that these big organisations have to do their real due diligence and research and work to contact these people and it’s about valuing people and their time as well. I wouldn’t go to someone and say “do you want to design and update my website? But I can’t pay you”.
Systems that are very much about not spending money and not budgeting for people, they’re going to thrive in the new recession. But we’ve got to have an unwavering belief in ourselves and say, no, we’re not doing that for free. That’s how we call out those kinds of institutions and organisations who think they can get away with it. For me, it’s easy to say don’t stand for it but we all have bills and rent to pay, and it can be the pressure and question of doing something for less money and you know it’s less or saying do I just go a bit hungry and not be able to afford things this month? It can be difficult to get that balance. But I feel like if there’s more unification in terms of calling out the nonsense, it’ll make a difference. That’s when people fix up and realise we can’t keep doing this.
What steps would you like to see the industry take in getting more diverse voices involved more broadly?
I’d like to see the industry start by getting more of our faces in creative spaces. It’s about people recognising that it’s been too white for too long. I’m not trying to say to people, leave your job that’s paying you well. But there’s got to be a bit of stepping aside and actually recognising that and it’s going to take a lot emotionally and mentally to say, hey, my presence here is probably a part of the problem.
The reality is that for things to be right in a few years time, We Are Here Scotland just shouldn’t exist anymore. It shouldn’t be the platform that it is anymore. It can be something that stays there, and people look back on it like an online archive. That’s really where I’m wanting to get to. I want us to be at a point where people are in positions where they can thrive and create an inclusive, creative industry within Scotland. And for me to not keep posting and saying, let’s do a crowdfunder! That’s the reality and that’s the aim; I don’t have to be doing this in a few years.
I think there are things happening in the world, especially in Scotland, in the creative industries and that there will be a change. I’m being positive now and I’m not being pessimistic like I usually am; I think there will be a change. I maybe won’t be able to see that manifest, I might not be around anymore, but hopefully it will happen that there will come a generation who will reap the rewards of everyone that’s putting in the work just now in Scotland and in the UK.
The GoFundMe for We Are Here Scotland’s Creators Fund is now live. To donate, please visit: bit.ly/WeAreHereFund