My London: Zena Edwards

Ahead of the world premiere of her powerful collaboration with dancer and choreographer Qudus Onikeku at the Southbank Centre, we speak to London-based spoken word artist Zena Edwards about creative bus routes, London’s diverse arts scene and, of course, finding time to sample all London’s food offerings…

What is your favourite area of London?
‘I have a few. Along the South Bank, I love walking next to the river after dark when it’s peaceful. On Hampstead Heath any time of year. Ridley Road market in Dalston, because it feels like home with so much colour, music, vibes and all the very, very friendly people!’

What is your most vivid London memory?
‘Being six and going on an anti-racism march with my mum in west London. It was sunny and people were pulling a float, chanting together in solidarity – it was a good feeling. I remember the sun and the feeling of being part of something. I’m glad that I learned that something like that could happen in London at a young age.’

What would your perfect London day out involve?
‘Because my work and social life are quite intertwined it is hard for me to choose my perfect day out in London. A social day might be breakfast on a river boat or a great lunch in a riverside restaurant. Going to an art exhibition and grabbing a sandwich and some good coffee – mocha or a matcha. In the evenings I like to see dance or theatre performances or go to live music gigs, maybe salsa or dancing, followed by more good food!

‘A perfect work day would be a breakfast meeting about an arts project that would provide opportunities for the young people I work with, then a writing and performance workshop with some young people incorporating arts and social justice. After that I usually spend a few hours rehearsing for one of my own projects – The Fury Project probably – in one of London’s brilliant studio spaces. I love the Albany, or Jerwood Studios and I had a nice rehearsal at the Freeword Centre earlier this year too, it has a great cafe with lovely staff. Then I like to support my friends by going to their performances and give feedback, I imagine this would include more food and drinks afterwards!’

What do you think is London’s best-kept secret?
‘The rich diversity of its art. I know so much talent in writing, performance, dance, music, photography and visual arts. They bubble under the surface and keep refreshing themselves and the arts world. Mainstream support for them is double edged – if they get it how will they have to compromise their art? If they don’t, will they be able to pay their electric bill next month if they didn’t have minion IT job? Their art becomes the side job and they speak about it like the sidelining of their craft like that is the dirty little secret.’

Which song, book or film do you think best encapsulates London?
‘There’s an Afro-Latin jazz fusion instrumental by Omar Sosa called Oda al Negro, which reminds me of the hustle and bustle of London. All its nuanced rhythms, paces and poly-cultural layers make me think about the wealth and poverty in the city, its history of trade, migration and movement, and how people try to survive and thrive. It’s such a vibrant piece of music, like London.’

What do you miss most about London when you’re away?
‘The different types of food, London’s diverse restaurant scene is amazing – Eritrean, Turkish, Bangladeshi, Italian, the working man’s caff, Caribbean, Spanish tapas, West African, Lebanese, Chinese, Thai…oh my gosh… I’m getting hungry thinking about it…’

Where do you go in London to relax?
‘I like to go to coffee shops to write, I get a chance to feel like I’m part of the hive of activity but in my own world. There’s a great Turkish book shop/cafe/restaurant on Tottenham High Road near Bruce Grove, I can spend hours in there. Also, the Indian Belphoori house in Chapel Market; are you sensing a food theme here? The staff and owner there were so nice; I sat in there nursing an all-you-can-eat buffet plate for about five hours once and wrote!’

What would you recommend everyone in London do at least once?
‘To do a live music crawl and see as many unsigned artists in one week as you can. There’s a venue on every night in London and it will restore your faith in the production of music. Tuesday at the Troy Bar in Hoxton, MauMau’s on a Thursday in Portabello Road, Outspoken Poetry and Music Night once a month at The Forge in Camden…’

Where in London do you feel most creative?
‘Now that I live in south London, I feel very creative on London bus routes – number 196, 3 and 468. When I lived in north London it was the 73. These routes take you through a variety of London boroughs that cross class and colour lines. Those lines are more blatant than we’d like to admit but each emits its own type of creativity, atmosphere and energy. The demographic of people who get on and off the bus changes as the bus moves further along its journey. Sitting upstairs and taking in the sights and writing gives me almost as much satisfaction as sitting in a coffee shop writing. Plus, there’s something about being a voyeur above the crowd but being a part of it at the same time.’

What projects do you have in the pipeline?
‘The Poetic Debaters which is about encouraging emerging poets and young people to use poetry to debate. The project strap line is “a truth-seeking poetic issue-based gaming program”. I also have phase 5 of The Fury Project, an exploration of perceptions of different kinds of anger. Incorporating spoken word, film, dance and now an art installation, I’ve been looking at women’s anger and culture based anger. Phase 5 will be a movement and spoken word piece looking at Sex and Anger. Yummy.’

Exile Remixed will be performed at Southbank Centre’s Purcell Room on Thursday 11 September.

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