Tony Cealy

Interview: Tony Cealy on Immersive AR Audio Walk SONGSTREETS commemorating 1981 Brixton Uprising

A new app, SONGSTREETS is now live celebrating the rich history and current neighbourhood of Brixton, stretching back to the arrival of the Windrush generation. Starting from Brixton tube, you can take an hour-long walk through the streets of Brixton, which burst to life through this theatrical experience, with music, voices and stories of local people guiding your way.

April 2023 marks the anniversary of the 1981 Brixton Rising, and the upcoming 75thWindrush anniversary. The app brings together stories and songs of Brixton for an interactive experience. Inspired by Aboriginal Australian songlines, the ancient tradition of mapping the land, SONGSTREETS was made in response to a 2022 Brixton community project led by Aboriginal musician Jessie Lloyd. 

Tell us about how SONGSTREETS came about and how you hope audiences will interact with the app.

SONGSTREETS is an amazing arts project that sits in a storytelling tradition, where people get to hear about a specific local community and its music. 

81 Acts (the community forum set up to commemorate the 1981 Brixton Rising) approached Border Crossings to do a piece of work connecting Brixton to their Indigenous festival, ORIGINS, and Border Crossings came up with the idea. This amazing Aboriginal Australian artist, Jessie Lloyd, came over in October, Black History Month, last year and she spent several weeks meeting local people – artists, residents, tenants, cultural organisations, elders, school children – in different places – libraries, theatres, in our community hubs and hot spots. She’d talk with them about how to navigate around the place, but also what songs come to mind, what songs remind you of a particular place. She was able to work with a wide range of people in the community and get them to share their stories of Brixton and what music meant to them. Out of that residue that was left by Jessie Lloyd, with the amazing Thor McIntyre-Burnie from Aswarm, working with Border Crossings, the idea of the app and the way it works was created and put together.

Interview: Tony Cealy on Immersive AR Audio Walk SONGSTREETS commemorating 1981 Brixton Uprising 1

I hope that audiences will interact with the app to familiarise themselves with memories of yesteryear, of the Brixton that once was, using the memories of those who remember Brixton back in the day. I think people will interact with the app through learning about Brixton’s rich radical history and the activism that was around – but also the people and places of Brixton that they may or may not remember.  On the walk, you see those people and places differently, because of the music and stories you’re hearing.

Tell us about your career. What makes an interesting project for you? 

My career is as a drama practitioner. I’ve been using drama and theatre tools for three decades, working across different sectors like education, criminal justice, mental health, youth and community. I’ve specialised in providing projects and programmes that bring about change, specifically in the criminal justice area. I’m still going strong and I’ve been fortunate enough to collaborate with many organisations in the arts world, but also with voluntary sector organisations to bring art and social justice practice to projects in the community.  

An interesting project for me is one that allows the individuals, the groups and the communities to have their own voice. It not only raises profile but gives voice and agency and advocacy to the common person. Projects that allow this kind of interactive, participatory experience for the community – that’s what I find most interesting – projects that will come alive when people engage with them.

What makes Brixton such an important place to celebrate with this project?

Like I said earlier, Brixton has a rich radical history. Even before the Caribbeans and the Africans and people from America arrived in Brixton (i.e. the Black community) –  even before then, Brixton was such a creative place. Even going back to the minstrels… if you look at all of that history around the minstrels, a lot of the performances were based in Brixton. It’s always had a travelling community coming to Brixton to put on performances. Brixton has really been that rich entertainment place going back to the 1700s.  

Brixton is the Black capital of Europe. Wherever you are in the world, if you’re telling people where are you from and you say Brixton, people automatically know. It really is the heartbeat of the Black community, certainly from the Windrush times up until the present day. So in this project I’m so glad to be part of celebrating and commemorating this important iconic place through songs and stories. It’s such an important project.

Who or what are your influences to make art?

I entered the world of theatre through the late Keith Johnstone. I did a lot of improvisational work with him, and then I went to the States and did some work with him and Viola Spolin, but subsequently following Keith when he left the UK and move to Canada. So improvisation’s been at the core of my practice.

Ali Campbell, Thor Hewish, John Wright…. I suppose it’s the interactive, participatory, immersive experience audiences can gain from theatre and making provocations, so that there is learning and knowledge to be shared, but also creating opportunities for debate and social change. 

What are your favourite London haunts, in Brixton and beyond?

Well, it’s no longer there, but one of my favourite London haunts was in King’s Cross, because I was very much into the movies and going to the cinema, so my all-time favourite London haunt would be the Scala Cinema. That was a very special place for me. And often I would go to London’s East End – Mile End, Stepney – to go and have pie and mash and liquor. Even going partying was based in East London, because a lot of the Black nightclubs were there back in the day.