‘You’re lifted out of the horror’: how music offers hope in detention centres
Tens of thousands of people are incarcerated indefinitely in the UK’s hostile immigration system each year, but music workshops by artists are providing moments of refuge.
07 Jun 2022
Lamin Joof remembers the first time he heard music coming through the walls of the centre he had been detained in for weeks. “I was in Dover, that was one of the most stressful times for me inside detention; I was not even ready to come out of my room,” he says. “We went down to the music hall, and, wow… it was the energy that I needed, and things changed.”
Lamin, who came to the UK from the Gambia 15 years ago, says it was making music that helped him survive months stranded in Britain’s immigration detention centres.
The percussion and guitars he heard on that day in Dover were coming from a workshop run by Hear Me Out, a charity that aims to give detainees a voice through music. Having launched in 2008, Hear Me Out’s artists now lead 120 workshops a year in seven of the UK’s immigration detention centres. To date, they’ve worked with more than 26,000 people and recorded 642 songs in a range of languages and musical traditions, including fusions of Bhangra, reggae and rap.
In the sessions, trained musicians teach the detainees musical instruments and songwriting, and together record some of the new tracks. They encourage participants to write lyrics as a way to express their feelings and share experiences with others.
“It’s about creating solidarity and a kind of escape,” says the charity’s artistic director Gini Simpson. “There is a moment where you’re lifted out of the horror that you’re in to feel and think something different.”
“You don’t know when you’re coming out. That’s the biggest cause of mental destruction”Lamin Joof
Their work is inspired by cultural historian Katia Chornik’s research into the music made by political prisoners in Chile between 1973-90 during the violent fascist dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Music was used as a tool to process or transcend hard experiences, to remember or forget – ideals that the organisation bases its workshops on.
Chornik concluded that “remembering through music, possibly the most subjective and emotional cultural form, enables witnesses to establish relationships with difficult experiences, facilitating, engaging with and contributing to memory process, and opening up previously closed spaces”.
This echoes Lamin’s own experience. “Everybody makes their pain or whatever they’re facing into a song and records it,” he says. “It gets their energy up.”
For Lamin, the most painful part of being detained was the feeling of being trapped, not knowing when he would be able to leave. He spent a total of nine months in detention across three different immigration centres.
“In those times, I was in real stress. I was in depression. It’s even harder than prison because in prison you go in and you know when you’re coming out,” he says. “But with this, you know when you’re going in, but you don’t know when you’re coming out. That is the biggest cause of mental destruction.”
Lamin was one of tens of thousands of people trapped in the UK’s immigration system. For years, the UK has been pursuing policies to create a hostile environment for migrants, aiming to make life so difficult for those without status that they’ll be forced to leave.
The hostile environment policies – the term first coined 10 years ago by then Home Secretary Theresa May – were introduced to deny access to employment, housing, healthcare and bank accounts to those without correct documentation, leading to disastrous consequences for many marginalised communities. Increasingly harsh immigration laws such as the 2012 revocation of the Overseas Domestic Workers (ODW) visa concession, and the introduction of the Nationality and Borders Act last month continue to strip migrants of their legal status and puts them at threat of immigration detention.
“When you’re black and female working in a detention centre, lots of officers assume you’re an inmate”Johanne Hudson-Lett
Britain’s immigration system has always been racist: a leaked Home Office report released in May confirmed it. And the ramifications are nowhere more glaringly clear than on the frontlines.
Johanne Hudson-Lett has been working with Hear Me Out as a musician and workshop facilitator for the last five years. “I was face-to-face with people who were my age and also came from the same Caribbean island that my parents came from – it was just that stark realisation that you could quite accidentally find yourself in that same position through no fault of your own,” she says.
Black people are disproportionately held in detention centres for longer than their white counterparts, with many accusing the Home Office of using racial bias when detaining migrants. “When you’re going into the unit, you know that you’re going to be watched all the time; the detainees are watched constantly, every movement,” Johanne says. “When you’re black and female working in a detention centre, then lots of officers just assume that you’re an inmate. After some sessions, the officers are asking why I’m trying to leave.”
Although international law states immigration detention should only be used as a last resort, the system is widely practised in the UK and across Europe. The impacts on those detained are severe; asylum seekers are five times more likely to have mental health needs, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, but are far less likely to receive support. A huge source of anguish for those in detention centres is the uncertainty of their position. There’s no time limit on how long someone can be held, for example, with some being kept in centres for months on end; at the end of 2019, the longest period of detention was 1,002 days.
In some cases, Lamin says, detainees who were told that they were going to be deported were just driven to the airport and back to the centre again. He describes these cycles as a form of mental torture. Yet Lamin was able to witness first-hand how music helped detainees to express the hardships they were going through.
“Music gives an aim because there is none when you’re in a detention centre”Johanne
Lamin worked on the Hear Me Out album Refugee Tales during his time in Dover in 2015. The tracks are sung in a mixture of languages, including Punjabi and Bengali, and brought an injection of happiness into the centre, he says. “The way of helping them have a voice is [making] them sing and record the song. All the people that came to the studio were happy that their voices were going to be heard by the outside world.” Since leaving immigration detention, Lamin has continued performing as a singer/songwriter and DJ.
Johanne remembers working with a group of women in Yarl’s Wood detention centre. “[They] are facing challenges that I could not even imagine, and have been through unthinkable things and situations,” she says. “For an hour and a half, they are immersed in the joy of singing and looking after themselves, their wellbeing, and having a focus and something to work towards. Music gives them an aim because there is none when you’re in a detention centre.”
Lamin says there’s a “darkness clouding up in detention centres that people don’t see,” and calls upon the public to become more aware of the system, to shine some colour into the dark clouds.
“Music uplifts, music strengthens, music is food for the brain, it empowers myself and everyone in there,” Lamin adds. “People inside, all they need is someone to listen to them. Because if you are there, you don’t have a voice.”
Hear Me Out are crowdfunding to keep running these music workshops with people in hotels (there are currently 25,000 displaced people being housed in hotels across the UK). Click here to find out more.
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