I grew up in Liverpool in what was, and still is, a predominantly white area. My mum was white, my dad was black, I was somewhere in between – I struggled to fit in, to find my place in my family and the world.
Dad wasn’t around and mum did her best on her own to raise me. She got abuse for having a child of mixed race. ‘N****r lover’ they’d call her. Once I saw her violently attacked for defending us. Her family weren’t all that supportive either.
Her only solace was her mum, my Nanny – but she died when I was 6. That was when Mum lost control of her life and I ended up going into foster care. I was passed from family to family and a feeling of isolation grew inside me.
Music was my escape – I remember tape recording my favourite songs off the radio as a kid and I’d write my own rap and poetry about the things I was feeling. There was this incredible urban artist from Liverpool called KOF – I reached out to his manager and he said I should try youth theatre.
The group I joined, 20 Stories High, did things so differently – everyone was really listened to and given space to be themselves. They fused surprising art-forms – puppetry with hip hop beats, spoken word with club music – and they helped me deal with my past through artistic expression. They became my second family, but another new family was on the horizon... I was about to have a baby.
My family had done the best with what they had at the time, but my experience growing up had made me determined to feel secure and stable before staring a family of my own.
I didn’t feel ready or equipped for motherhood. I’d always been so clear that I’d be sorted before I had a kid, but here I was, not financially stable or settled, about to have a child.
I was looking at myself and was saying: you’re not ready to be a mother.
I realised I had lingering shame from my past. I stepped back from theatre and began isolating myself – it was painful, but I’m grateful I went through it. It changed something inside me. I realised that nobody is ever ready for any of things life throws at you and that I had what I needed inside me all along: love.
I gave birth to a boy. It was amazing – but it challenged me. Who was I now as an artist? Expressing my ‘hard knock life’ in my poetry suddenly felt selfish.
I was also struggling to connect with my child – I just didn’t know how to play or be silly with him, or how to share my creativity. I spoke to my theatre family, and they listened. We realised my experience of creative disconnect from my child probably wasn’t uncommon, particularly for people who’d grown up in care.
Julia and Keith, co-directors of the company, were really inspired by my story and wanted to create a new show for children and young parents about creative play. So they teamed up with puppetry company Theatre-Rites and developed Big Up!, a hip hop and puppetry show for 3-6 year olds and everyone who looks after them. They wanted to reach out to young parents who might be feeling isolated like me, so they employed me to help. We developed a new creative play project in Liverpool for children and their young parents and carers.
I wanted the sessions to be inclusive and to reflect the passions of people like me. So we got a local beatboxer in as well as loads of squishy mats and toys. We tried djembe drumming and capoeira too.
It’s been challenging. I think young parents are put down by our society. If you’re living on the breadline or struggling with your mental health and sense of worth, why would you turn up to a session like this? It’s not your priority.
So we’re learning as we go. It’s really magic to see the kid’s faces light up when they learn something new. It’s even better seeing parents learn how to play with their kids – something I’m pleased to be learning as well.
I’ve also become really aware that as a mum of mixed heritage, so many of the stories and rhymes I have at my fingertips have no connection to my son – some of them are out and out racist.
I’ve made it my mission to develop a whole new book of stories and rhymes that are more inclusive. It’s not about taking away what’s already there – I want to diversify and add to it and in the process diversify the artistic and cultural experiences of early age learning.
Once I saw myself as the black sheep of the family, never quite fitting in. Now I’m saying ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ isn’t good enough anymore – let’s find a new story, together.
Big Up! tours to Liverpool, Oldham, London, Blackpool and Manchester from 8 Feb to 30 March 2019. For more information, visit the website here