In a unique interview with the Afrofuturist Magazine, the writer and filmmaker admits: ‘I love Johnny Dee, I love the Stooges and I love the Ramones’

If some of the words that have been used to describe me have at times seemed lukewarm at best, I suppose that is a reflection of what it means to be a writer. Working a decade or so as a historian is not a walk in the park.

I was recently approached by Afrofuturist magazine about participating in a wide-ranging interview series and coming away with a rare look into my own interests.

There are, in fact, a couple of things that stand out from our conversation. First, it’s refreshing to learn that while my writing career has seen me lauded for being adept at telling stories about African Americans in Hollywood, there is a parallel side to my life that I have always felt was more important: my research work – which I can describe as “world excavation”.

We spent an entire day on a train listening to spoken-word groups set in historical places or filmed in community spaces. We explored gatherings, protests, experiments, chains, vortices and dumps, conversations and ideas across time and space, gender and class. On this train trip, I became an outsider – someone who didn’t have the same privilege and history as the people who were sharing their stories and voices with me, as they shared what those stories meant to them.

Derek Bowers, the aesthetic leader of Detroit’s Plastic People of the Universe. Photograph: Bruce McLean / Afrofuturist Magazine

I realised, sitting beside subjects and discussing their backgrounds, that I should have expanded my account of “freedom” to include a wider description of “reality” – to accompany the word’s meaning as a cultural enabler. This was a wake-up call.

Second, perhaps we all need to get more on with the business of being our own “resilience engineers” and protecting “resilience centres” in our communities, so that we keep people and communities together to keep them open to change, towards positive change.

There is no easier luxury to borrow, from someone like Michael Winterbottom, who made Freedom to Lose, than to look deep inside yourself, see your journey through to and through some dark place – and know that you have arrived at another part of your journey. It’s self-evident that our contemporary fight for our very existence is one that we have every right to fight.

I discovered that there is some elusive charm in a simple offer of friendship. As a teenager, I gave a bit of free love to a teen in a punk band, a total stranger at the time, when he said that their performance was so powerful that he felt it provided the tingling energy behind a dream where he saw the tattered patch of fabric on a garment that had just healed from a rips and tears and was hot to the touch. This one moment offered the notion that life was full of access. This idea that in the face of human suffering and darkness, there could be access.

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I realised that there is some elusive charm in the idea of portability. I love Johnny Dee, I love the Stooges and I love the Ramones, and they’re not that hard. And furthermore, I love music. If you’re ready to say, “give me an Arctic Monkeys song,” I will give you one. “If you want me to swear, give me a whip-song.”

That innocence – and I don’t even mean innocence about the things we encounter, I mean innocence about our relationship with one another – of using words to help transmit those ideas has never struck me as a trivialisation of or rejection of complex humanity, but rather as one of the most vulnerable ways we can see through to something possible.

• Kelefa Sanneh is a writer and social commentator who has interviewed some of the world’s most distinguished artists and thinkers.

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