In this episode of What Northern Ireland Means to Me, we meet Darren Ferguson, the founder of Beyond Skin, an organisation which uses arts to help develop a society free from racism and sectarianism.
For me, Belfast, Northern Ireland — Belfast is a music city and Northern Ireland is a global jukebox. Music and sound is in our DNA. And no matter where you’re from, if you’ve made Northern Ireland your home, we seem to have some kind of magic that just makes music happen and brings people together to music. Beyond Skin — we’ve been going for 17 years. I set the organisation up, influenced by Peter Gabriel, what he was doing in music, Nitin Sawhney, and another project called 1 Giant Leap.
In a nutshell, we’re enabling the arts to deal with things like racism, sectarianism, and help people find out a bit more about their sense of belonging and how they connect and relate to their global neighbours.
It’s actually very, very different from when we first started 17 years ago. I think when we first used the arts in peacebuilding and good relations, it wasn’t really valued. I mean, it’s still not valued where it should be, but we’ve moved on a bit. It was seen as a bit of a gimmick, in an entertainment way, but didn’t really deal with the issues. Whereas now I think people are realising the value and impact of the arts, especially music, because music and sound are also blurred lines. You know, how people relate to each other, how people relate to their own environment, is sound. I had this conversation the other day with somebody, saying that west Belfast has a different sound than other parts of the city because the black taxis mostly service that part of the city — those big, diesel black taxis shaping that sound environment there.
We’ve been doing a lot of own music and sound — but arts in general — giving people access to learn about different cultures and about themselves and also to bring communities together. Now there’s a lot of research on the effect of music and sound on the brain regarding kind of the spirit of togetherness and in healing as well.
There’s the famous story of where we took a lot of the marching bands into the Black Box music venue in Belfast, the Protestant marching bands obviously reflecting the Protestant culture. (There [are] marching bands from the Nationalist side, but I think Catholic, Irish culture, people are really familiar with the Irish traditional music, the Celtic music.) [The Protestant marching bands were] performing there with musicians from different parts of the world and some female musicians — because there are women involved in marching bands, but it’s mostly a very male dominated space.
And this gentleman came up to me at the end and said, “This is amazing what you’ve just done there.” And I said, “Well, what’s so amazing about taking musicians into a music venue?” We’ve just got to shine the light on the value they bring to society. Again, it’s part of our music soundtrack. I’m very proud of saying I come from Northern Ireland.
We do have our issues, which are massive, but on a beautiful canvas. We’re really a beautiful part of the world. We’re quite small in population, so there is a sense of community, although communities may be divided. Generally, I think people are kind, because when we have people come over to visit, they always compliment us of how kind and welcoming Northern Ireland is.
Northern Ireland is home for me and I want it to be home for all our people as well.
What Northern Ireland Means to Me is presented by Julia Paul and produced by Shared Future News, to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland, with funding from the Heritage Fund on behalf of the Northern Ireland Office.
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Images © Allan LEONARD