The power of story
Updated: Oct 5, 2021
– with copywriter, podcaster and entrepreneur Kwame Wilson
I met Kwame through work last year. I met him as a copywriter, a bit of a prankster, and a guy who’d moved from London to Amsterdam, who was starting a podcast. Since having a long conversation over Zoom – I’ve gotten to know him a little more. As a writer, curious, and entrepreneurial by nature. He considers the world around him purposefully, seeing the value in words and story, and the beauty in eloquence.
Kwame’s background is Ghanaian, and he called London home up until almost five years ago. We talked about growing up in different continents in the 90’s and 00's, about multiculturalism, and purpose, impact and inspiration, when it comes to his co-founded podcast, Out of Home.
Change of place
Tell me about growing up in London?
“I grew up in South East London. A place called Deptford. At one point, I think it was home to Europe's biggest street market."
"Quite a multicultural area. White English people, a lot of people from the Vietnamese, Chinese, and Jamaican communities, as well as people from the Ghanaian and Nigerian communities. But very close to Deptford is a suburb called Bermondsey, which was a very white neighbourhood when I was growing up. It had a famous football team that had a very racist core fanbase.
"Near Deptford is New Cross, which is where I went to school. And that area is really Black. From there, ten minutes in a car and you’re in Bermondsey. So I grew up in the middle of those two places. Where there is a history of racial tension."
Was Bermondsey an area you avoided?
"Yeah. For the most part. We were told to avoid it at all costs when there were marches. We have the National Front in England, which is basically where you get patriots or people who believe England is England and people from elsewhere are diluting it. We’d be told, make sure you’re not in Bermondsey then as you don’t want trouble."
In comparison, I can't imagine that experience. I reflect on my own childhood as we talk. I grew up in Darwin, Australia, a part of the country known for its multiculturalism. But that doesn't mean racism and discrimination doesn’t exist there. It does. While I don’t remember being on the receiving end, I remember my dad, who is half Chinese, telling me about he and his siblings' experiences. And in the last few weeks, I've realised even though we were young and all friends, I heard (and likely said) discriminatory names used somewhat colloquially at school. Nobody seemed offended.
Are these places still the same?
“No. So Deptford has now become a hotspot for gentrification, which is really weird for me."
"Every time I go back, I see the spread of gentrification has expanded further. I feel more and more like a tourist.
“I remember one time, two or three years ago, I saw a piece of graffiti sprawled over pizza shop shutters, which said 'fascism isn’t welcome here in Deptford', which I pretty much agree with. But part of me felt that there’s a likelihood that that statement wasn’t written by a person originally from Deptford. Because the average person there isn't thinking about a concept like that, they're just trying to survive.”
"Bermondsey is changing. It’s becoming more diverse. You have a lot of families from different backgrounds there now – Afro-Caribbean, Asian and South East Asian. There seems to be more unison, which is a good sign."
I share a memory of when I was in New Orleans. The lady I was staying with was telling me about how many people in the area had been displaced after Hurricane Katrina. And then houses were very cheap – and essentially well off white people came in and bought them up, not to live in but often to rent out. And those displaced had no opportunity to return to their communities.
It’s a bit different to what you’re talking about I think, but it seems that these areas have changed in terms of ethnic diversity. But is it also the case that a lot of people have been displaced due to socio-economic standing?
“Yeah. Pepys Estate, named after the English poet Samuel Pepys, was I think at one point one of the biggest forms of social housing in the 90's across Europe – large high rise blocks made to house families, low-income families of all colours and backgrounds.”
“And the area is not too far from the docks. So what happened is the government knocked down a lot of the area to build new high rises, expensive residential apartments. And a lot of lower income families were paid to move elsewhere.
“So that essentially, people like us, working professionals, middle class and upwards, who could afford the new area could move in.”
So while it sounds as though Bermondsey has changed in a lot of positive ways, does it feel like the history of the area gets pushed aside and forgotten about?
“Yeah I’d say so. I mean I think it is beautiful when you see loads of places of interest. A Chinese restaurant, then a Turkish place, then an Afro-Caribbean hair salon, then a bar run by young English hipsters. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
“But to your point, we had a job centre in Deptford which was called ‘The Job Centre’, where young people and those on benefits or out of employment could go to get the job seeker allowance. That was taken over and in its place, a bar.
“Where I took issue with this, and where privilege and ignorance felt evident, was that they kept the name the same. So The Job Centre bar has middle class people coming through for midweek mojitos while they freelance. Or maybe they don’t even have jobs and can just afford to come in without work. The owner said they keep the name out of respect. Ok then, but for this time, the respectful thing to do would have been to change the name, to honour what the original centre provided for the community.”
Images of Pepys Estate from a Greater London Council brochure, 1969.
Do you have a strong connection to London?
“To London more so than Deptford itself yes. To me Deptford was just a place. I just always felt like..I’m from here, I was raised here, but that’s it.”
“You can have love for a place, but don’t let it consume you.”
I find ‘place’ so fascinating. Especially since moving abroad. I share that I had no idea how connected I was to certain things that are very Australian. But at the same time, before I moved, I had a strong feeling there were other places I would connect with in different ways, especially culturally and creatively.
When you moved to Amsterdam, it was about a job initially, but was there also a feeling of looking for something you hadn't found in London?
“No, I was happy in London, but I knew there were more opportunities out there. I remember when I was younger I always felt more European than British...I was very proud that we had this EU network.”
“And I wanted to work in mainland Europe. No matter what happened in England, if I became the best copywriter and earned a million pounds a day, I would have always thought what would have happened in Amsterdam, you know?”
I tell Kwame that when I moved from Australia to Amsterdam, I thought it would be "more multicultural". He turns the tables and makes a good point, asking me a question: "Where are you living and frequenting?"
Now, I live in Spaarndammerbuurt, in Amsterdam West. The area has a unique history – home to some interesting buildings in the Amsterdam School style, including three “workers’ house” buildings – mostly intended for dock workers, who found work in the nearby ports – famously designed by Michel de Klerk. (If you're in Amsterdam, the Het Schip museum is worth a visit).
I digress – today the neighbourhood feels somewhat culturally diverse – the average person seems a little older than those in “hipper” areas like nearby Jordaan, but there are lots of communal areas with kids playing, and a wide representation of ethnic backgrounds, including Moroccan-Dutch residents.
But compared to other areas, diversity isn’t so strong, as I learn from Kwame, about his first home in Amsterdam.
"When I first came to Amsterdam, I was in Oost. And that was an easy transition to make as it reminded me a lot of London and Deptford. In Oost there is a long street called Javastraat. I had a house viewing there with an Irish guy and a French guy."
"I remember leaving the viewing and thinking I’d love to live there. There was a Turkish hair shop, I went to a Surinamese food store...down the road you had a brunch place, American style food, owned by local Dutch residents. I liked it a lot, it felt very diverse. Even yesterday riding to WeWork in Oost, there were Turkish and Moroccan kids, Egyptian, Ghanaian, Surinamese. A union of kids playing. I love that about the area.
"And then it was funny what you said about where you grew up in Australia. I don’t imagine it to be racially diverse. But growing up I’ve heard more and more that it is."
Yeah. Darwin is close to East Timor, Indonesia and the Tiwi Islands. There are large Greek and Asian communities, and a large population of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. So for me growing up, going to markets, or going to school I felt like I was alongside people from many different backgrounds.
But to Kwame's point, in the way you have cities that are different to each other, you also have areas of cities that are different to each other.
It’s surely natural, but very telling, that we are drawn to what feels familiar and comfortable in a place. Especially when it is somewhere other than where we call "home".
Out of home inspiration
Coincidentally, Kwame’s podcast is called Out of Home – and was created together with three of his friends from London, who all made their way to Amsterdam at different times.
From a conceptual and creative point of view, how did the podcast start?
"Two main events kind of triggered the start of it. One being the passing Nipsey Hussle. He was Eritrean-American, based in LA, and was a rapper, among other things. He grew up in a rough background and had a criminal past, part of the Crips gang in America."
"For a while his music had impressed me. He was poignant, had a good grasp on language. The copywriter or nerd in me always liked that. He would talk in interviews about how he read Plato, and how he believed in the power of education and books. I thought he seemed quite worldly. And later on following his career, I found out he had this entrepreneurial spirit.
"When Nipsey unfortunately passed, I knew him as a rapper, and didn’t know that he was part of so many schemes or initiatives. He was ahead of his time advocating for individuals and POC especially, empowering them to invest in cryptocurrency and other ventures."
"He wanted to build an outdoor digital museum in LA. A couple of days before he died he was meant to meet with someone high ranking in the LAPD to talk about engaging with youth to understand where they came from and create opportunities for them. So I found myself kind of annoyed that, in remembering him, people just said he was a rapper. Because he was so much more than that. He was an entrepreneur, and an activist. He was many things.
Nipsey Hussle basketball court mural in LA. Via Chicago Crusader / Shafik Instagram.
"And then, I was at a time with work where I wasn’t enjoying a lot of projects. And also, a lot of people think that your job shapes your narrative. I had people really seeing and defining me by the brand I work for, and I just had this feeling of also not wanting to be only known as a copywriter. We are complex beings."
"So I reached out to one of the other boys in the podcast, Kieran, and he was also quite moved by the passing of Nipsey. We linked up and had some ideas."
"We kept thinking about how we could engage with and give back to youth and share our experiences."
"And I made this very rough deck and said ‘here are some ways we could do this’ you know, workshops, interviews…and one of the ideas was a podcast."
"And I didn’t really want to do a podcast. You know, even though I’m quite talkative I don’t really like public speaking and being on a platform like that! But Kieran has a lot of audio expertise, he used to have his own radio show and he’s also a rapper. So he was like 'we should do a podcast' and I was like 'uhhhh'. And as he was speaking to the others about a similar plan, Kieran brought Yaf and Steven into the mix.
"And the more we talked about it, we thought this is great..this is where we can just air our views. Not representing any brands, just ourselves.
"We felt we had a unique perspective. Four young black guys who moved from London to Amsterdam. So it took shape from there."
Sharing, and shared experiences
It almost feels like the four of you were meant to create this podcast. You've created 30 episodes as of June 2020. That's impressive. What are the main themes of the podcast?
“It’s about our experiences – being from London, being black and working in the creative industries. About the things that are relevant to us – music, sport, fashion, childhood, politics. Not that all four of us are reading broadsheets or The Independent every day, but being from the UK and also London, Brexit was a big issue for us. So topical issues are key.”
“And also just having a voice. It’s not often you hear the point of view of four people who move to one place with separate experiences. Especially four black guys."
“We also have a segment called ‘what made you smile’ which I think is powerful. It’s not that common that young men speak about sharing their joy or happiness.”
Guest Mabdulle with Out Of Home members, L-R: Mabdulle, Yaf, Steven, and Kwame.
And from early episodes to current ones, you started to change the format and tighten it a bit, and interview people?
“Yeah during Corona lockdown, we thought no matter what field or industry you're in, everyone is affected by the same thing. So we started these “in house sessions” – where we interview a football player, a velodrome cyclist, a DJ, a stylist...you know, people from all walks of life. And they talk about their craft, who they are and how they came to be there, but also how they are dealing with a pandemic.”
“And then we decided not to record for a week out of respect for what was happening with Black Lives Matter. And following that break, we did a group in house session about racism, where we had a gathering of people from various backgrounds join us for a discussion, sharing emotions and experiences.”
Did BLM instigate wanting to do that episode, or was it already on the cards thematically?
“The gathering was already going to happen. Six months ago in December we had an event when we launched the podcast, sharing our passions with guests, plus what they could expect to hear on the podcast. And we wanted to do a six month anniversary with some of those people again.”
“But we thought an anniversary seemed a bit selfish, so instead switched the focus to be about racism and the current conversations happening in the world more specifically."
Purpose, drive and choice
How does it feel six months on? What have you learnt?
“Yeah it’s interesting. For quite a while I had wanted to work outside of my main role, but I’d been lazy. So it is nice to have a creative passion outside of work. And to work with friends. Because it is work, but you maintain a friendship. Which can be unique. There can be flare ups between us because of those friendships, but other times you can speak more freely for the same reason.”
“It has been a process. But also much needed to have a focus other than the 9-5, which you probably get with the unfoldment.”
Yeah, this is also taking up more time and space now than it was six months ago. But still has a long way to go in my mind. Because often the 9-5 gets prioritised, or the thing that’s making you money, which I think you can relate to. But also I am choosing it more. Because it is a choice. It is scary to start something. There’s self doubt.
R: Kwame with fellow Out Of Home cohort, Kieran.
But support and positive feedback helps. I know you’ve had some great feedback about OOH. People sharing that it’s good quality in content and production. What plans do you have for the future of it?
“We want to have events and workshops. We do understand what we are doing, the impact, but we think we have a greater purpose. We want to keep progressing and sharing our voices and those of others.”
“In any communication, we don’t mention anything about being black – that is evident when you see us or hear us. But part of what we are about is just trying something new. And people take inspiration from that. Whether you want to take an art class, start a blog or your own podcast. "
So supporting in that creative realm more?
“Exactly. Trying to inspire any way we can. Six or seven years ago I was working full time at a retail store. I’d graduated and was meant to do internships but was mostly folding clothes. And then opportunities came my way, which I’m grateful for, and now I’m here.”
“I think sometimes when people – especially young people and underprivileged youth – hear about certain job roles they say, ‘I could never do that’, but no, they really can! We want to inspire people to know what they're capable of.”
“Like imagine if you went back to Darwin and you shared about the creative and professional experiences you’ve had, and people are like ok, so what? But when you mention that you’re from Darwin, a girl goes ‘oh I’m from there too – how did she make those things happen?’ They’re suddenly engaged."
Yeah. I love how those little connections – a similar background, experience or desire, can spark another level of connection between people. And in the context of career, those experiences are often so interwoven with work, how we view ourselves, how we decide or decide not to take on a challenge or strive for a certain goal.
Sometimes hearing someone else’s journey can ignite a kind of hope or focus that wasn't there before. That idea, that we are all so much more connected than we feel, is a big reason why I created this platform.
“Even speaking to you now, I’m realising this is all part of a journey that I wasn't fully aware of. I never knew that the spirit of inclusion and desire to reach out was with me from a younger age. It really is all interwoven.”
As Kwame says this, it’s a really touching, goose-bumpy moment for me. Those times in life when purpose feels clear and aligned, don’t come so often. But when they do the feeling is something else.
This conversation has been inspiring on a number of levels. I'm grateful to Kwame for reminding me to widen my circle more often, to look at other places and movements outside the ones I know or am most comfortable in.
It's also been a reminder of the power of story. Learning someone's journey to what you see before you provides another layer, a richness, a depth of understanding that allows you to appreciate them – their hustle, their dreams, their reasons for those dreams – so much more.
I wager that Kwame gets this, within his own experience as a writer and through OOH.
It's important to seek out and listen to other peoples' stories – whether they're similar to or vastly different from your own. Those stories, when told, and retold, can amplify that meaning and message. Inspiring us and expanding our perspective on all manner of topics.