Interviewed by Veronica Farmer, Story by Raku One O'Gaia, Photography by Michele Pocknee
If there’s a single key to my whole life’s journey then it would have to be my quest to solve the riddle of ‘personal identity.’ A lot of us question identity as teenagers, we ask what role we want to play in the world and we kick out at every boundary we see trying to find how we fit into that space we call life. My questions were like that and deeper still in that they didn’t stop with the acquisition of houses, cars, marriage, kids and so forth...
To be honest I think from a very young age I felt so uncomfortable and uncertain in this world with all its wild extremes that once I started looking for some way of being at peace I didn’t stop till I found something irrefutable and unshakeable. I come from a God-fearing religious background, the kind of background which works for some people but for me was part of the problem because although I have always regarded Jesus as a kind of literal super-hero I just didn’t have faith in the whole kit and caboodle. So I went searching instinctively. I studied sociology, politics, philosophy and world religions. Basically anything I could find
All the while I had a continuous and deepening relationship with music evolving in the background. There has always been music around me. My parents were Baptist and Methodist church going people so I heard and sang lots of hymns as well as folk music as a child. Mum and Dad grew up in neighboring districts in Jamaica, got married and then moved to the U.K in search of a better life. My mother had been a farm girl and a house maid and would sing all day doing her work. Living in suburban England didn’t change the passion for singing that was hardwired in her DNA. I remember she would go out into our postage stamp back garden at 5am in the morning, singing at the top of her lungs while she tended her flowers. That didn’t suit one particular set of neighbors at all and quite a barny ensued but I find it quite hilarious and touching to recall.
Dad was a multi-instrumentalist and played the guitar, harmonicas and keyboards and also sang in local productions of Gilbert and Sullivan musicals and in choirs. I remember as a little one seeing the backstage costumes, the velvet cloaks and crowns and hearing these wonderfully dramatic and theatrical melodies. I was the youngest of 5 boys and we all have enduring connections with music in some way whether it’s playing, writing, sound engineering or collecting draws full of cassettes and cupboards full of vinyl.
Escape from poverty in Jamaica for our family was via joining the military. Dad did nineteen years in the British R.A.F but that military life meant that every three years we had to uproot ourselves, move schools and start again. Some people thrive on that sort of adventure, of new experiences and new places, and I liked that aspect of it to start with but as time went on friendships became more important and it was pretty tough having to put myself into environments where people had already settled into groups and had ways of being that I had to try and figure out how to join.
By the time I was 13 I was extraordinarily tall for my age, about 6 foot 5 inches, and I felt like a freak. Around that time as a young black freakishly tall teenager with a strange name my family and I settled in a town that was very white and wasn’t exactly keen to change. This was in 1970s and there was only one other Afro-Caribbean family living in Lincoln at the time. The day we started at our new school, the headmaster announced at assembly that there would be some ‘dark skinned people coming to school’ and he wanted to make sure that we were respected and treated well. That was Mr Thake. Eventually he and my dad would sing in the same choir. It was beautiful of him to try and ensure that we did not face a wall of bullies and abuse, but thinking about that kind of announcement now gives you an idea of the climate we were living in.
As I scour my memory I don’t recall a lot of out and out aggression or abusive people directing racism at me personally, but I floundered internally in a river of anxiety kind of waiting for it to happen. At that time skinheads and the National Front, an extreme right wing movement in Britain were a strong presence. Even outside of that sort of movements words like sambo, wog and nig-nog were certainly common currency. I wanted to know where I sat in my community, with my school friends, in my country. Particularly with my school friends many of whom were graduating into the whole skinhead thing. That was a real dividing line for me. What with the skinhead racist credo. ‘Paki bashing’ and the like. By this time I’d developed persistent thoughts and feelings about being an ‘outsider’ and was, truth be known, quite depressed. I carried a fear about prejudice and racism and intense self-consciousness about my height and fitting in until I was about 19 years old when a single experience changed everything.
I was walking back from college on my own in my home town one day when I heard some guys jeering and hissing at me from across the road. My heart sank but as I kept walking I looked around to see who it was. I saw nothing but a haulage truck applying its air brakes to stop at the changing traffic lights. The hissing that I had heard was the sound of air brakes on the truck being applied.
This single event had a profound impact on me. I quickly realized how much I had internalized the racism I feared to the point that now I was being assailed by imaginary beings and spectres…projections in my own mind. The more I thought about it the more I realized how much suffering I was inflicting on myself. It was just the most incredible and simple wake up call. Perfect. Now I was aware of how I was, forgive the pun, coloring the world I saw. I’d been woken up in an instant by a truck but staying awake would prove to be far more difficult. I understood that I had to constantly check what I was of thinking and not just about race. Although lifelong my parents relationship was quite a troubled one characterized by constant and ongoing arguments. In this context we kids were raised in a true Jamaican ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ style that leaned heavily towards discipline rather than affection. Despite all this I loved my parents and came to understand as we do that they gave me all they could given there own harsh backgrounds but homelife certainly wasn’t an unqualified retreat from concerns out in the world and gave me still more stuff to work out.
Some years after the truck incident I had another simple experience that I remember as a milestone in ‘getting a grip’. I’d gone into a nieghbourhood store to buy a grocery item and the woman who owned the store was very angry and short with me, it seemed like she just wanted me out of there. As I left the store with my purchase my first thought was “She’s got something against me because I’m black” But then somehow an increasingly familiar light went on in my mind and I realized two things. One, I didn’t really know why she was acting the way she was acting at all and two, given the circumstance I could be certain that really It had nothing to do with me. “..Maybe she’s just having a bad day…or her kids are playing up or…that’s just how she rolls .”
It was a kind of epiphany and a blessing in disguise. I saw again the power we have in our own minds and was re-inspired to go for freedom from reactivity and attachment in my thinking. Looking back now it fair to say that growing up, which never stops really, was a pretty tough time emotionally in which I felt walled in from all sides. Oddly enough the path I stumbled on to resolve the problem matured over time into an approach that examines this very sense of ‘I’ itself with all its beliefs positions and opinions and keeps that examination up until one discovers something fundamental which is present in all experiences but is unaffected by and transcendent of them, the real self. This is where I have found peace. This is my true home.
With that take on life each day is a letting go of the tendency to fall under the spell of a mistaken sense of identity. In the 3D world it’s also helpful to realize as I did from reading various authors, particularly black American author James Baldwin, that everyone here is a potential target for some kind of self-inflicted or projected suffering . Whether it be because they have red hair or blond hair or they’re Irish or Jewish, or they’re tall or they’re short or they’re fat or they’re thin or they’re, smart or they’re dumb or they’re black or yellow or red or white.
Understandably I’m not an easy mark when it comes to being triggered into thoughts of racism these days. Nor am I prey to the depression which was once all too familiar. In this post Trump era yeah, sure I hear some people saying things, even personally, that have taken me by surprise but that’s all good just keeps me on my toes. What do such incidents really mean? Are they are just reminders to stay focused in the company of my little mantra ‘the world turns on a thought’ which reminds me to be wise about what thoughts I allow to take up space in my brain.
Without really making any conscious decisions to include these experiences as lyrical themes in my music they have resulted in a particular kind of timbre in my work anyway, especially on my first full length album Freedom Songs. It’s chock-a-block full of feel good vibes and not only of soul-searching but “here’s the answer I found’ types songs. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea but the feedback I get from most people is that they find it’s very positive and uplifting and they dig it for that.
‘A Happy Song’ is a track on the album that I struggled with for a while trying to get it to say what I wanted it to say without it sounding ‘naff.’ It’s ironic that what we all want is happiness but the key to that is so simple that it can often sound naïve. Our thoughts sit centre stage in our lives, basically running the whole show and it is a show. If you want to be happy…watch what you think …very carefully.
ABOUT RAKU ONE O'GAIA
From Jamaica, via the U.K, Raku One O'Gaia currently lives on the East coast of Australia. He's an artist who is rapidly developing a reputation for creating a happy, uplifting and positive vibe where ever he plays. Raku brings a diverse wealth of influences to his CD releases including 'Freedom Songs'- a genre hopping blend of funk, blues, soul gospel jazz and even reggae all delivered with style and singing voice with real range subtlety and power. To see more check out www.raku.net.au
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