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The air is radiating between singers Aka Kelzz and Ria Boss as they perform side by side at Pop-Kultur 2023. Their RnB-tinged musical artistry combines effortlessly and the comfort of this creative cross-pollination seeps through the atmosphere that they create together. The collaboration of Aka Kelzz and Ria Boss is the outcome of the Berlin-Accra co-creation residency funded and organized by Musicboard Berlin each year.
This year, the Pop-Kultur Festival presented four sets that grew out of these residency programs: Berlin-Kampala, Berlin-Detroit, Berlin-Tel Aviv, and Berlin-Accra. Following the festival, we spoke to four artists who participated in the program as well as Maureen Noe from Musicboard. We want to find out what opportunities the co-creation residencies are supposed to create, what potential struggles and power dynamics are at play, and how the experience can help establish an exchange of knowledge and networks.
The Structures and the Jury
Musicboard Berlin has been organizing residences in various cities supported by the Senate for more than a decade now. The co-creation residency program differs from the regular residencies. Instead of just sending one artist from Berlin abroad, they encourage artistic exchange by selecting artists from different cities to visit each other and work together in their hometowns. Maureen notes that the selection of the cities is often rooted in connections to local agencies or studios. But the focus is clear: “We mainly collaborate with cities where export programs and international artist mobility are limited. Within Europe, exchange programs predominantly promote the mobility of European artists, which puts artists from other regions at a disadvantage.”
To work against this imbalance, the co-creation residencies establish exchanges between the Ghanaian city of Accra, Uganda’s Kampala, Tel Aviv in Israel, and Detroit in the US. Musicboard always works with local partners who receive Berliner talent and send their artists to Berlin. In Accra, the partner is the female-centered organization Black Girls Glow, and in Kampala the label and festival Nyege Nyege. Of course, there can be disparities in the funding that the partners have at their expense. Maureen explains that “all partners enter the program with their network, their engagement, and the access that they can provide. Berlin is a city with a lot of funding for creative and cultural projects. When working with partners who are NGOs or do not have a lot of money, then most of the funding comes through us.”
When it comes to the process of selection, Musicboard works with a jury of six members from different backgrounds and fields within the music industry. This year, the six members included cultural journalist Aida Baghernejad, DJ and Editor-in-Chief of Das Filter, Ji-Hun Kim, Managing Director of Musicboard Berlin GmnH Katja Lucker, label owner and producer Thien Nguyen, curator and music consultant Pamela Owusu-Brenya, and artist manager Misla Tesfamariam. The goal is to create a diverse team of people to select the participants of the residencies. “The jury should have and represent a diverse base of knowledge and access to different communities in Berlin,” Maureen says. Like this, Musicboard hopes to uplift artists who are marginalized by the mainstream industry.
Colonial Power Dynamics
In our conversation, Maureen is transparent about the weaknesses of such funding programs. She openly talks about the dangers of reproducing colonial power structures that are inherent to the unequal distribution of resources and funds between Berlin and the partner cities. To avoid the reproduction of colonial violence and to deconstruct power dynamics as much as possible, Musicboard started working with the political writer and artist Natasha A. Kelly.
“We do not want our creative and transcultural exchange to be reproducing colonial structures. That can happen quickly, especially when there is a direct colonial past between Germany and Ghana. We have to be aware of our power position.” – Maureen Noe
Under the guidance of Natasha A. Kelly, Maureen and her team examined their perspectives, the way they work, and the design of the residency programs. They asked themselves questions like, who their “Call for Concepts” reaches and who it does not represent. Maureen adds that they “reevaluated the criteria of selection and have specified the way [they] pay attention to the artist’s relation to the cultural context of the residency location or if there is any knowledge about local music cultures.” Another measure they implemented with the help of Natasha A. Kelly, are workshops to transmit basic knowledge of intersections of discrimination, colonial history, and its continuities as well as cultural appropriation. “We do not want our artists to go aboard and appropriate sounds, take them out of context and use them in their music without crediting the source. It is important to reflect on your social position and your privilege. And for that, we need to address the heritage of colonialism and its effects.”
How limited the reach of the “Call for Concepts” can be and how important a strong community network is, proves in the way that Naples-rased electronic underground artist Sara Persico and Afro House DJ and producer Chrisman applied to the program. Published and distributed via online channels, the Musicboard “Call for Concepts” spread across the local artist bubble within no time. But Kampala-based DJ and artist Chrisman says, that he only heard of the open call when Sara Persico sent him the link suggesting, they apply together. “[…] That was the first time for me hearing from Musicboard as I didn’t know them before”, the artist says.
“Before the residency started, I was really excited and happy about our opportunity. We met in Berlin two years ago, when Chrisman played at CTM. Since then we were hoping to be able to collaborate, so the Musicboard residency project seemed like the perfect occasion and luckily, we made it in!” – Sara Persico
Accra-Berlin resident, the Berlin-based singer, Aka Kelzz was encouraged by fellow artist Oihane, who participated in the exchange program with Black Girls Glow in 2022. The singer describes that: “[Oihane] shared her incredible experiences with me, so I decided to put myself forward and hope for the best.”
Following the application and the selection process, the jury and the team matches artists based on their submission. The process is always a little artificial, Maureen admits. They suggest collaborators to artists who then accept or decline the proposal. When it comes to Aka Kelzz and Ria Boss as well as Sara Persico and Chrisman, who already had the idea of collaborating when they applied, the resonance of the match can be heard in the music they created on stage at Pop-Kultur.
Chains of Communication
The funds provided by Musicboard cover the costs of living and travels abroad and in Berlin but also allow for flexibility and adaption to the individual needs of the artists. Maureen says: “Some people can’t afford to participate since a residency requires the artists to take time away from their work and life in Berlin or from touring. We want to include people who cannot leave for several months by offering shorter residencies of 2-3 weeks.” Also, as different cities require different costs of living, the expenses for each residency are calculated individually to ensure that the means that the artists have at hand are, for the period of the residency, equal. For Chrisman, this calculation helped to counter the higher cost of living that he met in Berlin. “At first, I thought the money was enough but then, comparing the number of days I was there, after the residency, I found myself in breakeven. But I also understand ‘cause where I’m from the cost of living is very cheap but in Berlin was expensive for my experience.”
To ensure that the artists feel safe and welcomed in Berlin and in the cities of collaboration, the Musicboard team stays in close contact with them. Maureen describes that they “have very short communication chains, which helps. For immediate exchange, we have our WhatsApp groups, for example. Like that, we want to lay the ground structure so that the artists feel comfortable to come to us with the small things already before they turn into bigger problems.”
This short chain of communication helped. Chrisman describes that the communication with the team “was super great”. They took the time to show the artist around in Berlin to make him feel welcome. Being in close contact with the artists, lowered the barriers of communication and further trust, and finally allowed the artist to come forward with fears he had as well. “My fear was that I didn’t know how residencies work and I was always asking myself questions like, am I doing this right? I was not certain about some stuff, but I’m glad I asked Maureen and Evyonne what the residency expects from artists at the end of the program. They explained it to me, and I found out that this is actually great, and I can do this then.”
“Stretched In All Directions”
In that, all the residencies are not designed to be outcome-oriented. Maureen explains that “[the Co-residencies] are mostly about giving the artists space to explore, gain inspiration and new perspectives. One artist said that she wants to be “stretched in all directions”. I think that is a great image: to discover parts of yourself that you didn’t know before. and that cannot be done under the constant pressure of needing to produce.” Of course, the goal is to be able to present a show at the Pop-Kultur festival but in the case of Sara Persico and Chrisman, the two artists didn’t have enough material to fill the slot assigned to them and were easily able to shorten their playtime.
There is no pressure to record a certain number of songs and the stage at Pop-Kultur is more of an invitation to the audience to experience the artists’ exchange unfolding on stage than a rigidly curated concert set. Sara Persico talks enthusiastically about the live experience. She has not yet been to Kampala, so the sounds they presented grew from Chrisman’s time in Berlin. And even though the artist explains that they “didn’t feel completely ready, it was a great opportunity to test [their] sound” and expand on it during Sara Persico’s time in Uganda.
“[Ria Boss and I] chose to use this performance as a platform for us both to feel seen and uplift and liberate each other. Both Ria and I have created a beautiful bond. We wanted to intertwine our songs to create a beautiful journey of honesty, vulnerability, and joy, plus showcasing the music that we had worked on together in Ghana and Berlin. We decided to involve live instrumentalists and backing vocals, to bring this powerful performance to the audience. This resulted in a beautiful and organic show that we were both proud of.” – Aka Kelzz
Horizontal Networking and Community Building
What the co-creation residency program achieves goes beyond the performances at Pop-Kultur and the visits to the respective cities. They are an opportunity to form a lasting international network of artistic exchange at eye level. This can be established through the close collaboration between the artists, but also through the involvement of the Musicboard team, which aims to support artists continuously and beyond their residencies. Maureen highlights that, even though the introduction to important industry people is part of the residency’s networking aspect, it is not the only way to network.
“Often, we think of networking as meeting the very important people in the business. We want to rethink connections and networking in terms of the direct community surrounding the artists. A more sustainable way is horizontal networking: looking at who is on your level and creating bonds of solidarity and community. And when you grow, you grow together and take your peers with you. We want our artists to gain access and make long-lasting connections, so they can further their career through a residency program.” – Maureen Noe
In the time that Aka Kelzz spent in Accra, they were able to tap into the local music network and, in turn, introduce Ria Boss to their wide artistic community in Berlin. Aka Kelzz was not only part of the Pop-Kultur residency program but also performed with the vocal ensemble A Song For You, which connects a large group of BIPoC artists from the local RnB and Soul scene. The singer describes that they learned many things directly from their collaborator Ria Boss:
“I have learnt many things from Ria, but one that stands out is her passion for music and creating an impeccable live experience for her fans whilst cultivating a successful brand and name for herself. This is something that stuck with me, as I am now learning about myself as an artist, how I want to be seen, and who I want to represent and show up for. I admire what Ria has created in Ghana and now in Germany. Now my goal is to expand my music network and continue working with creatives in Ghana and West Africa as a whole.”
Taking Down Barriers
The continued collaboration that Aka Kelzz thrives for, is what the co-creation residencies are supposed to achieve. Based on the stories of the artists I interviewed and the exhilarating energy of their live performances at Pop-Kultur, the co-residencies 2023 were a success. But of course, there are many things that can be improved in the future. When I ask Maureen about her hopes for the program, she mentions two key points: accessibility and family friendliness. This year, for the first time ever, Musicboard was able to send an artist with a child on a residency to Paris. They provided extra support like childcare in order for the artist to be able to participate in the musical exchange program. But there are many things that still need to be done.
“How can residencies become more accessible and family-friendly? The first step is to recognize these needs and working realities of artists. Since we started communicating the topic in our call for concepts, more artists with children reached out to us. Accessibility is a challenge because it does not mean the same thing for everyone. Each person has different needs and that makes it very difficult to call our residencies accessible. No program is truly accessible for everybody – we need to be aware of that while taking down as many barriers as possible.” – Maureen Noe
So, there still is a lot of work to do. Musicboard is an institution that aims to do better each year to facilitate sustainable exchange and lead important critical conversations. As their website states, they stand for “a respectful approach to diversity and content-based music funding, emphasizing the positions of the musicians”. Collaboration and listening to the artist’s needs are key. The experiences of the artists as well as Maureen’s willingness to engage in critical conversation about the very structures of the institution and the changes they are trying to make, show that in all of this, the most important thing remains funding great music in a quality over quantity approach.
Berlin musicians and bands can still apply for the Support Tour Funding program on an ongoing basis this year until 30 November 2023.