“When the city council gave me the role I believe they were making a statement”: LIMF’s Yaw Owusu

Yaw Owusu, LIMF

Music entrepreneur and Liverpool International Music Festival curator Yaw Owusu talks to Toby Hood about being the new kid on the block, linking Liverpool to South Africa, and his love for everything from Tupac and the Philharmonic Orchestra…

“When the city council gave me the role I believe they were making a statement”, says Yaw Owusu. As the music curator of the city-funded Liverpool International Music Festival (LIMF) since 2013, this thirty-something is obviously very proud to walk the halls of the council’s office; even more so when he’s standing out from the suited office workers in high-tops and t-shirt.

“Everyone else [who went for the role] was pretty similar. I was young, black, and had never served the city in this manner before. I believe it was a gamble they took to make a huge impact… but first and foremost I want to do my job well.”

And he seems to be doing just that: the perfect man, perhaps, to lead LIMF as it replaced the axed Mathew Street Festival two years ago. What was needed, as mayor Joe Anderson put it, was a “fresh” new event that would still be free and utilise the city’s public spaces, but also offer an ambitious programme of music that would acknowledge its rich musical heritage. Owusu, as he said, was young, black, from Maghull, had a decade’s worth of music management under his belt, championing new and emerging artists, and was a co-founder of URBEATZ (an award-winning young persons’ music organisation).

“Thousands are expected at the Summer Jam to see a huge programme of live performers, including festival favourites Basement Jaxx”

Under Owusu’s helm, LIMF has grown into a huge, free event occupying some of Liverpool’s top spaces — including Sefton Park and St Georges Hall – that can pull in both local and international audiences. And it will do again this weekend: tens of thousands are expected at the park’s Summer Jam to see a huge programme of live performers, including festival favourites Basement Jaxx, Laura Mvula and Labrinth, and home grown talents Echo and The Bunnymen and Space (fresh from a 20th anniversary tour).

In addition, Owusu is pushing a growing list of intriguing commissions and partnerships, including tonight’s Routes Jukebox (The Epstein Theatre): a live show, directed by Grammy award-winning producer Steve Levine and presented by BBC Radio 2’s Janice Long, that retraces the key post-war records that came to Liverpool from America, inspiring Merseybeat to doo wop to rock n’ roll. In the same vein, and also tonight, the Liverpool, Next Stop New York Launch Party (The Palm House, Sefton Park) explores Black American music and its ties to the city with DJ Greg Wilson. The aim, it seems, is to celebrate Liverpool’s history and contemporary reach; one that connects with the wider world and its musical influences.

Basement Jaxx -- Saturday-Sunday -- Liverpool International Music Festival (LIMF) @ Sefton Park, Liverpool -- FREE

Talking at length about his halcyon days playing basketball for the Toxteth Tigers, it’s clear Owusu knows a thing or two about Liverpool — from popular culture to more high-brow entertainment. He could not be more enthused, for example, about the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra: “I respect all styles of music, whether I know about them or not. I’m fascinated by the Philharmonic and how they interpret music.”

Aside from Owusu’s fondness for the Phil — an institution which he reminds me has been a mainstay for 175 years (“it’s as important to the city as many of our top bands”) — the LIMF curator cites early childhood memories of rap and R&B as being key to his interest in music. “The biggest influence in terms of music, for me, was hip-hop. I remember listening to LL Cool J for the first time in my cousin’s house; I think it was ’88, so I was five. I remember thinking: ‘This is fascinating!’ I was young, but I remember those feelings.

“When I was seven, I walked into class with Tupac Shakur’s album and I explained to people why it was ok he used the ’n’ word”

“In primary school, when I was seven, I walked into class with Tupac Shakur’s album and I explained to people why it was ok he used the ’n’ word. At the time I didn’t exactly understand the message of racism or apartheid, but hip-hop taught me; I got the spirit of it.”

As we sit in Owusu Enterprises on Slater Street — an office which he treats “like a bedroom”; John Carlos and Tommie Smith pose the black fist salute at the Mexico City Olympics in a huge framed poster behind me — we get to talking about his involvement in the youth programme SA To UK: Arts In Activism. Supporting two UK-based musicians (Roxanne L Jones and Merki Waters) to fly to South Africa this summer, they worked with three South African artists (Shaimag, Siphokazi, and Tresor) under the direction of Owusu’s paternal cousin, soul singer KOF. The result, an EP themed around activism, struggle and identity, will be performed in its entirety this Sunday (District).

SA toUK: Activism In Arts -- Liverpool International Music Festival (LIMF)

“I was never meant to be wholly involved, but I came up with a creative plan and pulled in some people. We talk about how Africa changes people’s lives, but they have all really been touched by [the exchange]. If nothing else, that’s quite mad. I’ve been managing KOF all his life and when he came back from there he was a totally different man.”

I’m keen to know how Owusu thinks someone in his position can influence young people and if there’s any pressure living up to that responsibility. “What am I going to do now that the lights are on, innit? If I’m not good, I’m gone. Predominantly, [LIMF is] meant to be diverse, it’s meant to be forward-thinking, it’s meant to inspire. It’s meant to be commercially viable as a free music festival. I think I have a responsibility while the doors are open that I help people do good work within the city and see things slightly differently.”

“I wouldn’t want people to be fearful of me”

The most striking thing about Owusu — and the most useful for a writer like me — is his unique ability to provide pithy soundbites, which come thick and fast throughout our interview; such as the one by music mogul Dame Dash: “Are you Superman to your son? Yeah, until your boss walks in the room” (on running his own business); “For there to be an emerging theme, there has to be an established theme” (on mainstream music culture); “I wouldn’t want people to be fearful of me, I would hope someone was honest and say: ‘Zion is fucking awful’” (on using his contacts to get his son a job in music).

Perhaps the most pertinent of our conversation addresses maintaining integrity under that afore-mentioned responsibility, and in the context of the city council “making a statement” by giving Owusu the LIMF role in the first place.

“The mayor [Joe Anderson] sat me down and said: ‘Yaw, just do what you feel is right and be creative.’ From the guy who is arguably the most powerful person in the city, that’s great! He can technically green-light anything. I was always made to believe and feel that people from his generation wouldn’t support ideas by people like me. That couldn’t be further from the truth with LIMF.”

Toby Hood

See Liverpool International Music Festival (LIMF) tonight and through until Monday 31 August 2015 — FREE. See the full line-up and participating venues here

Posted on 28/08/2015 by thedoublenegative