Emmanuela Yogolelo: a singer/songwriter preserving and transforming Congo’s musical traditions
“Manchester is really a great place for being surrounded by people from all cultures, from different corners of the world. You will always find one thing that you love for each culture and that can inspire you”.
Emmanuela is a singer/songwriter from the east of Congo. Since coming to Manchester in 2003, she has worked as a freelance singer, singing workshop facilitator, cultural leader and creative producer. She manages an ‘African-led’ arts and cultural organisation, Amani Creatives, and she also works as an assistant creative producer for Community Arts Northwest. Her practice is based on a lifelong engagement with ‘African musical traditions’ and she has also been involved in many cross-cultural collaboration projects.
Emmanuela's Musical Life Story
Emmanuela states that she was born a musician. She was surrounded by music during her childhood in Congo, from her mum singing in the kitchen as she cooked to musicians performing in the streets on her way to school.
“My practice is based on African musical traditions. I have been doing that all my life…God gave [me] that gift. I loved singing before I even understood what is singing or what is music. I started writing songs before I even understood what is songwriting. I know it’s a cliché but it’s true that, in Africa, music is an everyday thing…At a funeral you don’t know if the people are crying or singing…Music was something that surrounded me every day in every corner from morning to night”.
Following a transformational moment in her local church, she became dedicated to singing in choirs. She participated in gospel choirs at school and in the church and, at university, she took part in a choir that sang repertoire from around the world as well as writing their own compositions.
“I remember the first time I went [to church]…My dad took me and, of all the things that happened in that session, the thing that touched me the most is when the choir sang. It was so beautiful and powerful. I don’t remember what was preached that day, I don’t even remember who was around me, but I never forgot that choir’s performance. From that day, I said ‘I have to join a choir’”.
In 2003, Congo was in crisis, with multiple wars and numerous armed conflicts, so Emmanuela reluctantly left her home and sought asylum. She arrived in London and, after around one month, she was transferred to Oldham. It took her six years to get her refugee status and her right to remain and she faced many difficulties in rebuilding her life.
“I had ambition to become a professional singer. But, because of my English level, I thought that everything about me was ‘less’. I had to establish some discipline in my life, so I was rehearsing and going through my songs and my singing techniques. I’ve been writing songs since I was ten. I had this book with all my songs but, when I left, I didn’t have time to pack or I didn’t have the state of mind to think about everything I should take. So I didn’t take my book of songs. So I rewrote my songs that I couldn’t bring with me”.
While taking courses and volunteering, Emmanuela discovered a love for community arts and, over time, this became the focus of her musical practice. She completed a course in Community Studies at the University of Bolton and she set up several community groups and initiatives relating to arts and culture for migrants and refugees. Through performing and facilitation, she has become a mentor and a cultural leader for other aspiring musicians.
“Those who want to become a musician come to me for mentoring, for advice. Those who want to set up a community organisation come to me, because I’ve done this for years and years. They come and say ‘We really want to share our culture, to celebrate our community’ and we work together”.
“I’m the same Emmanuela who was born in Congo…I’m still myself but I’m also a lot of things. Before, I wasn’t an immigrant but, today, I am also an immigrant, I’m a mother, I’m an artist, I’m a cultural leader…I live in Manchester, I’ve met a lot of people, I’ve rebuilt my life here”.
The Meanings of Emmanuela's Music
Emmanuela explains that her creative process for songwriting revolves around expressing personal experiences and reflecting on daily living. She sings in languages including Swahili, Lingala, French and English. Since moving to the UK, immigration has become a key theme in her songs.
“When I was still in Africa, I wrote songs about things around me, things I knew, things I was living. Similarly, over here, it’s things I know, things I experience. One of those experiences is immigration – it’s leaving your country for another country, it’s becoming an immigrant. This, in itself, give you a specific life, it shapes your life…I can sing about being an immigrant, an asylum seeker, a refugee. My experiences are a mixture of good and bad – like life in general”.
She indicates that, while, for some, music is simply about beautiful sounds, for her, music is about tradition and the practices which surround music-making. This purpose has carried over into her community arts work.
“Art can be a powerful tool that really can help humanity. It can help [people] and impact on other areas of their lives…Music has done a lot for me…It helped me because it feeds me, it pays the bills! But [it has also] helped me to grow as a person…When you facilitate music in different communities, it gives you the opportunity to meet different people and to have different experiences”.
Emmanuela also emphasises that music can help to engage and inform audiences about global issues. She has participated in a project on ‘Climate Justice’, using song to raise awareness of justice aspects to climate change and global warming.
“The musician can become the voice for voiceless. There are people who don’t have the platform that you have and, if they had it, they would denounce a lot of things but they can’t even reach it. So you can bring those issues that people need to hear about and to know about. As a musician, you have access to a wider population, so it’s easier to inform people”.
'African Musical Traditions' in Manchester
Emmanuela affirms that her music sits comfortably within the diversity of Manchester. When she first came to the city, she encountered a community of people from across Africa. She joined a refugee choir at St Patrick’s Catholic church in Oldham and another choir at a Congolese church in Cheetham Hill. She suggests that these experiences helped to rebuild her confidence and motivated her to share her music. After meeting a facilitator for Community Arts Northwest while taking a photography course, she appeared at their Exodus festival to present her songs.
“The Exodus festival is…about giving artists from refugee communities a platform to showcase their work, to celebrate their culture, to meet with others, to try to connect with the wider community…I’ve now performed in that festival three times or more and I really developed this passion for community arts [with] Community Arts Northwest”.
She also reflects that, because Manchester brings people from different places and cultures together, it has enabled her to make contact and collaborate with musicians from different backgrounds. She has worked in several bands, and she is now a permanent member of Afro Celt Sound System, and in many projects, including collaborations with Serge Tebu, Amadou and Mariam, Arun Ghosh, Reem Kelani and Jaydev Mistry. While she stresses that, even in collaborations, her music always has ‘a traditional African signature’, she points out that she has been influenced by other musics and cultures, particularly since coming to Manchester.
“A true lover of music is open to all kinds of music…I’ve had lots of opportunity to work with people from many cultures in Manchester and this has impacted my music positively…I like to learn about other people’s musical traditions, about musical traditions from other cultures and other parts of the world”.
Emmanuela feels that, as a musician, she simultaneously does and does not have a voice in Manchester. She highlights that her basic rights have been met and that there is a minimum system which has allowed her to achieve her ambitions to become a professional singer. However, she also points out that there are many barriers in the creative industry, particularly for musicians from migrant and minority backgrounds.
“In our creative industry…there is a kind of racism…towards minorities, migrants, to black…Just because I don’t have the best English possible, people can look at me and think that I’m not a professional musician. What does English have to do with music?…We need to stand up and denounce this racism, this prejudices, this injustice…The media create this image…that immigrant artist can only be on amateur platforms…We need to showcase our professionals…The day that an immigrant will showcase at Glastonbury, that will change perceptions!”.
'Kiliyo Ya Mama Afrika' (see video)
Emmanuela wrote this song, sung primarily in Swahili, as a commentary on the use of child soldiers in wars and armed conflicts. Its title can be translated as ‘The Cry of Mother Africa’ or ‘The Tears of an African Mother’ and it appears on the album Nitaishi [I Shall Live]. It was inspired by a community choir project, which was composed of women asylum seekers and refugees and which aimed to bring people together to comfort each other through music and to perform and make connections with other communities in Manchester. Emmanuela suggests that the asylum seekers in the project had certain things in common, particularly relating to experiences of war, and she wrote this song to express their experiences, so that all the participants could relate to it.
“‘Kiliyo Ya Mama Afrika’ is renouncing the enrolment of underage children in the armies. [It is] also comforting and sympathising with mothers who have lost their children to that practice. Most of the time, the mothers are not heard – maybe they tried to speak out about it or to do something but they are kind of put down and they don’t let them speak”.