HomeProjects › Strong Voices - The Harbour Sessions

Strong Voices - The Harbour Sessions

Strong Voices - The Harbour Sessions

During the months of January – March 2015, in partnership with Artswork’s Strong Voices programme, Music in Detention (MID) ran a Community Exchange project involving 14 participatory music making workshops with participants from The Harbour School Cosham and Haslar Immigration Removal Centre (IRC). The project opened up a line of communication between the students and detainees, and with local MID musician and producer Simon Paylor acting as the messenger, the two groups delivered music and messages to each other and worked collaboratively to create six original pieces of music.

For the students the project was an insight into the hidden world of immigration detention and for the detainees the project offered contact with the outside world. For one of the detainees involved, having the contact with the young people was a particularly important aspect of the project as he felt like he had a message to share with them, based on his own experiences of growing up in the UK:

“this project was involving young kids as well so I was able to give an insight into what you should be doing really, you should be aspiring for more in life and to sort of conduct ourselves properly.” (detainee, Haslar IRC)

Making contact with the detainees was important for the young people too, discussing the subject of immigration detention sparked ideas and made the young people reflect on their own lives and in some cases, difficult pasts. For one participant, this relationship provided the inspiration for writing their song:

“different country people- thank you for singing on my song if you didn’t I wouldn’t of made it. I like the way even though we didn’t meet it was amazing we still made music”.

For the pupils involved the work that they put into making the final tracks of music and producing artwork for the CD sleeve contributed to them achieving their Bronze Arts Award. 

Listen to the amazing tracks that were produced as a result of this project (descriptions of each track by MID musician Simon Paylor):



150 plays

Set Me Free (Wipe Your Tears)

pop, pop rock, hip hop, flute, rap

The starting point for this whole project was the premise of unheard voices. The students in Harbour School were asked to explore what they felt was important; the messages they wanted to be heard.

The group came up with some great ideas, going deep very quickly in exploring the notion of being a 'social reject' (being out of mainstream education), questioning the notion of what is 'normal' (issues of societal expectation, peer pressure etc), and exploring the perspective of what life might be like as an adult rather than feeling 'imprisoned' in school.

The youngest student (11 yrs old) was keen to write a song against child abuse, with lyrics such as 'I'm a person too'. His musical references were pop and pop rock, so from the first session the music was configured to sit in this framework, whilst still being appealing to detainees who tend to have more of a hip hop sensibility. His engagement was a real success of the project, since at first he didn't want to sing or even get involved too much. After a number of weeks, he became fully engaged and gained enough confidence not only to write lyrics but also to record his voice.

All of the detainees involved in the project firstly resonated with the music. We had multiple contributors on the music, from rappers and singers to guitarists, and an excellent flautist from Pakistan who used a wooden flute usually kept in a cupboard at Haslar. In fact we had more contributions than we could use, and the challenge was to make a call on which ones 'told the story' best. Indeed, all the detainees resonated with the depth of the student's 'real talk' too. None of us knew if the student had personal experience of these issues, but his message is very poignant. The detainees therefore wanted to respond by providing a message of solidarity and support; they wanted to encourage him and others like him: 'stand back, be strong, we will make it'.

162 plays

One Day

Rap, Acoustic guitar, Electric guitar, bass, funk

All of the participants brought something unique to the project, but for two weeks we had a Brazilian at Haslar who is a professional session musician. He had been living in London for a number of years working with soul/funk producers and artists, and we were privileged to have his collaboration on a number of tracks. This track started by him laying down the acoustic guitar, drums (an electric kit triggering samples), bass and additional acoustic guitar in 30 minutes. 

The rest of the track built up from there, with rappers developing themes of 'conscience': the challenges of change, the legacy of our behaviours for the next generation, and a poignant expression of the emotional impact of detention, both on detainees and their families.

326 plays

Put me Back Together Again

Ballad, Female vocals, Acoustic, folk, rap

This is a beautiful expression of poetic vulnerability by a 14 year old student which was supported and developed by the detainees. She wasn't initially forthcoming in singing or putting herself forward, feeling very self conscious as she eventually opened up. It seems as if much of her childhood had been spent at folk festivals and participating in music, but due to life circumstances she reached a point where she wasn't able to do that. This project seems to have been quite significant to her in finding her voice again. 

Once she felt able to share, she proved to be a natural singer and wrote lyrics quickly and instinctively. We started with an acoustic guitar, and within 5 minutes she had found a melody and phrasing that only needed slight tweaking/ Some of the additional instruments and vocals came from detainees, including a great bass solo. This track is 'album length' in order to accomodate this contribution and provide space for the reflective atmosphere created.

For the student in question, this song processes the negative experiences she had with an abusive family member. None of the detainees knew about this reference point, but resonated with the atmosphere and heartfelt expression. The theme of the rap on this track resulted from an understanding of it being about a jilted romantic relationship. For the detainee in question, it's a way of communicating to someone he cares about, from whom he has been separated for many months.

104 plays

Social Reject

American punk, grunge, acoustic guitar, female vocals

This song idea came from another student in the group whose musical preferences include American punk and grunge. She was very keen to do a song that reflected these preferences, and came up with the chord progression. One of the detainees recorded the acoustic guitar track and came up with the chord ideas for the additional sections in the song.

The lyrics cleverly explore one of the themes raised in the first week: a sense of social isolation and rejection from what is regarded as 'educationally normal', but with an expression of solidarity in the warmth and friendship that is evident between each of the students.

105 plays

Lock me Down

Dub, Rap, Hip Hop,

This track arose as a musical idea in collaboration between two friends in Haslar, a Jamaican and a Venezuelan. They had an idea of the 'feel' they wanted to improvise over, so this is what emerged. Students from Harbour School contributed a percussion track, and 3 female participants contributed backing vocals. 

The lyrical concept is based on the experience of the Jamaican detainee, who also happens to be blind. Because of some irregularities in his case, he feels he has been inappropriately incarcerated (in essence, 'I touched down in London, and I got locked down'). He sympathises in this song with any who have been incarcerated, but who may not be regarded as criminals: 'criminal life is not my life'. This song is a lament and a message of solidarity for those caught up in this situation.

181 plays


Dubstep, electronic

The musical idea for this track came from two students at Harbour who wanted to create a dubstep track, or something similar. From an early point we created the rhythm track together, going through a process of selecting the right kind of drum sounds and beats to match their preferences. They were keen for detainees to contribute other ideas. 

This was one of the last tracks to be developed. In the end it was brought together by the contribution of a Brazilian bass player (whose bass line has been heavily processed) and the melody of a Jamaican detainee who originally recorded it for a completely different song. It happened that his melody was in a key that could be applied to this song too. The rapping contributions came later on in the project, and all of them express their own personal journeys. In fact, one of the detainees identified the common theme himseld as a form of 'Resolution' and resolve: the need for reflection, determination and resilience in the journey of life.