Case Study
  • Posted on November 7th, 2019

May Project: The Hip Hop Garden

Vegetable patch


Written by May Project Gardens Co-Founder and Director Ian Solomon-Kawall, adapted from a piece for ‘I AM Hip Hop’ magazine by @Vishal Narayan

May Project Gardens (MPG) was founded in 2007 by Randy Mayers and myself, Ian Solomon-Kawall. I spent my youth as a carer for my mum who suffered from mental illness. When she died, I wanted to do something positive in her memory and set an example for others facing similar social and economic hardships.

I met Randy, when he’d just moved from Gambia who had an incredible permaculture expertise but was missing a connection to nature in the city. Together we transformed the garden at my mum’s council house into the community garden that is at the heart of MPG today.

Now we work with urban communities to weed out poverty and disempowerment as well as providing access to resources for the public. We seek to influence society: we provide practical and collective solutions for people to live sustainably and disengage with power structures that don’t serve them. We strive for an alternative system and lifestyle based on nature, community, biodiversity and creativity.

We’ve remained independent, informal and egalitarian in our values and how we work with people and interact as a team, in spite of becoming a registered Community Interest Company.

Our open days are on 12-4PM on Sundays. We are looking for ways to flourish and grow as the need and capacity to deliver outreach work has increased. We are looking at alternative sources of funding, and more resources such as volunteers, people with expertise in business investment, avenues of unrestricted funding, corporate partnerships and other charitable sources of income.

Who are the members of your team?

Our roles within the organisation are not compartmentalised; May Project Gardens focuses on being people-centric. We try to look at each person’s skills and strengths. I am one of the directors, and one of my strengths is using Hip Hop and creativity, providing practical and affordable solutions to environmental and wellbeing issues, and leading on public engagement. I struggle in the administrative stuff, the bureaucratic writing, which is what Mona and Zaira do very well. We keep growing as a team and sometimes take up mixed roles.

Zaira Rasool now a non-executive director with MPG, provides expertise and support with youth engagement, administration and funding. She joined MPG when she was disillusioned with the mainstream charity sector and used her management skills to help builder a stronger root system for us all. Her input increased our recognition in innovation and alternative education, leading to winning the 2015 Mayor of London’s ‘Greening and Cleaning award’ for our work with young people.

Mona Bani joined as our third director in 2016. She experienced frontline activism as the child of political refugees and went on to work in social policy. She has used these experiences to help grassroots projects like MPG to become more influential and well-recognised. She supports our project delivery and runs Untelevised TV (@Untelevised_TV) as our media partner, as well as running her own radio show showcasing local artists. Mona does so much for MPG that’s not really seen by the public.

We also have Fisayo; the manager of Untelevised TV, Helen; Programme Support and Theodora on Operations Support, Laurel; Project Coordinator and Emily our accountant.. There are many other contributors who work with us too, including a fantastic range of musical and cultural geniuses.

Tell us more about your love of Hip Hop…

I’m a fan of Hip Hop first and foremost. I have been practicing Hip Hop as a medium for social change and social cohesion for decades. More recently it’s been Hip Hop Education. I was one of the first DJ’s to play a set of only UK Hip Hop music and one of the first people to work on creating a Freestyle theatre event; ‘Who’s Rhyme Is It?’.

Throughout the years, I have worked with artists such as Dead Prez, KRS-One, and Nas. Although Hip Hop is great for social cohesion, I find that it still bases itself on a capitalist model, on competition. Although it came from the ghetto, from the margins of society and has become mainstream, its remains an American-centred model and is oppressing the grass roots. As an example of that, although it started in the US, very few grass roots artists represent Hip Hop globally. There is a real opportunity for Hip Hop to become more bio-diversified.

When Randy started to work in the Garden it opened my eyes up to a whole different possibility. One of the things I was not able to do with Hip Hop was look inwards; it’s been mostly externalisation.

With the Green Movement and the presence of MPG, my interest in Hip Hop has been much more about looking inwards at wellness, wellbeing and mental health.

What projects do you have going on at the moment?

We offer three main programmes, or elements. The first main one is Hip Hop Garden. and the 2nd Come We Grow; where we showcase environmentally aware artists and embark with holistic activities. The 3rd is the Open Days which have been running since the inception.

The Hip Hop Garden program is presently funded by Choose Love Help Refugees and Culture Seeds and has five key modules:

1. Food Growing and Cooking: This explores healthy diets, plant based food and growing, the differing qualities of soils, fasting. It connects participants with the land, using notions from studies showing the importance of green spaces.

2. Event Management, Come We Grow: This adds life skills for the people taking part. It provides complimentary skills not expressed in the education curriculum, such as how to organise people and work as a team to deliver an activity or show.

3. Wellbeing: We investigate how to get people into a healthy state of being, including looking at isolation, general wellbeing, mental health, yoga, meditation, capoeira and breath work. This supports reducing the trauma that refugees face.

4. Enterprise and Employability: We know Hip Hop started from the grass roots. We bring that energy into Hip Hop Garden. We recognise that there is a shrinking labour force in society, where if refugees can’t be employed, we support them to become entrepreneurial. We get participants to experience plumbing, carpentry, designing water irrigation systems and how to run a pop up café; cooking food and making money, as well as selling produce grown on vegetable beds.

5. Hip Hop and Social Movement and Green Structures: Here we partake in Hip Hop’s core elements, the history of Hip Hop, live performance skills and techniques. This produces confidence healing for distresses and more importantly for refugees to learn language through lyric writing express their emotions.

Come We Grow– the first Saturday of the month at Café Cairo in Clapham. It is a mini festival celebrating MPG’s community and creativity, with the addition of book launches, tarot, astrology, Gong Baths and film showings. We showcase live music from a wide variety of Green-styled artists. It also has a variety of other holistic activities that compliment, like capoeira martial art and vegan food to eat.

What services can you offer for anyone interested?

We offer garden and hip hop based educational workshops and training for communities and corporates on the site; we have recently been working with Lush. We provide: team away days to offer people a way back into the natural environment, talks on permaculture and Hip Hop, and environmental lectures. I also personally offer solution-based consultancy work centred on using human capital and culture for social change.

All of this may be so important post Brexit, offering the possibility of re-engaging people that have never been engaged in this capacity before. Employability for them may have been overlooked. By looking at how we can use the methodology of consultancy and businesses, we can add a biodiversity element and provide more economical, but more green based resilience in the financial sector.

Do you have any natural tips for us, organic pointers?

Lately there has stemmed a massive interest in Extinction Rebellion and other similar environmental and vegan movements. I really like this saying- “let the silent sage move about in the village as the bee goes about taking honey from the flower without harming colour or fragrance” – Dhammapada. I love that because it means that working with nature, you can really work at the roots of things. Many people out there right now haven’t done the work within themselves but they expect success.

One of the things that is really important is utilising a different pace and working environment, like you know, we work in a capitalist society yet everyone is trying to get on and have unity.

Well those things are at odds, so how do we create spaces where people can actually be more at peace, be more mindful; be more in-tune with nature? However what is becoming more prevalent is the effects of isolation, poor diets, poor transportation, lack of resources, you know, climate change. We see all because our lifestyles are very unsustainable they are consumer driven. There is so much inequality. Why does that exist in society? We need to look at and connect with nature as a model for society as a whole. Nothing is wasted in nature. Nothing.

What does the future have in store for May Project Gardens and Hip Hop?

We’re going to move more in a more business-focused direction. There is a nice saying; ‘when you put strong roots down, don’t be afraid of the wind’. I really like that saying. Because we have put down some really strong roots and good foundations, now we need to harvest, and we need to build capacity to bring on people that are more experienced in the corporate and business world that can help us get sponsorship and funding that is non restrictive.

We reached a capacity where people want more from MPG. We need staff that can do more of the administration stuff and more of the back end, the work that people don’t really see. Once we’re done with that we can provide more services of the respective programs we run. Hip Hop Gardens will definitely expand but always in an organic way.

I want to continue my path of being a pioneer in the UK of bringing Hip Hop into the wellness environment. When I first started doing that, people were laughing at me, saying “hahaha you’re gonna make songs about food”, and now I see artists making songs about food. I pioneered that approach, so I want to grow to take that across the UK and globally, and be the number one person for it, as well as for being internationally recognised for sustainability and wellbeing. It has really changed people’s lives for the better, and I’ve helped that together with everyone at MPG.

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