Back in November we held a Hip Hop and Rap online workshop with a very special guest in attendance – Scottish legend Karen Dunbar. We were thrilled to find out what a great experience she had on the course, and fascinated to discover about the new community Hip Hop workshops she’s been hosting online since the first lockdown. So we boldly asked her for an interview!
We chatted in depth about her Hip Hop workshops, which are currently mostly being held online via Zoom. Although it’s been an idea and a passion of hers for a while – the spread the power and positivity and Hip Hop and its empowering spoken word aspect – it was the conditions of lockdown which made it happen. Karen has been working with different community groups, from refugees to venerable young people, to a community theatre group, helping them to devise and create meaningful and personal rap stanzas. She even hopes to one day get their tracks played on the radio, and host a concert to showcase their work.
It was also a chance for us to catch up with Karen about how her lockdown(s) have been. 2020 was a trying year, not least of all for actors and comedians, with gigs and shows ripped from under them. But Karen is admirably optimistic, throwing herself into her new project and happy to face all the changes in our world with a headstrong, grin-and-bear-it attitude. She’s also stopped watching the news, which helps…
So why hip-hop then Karen? How did you get into that?
I love hip-hop! I’ve always loved it. It’s not as if I’ve been a huge hip-hop effiiardo for decades so I’m not gonna claim that, but I’ve always enjoyed rap music and been intrigued by it – the history, the culture. I was into a wee bit of Scottish rap music but the last couple of months it’s really took off for me. Just enjoying listening to it, discovering. And it’s because rap is essentially spoken word – it’s performance spoken word – and I’m an actor so that’s a big part of what I do!
[It] just kinda exploded! To almost an unmanageable point, which is just lovely in some ways but it’s a bit hectic. I’m working on a track now actually. But I am really enjoying it, really enjoying it.
Has music always been an interest?
There was a social club round the corner from where I grew up, and my big sister and my dad used to take me round, and I’d go up on stage and sing sometimes – I must have been about 4 year old. I mean this was in the mid 70s so you were allowed to take 4 year olds into a big pub and let them sing at the time! Full of smoke and everything. And you know I’ve got two sisters, and my mum and dad, and their influences – they’ve very different influences you know! One of them was prog rock – one of my sisters – the other was Motown, my mum and dad were much older so they were the classic references…
I always had a kind of musical ear. I don’t play any instruments – apart from the mouth organ and I only play ‘Oh Suzanne’ on the mouth organ! But when I was in primary, I was able to pick at tunes on a keyboard or on a xylophone – so if someone said ‘doe a deer’ I could play it. And I thought everybody could do that! A bit like seeing and hearing you know, that everybody could jus’ do that, but it wasnae until years later that I was like, oh that’s a thing not everybody has… So aye, music obsessed, obsessed!
There’s an old 70s song called ‘Music..’ by John… I can’t remember who sings it, there you go! John somebody! Anyway, he says, the first line has a big dramatic, big piano behind it, and he sings ‘music is my first love and it will be last‘ – and it always makes me laugh, because it’s true, it’s true for me.
What do the workshops involve?
Well, I’m saying they’re basic right now but it feels like there’s an awful lot in them! [laughs] I’ve been doing most of them on Zoom. They’re 2 hour sessions which are great, people are really enthusiastic, and they’re up for it, and they’re open minded, and they’re creative! The idea is to get a group of people, maybe 6 or 8, and give them a topic and ask them to write a short paragraph up about that topic and then to take each of their paragraphs and help them write it up into a rap stanza. Then, help them develop that and help them rap it and perform it – you know, [it’s] on Zoom, but we’re doing it!
I’ve been recording them and then taking the recordings. I’m doing some of them acapella, sometimes I give them a beat behind it, but obviously with Zoom it’s very limited. Then I’ll go and make the music up for the track on GarageBand, and edit their voices into the song. So I’ve just finished one about 15 minutes ago! I think I’m finished – I’m no sure! I might go back and faff about with it for another 5 hours! [laughs] But I’m hopefully finished with it. I’m really having a ball with it.
“There’s a strange mix of resignation and gratitude.
We’ve gotta do it like this, but at least we can.”
What has the response been like to the workshops?
Well, it’s so strange how it came about and, I’m not too arty farty or airy fairy [laughs] but it just seemed to happen and it just seemed to flow very easily, and usually that’s a good sign! I’ve done 5 workshops with 5 different groups over 3 week periods for each of them, I’ve got another 3 to do, and that’s intentional that I don’t have any more to do at the moment, because I could’nae handle any! [laughs]
When I started off, one of my friends – he’s a business advisor but a pal you know, I was talking to him about it, and he says, ‘so what are you charging for it?’ I’m nae charging anything for it! And he said you gotta charge something! I say – you know, typical artist – I don’t want tae make money, I want tae make music! And I meant that, I really meant it. That does’nae mean I don’t need to pay my rent and things… But I don’t want to attach money to this because it starts to sully things. SO, all that being said it gave me a really good place to come from, because the inference wasnae, ‘oh let’s see how much I can get financially out of this’. It was more, ‘lets see what we can do together.’ I think that’s been helpful in creating a useful atmosphere for it.
Who can get involved?
I had a group of refugees who live in Glasgow, that was my first group – fantastic! I was overwhelmed with enthusiasm and creativity, just brilliant. Then I was out at the Good Shepherd Centre out in Bishopton with some teens – and I was out there because they could still operate because it was a closed school environment. Again overwhelming, just wasnae expecting what I got from them at all. I thought it would be good but I didn’t realise it would be so moving!
I’ve just a couple of groups with the Citizens Theatre, they have a thing called the Community Collective, and that’s one of the songs I’m working on just now. That was so different as well! They’ve all been so different and I think that’s what’s making me so excited about it and quite purposeful, because every-single session is different, with a different mix of people and different backgrounds. And I think In fact, 4 of them – or 3 different groups – have asked me to come back and do it again, which is great because I’ve only just finished! So that’s heartening as well. And then another 3 groups coming up in the next month.
It’s just these groups that have come to me at the moment – and I haven’t even advertised it! I haven’t put it out anywhere, I’m just testing the ground right now – but the ground seems pretty fertile!
Are attendees new to hip-hop or do they have an interest already?
Yep, some of the students out at the Good Shepherd were fantastic MCs! I’m learning all the time… I didn’t know the difference between an MC and a rapper.. So they were educating me on that! But mostly, I mean the group I was working with yesterday I would say they were at the ages of 40 upwards, a couple of them in their 60s, which is brilliant! Each individual in that group, their attitudes to rap, what they liked and what they didnae like, and what they thought could be done – that’s so interesting as well.
Each group at the end has come out of it with a formed, structured rap song. I think that’s surprising to a few of the participants, I didnae see how this could work and yet here it is and it’s brilliant and it flows! And I’m LOVING that! I’m actually In love with it now! I’ve got all the chemicals of being in love, I’m off my face on dopamine! It’s all fleeing through me – adrenaline – I cannae wait to get back into it!
And the tracks they create – will they be available for people to listen to?
I’ve been talking to Steg G at Sunny G Radio, who’s one of your tutors, I said to him, what I’d like to do is, I’ve not had the chance to do it yet (you know, Zoom novice) but what I’d like to do is get the recordings together, and mix them as best I can. I’ve actually signed up to your sound engineering course, because I don’t really know what I’m doing with it. I just recently got back into Garageband, so I’m just learning that now. The quality of them is pretty dubious right now but what I’d like to do, and Steg has agreed, is make individual shows for each group and put them on Sunny G. Along with different music as well, but play that and play interviews with the group.
Essentially what I’d like to do is make an album of it and put it out. Then if the world ever opens back up do a concert at the Royal Concert Hall with each group – I would love that! But if its never anything more than what it is now, it’s fantastic. And I mean that, because if I keep it within that realm, I don’t project too much and I don’t try to force things like; ‘we need to do this better, because I want it to be recorded and who knows who might be listening…’ Pardon the expression – but f* all that! I just want the experience of being in the room – or being on Zoom – with participants. Anything else is a bonus.
Do you know much about the Scottish Hip Hop scene?
Nooo, this time 3 months ago all I knew was Stanley Odd and Loki! I didn’t even know Steg G did hip-hop. So there’s my ignorance level on it, but I’m getting more familiar with it now.
I’m also watching the Rap Game, which I had actually watched last year, without any thoughts on watching it because I was doing a workshop, and I don’t really watch a lot of reality show type competitions, but I was really interested in that, and I watched Hip Hop Evolution when it came out. So I’m watching Shogun on the Rap Game right now, and I’m very interested in his stuff. So aye, getting into it more – and I’m intrigued!
Some people have a negative perception of hip-hop – how it sometimes is sexist, homophonic or violent. It’s good that it’s being seen more as a positive tool for learning and expression. Because as you said, it’s spoken word and poetry!
Yeah, most things when they become so commercial turn… You know the two main sources of power are sex and money. And if you look at anything really, well most things, you’ll see that element when it gets to a certain degree. And as you said there, that’s now how it started off and that’s not what it needs to be. There’s other channels of hip hop as well – or there’s other ways to channel it.
“Each group has come out of it with a formed, structured rap song. I think that’s surprising to a few of the participants. I didnae see how this could work and yet here it is, and it’s brilliant and it flows!”
What about 2020, how has it gone for you? I saw you were set to play Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Ernest in Perth in March, did that go ahead?
We did yeah! We got so far into it. It was only a 3 week run, so we got 2 weeks out of the 3 weeks in the end. I’m really glad we got that but that was disappointing because I felt it was a huge role… One of the hardest in terms of muscularity– the vocal muscularity! The annunciation, the breath work I had to do, never mind any emotional stuff I had to do! You know so much of it was technique. And that sounds like I know what I’m doing – I’m not trained in anything, my training has kinda been on the job, so I made it up as I went along, and that… I felt I was just getting into the part and we lost the last week!
So yeah, that was disappointing. It was a lovely wee theatre in Perth, a great director, fantastic cast, the set, what they’d done, because it was a very low budget, and what they’d done with the set and the costumes, it was such a good job that we all pulled together, and we only had 3 weeks rehearsal! There were 5 cast members and the 4 were all playing other roles! So it was a huge undertaking. So aye, it was disappointing, it would be lovely if that was remounted, but god knows where and how and when now!
How was lockdown? Was the workshop something that came from lockdown or had you thought about it before?
Well, to answer the hip-hop question; a bit of both. I’d spoken a bit at the beginning of the year  to a friend, it might have been even at the end of last year … Before I even knew what COVID-19 was! So it wisnae a thing that I wanted to do because of lockdown, but I had nae time! I had been wanting to do something like that for a long time and was just too busy… So yeah it did come from the lockdown in terms of how I could do it, because obviously I couldn’t have go into rooms with people, so the majority of it’s been done on Zoom, which I very hesitant to do, but if it was between that and nothing, then I was doing that, and actually that [is] working out.
I’m a Zoom novice but I seem to be getting better at it every 2 hour session! It’s just practice like anything. But I’m limited to what I can actually do, because if I was in the actual room with people I would be sitting working with them you know, you can get the energy of people as well, especially when it’s creative and it’s musical and it’s rhythmic and you’re picking that up off people… But we’re nae doing a bad job on it, and I think [the participants] are – I cannae speak for everybody– but I think there’s a strange mix of resignation and gratitude. We’ve gotta do it like this, but at least we can.
It’s strange to say this, I try to be very mindful of the suffering that’s happening… I’ve had my own stuff to deal with and that as well, it’s not as if it’s not touched me – ‘cos all my work was cancelled, and that’s a big thing! There’s nae furlough for me! There’s naebody paying me anything! But I hardly did anything. I couldn’t see anybody, but at the same time there was an awful lot less money spent. It was readdressing a balance personally for me in how I spent money, how I spent time – because that busyness! You know it’s funny, there’s kind of a perpetual motion that’s going on and then, coming into lockdown, was left panting! Almost like… [she mimics breathing fast]…
Left catching our breath!
Yeah. There’s some part of my brain mechanism that’s still running and looking to attach to the busyness, the level of energy it was used to. And that eventually ran out you know, with enough episodes of the Gilmore Girls [laughs] – that ran out! It was quite scary because I’m used to being very busy….. And then I went into the inertia period of, what the f*ck am I doing… What can I do? What do I want to do? What do I need to do? So all those questions on a small level.. and on a – micro and macro, because those sort of existential, ‘who am i, what is this’…
I hav’nae watched the news or read a newspaper for 20 years. Now in saying that, I was still on Twitter quite a lot – funny I came off Twitter a couple of years ago, and then I reinstalled [it]… I wasnae tweeting anything but I was reading you know so much, so I was infused completely with all sides of everything! Then the arse fell out of that.. I know I jus’ thought I cannae look at this anymore, so a couple of months ago jus’ deleted Twitter again. So I don’t have any news that I look at. My mates keep me posted on what I need to know. And that’s been really, really conducive to my creativity. I cannae stress that enough!
We’re aching for the arts industry right now! What advice would give those still interested in pursuing a career in the arts?
Well this might sound a bit strange – and I hope it does’nae come across as patronising in any way – but do not worry about it. Not because, in that kind of ‘everything’s gonna be alright’ way, but we must create, as the creatures we are ya know. I don’t mean us as artists, I mean the species – we must create. So whatever that creativity is inside each person, whether it’s about creating a good soup, creating a wee baby, creating music – we’re driven to do it.
There’s a surface level to me that’s like ‘oh my god, the theatre is shut, live events are shut, the bulk of my work is in that, what’s gonna happen’.. One of the ways that I’m able to calm down is to come back to what my needs are. And I’ve got a kind of mantra of, ok what are my needs? Food, water, air, shelter, love – sleep potentially! But even if I don’t get that I’ll probably still live for quite a bit. Food, water, air, shelter, love – that’s what I need. And I’ve never been without that! So I know that’s maybe no advice to an artist because I don’t really know how to give it other than; Don’t worry, we will find a way to create – we cannae not!
If we’re gonna live online then we will create online and that will take off… It’s already taken off but that will take off more – and I know that’s not the same and I know there’s a huge loss in that but.. There’s an old bumper sticker that says ‘change = loss + gain’ so there’s gotta be gain in it too.
It’s human nature isn’t it, to create?
And when I’m questioning and doubting everything myself creatively, that’s why for a few months of lockdown, my go-to place would’ve been – write a monologue, write something that you can do online – but I just was’nae there, there was a huge block! And I know a lot of creative people had that, but it was nurturing that belief, which is a core belief that as a species we’ve got to create, you know. This isn’t just about me being a suffering artist or something, that’s what we do as humans. Knowing that that was true, and thinking – ok leave it alone and it will come. And when it did it was a bit tsunami-like! It was like – ‘I’m going to do hip-hop! That’s it!!! HIP-HOP!’ So, it’ll come. And I think stressing about it can create a barrier to it. Sometimes it’s good to have a wee bit of stress to give us some umph, but there’s levels to it.
How are you feeling about the current lockdown?
I mean it’s a terrible thing that we’ve got to go into any level of it again. I feel so lucky, so lucky to be doing what I’m doing right now. I feel… it’s unfair to say this but to a certain degree I’m not really thinking about the lockdown too much. I’m waking up in the morning right now and thinking I’ve gotta find a baseline for that hip hop track! And I’ve gotta find a way to splice that.. And put a beat into this and I cannae mix yet, so I’m gonna Google that and watch a tutorial [laughs]! That’s what I’m thinking about just now.
Are you feeling more positive for 2021?
Next year? Nae idea! Don’t know, don’t care! Because it’s too far, it’s too far. Tomorrow’s a wee bit too far for me. What I manage is what’s happening right now. And that’s.. I was going to say a coping mechanism, but it’s not, it’s a dealing with life mechanism. An awful lot of the time –not in any kind of bhuddist-zen-medative kind of way– but I actually try to check in with my body; ‘Are ye in any pain?!’ Are ya hungry? Tired? Thirsty?’ Because this is reality what is happening here and now. And everything else, past or future, it’s all in my head! And that sort of brings me back into the room if you like. Which is good, that’s been a really useful tool over the years. Never mind tomorrow, never mind yesterday, what’s happening in the now.
And it’s not easy because we live in a society that’s so led towards we must try harder, better, higher, faster… bikini-body ready, blah blah… Oh man, we’re so immersed in it, just to come out of it for a while and think I’m gonna try this GarageBand loop, because my ears can hear it and that’s reality…
There’s me saying I don’t think about 2021! I am looking to expand [the workshops] next year, so if you know any groups that would be interested in that, then please put that out there. But we’ll see, we’ll see what happens today!