Hackney Empire: A New Decade, a New Vision

The theatre is packed. Over 1,200 people, mainly young people from Hackney, are here for the final of Alter Ego 2020, the talent showcase now in its ninth year. Hosted by Snoochie Shy and Poet, with music by DJ Semo, and with Darkoo, Ambush and Big Tobz amongst those headlining, the audience is wild with excitement. They scream, sing, dance and applaud until their hands smart. Nine acts have made it to the final. The youngest is only 14, and the eldest only 19. There are rappers, poets, singers and dancers. Serious issues including race, politics and identity are explored. Their confidence, talent and stage presence are remarkable. They absolutely smash it.

The winners of Alter Ego 2020, LMA JIJ, dance onstage.

The winners of Alter Ego 2020, LMA JIJ (c) Fabrice Bourgelle.

Many here tonight will never have entered Hackney Empire, or any other theatre before. Much less will they have had an opportunity to perform in a venue like this. Lack of access is partly a question of money. The ticket prices for Alter Ego were set low at £4 and £6 to make attending realistic for the audience that needs to be here, the people that actually matter in all of this.

For the communities of Hackney, particularly the youth, barriers preventing access are not just financial. The drip drip effect of messages that these spaces, these opportunities are for ‘other people, but not me’ can mean that people are excluded. But culture, however we define it, is our birthright. Access to the places where it is shown, the opportunity to create, the chance to participate and to tell their stories through dance, music, spoken word, and the visual arts. To have these opportunities is part of what it means to live in a democratic society. This is the vision for Hackney Empire as we enter this decade.

In January Yamin Choudury, Hackney Empire’s Artistic Director, presented the formal launch of this vision, New Decade, New Intent. The mission is to develop participation in arts and culture spaces through active collaboration and innovation where diversity is celebrated. Although the theatre is physically in the heart of Hackney, this is not enough. It needs to be rooted in the life blood of the community as a place of opportunity. Choudury aims to achieve just that. As he says, ‘We want to create a sense of entitlement for those that feel unentitled. If you’re in the space, it’s yours.’ He went on to explain that the life-changing power of these opportunities should not be underestimated. Other initiatives to develop youth engagement include Creative Futures, a free year-round programme of creative arts provisions and training. Last year over 4,000 young people took part. Through performance and participation, through ownership of a space like Hackney Empire, we see transformation in the communities that need it most. Confidence, self-belief, widening horizons to create new possibilities have a knock-on impact beyond participation in the arts.

The nine finalists for Alter Ego 2020 gather onstage at Hackney Empire.

Alter Ego 2020, the nine finalists. (c) Fabrice Bourgelle.

Back to Alter Ego 2020. In first place was LMA JIJ, a dance group full of incredible energy and technical skill. Second place was rapper K3YZS and third place went to 14-year old Phoenix with You Back People which rightly received thunderous applause. The other performers were Chino, Kianna T, Asanter, Jude, Briz-16 and Precious. Whilst there could only be one winner that night, Choudury and his team at Hackney Empire are working hard to ensure that everyone in Hackney wins.

The final of Alter Ego 2020 was held at Hackney Empire on 21st February.

Kate Coleman is a member of DanceGRiST.