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‘Berlin is like a wormhole: flat, yet so much depth.’
Gems in this
For nearly two decades, journalist, author and poet Musa Okwonga has been sharpening his writing and bolstering his voice. As a black, bisexual man, his point of view has leaned away from societal expectations, instead challenging stubborn constructs in everything from education to sport.
Yet, Musa's work oozes positivity and his ideas pave the way for a bold, new world. In 2014, he moved to Berlin to go off-grid and write, only to have his creativity leap onto the world stage. Today, Musa co–hosts Stadio, one of the highest-charting sports podcasts in the UK, and he is set to release three books in 2021, including his complicated love letter to Berlin, In The End, It Was All About Love. We chat to Musa about how creativity and travel inspire him, and the inside track to explore his Berlin.
On your childhood in the UK
In the first couple of years that Idi Amin was in power in Uganda, my parents were attending medical school. Safety was so bad that they’d have to come home after dark so no one saw which house they lived in. One of the most famous surgeons in Uganda at that time was mid-operation when the military dragged him out of the theatre. They were murdering people who had administrative leadership experience. So in the mid-1970s my parents fled to the UK, where my Dad went to Cardiff University and Mum went to Manchester. Then I came along in 1979. But in 1983 my Dad returned to Uganda, because after Amin was overthrown another autocrat was rising to power. Dad fought as a chief military surgeon in the war to stop yet another dictatorship. He was killed while fighting.
Mum brought my siblings and me up by herself. She kept changing my school, trying to find the right fit. She made a real effort to get me into the right one. Then I saw this documentary on TV about boys at Eton College, and even as a kid I remember thinking, ‘If I go there and succeed, I could do anything’. So I went and did a two-year crash course at a preparatory school, where I was at the bottom of every class except English. I had to come from nowhere, but I somehow did it. Within two years I was good enough to get a place at Eton.
On writing your own visa
I’ve been writing since the age of 10. Yet my assessment at the age of 15 was that the UK was too racist to allow a black man to be solely a writer. So I did a law degree. Being a trained lawyer has been like a visa: it’s given me access and protection. My plan was always to leave law and write.
‘The world is in such chaos right now, so you can either look for all of the terrible stuff or you can look for the good stuff. As a creative, I feel that my job is to put as much good into the mix as possible.’
On the importance of creative persistence
I’ve been unsuccessful far longer than I’ve been successful. I’m 41 and I’m only just breaking through now. I have the impatience of a hare and my career has had the speed of a tortoise. I spent years freelance writing. God, it was lonely. I was writing essays, sci-fi, but it was all rejected. I couldn’t bring myself to create anymore, I was so overwhelmed with the thought of being a loser. So, I turned the camera inwards and wrote about how it felt. I scraped my bone marrow and put it all out there in In The End, It Was All About Love. At that point, that was the best I’d ever written. My agent loved it and sent it to all the publishers, yet everyone said no. The ideas I’m writing now are no different to what I was writing 20 years ago. An ex asked me what had changed, but nothing has changed, I don’t believe any more or any less in the work I make. People have just come around to the content. Being a creative is about finding a way to live sustainably until people have come around.
On life in Berlin and going off-grid
All of my favourite artists, like James Baldwin, Kae Tempest, Steven Camden and Audre Lorde, have a level of separation or detachment. They all went off-grid and, without realising it, my move to Berlin was me going off-grid. I wanted to create my work from a distance, somewhere that gave me room to do my own thing. Berlin is one of the few places that allows that perfect balance of detachment and attachment. When I moved here six years ago, the aim was to disappear. Then I wrote an article in 2015 that went viral. That wasn’t my plan, but a friend said, ‘Musa, some people are not meant to remain invisible.’ So I took that cue and kept creating and becoming bolder, because if you’re going to be seen, you may as well be seen fully as you are.
On creating while the world is in chaos
The moment Donald Trump got elected, my sleep just went off a cliff. There was a period of about a year when all of the far-right dominoes started falling: Austria, Hungary, Poland, UK, and the US. My body was like, ‘You have to stay on point for this.’ The only way to stay on point is to focus on the things you can control. I don’t mean this in a selfish, parochial way. But if you’ve got a piece of work, nail it to the best of your ability. The world is in such chaos right now, so you can either look for all of the terrible stuff or you can look for the good stuff. As a creative, I feel that my job is to put as much good into the mix as possible.
‘We need to imagine a world so bold because the people who have the solutions might not be born yet. We must pave the way for them and their ideas to succeed.’
On the power of ideas
The older I get and the more I write, the more I become optimistic about what ideas can achieve. People are being influenced, not only superficially but in a deep way, by books. I look at all the great writers that I respect, and there’s something in the power of a book that can really change people’s perceptions. At the moment it seems like the conversation is just ‘debate me about this’, ‘debate me about that’, but it doesn’t really shift the needle. What really gets people, is going into the privacy of their own homes and embarking on their own journey to sit and absorb thought. That’s my personal challenge: to write the work that actually sinks in.
On eliminating fear
In 2017, racism in Germany was spiking, and it aligned with the 30th anniversary of the death of Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s right-hand man. We went to an anti-fascist march in Spandau, thinking we’d encounter neo-Nazis. We didn’t, because the police separated everyone, but after returning home I imagined a different reality where I wasn’t afraid. Just by imagining the elimination of fear, my body language changed, my art changed, I was bolder. Fear is a transaction between you and your surrounding environment. A friend told me, ‘We can’t go to that bar, because a neo–Nazi bar is 70 meters away, and what if we bumped into them?’ So I said, ‘What if they bumped into us?’ Why do we adopt the terror before we have the confrontation? Until I have that confrontation, I’m not afraid.
On new work you’re releasing in 2021
I’ve written a short book, In The End, It Was All About Love, that’s out now. It’s not a prohibitive length as I wanted it to be something that people could read on a medium-to-long train journey. I don’t want to make work that feels like an extra hassle. I want to write really short work that is impactful.
Then, in April, I have another book coming out called One of Them. I went to a private school, and this book is about how much we benefit from this system but how we also fail to critique it. I’m a dark-skinned black guy who is living in Berlin and is respected socially because I went to Eton College, which has a cachet. I also went to Oxford University. Education has given me a visa and privilege. But what have those institutions denied others in the process of giving me privilege?
My third book is a children’s novel that I wrote in collaboration with a famous ex-footballer.
On writing a better world into existence
Everything I write has a happy ending. Every poem, every song, every book. I don’t write work where everyone is holding hands and singing ‘Kumbaya’, as I believe ‘unity’ is a toxic concept. But I acknowledge the challenges and provide a means to navigate forward. There’s power in imagination, and power in stories. I was reading the opening chapter of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, and he was talking about how, even at a time of ecological collapse, humans lack imagination to think about a different future. That’s where the conversation has to happen.
In early 2020, I recorded a documentary in Amsterdam called The Post-Racist Planet, where we imagined a world without racism. In a post-racist planet, you take all of the best ideas from people, regardless of who they are. You have more disability access, a more diverse and inclusive economy, better cities and more sustainable energy. We need to imagine a world so bold, because the people who have the solutions might not be born yet. We must pave the way for them and their ideas to succeed. Cynicism is so easy, but it’s irresponsible and offensive to the younger generations. That’s why my art always comes from a place of positive imagination.
On what you love about Berlin
Berlin is contemplative. It’s very flat and the buildings are low. Nothing overwhelms you like it would in, say, São Paulo or Shanghai, where the skyscrapers are like a forest closing in over your head. Berlin allows you to breathe, and it has a variety of speeds. It can be as strait-laced as you like, or as queer as you like, but it leaves you alone.
On where to eat cake in Berlin
If I’m going to watch football on the weekend, I’ll go to Cupcake Berlin. I’ll get the vanilla sponge cupcake with sea salt caramel, then put it in the freezer for about an hour. Frosted icing is just the best. Then, in Friedrichshain, there’s an amazing place called Five Elephant that does an espresso cheesecake which is spectacular. For unbelievable Apfelstrudel — and a range of cakes of all types — try SowohlAlsAuch. Then, way over west, is Café BilderBuch. They do very good cakes but also great eggs and breakfast spreads.
‘Berlin has a variety of speeds. It can be as strait-laced as you like, or as queer as you like, but it leaves you alone.’
On the Berlin you share with friends and family
Berlin feels bottomless. I’ll get on the train on a weekday afternoon and the city becomes like a fairground ride. Every few months, I discover a completely new part of the city. Once, while I was on a second date, we jumped on a train on a Friday afternoon to find somewhere new. We rode out to forest Grunewald. I knew it was there but I had never been. We were lying in the grass and all there was to see was the blue sky and the horizon framed by trees. I remember looking up and thinking, ‘I’m in the city, I’m only 45 minutes from my front door and I’m lying in the warm grass with a really lovely person.’ Berlin is like a wormhole: flat, yet so much depth. When my cousin came to visit, she asked me to show her Berlin. So I took her on the train all the way out to Wannsee on the waterfront. She sat for a while and then her quiet voice, almost in awe, said, ‘When I said show me Berlin, I was expecting a crash, bang, wallop lifestyle, but I could sit here by the lake all day.’ And that’s it, that’s my Berlin.
On exploring Berlin on foot
I walk a lot, and people always say, ‘Oh my god, get a bike already.’ But they’re mistaking me for someone who’s in a hurry. If I want to walk through a mix of green and gray, I go to Neukölln. Here you have the dissonant mix of the canal waterfront, the edge of the park and the buildings. If I want hard realism, Karl-Marx-Allee is one of the most majestic streets in the world. It’s a valley of vast, grand architecture. It’s especially amazing to walk down during summer, with all of the bars and shisha places spilling out onto the footpath.
On places holding different purposes for different chapters
London was where I cut my teeth. It is a creative hothouse and was extremely competitive. It was where I found my voice and it had a breadth that allowed me to dispute ideas. I thought I wanted to move to New York in 2000, because it suited where I was at the time. It was so caffeinated. But looking back now, those cities are like running machines, and you only realise how quickly you’re going when you get off them. When I built enough creative confidence, I moved to Berlin. I’ve adjusted to the pace of life here, and I look at London and the pace is so fast and I wonder how I hacked it for so long.
On a window or aisle seat
On Berlin in one word