charlotte church's utopia

Charlotte Church’s Utopia

Poet and hip hop artist Rufus Mufasa takes us on a gonzo journey through an eclectic evening of music and performance, as Charlotte Church curates a vibrant night at Cardiff’s Festival of Voice.

My girls were having a right scrap when my friends Devilar and Cheryl called by my house on Saturday. Peace was restored when the girls saw the stickers they’d brought, saying “Time to Rebel. Time to Rise”, and they all sticker-bombed the kitchen. I asked if they would be driving to Cardiff.

“No, Newport. Why?”

“I need a lift to Utopia”.

“Then your carriage to Utopia awaits”.

I pack my bag, kiss Jamey and the girls goodbye. It’s Saturday night and I’m off out. I’m not working, not hustling, just doing what normal people do… sort of.

I talk Devilar and Cheryl into having a drink with me at the Wales Millennium Centre, cocktails, for that “I’m on holiday/off duty” feel, and we have a proper catch up, without the adrenaline that comes with running events and performing, and it feels nice, to just be…

Then my friend Phil rocks up on his bike, just like magic. Waw! He’s so excited, and he’s also going to Utopia. He especially wants to see Fatoumata Diawara. He is totally in love with her and is in a flap, and has to pick up his ticket right away, just in case it goes missing. By this point Devilar and Cheryl are sold, so I go pick up the tickets for us all, you know, just in case they go missing with Phil’s.

I’ve never seen Phil like this before.

“I’d travel to see her, miles, planets, and she’s here, in my city, tonight! Once you hear her voice, you’ll never forget it! Her African Blues will be a part of your soul forever”.

Waw, what a strap line.

I tell Phil I’m writing a novel. He tells me I am a novel. I ask Cheryl if she wants Prosecco.

She says, “I’d rather a cider”. I’ve missed my friends dearly, and tonight we are going to Utopia, together.

We are greeted by Brian Eno on a huge screen, his presence echoing “theory over practice”, “be cross art culture”, “create conceptualisms, a constant reminder for the constant campaigning needed for a fairer world, in all that we do”, “artists must be more than one thing”…

There’s a choir, Some Voices, singing so sincerely and enjoying every moment, and they all look beautiful. The conductor, in a silver sequin jacket, reminds me of Devilar, of how he is at our gigs, signalling when things are good, animated when things need more energy, singing and dancing along with us. Devilar also recognises himself as the conductor. I promise to get him a sequin jacket.

Bunting made of money hangs above the stage, coins decorate the bar, bird cages filled with white feathers fill the sky above. It is all very surreal and real, weird and wonderful. Bowie said “Art is unstable. Its meaning is not necessarily that implied by the author.” I read it as our cages are but decoration, or the cages can no longer contain us, and to imagine the money as the same thing, or a life where it wasn’t needed to survive, or where money loses its value, its cage, and the freedom that would bring to us all.

To the left of the stage is a huge wooden cross, covered in a rainbow of colour, decorated in feather boas. Because of its block-like colourfulness, it resembles a totem pole, made of promise, speaking of freedom, against constraints, urging us to connect with magic and an enchanted existence, urging us to be free birds, flocking together, in this shared space.

There’s a large canvas of De La Soul, the crew that started the third generation of hip hop. 1989 was a hugely transitional year for hip hop, and De La Soul took it to an international scene, making it their own, without the bragging culture it was laced in. They ripped up the rule book, and just wanted it to be all about having a good time, choosing flowery imagery, reflecting their un-macho approach to their art, provoking a communitarian spirit. Proud as punch that they are here in Utopia.

Statues are set up around the space. I associate statues with important spaces, and this space is as important as any other, offering an opportunity to connect and be together.

From the choir to a single poet, Talia Randall, who I could hear before I could see, coming from above, the very set-up creating a 3D feel, and imaginings of ancient times, of ancient Greece, complimenting the feel of the statues. With this ancient feel, we are presented with iconographic content, tales of contemporary moral issues, juxtapositions and injustice, gentrification and chicken shops… a true exploration of space and the times…

“rice pudding to rice and peas,

meat and two veg to hummus…

my people learnt to fear what they don’t know

my people never left the post code…

one half of my identity, my language is weak…

I can’t order one thing without being offered another,

I’m charged £2.50 for a standard 80p cup of tea.

We are too tied up in heritage so we all live separately.

In my city you are never far away from an agent of travel or property.

Our chicken shops always seem to attract beef…

Tough times Fam!”

I’ve paraphrased this, from memory, just to give some flavour and set the scene.

Then it switches, to another voice, an angelic acappella voice, that you hear before you see, and the audience, they shift, they part, and Charlotte Church, goddess like, warrior like, beautiful and breath-taking, walks among us, before walking away.

Next, we are introduced to Le Gateau Chocolat, in a stunning sequin dress. The stage is set. A bygone time, with a Margaret Thatcher sounding narrative playing on the wireless, and despite it feeling timely/of an era, it is very much in the present, again with themes of contemporary morality, and audience members whisper about how very well curated it all is. Le Gateau Chocolat is everything – drag, opera, contemporary, timeless, classy, theatrical, activism, historical, male, female, strong, vulnerable, complimentary, contradiction… with a chronological story, about the historical legalities of drag, and heartache.  Big blue eyes, full beard, so beautiful, so deep, both masculine and feminine, showing us how old school settings speak to us with newness, how sequins belong to us all, how male chests are as important as our females, and vice versa, and even a lead/mic malfunction didn’t matter, and the removal of big hair didn’t make them any less fabulous, and it was at this point that Phil said “Can you smell Rose? They’ve let a rose bomb off.” I could smell the rose, it filled the space. Since ancient times, roses have symbolised God at work, in whatever situation they appear. In tarot, the rose is a symbol of balance, expressing promise, hope, and new beginnings.

Le Gateau Chocolat sang:

“You are a mystery, every time you come around

When I crawl into your arms, everything comes tumbling down

I must remove your wings and you must learn to fly

Come lose your dark upon me, let your long hair hang down…”

Phil is in tears. Devilar is in tears. The men around us, in this sea of unlocking, are in tears. This is a space where our men came to cry. Beautiful. Mind blowing. Utopia.

Back to Talia Randall, speaking about the female vulnerability, on “the labyrinth of the journey home”, of women “only existing in the mouths if men” and “every mansplained sentence” makes womens tongues dusty.

Fatoumata Diawara arrives. Phil is transfixed. She’s beyond beautiful. She sensationally blends Wassoulou traditions of Southern Mali with international influences. She’s invigorating, inventive, intense, soulfully sassy, adventurous and astute, unapologetically powerful, and by singing the blues, with her baby blue guitar, she releases her blues, made of jazz and soul, Africa and hope, and urges us to “enjoy our differences”. After her set, Phil and I find her in the foyer, so majestic, so accessible, and Phil can’t talk, and I explain “My friend Phil loves you” and ask if I can photograph them together. He’s beaming. She’s divine.

The final act of the night is Jonna Lee. Her presence screams femininity and all things Nordic, and her a respect for both. She also has huge respect for her band. It was about them collectively. Their set is visually arresting, electrifyingly electronic, sonic journey inducing, a cross fertilisation of the senses, a haunting, a hop skip and a jump between outer space and Vikings, totally trippy yet totally together.

Charlotte Church closes the ceremony, and we all join in with “Stand by Me”. We say our goodbyes, to this emotional roller coaster ride, exploring the times, sharing this vibe, of the Utopia she conceptually curated, laced in activism we believe in.

My friends and I went for chicken and chips. We stood around a telephone wire box, a makeshift table, and we were truly connected. There’s no beef up in here. We sticker bomb the scene before we leave, and say our goodbyes – “Time to Rebel. Time to Rise”.


Rufus Mufasa’s debut album, Fur Coats from he Lions Den, is available now.