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hear me out
Oliver Seager and Lamin JoofPhotograph Akil Wilson

How music is helping people detained in immigration centres

Hear Me Out is a charity devoted to bringing music-making into detention settings and improving detainees’ mental health

When the immigration officials turned up to O’Neil’s London home one night in 2016, he felt like he was being kidnapped. He’d moved to the UK from Jamaica two years earlier in order to “better himself” and support his family, taking up a cleaning job while writing music on the side. Forced to leave his wife and children behind, he was taken by officials to Morton Hall, a former prison turned immigration removal centre (IRC) in Lincolnshire, where he’d end up spending the next three months. “I’ve never had a conviction, I’ve never committed [a crime], but these people locked me up,” he says.

O’Neil lived in shocking conditions during his seven months in two detention centres. As well as broken central heating systems and limited food options, he describes his encounters with loneliness, institutional racism and the constant threat of being deported. His experience is not an isolated one, but part of a wider issue, according to reports of rife abuse, self-harm and overcrowding.

Unlike other European countries, immigration detention in the UK can be indefinite. While Home Office policy says that detention must be used for the shortest possible time, many are detained for extensive periods. The longest recorded length of detention exceeded three years. “When you go in, you see people walking with spirit but after three months that spirit dies,” O’Neil says. “It’s not a place that builds you – it’s a place that breaks you.”

Within this context, music was a “life saver” for O’Neil. After being transferred to Harmondsworth IRC, he discovered the workshops organised by Hear Me Out, a charity devoted to bringing music-making into detention settings. Joining in twice a week, he found a place where he could sing and write music alongside his peers. “As a musician in detention, I had thought: there’s nothing for me anymore. When I found Hear Me Out, it was like God sent them. I could wake up for something now.”

The team runs 120 workshops a year in institutions across the country and has worked with over 26,000 participants since 2006. The sessions are a chance to be creative, express emotions, and have fun, for musicians and non-musicians alike. According to internal data, 95 per cent of participants have reported feeling better after attending. “The estimation from one of the universities is that 80 per cent [of detainees] are suffering from depression but I would say it’s much higher,” says artistic director Gini Simpson. “People have told us the workshops have helped them cope.”

The sessions are co-created, meaning the visiting musicians and the detainees have equal creative control. Accordingly, the style of music produced depends on who’s in the room; a recent workshop saw the fusion of gospel, reggae, Iranian jazz and Albanian folk, for example. Original songs exploring themes of hope and resilience become “anthems” that are sung across the centres, while live shows that take place in gyms or corridors due to limited facilities spark joy. “We try to reclaim and change spaces in whichever way we can,” says Gini.

With a mix of cultural backgrounds in detention, Gini says detainees tend to stick to their language groups. But with its capacity to transcend language barriers, music allows them to forge connections with their peers as well as staff, which can make a big difference to one’s experience in detention. “It gives you a space to have a voice and to be heard, as well as a way to learn about each other’s backgrounds and their musical traditions,” she says.

Hear Me Out also facilitates connections through music beyond the centre walls. Songs and performances are recorded and shared online for worldwide distribution with family and friends. When the UK was in lockdown, the team organised a DIY radio transmission to link detainees with the outside world. “You couldn’t get into these centres unless you were someone they were going to detain,” says Gini. “There were no activities, no nothing. And they were really quite scary places because COVID was rampant in settings like that.” 

This Wednesday (January 25), the Hear Me Out Band – formed of musicians who met in UK detention centres – will perform at the Amersham Arms. According to Gini, forging detainee’s future musical pathways is critical. “It gives them a platform where they’re respected as brilliant musicians,” she says. “It’s a statement to the world, a chance for you to say something. For once, you're not silenced and hidden.”

According to Professor Nicola Dibben, a psychologist at the University of Sheffield, music can be a valuable tool to help people navigate trauma. “People use music to regulate their mood states; it’s a way to avoid thinking about certain things,” she says. “Also, in detention centres, where people have very limited opportunities to exert power, being able to do an activity where you have agency, whether that’s writing or performing a song, is actually quite a powerful experience.”

Music can also be a way of exploring your identity as a person, she continues. “It can be a form of self-reflection – that feeling of recognising oneself in a song or a piece of music and therefore making sense of things – or a way to feel connected to another place or people you may no longer be with. There might be particular music you associate those places or people with, so it is a way of bringing those connections to wherever you are.”

‘It’s just good for the soul, it does some kind of healing in your system’ – Joseph

Engaging with music offered Joseph some respite while he was detained at Brook House Immigration Removal Centre in 2019. While his detention period was short compared to many others in the UK, participating in music-making workshops and practising the guitar and keyboard was a way for him to keep busy. “Being detained, you can’t do what you usually have to do, see your family or go out,” he says. “I had to make use of the time instead of sitting down and being depressed.”

Like O’Neil, Joseph recalls his delight when he discovered a Hear Me Out workshop taking place in his centre. “I pushed the door open, I heard these different kinds of sounds coming out and I was like ‘woah’,” he recalls. “You don’t expect to hear that in these kinds of places. I thought: ‘I wanna be part of this’.”

Joseph says the open practice sessions and performances were also critical for his peers who were struggling, like his former roommate who he was yet to hear speak. “I called him to come in and listen and he was just dancing all around the place. He even went back out to bring more people in!” Joseph says, laughing. “It’s just good for the soul, it does some kind of healing in your system.”

While detention centres are liminal places, the music-making workshops have allowed Joseph, O’Neil and many others to build a community they’ve held onto even years after their release. Joseph is a permanent member of the Hear Me Out Band and will be performing in London this week; O’Neil, now based in Jamaica, is still in contact with the musicians he met in detention. “Doing these shows mended my brokenness,” says O’Neil. “When you love music, music is life. And when you are around the right people, it’s even better.”

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