ON his social-media feed, Jersey’s award-winning rap poet Christian Foley described it as ‘the highlight of my career so far’ – a workshop for 12 excluded children at the Royal Albert Hall with multi-Grammy award-winning American singer-songwriter John Legend.
Part of a larger project funded by the T.S. Eliot foundation, last week’s session, in which the students wrote and performed their own song with Mr Legend, was ‘a transformative experience for the young people’, according to Mr Foley. He said he leapt at the unexpected opportunity to work with his illustrious partner, the first black artist and second-youngest person to have won all four of America’s major entertainment awards – the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony.
Mr Legend was in the UK this week as tickets go on sale today for his 2023 show on 5 April at the Royal Albert Hall, but his agent had told the venue that he was also interested in philanthropy, and he offered to sit-in on the workshop involving children from four London schools excluded from mainstream education.
‘I jumped at the opportunity, and he was so gracious in a way that many stars aren’t. It really was an amazing opportunity,’ Mr Foley said.
The Jersey-born performance poet – who has been shortlisted for the Jerwood Poetry Prize and selected by Sky Arts as being among the top 20 promising young artists in the UK – works in schools and referral units in East London as a poet in residence. He is the editor of eight volumes of poetry written with children aged four to 18. He is also an ambassador for mental health and co-founder of Mentality, a group of artists tackling issues around masculinity and encouraging communication.
For the past decade he has been working with disadvantaged children but his latest project, to which John Legend contributed, will result in the publication next year at the Royal Albert Hall of a new book of poetry by 200 children from across London.
‘The project gets together children from different schools for the excluded. These are children who never get to meet each other because they come from different areas across London. The launch at the Royal Albert Hall gives an amplified platform for children who feel excluded to become involved again,’ Mr Foley said.
This week’s workshop for a dozen of those children was a very special experience for the participants but also something Mr Foley hoped would create further momentum for the project, exploring what he described as ‘his life’s work’. In addition to his own creative work and his teaching, he is now undertaking a PhD to investigate the way in which creative writing can give a voice to excluded children.
But to describe this week’s workshop with John Legend as rewarding risks skirting over some of the challenges of working with groups of young people for whom life presents particular obstacles. Mr Foley does not want to ignore that: ‘It is never plain sailing and some days things just don’t work out – life isn’t like that.’ But he added: ‘Wednesday’s workshop was just one of those highs and I think John Legend will remember it too because it was his first experience of working with marginalised British children. Maybe it will even influence his work and what he writes.’