First look: Young Fathers star to help Edinburgh confront its slave trade past

The facade of the City Chambers will be transformed every night from New Year's Day through to Burns Night with Kayus Bankole's project.
The facade of the City Chambers will be transformed every night from New Year's Day through to Burns Night with Kayus Bankole's project.
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Edinburgh’s little-known slave trade history is to be dramatically exposed on one of the most prominent buildings on the Royal Mile for several weeks.

Footage of Kayus Bankole, singer with the Mercury Prize-winning Leith band Young Fathers, performing a piece he has written about those who profited from the 18th century slave trade in the Caribbean will be beamed on to the City Chambers.

Young Fathers star Kayus Bankole has created the new work 'Sugar For Yoiur Tea,' which will be unveiled on New Year's Day.

Young Fathers star Kayus Bankole has created the new work 'Sugar For Yoiur Tea,' which will be unveiled on New Year's Day.

The piece, which will be shown on the facade of the 18th century building from New Year’s Day to Burns Night, will explore how traders and merchants who used slaves to help build their wealth are still honoured in Scotland, in memorials, landmarks and street names.

Bankole has been filmed narrating his piece, Sugar For Your Tea, for the projections, created by choreographer and filmmaker Rianne White, which will also feature special water and lighting effects.

He will say: “We are not our ancestors – how can we be? But, if your father stole from my father and you live in the house your father built using the wealth he stole from my father, shouldn’t we at least talk about it?

“If you try to suppress and sink the truth of the damage you will never be able to truly grasp what we may become.”

The work has been commissioned as part of the Message From The Skies, a project instigated by the organisers of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay and book festivals to transform historic buildings across the city in January.

Edinburgh-born Bankole is one of five leading writers working with artists, designers and filmmakers to bring their words to life.

They were challenged to create new work inspired by Scotland’s relationship with seas, waters and coasts to coincide with a year-long national celebration of its shores.

A new Irvine Welsh story inspired by a sailor he met growing up in Leith will be projected onto the facade of the Malmaison Hotel, Charlotte Runcie's work on Scotland's lighthouse heritage will be seen on the offices of the Northern Lighthouse Board on George Street and narrated by singer Karine Polwart.

Kathleen Jamie's wave-energy inspired poem 'Seascape with WEC.' will be brought to life at the Union Canal at Fountainbridge, while Robin Robertson will be working with composer Alasdair Roberts to create a piece for the Nelson Monument on Calton Hill which will be inspired by the writer's reflections on what makes Scotland's seaside landscape integral to the country's island identity..

There have been growing calls from academics, historians and campaigners for Edinburgh to do more to acknowledge the links between the slave trade and the economic boom in the city in the 18th century.

It is believed that Scots owned more slaves, more tobacco and sugar plantations and had a higher share of the transatlantic trade than England or most other European countries.

Bankole said he was largely unaware of Edinburgh’s links to the slave trade until he read the views of Professor Geoff Palmer, who has led calls for “the need to acknowledge that many of Edinburgh’s most notable citizens owned and exploited tens of thousands of enslaved people”.

Bankole said: “I think it’s something that has always been brushed under the carpet until now. Scottish people don’t want to put their hands up and say that they participated in slavery. I went to school in Edinburgh but I was never taught about it at all.

“I think it’s important for us to acknowledge and share our history, put it to the forefront and use it to bring us closer together and break down any form of separatism in Scotland.

"It’s great to get the opportunity to write about it and get a platform for it visually to enlighten people a little bit about when went on and do that in a beautiful way. Hopefully it will get people talking.”

Another extract of Sugar For Your Tea reads: "Imagine only being seen as an opportunity, being dragged across the salt sea of tears, to be worked like mules, machines, to be tortured, starved and to die in misery.

"They used my mothers and fathers like an orange, squeezed all the goodness out and threw away the carcass into the pits of the forgotten.

“From Freetown to the plantation to what you see around you now. If it wasn’t for the blood of my ancestors… those who were punished, pushed, pressed, pressured, peeled, poked and provoked…. there would be only crumbs and dust and maybe whisky.”

Book festival director Nick Barley said: “Over the last couple of years, Message from the Skies has carved out a fascinating place for Scottish writers in Edinburgh’s streetscape.

"This year’s contributors have taken on the theme of Shorelines and each, in very different ways, has come up with an especially thought-provoking text."

Charlie Wood, director of Hogmanay festival producers Underbelly, said: "We wanted Message From The Skies to focus on Scotland’s relationship with the oceans and the good and the bad that had flowed over them in and out of Edinburgh.

"We were delighted when Kayus agreed to write a piece about the sugar trade and Edinburgh’s historic relationship with it; and indeed for the council in being bold enough to allow us to write it large on one of the most prominent buildings in Edinburgh. It will cause debate, but that’s core to this project."