From shy teacher to international battle rapper, 63-year-old Joy France talks to Northern Soul
What would happen if you were a teacher and went rogue? If you started chasing bolts of happenstance? Where might it lead? Performance poetry spots? Slam poetry contests? International battle rapping even?
Six years ago, Joy France vowed to say yes to every opportunity, “run with coincidences” and “shake things up” in her life. Before long the special educational needs and disability teacher was juggling work at a Salford pupil referral unit (also known as a PRU) with performance poetry, honing her craft at a spoken word night dubbed “the bear pit”.
After trying out different formats at legendary Wigan pub The Tudor, France, 63, decided to give a different night a whirl. “I went to another poetry night. I won’t say where. People were sat in a circle reading poems about daffodils and Emily Brontë. It was a poetry night, just the same open mic. It was so sedate. I didn’t know the place I’d been doing it was known as the bear pit. It had a proper stage with lighting, there was a guy doing the sound, there were hecklers, there were people from the pub drunk coming in and joining in, there was this buzzing atmosphere. I’d honed my craft in the deep end.”
Next, she won a Superheroes of Slam competition (dosed up on Lemsip and whisky) and took a year’s sabbatical from teaching, a job “absolutely loved”. Spoken word spots ensued at Sprint Mill, an arts hub in an old Cumbrian mill, she was appointed as poet in residence with United Against Injustice where she organised the evening event, and Manchester-born, Wigan-based France even squeezed in a music festival appearance as ‘Joy From Leeds’. Don’t ask.
Just as it was time to go back to teaching, by chance France landed a three month gig overseeing a creative space in the Manchester emporium, Afflecks, “I can be sensible after Christmas,” France remembers thinking, and supply teaching was put on hold.
Today, four years after she got the three-month gig, France still oversees the space, dropping in to see how it’s evolving. Signs proclaim it ‘the weirdest place’ and ‘not a shop’. It is an unfunded space where anyone can go and create or simply get headspace. It was an immediate hit, enjoys huge footfall and, according to France, has also become a haven for people with Asperger’s, the LGBTQ+ community, retired people, visitors from abroad, carers, and the socially anxious.
It is overflowing with all kinds of creativity (it used to hold 14 people, now about four can squeeze in) and among the chaos is a book full of messages in different languages that France asks the next person from the same country to translate. There’s also a tally of all the people she has made cry (in a good way). It reached 200 before it was swamped by other creations such as pencil drawings, graffiti and sculpture.
France’s spoken word haunt Sprint Mill, near Kendal, was an inspiration. “It’s like the creative space gone berserk there,” she says. Rooms inspired by France’s Afflecks space are set to open in Madrid, Hamburg and other European cities.
“I say to people magic happens there. Unless you’ve been there and experienced it, you don’t know what I’m talking about. You think I’ve lost the plot. I can give you so many stories of people who’ve started using it. I’ve not done it, they’ve done it themselves by giving themselves the headspace, connecting with creativity, reconnecting with drawing or playing the guitar. Then they’ve got out of abusive relationships, come off drugs. They’re no longer on the streets, they’ve changed jobs, they make big life decisions over and over and over.”
Before working at the Salford pupil referral unit, France managed another PRU in the same area for eight years. During this time, France always saw the power of creativity. She bought in storytellers, musicians and artists whenever she could. However, she never thought she was creative.
“I tried knitting, I tried art, music, and whatever I did I really was rubbish at it. From being extremely quiet and shy and not having a voice and not having any creativity, in my 50s I discovered my voice. I absolutely loved what I was doing, but it was hard, it was demanding, and in my own personal life, family life, everything was predictable and routine, so I decided to shake things up.”
On the day I meet France she performs her poem Running for me and two young battle rap fans who have dropped by to see her. It’s about someone who runs away from things rather than opening up. It’s affecting.
Many lightning bolts have struck the space and taken people from all communities on different paths. A big one ignited in the space when France performed Running to a group of teenagers who were rapping there. It’s the poem that won her kudos with a sceptical spoken word crowd in Leeds and led to her festival slot. The teenagers confirmed her suspicions: she was rapping and joked that she should become a battle rapper. France duly put it on her “60 new things in her 60th year” list.
Three years on and France is now an international battle rapper, with several league events under her belt. Last year she shared the story of her adventures in battle rap in a TEDx talk and now does a stand-up comedy set where she performs rap wearing a talking panda mask. But she’s not, ahem, fluffy. She styles herself as “the chainsaw massacre meets Mrs Merton” and what I’ve seen of her real battles had me reaching for the smelling salts.
Director Natasha Hawthornthwaite documented France’s battles for Northern Heart Films. In Just Joy, a short about “rap, retirement and never growing old” designed to explode myths around the baby boomer generation, the audience has ringside seats at France’s first foray into battle rap in the Afflecks’ arcade. After that battle, against her friend Damani, she tells me she wanted to do it for real. She thought battle rap was “gross, sexist, racist and homophobic, just everything that shouldn’t be in the world” and she wanted to “really scare” herself. She points out that racism, sexism and homophobia are not tolerated off stage and tells me that the rap battle community have “completely embraced her, full stop”.
“Battle rap isn’t what you think it is,” she continues. “There are different backgrounds. People who come out of prison and stay out of prison because of it. An architect, a lawyer. It’s absolutely wide. There are quite a few female battlers. Too many of them battle as clones to the men. And some are really good, there’s one in the film. Some [battle rappers] are gay. Not many.”
A new version of Just Joy, which includes her first league battle, had its world premiere at Hebden Bridge Film Festival as part of a short film competition.
The mental health benefits for those who battle rap have been touted for a while. LADbible hosted the Speak Up rap battle event last year in London which shone a light on mental health discrimination, and the late Guardian and Observer journalist, Pete Cashmore, wrote about how it helped him to manage his depression.
For France, battle rap is not about her mental well-being. She has other stuff for that. “It’s about challenging myself, trying to go about an art form, an entertainment. Some people take it seriously and there’s some scary moments in battle rap. The thing that annoys me is that people treat me differently when they first meet me. Kid gloves.”
France’s most recent battle was held in February in Dublin against Canadian battle rapper Omar who specifically requested the fight. In the run up, France said she was “going to go for it” or, as she delicately put it on her Facebook page, “I’m going to tear this guy apart”.
She’s since said that the experience was “fantastic”. To see how the event unfolded check out YouTube on May 15, 2020 when the battle will be uploaded. And if you can’t wait till then, it’s also available on pay per view.
“Some things are off limits, like mentioning people’s kids,” she tells me. “I’ll battle every time with honesty and dignity. I’ll use bars that can stand up to scrutiny and I’ll do it cleverly and funnily. But if there’s something I’m angry about I’ll be angry about it.”
She adds: “A lot of people do look at me and say, ‘oh yeah, she’s a poet she’s going to write about flowery things’. They make assumptions, particularly about old women with white hair. I’m changing people’s perceptions about poetry, changing people’s perceptions about me, about women, older women, fat women, whatever. It became part of what I was doing. It’s not a conscious thing where I’m setting out to do it, but if I see an opportunity, I’ll do it.”
Main image: Joy France, Natasha Hawthornthwaite, Northern Heart Films
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