Sweet Freedom

Sweet Freedom with Brian Procopis (Co-chairperson)

Music in Communities Awards case study

Brian Procopis is a community development worker with Lifeline with an academic background in sociology and psychology. He is also a community musician. He was on the Management Committee of the then-named Asylum Seekers Centre in Brisbane, and working in the Centre, when he and his colleagues heard music playing at the far end of the corridor. The scene that awaited them of Chileans, Eritreans and Sri Lankans spontaneously playing music and singing together made them realise that their advocacy efforts to the Department of Immigration on behalf of asylum seekers were of limited value. They embarked upon the Scattered People project to create opportunities for these marginalised people to speak for themselves through music. After the success of that project, and many others after that, Sweet Freedom was incorporated in 2005 and continues to work with a variety of disadvantaged communities, helping them find their voice through creative expression.

Sweet Freedom exists to give socially marginalised people from a range of backgrounds, in a variety of circumstances, an opportunity to convey their thoughts, insights and aspirations to the public using music. After Scattered People, projects have included Aim High/From Little Things Big Things Grow, where Sweet Freedom worked with children (Indigenous, Pacific Islander and mainstream Australians) from a school in a socio-economically disadvantaged area; Alafiah Freedom, involving young refugees, many of whom had been held in detention centres; Kidz2Kidsz, involving Iraqi children and their mainstream peers; Red, highlighting the benefits of inclusion for those with physical and/or intellectual disabilities; Good Company, involving Indigenous children in a remote community, and Normal Days, with asylum seekers and refugees.

How did you grow Sweet Freedom after your initial project, 'Scattered People'

"When we undertook Scattered People we saw how beneficial the process was for the participants. We found that people could sing about harrowing events and great sadness with more ease than talking about it, as putting music underneath these raw stories softened the impact. We saw that music helped people transcend cultural animosities, as Eritreans sang alongside Ethiopians and Tamils sang alongside Sinhalese. These people are fierce enemies in their homelands.

After we had completed that project and realised how powerful it was in a therapeutic and social sense, we analysed what we did and came up with a template so that we could replicate it again. Zillmere State School invited us to undertake a project to address what Principal, Angela Wilson, referred to as a "collective low self-esteem". The collaborative music project involved children, parents and community members and had very positive and significant outcomes.

From there, groups would call and request that we work with them, and the program grew organically.

Lifeline has always been the principal partner of the program, and as it grew we realised we needed to develop an entity that could stand alone, that wasn't dependent on any one organisation but could invite specific organisations into a partnering role depending on the theme of the project. So we incorporated the name of Sweet Freedom, which was the name of one of the songs on the first Scattered People CD.

We established an Executive, members of which were strategically chosen for their knowledge, networks and their passion. Lifeline still supports Sweet Freedom through me, as I am its employee and I manage the program".

What is the basic model for your projects?

"We are collaborative in our processes. We create and sing with people, not for people.

Once we are approached to work with a group or community, we meet with the designated leaders, ask about their hopes and expectations and together draw up a proposal and seek funding. It is a partnership from the outset.

Once we secure funding - and we have been quite successful at that to date - we meet with the community participants and ask a range of key questions which are tailored to that group. Responses to such questions (amongst others) form the basis of lyrics that have authentically emerged 'from the people'. According to the preferred genre specified by the participants, our team of songwriters crafts melodies and rhythms which weave them around the lyrics. Rehearsals are undertaken with the participants many of whom have not sung before - but all are encouraged to stand together and be a part of the music.

We have a network of musicians, studio engineers, directors and other creative people that we draw upon for our projects. They receive a fee - as much as we can offer depending on the level of funding. Invariably though, they give much more of themselves and their skills than they are paid for.

We are inclusive nobody is denied access because they supposedly 'can't sing'. Social inclusion is the driving force of our work in Sweet Freedom. Sometimes it can be tempting to go for the best quality music or sound you can get, but that would mean denying some people the right to participate, or doctoring the real sound. We opt for authenticity every time. We welcome everybody and invariably when singing together, they sound beautiful. Participants recognise this - are always surprised at how they sound and feel encouraged as a result.

The other part of the model is that most of the benefits - financial or otherwise are returned to the participating communities. A small percentage of profit returns to Sweet Freedom in the hope that someday we'll be a viable organisation less dependent on external funding".

You operate on a project by project basis, with each funded separately. How have you managed that?

"We always include tangible evidence of our past successes, including samples of our product, which helps with our applications. As we are invited to get involved with projects by the community groups themselves this is viewed favourably by philanthropic bodies or government agencies. We always seek alignments with funding bodies that have a synergy with the particular issue.

Sometimes you need to think laterally with funding. We weren't eligible for Government support for the second Scattered People project. It was designed to benefit asylum seekers and, as the Government didn't share our enthusiasm, we invited partnerships with a range of agencies such as the Mercy Sisters, Oxfam and Uniting Care. I suggested they each sponsor a track on the album for a smaller amount of money than obviously we would get for the whole project and they all agreed.

Providing evidence of the positive impact of the program on people and communities is also very important for credibility and funding. We're currently working with Queensland University of Technology regarding the measurement of social and personal outcomes from Sweet Freedom projects. This will help validate what we know, anecdotally, to be true that music changes the way people see themselves, and each other, for the better".

Brian's tips

  1. Remember that music is a vehicle for social cohesion! Making music together can bridge all sorts of divides. It can also help people give voice to problems and hurt. They can often express harrowing pain or sadness through music much easier than talking about it.
  2. Opt for authenticity every time. Sometimes it's OK to forsake musical excellence if it means giving someone a voice or an outlet or giving them a 'right' to participate. Trust the beauty of the collective sound.
  3. Partner up with a local University to measure the range of outcomes from your endeavours. This can strengthen your funding bids.
  4. If you want to record a CD, get local organisations to sponsor a track each, rather than go after a sponsor for the whole thing.
  5. Be as collaborative in all your processes as you can. If you're leading a musical activity with an intended social or 'community development' outcome, remember you're working with not for people.