Writer Jasmine Khan / Photographer Maddie Cottam-Allan
It’s 7:30pm on a Monday evening in the Custard Factory and there’s just a few punters chatting outside Auto-Brew. Apart from their gentle murmurs, poet, public speaker, and all round creative Adjei Sun and I have the quiet, subtly lit space to ourselves. Which is important because Adjei’s not one to raise his voice.
Adjei’s been creating space for discussions around mental health since he was 18 years old. Now 22, his audience has grown in accordance with the topics he’s brave enough to tackle in a public setting. By focusing on the relationship between masculinity and mental health, as well as discussing mental health in POC and specifically Black communities, Adjei addresses complex social factors which often result in stigma.
“To me, it didn’t feel like ‘I’m someone who’s coming to speak about mental health’,” explains Adjei. “It more started with me telling my story, my journey with anxiety and bullying, and writing was always my way to express that.”
Adjei began his mental health journey by sharing poetry and music, he says, “it was me helping myself by expressing myself, then it turned into helping other people, because people would come over and be like ‘this really helped me’.”
Adjei’s experience is textbook in the mental health space. Giving yourself permission to be honest and share in turn gives other people the same opportunity.
“Having conversations with my peers (men), around these important topics, that say years ago in school or college I wasn’t having with my peers, even though it’s probably something that a lot of us were dealing with, I feel more full from being able to show all of myself.
“I’m not trying to come into conversations with a man and be like ‘am I able to say this as a man’, rather I just go into those conversations and be like, ‘we’re human’.”
Adjei’s upcoming project Gifted and Black, which he confirms takes inspiration for its namesake from Nina Simone’s ‘Young, Gifted and Black’, will be held at the Moseley Exchange on 8 October. It’s clear Adjei is keen to continue his work holding space for communities who might not have easy access to conversations around mental wellbeing.
“The feeling in that Nina Simone song gives me a feeling I want to put into the event,” says Adjei.
“In terms of Gifted and Black, I think I was having a conversation with my mum about Black History Month, and I really wanted to create a black history-present-future month event.
“I want to have this intergenerational conversation between different Black men from different Black backgrounds to get their perspectives on giving. When I say giving, talking about how do we give to communities and how do we give to ourselves.”
What are healthy exchanges and how do we appropriately balance giving and receiving? Although neither me nor Adjei will come to any concrete conclusions in this conversation, Adjei explains the intent behind his intergenerational approach.
“The more mature people that I’m speaking to, one works within the mental health service, and the other does lots of work with young people and the community. I really wanted to have people who work with young people as part of it, because the whole idea of giving and giving back to the community, they’ve lived it.
“There’s an African proverb that says: ‘when an elder dies a whole library is burned’.
“We need to have conversations with older peoples because there is knowledge we can take from that will be lost otherwise.”
As the title suggests, all of the speakers at Gifted & Black will be Black (and gifted), but Adjei wants to stress the universality of the event.
“I really wanted to create something that speaks about generosity and again those themes of giving and receiving, so everyone who comes to the event can take something away from that.”
The emphasis Adjei’s places on giving and receiving throughout the project, and our interview, makes me think he’s considering the balance of these energies in his own life. People who work in mental health, at least those that I’ve spoken to, always seem to fall victim to giving a lot and I wonder if this trend will continue with Adjei.
I ask Adjei what giving and receiving mean to him and he’s quick to answer: “Love. How do we give love and how do we receive love.
“It’s about love as more than a word or noun, it’s love in action, and what does that look like?”
Adjei reflects on the accessibility of the project and ensuring that he’s provided a safe, comfortable space for people “to have uncomfortable conversations.”
Not everyone will be able to make it on 8 October, so Adjei’s ensuring there will be a condensed online discussion available after the event.
When Adjei talks about receiving love, he’s quick to talk about the ways he gives love to himself, making sure he sleeps well and eats. As much as I’m happy to hear that he’s making room for self-care, I remind Adjei that what he’s telling me doesn’t count as receiving love.
He smiles, and pauses: “I was having an interesting conversation at one of the events with a man who spoke about it being easier to give love than to receive it.”
So, how do you make room to receive love Adjei!? It’s important when you dedicate so much of your energy to other people.
“It’s a real journey that I’ll continue going through, one thing that’s helped in terms of receiving compliments and things like that is, there was a teaching from a particular discipline who said, when he received a compliment he would think about the person who inspired or helped him develop that trait.
“So now when I get compliments, I think about that.”
Adjei’s calm manner, gentle poignant tone, and clear love of love should not be mistaken for poetic whimsy. He’s got a firm, practical eye on the future and Adjei wants to make sure he is not just starting conversations but continuing to develop them, and sharing their findings with the wider community through workshops with young people.
It’s a genuine pleasure chatting to Adjei Sun, and I expect you’d agree if you manage to make it down to Moseley Exchange on 8 October.
Adjei Sun’s Gifted and Black comes to Moseley Exchange on Saturday, 8 October – priced at £10 including complimentary Caribbean food. Click here for online ticket sales.
For more from Adjei Sun check out his Instagram @adjeisun
For more from Moseley Exchange go to: www.moseleyexchange.com