“I’m concerned that artistes, in whatever medium they use, don’t make commentary about the times – what’s around them; not that it’s universally true … what I’m saying is you can be militant and confrontational, and very open about your criticism and your commentary, if that’s your style, or you can be more subtle, whimsical, if that’s what you feel complements your particular talents.”
By Dennis Nichols
Kojo McPherson is a young visionary with a vocation that may be described as a creative arts composite, embracing
writing, photography, radio and stage direction, and film/video production. He appears somewhat introspective when discussing his work, nevertheless he manifests an overall buoyancy of spirit that quickly and positively engages the listener, whether delivering from a podium, or chatting in an informal setting.
Not surprisingly, Kojo’s work, apart from mere expression, aligns itself with social angles and socio-political issues in as far as creative action goes toward kindling awareness and encouraging dialogue. He implies that artists should not shy away from these offerings to their audience.
“I’m concerned that artistes, in whatever medium they use, don’t make commentary about the times – what’s around them; not that it’s universally true … what I’m saying is you can be militant and confrontational, and very open about your criticism and your commentary, if that’s your style, or you can be more subtle, whimsical, if that’s what you feel complements your particular talents,” he opined.
With this inclination toward engagement, Kojo has delved into a number of projects over the years, from his co-founding of the Janus Young Writers Guild (with Ruel Johnson) in 2000, to his most recent venture as sole proprietor of Dred Scotsman, an enterprise that provides creative writing, photography and video production services. In between, he has trod on fertile, occasionally shifting, ground.
Kojo was born to Lorna and Vernon McPherson in 1983, the last of four children, and only son. He revealed that his childhood was fairly uneventful except for the fact that he stammered badly, an impediment he has overcome to some degree. He credits his improvement in this area largely to a Grade Five teacher who coaxed him to read an excerpt from a book as they walked together, after which she congratulated him on doing so without interruption.
EXPERIMENTING WITH POETRY
Kojo attended President’s College from 1995 to 2000, where, in the first form, he started
experimenting with poetry. He completed his secondary education at The Bishops’ High School, where for a short time, he taught Literature and History after graduating in 2001. And it was there that he first clearly visualized the connection between creative expression and real-life learning experience.
While teaching fourth form Literature at Bishops’, he discovered that he was able to easily relate the storyline of an Olive Senior poem ‘Colonial Girls School’ to his students. This, he added, was done in a way that made the poem have the kind of relevance to them which the poet herself bemoaned as lacking in her school days. He added that it was all the more relevant because Bishops’ was itself formerly a colonial girls’ school.
“I don’t think I’ve had a more captive audience, ever, ever, because it came alive for them. I think it’s something that’s missing in the way we teach these subjects to children; it’s this abstract, romantic thing that’s out there … and not relating it to your feelings and experiences,” he argued.
From Bishops’, Kojo moved on to the University of Guyana to study International Relations, placing, as it were, his literary pursuit on the shelf. He observed that it may have been then considered ‘the reasonable thing’ to do in terms of a line of study that could actually get him a job, maybe in the diplomatic service, even though creative writing was his passion. Surprisingly, he recalled,
it was while studying there that one of his lecturers, political activist Aubrey Norton, was able to reawaken him as a student and get him engaged again and hungry for knowledge, which helped him to rethink his career priorities.
Furthermore, things got tough financially, and at the beginning of his third year at UG, he took a leave of absence. This move led indirectly to his participation in a drama workshop in December 2005 following a call from radio broadcaster Margaret Lawrence, who was about to launch the radio serial Merundoi. Another workshop in March of 2006, held for the purpose of selecting writers for the serial drama, saw Kojo selected as one of those writers. In hindsight, he thus reflected, the gamble taken in leaving UG had paid off.
Inspirational author Alan Cohen says, “Every choice before you represents the universe inviting you to remember who you are and what you want.” Kojo paraphrases this quote and inserts some of his own thoughts when he observes that the transition back to creative writing was like ‘the universe pulling you back to your purpose’ in his case, a creative professional.
Kojo started out as a scriptwriter with Merundoi, and spent four and a half years there, during which time he was promoted to the position of Senior Scriptwriter. This position charged him with managing the writing team, that being the first level of quality control for the scripts and managing the storylines for the AIDS-awareness ‘soap opera’ funded by the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). He said his stint with Merundoi was a great jump start to his career as a ‘creative professional’, noting that it was rational justification for pursuing his natural talents seriously
As far as his poetry is concerned, Kojo’s work first gained critical exposure when some of his verses were put on display at the President’s College Open Day exercise in 1998. There he crossed paths with Ruel Johnson, at the time a P.C. sixth former, who was looking for fresh, young literary talent, and was dreaming of a local literary renaissance. And even before Janus was officially launched in 2001, Kojo had gained national recognition when
he won both the Youth and Open Poetry categories in the Guyana Christmas Annual competition of 2000.
He was then also primarily responsible for collecting and cataloguing material submitted by Janus members, as well as other young writers, with the intention of publishing an anthology, but this never materialized.
FROM THE PEN TO THE CAMERA
Following his input into Janus, his successes with lyrical composition, and his stint with Merundoi, Kojo’s next creative-expression venture took him from the pen to the camera. In 2009, while still employed in the drama production, he began moving his interest in hobby photography to another level – that of professionalism, and greater creative license.
As an amateur lensman, his first subjects were Theatre Guild personalities and props, but he soon branched out and added editorial photography to his arts portfolio. This is a form in which pictures basically support the printed word (e.g. in a magazine) accompanied by a credit line. He also tried to snap candid shots or pictures that capture a moment in time, such as something that may never
be repeated in a lifetime because it was totally unplanned.
Like most professional photographers, he is aware of the need to be careful not to intrude into someone’s private grief or trauma, and recalls one such episode when he tried to take pictures of a road accident motorcycle victim. “I jumped out of the vehicle; I was in with my camera and flash ready to go, and – I couldn’t take the picture, (on seeing the man’s terrible condition) I just couldn’t; I would have felt like a vulture. Instead I took a (symbolic) picture of a shoe that had been knocked off his foot.”
Another memorable shot he captured was one which quickly went viral on the internet and generated some controversy. It was during the 2011 election campaign season when, on the East Bank Demerara Road, he snapped a picture of a man begging in the middle of the thoroughfare, after the way he looked and his body language had caught his eye. It was only later, he said, he observed that the man was wearing a PPP shirt.
Although he hadn’t put his name to the picture, some people realized that it had been taken by someone who was on the AFC campaign trail, and, he recalled, it soon became a political talking point. Kojo was accused of exploiting the subject, but maintained that it was nothing of the sort; he was simply capturing an image that he felt was making a social statement.
‘I GOT TO DO THIS’
His next step could be considered a logical one, moving from still photography to moving images. In 2011 he got an opportunity to be part of a film-training workshop, the President’s Film Endowment, run by the University of Guyana in collaboration with the University of Ohio. It was a four-month course aimed initially at having participants produce about five films.
But then it changed into an exercise whereby each aspirant was asked to write a pitch, all of which were placed in a hat. Those drawn would be given the honour of being made into films. Guess whose pitch was among the eight that were picked? “Again, the universe pulling you back to your purpose?” Kojo asks rhetorically.
Reflecting on this question took him back to his childhood when, he remembers, at about age eight, seeing the jazzy Spike Lee movie ‘Mo’ Better Blues’, and the artistry of musicians like Miles Davis and Stevie Wonder. “That’s also how I got introduced to jazz, and I said to myself, ‘I got to do this. (movie-making)’ I didn’t care if it was as an actor of director, or whatever, I got to do movies someday. And I always remember that moment when my pitch got drawn out of a hat from about two dozen others; to me that’s not an accident …”
Arising out of the workshop, Kojo subsequently produced a few short films. One, called ‘Beached’ which looks at a man’s grief over the death of his wife and how it almost destroys him, was shown at The Bahamas Film Festival in 2012. Another, called ‘To the Night’, written by his partner, Mosa Telford, touches on the problems faced by a sex worker who struggles to make a living and incurs the contempt of her daughter before a reconciliation is attempted.
He has since taken the skills acquired over the years, as a creative writer, self-taught photographer and film/video producer, and has set up a one-man entrepreneurship called ‘Dred Scotsman’ a word play on the dreadlocks he once wore, the Scottish origin of his surname, and in deference to the American slave, Dred Scot, who famously, but unsuccessfully, sued for his freedom. As noted earlier, the business offers services in his areas of expertise.
Commenting on this solo venture, Kojo explains, “I have not found anyone than can really utilize my skills, and pay me adequately for those skills, so let me go into business on my own, and I have been doing just that since February 2012.”He admits that there was a level of frustration which led to that decision including his opinion that he wasn’t getting the kind of recognition and encouragement his skills and experience deserved.
He recognizes however that going it alone hasn’t been easy, even as he declares that he possesses the qualifications needed for the venture, for example, doing a production line from concept, to writing it, shooting it, delivering it, and doing so with a creative eye, and with competence. “It’s very, very challenging,” he admits.
While still carving a visionary niche for himself, Kojo says he is now in the process of transitioning away from his one-man aspirations, and entering into a partnership with fellow entrepreneur Brian Backer. They are about to launch ‘KB Productions’ which will focus on new media, film, television and the internet. Their first production is already underway in the form of a music video for Guyanese Reggae artiste ‘Nesta’ which will be launched shortly.
Kojo is currently in a relationship with Mosa Telford, herself a writer, who partners him in his work. They are the parents of two children, Kinaya and Mapenzi. Quite possibly they will grow up in the kind of artistic environment, which their father hopes will benefit from Guyana’s creative industries exploring the potential of local artistes for the general uplift of creative expression.
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