THE headline ‘Belfast is the race hate capital of Europe’ prompted Darren Ferguson to change xenophobic attitudes in his hometown.

A musician armed with a volunteering background in community aid & development experience, and working for Concern Worldwide, Ferguson was no stranger to taking the bull by the horns.

It was the combination of negative & positive social and artistic elements that led to the formation of Beyond Skin. In addition to the consistent negative stereotype of Northern Ireland regarding the sectarian conflict, in 2004 Belfast hit the international headlines as Race Hate Capital of Europe

At the time Darren was working for Concern Worldwide and along with friends that shared an interest in music and development education, recognised that the arts combined with a DE philosophy could assist greatly in addressing local issues of sectarianism and racism. But a magic ingredient was needed that would define the vision and ethos of a new organisation.

It was down to fate that this ingredient entered Darren’s life or rather his stereo through three artistic world conscience sources.

nitin sawhney

In 2004 Nitin’s 6th album ‘Human’ had just been released but it was the influence and message of his 4th album ‘Beyond Skin’ that made a massive impact in Darren’s life. The album contained the quote from Nitin “My identity and my history are defined only by myself – Beyond politics, beyond nationality, beyond religion & beyond skin.

Endorsed by a few close friends, Darren adopted the name for the new organisation. Darren was also drawn towards Nitin’s passion in promoting human rights and equality achieving the Commission for Racial Equality Award in 2003.

giant leap

Meanwhile in at the same time Darren had come across an audio/visual project produced by English artists Jamie Catto & Duncan Bridgeman that aimed to find the unity in the diversity through a narrative of music & spoken word.

The DVD had an impact so much on Darren’s life it became the first Beyond Skin project with a two week Belfast programme of 1 Giant Leap cinema screenings, discussions, special guest events and a concert with Jamie, Duncan and the 1 Giant Leap band. The project was a great success. The way in which 1 Giant Leap was produced capturing the moment of inspiration and recognising also how amazing people are who aren’t famous sharpened further the ethos and character of Beyond Skin.

peter gabriel

Darren was also a big fan of Peter Gabriel an English singer-songwriter, musician and humanitarian activist who rose to fame as the lead vocalist of the progressive rock band Genesis. Peter Gabriel has been a champion of world music for much of his career.

He co-founded the WOMAD festival in 1982 whilst also focusing on producing and promoting world music through his Real World Records label. Peter has been involved in numerous humanitarian efforts. In 1980, he released the anti-apartheid single ‘Biko’. He has participated in several human rights benefit concerts, including Amnesty International’s Human Rights Now! tour in 1988, and co-founded the WITNESS human rights organisation in 1992.

About his project, Ferguson said: “The influence of the world conscious artistic visionaries and innovators (Sawhney, Gabriel, Catto & Bridgeman) combined with a passion to create change in Northern Ireland through a very different community relations model defined the roots, ethos, vision and drive of Beyond Skin that still remains strong with the organisation today.

“It has been an amazing journey and just like the organic production and process of the 1 Giant Leap project – it has been the people we have met incidentally along the way that has made it possible to deliver the Beyond Skin vision” he added.

 Locally, Beyond Skin’s first project received funding from Belfast City Council and the Community Relations Council – a fortnight of workshops, discussions and a concert circulating around the film 1 Giant Leap.  A concept established by Jamie Catto, the guy from Faithless.  Catto was the first of many big names to become involved in Ferguson’s projects.
 But one project showcasing the unity in the diversity  wasnt enough for Darren.  Inspired by music and human rights actions of Peter Gabriel & Nitin Sawney, he wanted to challenge what was happening in Northern Ireland at the time.
 He combined his hobbies with educating the young and old on the various cultures living here.  The project grew arms and legs, with more and more interested people coming on board and Beyond Skin found its place and vision in the world.
 Beyond Skin now been operating for 11 years and has developed and delivered over 2,000 workshops becoming also one of the biggest employers of artists (local and international) on the Isle.
 When asked if the dreaded cuts have impacted them, Beyond Skin didn’t have funding for the first seven years so didn’t rely on it. The Arts Council came onboard three years ago investing project funding into the organisation.  Darren says “we have always been self-sufficient and never relied on a big cheque to cover wages at the end of the month. So we are probably more equipped than others to weather the storm.”
Their promotional video shows the type of outreach work they do in schools and community groups.  What’s clear about it, is all the participants are happy and smiling, singing songs and dancing to unfamiliar beats.  Beyond Skin is effective in breaking down sectarian barriers through the arts.

The work has taken place across N. Ireland and Sri lanka no less with large programmes in Ardoyne, East Belfast and North Coast.

Beyond Skin has taken children from Ardoyne to meet children in Bushmills with some British soldiers returning to Ardoyne healing some memories.  This and other vital peace making projects are sometimes kept quiet for the obvious reasons.  In its entire length of service, the group hasn’t had many approaches from organisations on the Falls Road end and would welcome partnerships in the area.
Although our peace process is still in its infancy.  Beyond Skin acknowledges this and has linked in with a community group from Sri Lanka to produce a music video.
Sri Lanka has a similar history to ours and the Israeli and Palestinian conflicts.  Sri Lanka in some respects has achieved more ground and in other ways we have and that is what the shared learning is about.  It has even has a shared flag representing two divided communities and four main religions.  Ironically it’s green and orange.
The CEO of the Sri Lankan charity was in Belfast recently to talk about the music project and how we can learn from the Sri Lankan model of reconciliation.
Through the medium of song and dance, Beyond Skin has successfully seeped beneath the scars of global conflict to show its participants that we all bleed the same blood.