The background music serenading the bar’s after-work drinking crowd comes to a stop, and the lights dim for the band entering the stage. A beat from the percussionist’s djembe – a west African drum – starts off slow and steady, then picks up its pace. The rhythm is joined by a synth track overhead as the ensemble fades into the beginning of an emotional rap, its lyrics telling the story of hardship and tribulations.
A rapper, singer and songwriter, 20-year-old Frank is one of the youngest in the band.
“It’s weird. Our music is a mixture of African and hip-hop. Some say it’s Afro-fusion,” says Frank. “We just call it Talents Displaced.”
Since its inception in November 2016, Talents Displaced has been playing at bars, music festivals and local community events around Hong Kong. Their monthly number of performances varies, but they’ve consistently booked about one show a month. So far, they’ve played for the H2 Live Music Festival at The Wanch, at university events, and were also featured in the Jockey Club Street Music Series last year.
All the members of the band, including Frank, are refugees or ethnic minorities in Hong Kong.
The group was put together by Chinese University Professor Sealing Cheng, who has been conducting research on asylum seekers in Hong Kong since 2012. Along the way, Cheng realised the many different talents and passions – in particular, a love for music – among the refugees she was working with, and thought it would be meaningful to create a project that would allow the public to see this side of them.
Cheng discussed her idea with some of the refugees, who showed interest and saw potential in it. Two of the refugees came up with the name “Talents Displaced”, conveying what they wanted the band to stand for. After initial meetings and rehearsals, the band debuted to an audience of around 50 to 60 students at Chinese University in early December last year.
“We started Talents Displaced because we want people to know that there are these untapped talents in the refugee community,” the anthropology professor says. “We want everyone to appreciate them as artists, not just as asylum seekers.”
According to a study conducted by the University of Hong Kong Public Opinion Programme last year, only 4.7 per cent of the 1,001 respondents said they viewed asylum seekers and refugees positively. 64.3 per cent had no opinion, while 26.8 per cent held negative views.
Cheng blames the media for encouraging this perspective.
“They’re represented as people who are duping the system, who are trying to benefit from it,” Cheng says. “But actually, they don’t get much at all because they are not allowed to work, study beyond age 18, or volunteer.”
Refugees do not have the right to employment in Hong Kong, a policy that many organisations have been fighting to overturn in recent years. Unable to work, they are forced to subsist on handouts from NGO International Social Service (ISS) Hong Kong. Refugees receive just $1,500 for rent per month and $1,200 and as a food allowance – they are not given the sum directly.
Hong Kong’s is a non-signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, meaning that those applying for protection cannot be resettled here. Applicants whose claims are successful – just 0.6 per cent, according to human rights organisation Justice Centre – are sent to other countries.
Meanwhile, most refugees wait years for an outcome and are not allowed to engage in any form of work during this period of limbo.
Between the discrimination and lack of government support, the members of Talents Displaced credit music for being a source of hope and a reason to persevere.
“Without music, I would’ve killed myself a long time ago,” Frank says.
Frank started playing the keyboard at a music school back in Colombia, where he is from, when he was 13. He then taught himself how to play the guitar and started writing his own songs.
When he was 15, he came to Hong Kong with his parents and younger brother. Through church, he became acquainted with people, also musicians, who taught him more about music, including how to play the bass and the drums.
“The head pastor of the church invited me to a music camp. I said I didn’t have money, and he told me to join anyway,” Frank says. “Since then, I’ve been so grateful.”
His music journey led him to discover just how powerful songwriting was as an outlet for him to express the confusion, disappointment and at times, anger, that came with being forced to start a new life in Hong Kong.
“I put all my experiences and pains into my music,” Frank says.
All the songs he performs with Talents Displaced are originals that are produced and recorded by him, the lyrics a reflection of his circumstances and feelings at the time of writing.
Without the right to a job, Frank spends most of his day working on music, sometimes on his own and other times with Talent Displaced, or with another band he’s part of, 7on7. He shares his tracks regularly on Soundcloud and his Facebook artist page.
“I was in Hong Kong for a year before getting back into music,” Frank says. “I used to just see my mom and dad worry about stuff here, stuff there. I only stayed at home because I had nothing to do.”
“If it weren’t for music, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be Frank. Music took me out of different places and made my life much, much better. Music kind of saved my life.”
While Frank is grateful for the opportunities he’s been presented with and the music community around him, he is, at the end of the day, stateless and living as a refugee in Hong Kong.
“It’s complicated. It’s very hard,” he says. “You want to go out, you want to do things, you want to have fun. But you can’t. There are so many limitations.”
As a band consisting of members who are asylum seekers and therefore, have few rights in the society, Talents Displaced faces challenges that other bands don’t.
“They’re in a very precarious situation,” Lai Wo, a research assistant at Chinese University, says. Wo works with Cheng to help manage the band, handling their social media and liaising with organisers to book performances.
“Sometimes it’s difficult when it comes to the logistics. They’re allowed to receive donations, but not formal compensation because of their status.”
“But that doesn’t deter them from still wanting to perform and engage with the local community,” Wo adds.
While Cheng and Wong conduct the behind-the-scenes work for Talents Displaced, they emphasize that the direction of the band is entirely up to the members. Currently, they are discussing the possibility of recruiting more people to make the band a musical collective where anyone can come and go as they wish, instead of a fixed team.
Cheng also hopes to create a short film about Talents Displaced to inform the public about the city’s refugees and that they have much to offer Hong Kong, if just given the opportunity. Such a message can show that refugees are much more than just their immigration status, and can also help break the notion that they are burdensome and lazy.
“Everybody has certain capacities waiting to be tapped,” Cheng says. “If the system can actually understand that the refugees have talents and abilities, it would make Hong Kong a much more diversified society.”