Drop in the ocean of a global crisis

It is a long way from West Yorkshire, and even further from the Hollywood Hills, to the straw roofs, makeshift shacks and dirt tracks whose proliferation has created the settlement of Bidi Bidi in northern Uganda.

Benson Taylor with South Sudanese refugees at a World Food Programme food distribution site. Picture: Hugh Rutherford

Here, spilling out along 96 square miles on the western bank of the Kochi River, is the world’s largest concentration of refugees. Two years ago, it was a village. Since then, well over a quarter of a million people have fled across the border, driven by civil war from their homes in South Sudan.

Today, World Refugee Day, the eyes of the world will be upon it. But for Benson Taylor, the view afforded by a few minutes on the TV news could not take him close enough.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

With a documentary crew in tow, he has forsaken, temporarily, the music industry lifestyle he enjoys on both sides of the Atlantic, to go to Bidi Bidi and try to focus the attention of world leaders on the sea of humanity it has become.

BIDI BIDI REFUGEE CAMP, UGANDA - 2017/05/28: Refugees seen gathering water from the water tap provided by the UNHCR in the refugee settlement. The number of South Sudanese refugees who crossed its border has reached one million. This host country Uganda is offering refugees of conflicts an ID card and a plot of land of 900m² and the right to trade on its territory. However, with the influx of about 1,000 people per day and the lack of funding, Uganda is no longer able to feed every one. According to UNHCR human being needs at least 2,300 calories a day to survive which is about 12 kg of food per month. NGOs had to divide the rations and now giving only 6 kg of food per person per month. As a result, malnutrition, starvation and thefts are recurring. Tensions and clashes are increasing in the Bidi bidi camp. This camp on the southern Sudanese border contains 252,738 people. (Photo by Gael Cloarec/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

It is the latest stage in a remarkable journey that has taken him, at 34, from an inner-city school in Bradford to the sets of Breaking Bad, Orange Is The New Black and Suits, the TV show that made Meghan Markle a star.

He will attempt tell the camp’s story using the medium he knows best: music. His collaborator will be a young rap artist and resident of Bidi Bidi who calls himself Honey Frank.

“I think that in seeing the refugees in their current situation, we tend not to think about what they left behind,” says Taylor, who is in Uganda as a United Nations goodwill ambassador, part of a “storytellers” project run by the World Food Programme.

“Most of these people gave up jobs and normal lives – similar positions to the ones people hold in the UK – and fleeing all of that and leaving your family because of war is the most terrifying ordeal.”

Honey Frank is one of Bidi Bidi’s silent statistics. Taylor’s aim, he says, is to give him a voice.

“Music is quite a powerful storyteller and there are a lot of musicians in there who can be put into a position where they can tell stories about their communities and explain to the world what it means to live as a refugee,” he says.

“Frank has been identified as an incredible rapper and I’m going to spend a day with him outside the camp, taking him to a recording studio where he can lay something down.”

It should, he says, be a unique experience for both of them. Frank’s music – a cry from the heart, Taylor hopes – will be filmed and screened to an audience of influencers at the United Nations in New York, and Taylor expects the experience to affect his own work in the future.

Uganda, he says, is special. “It’s one of the only places in the world to welcome refugees in this way. It offers them land if they don’t want to stay in the
settlement, so that they can become Ugandan citizens.

“It’s an uplifting place, somewhere for people to harness their ambitions – very different to a refugee camp in Lebanon, say.

“I can’t see how some of that spirit won’t rub off on me.”

Spirit was not a quality he had not lacked while studying at what was then the new Dixons City Technology College near his home in Bradford’s Low Moor District.

Its banks of computers, novel for their day, had lit a spark within him. His future, he realised, lay in harnessing the emerging technology of digital music composition for the film and TV industry.

So when he filled in his government Ucas form for a place at university, he gave the conventional local choices of the time, Leeds Met or Bradford, a wide berth and selected instead the University of California in Los Angeles.

“If you want something badly enough, you’ve just got to and get it,” he says.

“My friends doing design technology at other schools were spending six months making wooden boxes, while we designed things on computers. I could see that in ten years’ time, everyone would be doing that.”

He realised, too, that Los Angeles, not Bradford, was where the best music jobs were to be found.

He was working at Morrisons and playing guitar in a local band called Non Stop, but says: “It wasn’t good enough for me to make a career out of.

“I saw UCLA as a marketing exercise for me because it was where John Williams and all the other great composers had gone.

“That’s how I made the decision. It was as easy as that.”

His course was unlike any in Britain. He studied at home and set foot on the campus in California only twice in three years, to sit his exams.

“It meant I could spend time and with my family and friends whilst getting the opportunity to still pitch for TV jobs,” he says.

But Hollywood, he discovered, was a town controlled by agents, and he worked his way through several before finding one whose mindset matched his own.

His big break came when he was commissioned to write incidental music for the comedy series, The Big Bang Theory. Other shows followed, and then movies.

“Film is an interesting process,” he says. “People spend four years making a movie and then they give you six weeks to write the music because it’s the very last thing that gets done.

“For the music on a big Hollywood flick, you need quite a large team just to get it done, because there tends to be a full orchestra involved. So ironically you end up with more people working on the music than on the film itself.”

His latest project is a record label called A Remarkable Idea – the running of which, while still a prolific artist, puts him in a category with Frank Sinatra and Herb Alpert, who set up Reprise Records and A&M, respectively.

“It hadn’t crossed my mind, but I’ll take the compliment,” he says.

He has also signed up as an ambassador for the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development and for the conservatoire of Leeds College of Music, and accepted an honorary degree from Bradford University.

He formed the record label, he says, to help put other musicians in control of their output – and it was the same stimulus that drew him to Honey Frank.

“His music is very political, as you can imagine. He’s telling own stories and singing about the things that he’s been through – I don’t think anyone from the Western world could possibly understand.”

All he can give in return, he says, is enthusiasm.

“I’m emotionally excited about going into a studio with him and giving him the opportunity to record. I remember my first time in a studio, recording in that kind of environment – it’s a very special experience, and if I can create a similar moment for him, and leave him with that same feeling, I think I’ll have done a good job.”