Corinne Bailey-Rae, Simon Armitage, Jamie Jones-Buchanan and Gabby Logan line up for The Awakening at Leeds 2023

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Leeds 2023, the city’s year of cultural celebrations, starts with a bang tomorrow with The Awakening, a live show before 10,000 people at Headingley Stadium, featuring music, dance, poetry, comedy and much more.

Those taking part include singer-songwriter Corinne Bailey Rae, Poet Laureate Simon Armitage and his band LYR, Testament, Leeds Rhinos legend Jamie Jones-Buchanan and CBeebies presenter George Webster. The event is hosted by broadcasters Gabby Logan and Sanchez Payne.

For Bailey Rae, Leeds 2023 offers a chance to shout about her home city to the wider world. “I’d really like the city to feel it can stand up and be counted among some of the great creative cities in the UK,” she says. “I’m always having to defend Leeds and defend my reasons for living here to many different journalists all over the world, but especially people in London. There just isn’t an understanding of what the city has, especially in terms of its different immigrant communities and how those communities work together and have gelled together. There’s not that same separation as there is in a lot of other major cities just because of the way housing works. I really think that’s important thing of Leeds and that needs to be shouted about from the rooftops.”

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During the build-up to this year, the multi-million-selling singer has found a kindred spirit with Sharon Watson, former artistic director of Phoenix Dance Theatre who is now principal of the Northern School of Contemporary Dance. “It was really great for me to get to know Sharon and feel like I had a mentor in the city,” she says. “For years I guess I’ve looked for a kind of music mentor who’s doing what I’m doing but quite a few years down the line, and of course there isn’t anyone in the whole city.

Corinne Bailey RaeCorinne Bailey Rae
Corinne Bailey Rae

“But Sharon is someone who I can relate to – she’s finding funding for things, she’s dreaming up ballets and then she’s getting all these people to do it, and she’s getting costumes and lighting and personnel and she’s running things and then she’s touring it all over the world and I suddenly thought there’s a person who I’ve a lot to learn from and she’s right on my doorstep.

“She’s not in music, of course she’s in dance, but there’s just too much of an overlap to ignore, so that was really valuable in meeting her and we’re going to be doing some work together later on in the year.”

She hints at a “big piece” to come in the summer.

Rap and R&B artist Ntantu is looking forward to opening the event with his song Tomorrow, which has been adopted as the “unofficial theme tune” for The Awakening’s launch. As one of the artists involved when Leeds’s bid to become European City of Culture was knocked back by the EU in 2017, he has taken a keen interest in Leeds Culture Trust’s plans ever since.

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Ntantu will be opening The Awakening at Headingley Stadium. Picture: Tony JohnsonNtantu will be opening The Awakening at Headingley Stadium. Picture: Tony Johnson
Ntantu will be opening The Awakening at Headingley Stadium. Picture: Tony Johnson

He describes Tomorrow as “a very uplifting, almost spiritual song”, adding: “We feel, and they feel, it encapsulates the whole message and vibe and spirit of what Leeds 2023 is trying to achieve, and the legacy they’re trying to leave. I was very honoured to be asked to be part of the show, number one, and for them to use a piece of music that I’d written and produced and has turned into this thing that is being appreciated by the masses, I’m even more honoured.”

Like Bailey Rae, Ntantu is working on a “few projects” with Leeds 2023. “One of the projects is that I’m working with a Nigerian artist and the idea of the project is to connect Leeds, our city, with the world, and explore what makes us in terms of the culture here and the people here, and how that compares and what the similarities are with other places around the world, especially with those that are connected with our culture,” he says. “A lot of Nigerian and Igbo and Yoruba culture has influenced the music culture in the UK in the last five or six years. I feel that was something really interesting to explore. It’s probably going to be a summer release.”

Rapper Graft, once an academy player at Leeds United and now one of the flag bearers for the city’s hip-hop scene after winning the BBC Three series The Rap Game, says it feels “only right” for him to be sharing a stage with other artists he had grown up with in “such a monumental stadium” as Headingley “for everything I’m from and how much I love Leeds and the music scene here”.

As the first event he’s known in Leeds where “different people from different backgrounds can all come together and showcase their skills”, he’s optimistic that it could bring “more togetherness and bring more awareness of different creatives within the city and different cultures within the city” that could lead to long-term benefits.

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Leeds-born rapper Graft will be performing at The Awakening. Picture: @camera.papiLeeds-born rapper Graft will be performing at The Awakening. Picture: @camera.papi
Leeds-born rapper Graft will be performing at The Awakening. Picture: @camera.papi

In particular, the 23-year-old is looking forward to the networking opportunities offered from events such as The Awakening. “Any opportunity that I’m involved in, I love to network because I’ve seen how far it’s got me today,” he says. “So I’m always ready for the opportunity to meet new people, build new connections and just keep levelling up within myself but also within my career. At the event I really want to be able to speak to more of the artists, more of the people there, and hopefully things can come from that in the near future.

“Just for the younger artists, I’ve really seen how networking has played a major role in where I am right now and where I’m heading I know that networking is going to continue to take me to that next level in my career and in my life. For young artists and just for people generally, network and speak to different sorts of people from different backgrounds. You never know where that can take you.”

Andy Macauley, who is music and commercial events producer for Leeds 2023, describes The Awakening as “a mixtape of Leeds” and says: “One of the things we’ve worked on is that Leeds has incredible performers and culture already. We don’t need to do anything extravagant, really, because everything we need to show is already there, so it’s just been about bringing people together and finding collaborations that work and putting things into a coherent show to make something incredible. People can expect an exciting, family-friendly event that’s lots of fun, with a couple of wow moments as well.

“That’s huge hyperbole,” he adds, “but I do believe this will be the first show of its kind in Leeds. This will be comparable to an opening ceremony to an Olympics, for example. Now, it’s in Leeds and the world isn’t watching, but hopefully the country will sit up and take note. We’re aiming that as many people as possible will hear about the great things that are happening in Leeds and I believe passionately that’s what Kully (Thiarai, Leeds 2023’s creative director and CEO) and Alan (Lane, director of Slung Low theatre company), the artistic directors, have achieved.”

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Having previously worked in Manchester, Macauley has seen the potential for culture to transform a city. “When I came to Manchester, it wasn’t what it is now,” he says. “Manchester International Festival, which is about to become Factory International, wasn’t a thing, and whilst Manchester was known for culture, it wasn’t known as the forward-thinking cultural city that it is now – and that’s only taken 15 years.

“If Leeds 2023 can be part of a journey similar to that one, that’s something I think is completely possible because the appetite is there, the cultural heritage is already there, I would suggest it just needs a light to be shone upon it a little bit more. There’s no real difference, in my opinion, between Leeds and Manchester aside from very nuanced things. The creativity, the people, I would say they’re quite similar. They’re salt-of-the-earth type people involved in both of those cities and I would say that Leeds just hasn’t had the support or the light or the funding that Manchester has had.”

The Awakening takes place at Headingley Stadium from 5pm on Saturday January 7.