Launched earlier this year, Sunderland Culture’s ‘New Encounters’ bursary scheme looks to help the city’s Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) creatives get their artistic projects off the ground with financial backing. 

The bursaries are the result of more than a year’s research completed by Sunderland Culture and Sunderland Black and Minority Ethnic Network (SBMEN). 

The research found many groups and individuals struggled to realise their creative ambitions due to insufficient resources, funding and support.

One of the first three people to receive the bursary, rapper and composer Stephen Elms has set out to create a musical that highlights the hardships of normal people who have felt excluded and forgotten during COVID-19 lockdowns. 


Real people, real stories…

Stephen Elms is one of the first to receive the "New Encounters" bursary


Stephen found fame after appearing on the X-Factor in 2016 with his wife Sharna as He Knows She Knows and the pair have been touring the UK ever since.

However, with his bursary backed musical Stephen is looking to move the spotlight away from himself and onto the unheard stories of his community. He said:

“Surprisingly, I haven’t included much of my personal situation in the musical. There are many parts of it that I take from my own experience but the aim is to tell our collective story.

“The characters are based on real people and real stories. There’s an excluded couple in the pilot song ‘Nothing’s Gonna Change’ and they’re based on a mix of stories from the 3.8 million excluded people.

“I want people to know what really happened during the pandemic. The facts. I want children in 200 years to be performing this as their school production as I did ‘The Roses Of Eyam’ about the 1665 plague in my school days.

“Due to the ambition of the piece I want it to tell more than just my experience. It must also show the polarising opinions that were highlighted through-out the pandemic; whether it be on the pandemic itself or the differing opinions on things like race, football, conspiracy theories and political choices.”


“New Encounters” Bursary helps BAME creatives realise their dreams…


New Encounters bursary introduced to support BAME creatives in realising their artistic ambitions


Stephen wasn’t expecting to be awarded the bursary. The idea for the musical was one that he believed in but it wasn’t yet fully formed when he applied.

But ever since getting the backing from Sunderland Culture, Stephen has become engrossed with the project and inspired to make his musical an impactful piece that will stand the test of time.

Without the bursary the pilot most likely would never have been created,” Stephen added.

“I pitched the idea on a whim expecting a rejection letter and not 100% sure of the idea – the usual self doubt that us creatives go through.

“It wasn’t so much the money that came with the bursary but the validation and belief Sunderland Culture showed in me and my idea.

“That really spurred me to take it to the next level and with every day I’m becoming a little more obsessed with the musical – I dream about it most nights. It’s really absorbed me as a person.”

Stephen is hoping to take his musical to the theatre and even to the Edinburgh Fringe festival one day if he had the financial backing needed to create a full stage production.

We certainly hope Stephen can get his musical to the stage in the near future so we can experience it in the most authentic way possible!

To find our more about Sunderland Culture’s ‘New Encounters’ bursary visit:

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