I ain't got nothing to be scared of

I laugh to myself when I hear Country House by Blur, an anthem that epitomized mid 1990s sheer ridiculousness. It comes first to the mind of a few too many people when you mention a band that produced so many better records. As a kid, I did my bit, buying it on cassette only to come home to find that my mum had bought me Roll With It, by Oasis, neutralizing my petty vote in the one week I which I took any notice of ‘the battle for chart supremacy.’ Even at 12, I had some notion of how silly it had all become. As The Great Escape album on which it lived came to a close along with my childhood, the mood hinted at something a little darker, festering beneath the surface. I found myself skipping the singles that only months earlier I’d played to death, drawn instead to Entertain Me and He Thought Of Cars, without anyone else to talk to about why, or whether this was weird.

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With hindsight, it’s clear that what was so tantalizing to me about Damon Albarn riding a pig or lunging at the Top of the Pops TV cameras, performing Stereotypes would certainly have started to wilt and die, had one more album been cut from the same caricatured cloth. But Blur were not a band ever in danger of repetition, so I stayed there, eager to hear what they might create next. The Great Escape was everything I bought into as the childhood idea of rock ‘n’ roll without the life experience to know that this could all be the result of mild hedonism, media overhype and four people who were possibly, dangerously close to being untethered from what made them want to make music in the first place. Only they could know those collective and individual motivations, but creativity and self-expression surely had to be a big part of those foundations.

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As Blur came out, a departure from Britpop mayhem, my brooding teenage self breathed with relief, or maybe angst as the sound and ideas intrigued and energized me, the step from quirky character observations into distortion and disquiet, something curled tighter, more befitting of a person awaiting a sense of identity. Of course, like most young people, I didn’t consciously understand any of this, just went along with this love of a band and continued to mine what Blur were producing without overthinking it.

It goes on. 13 was another beautiful mutation, synched nicely with my newly discovered raft of teenage romantic issues. Think Tank landed at a time in my life when I had begun to amass enough small clues to think that the creative industry might be the best place to empty my head where they might pay me for what came out if it. The intro line of Ambulance, first track on Think Tank, ‘I ain’t got nothing to be scared of’ was also the opening lyric of the first live Blur gig I made it to and it felt powerfully raw in the primal way live renditions of personal songs tends to. To a passer by, this line was a desktop inspirational quote calendar page waiting to happen, but as a now seasoned junkie of anything that emerged from Damon Albarn’s mind, it felt pure and indicative of a meaningful creative growth spurt for him too.

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For a fan like me, all of Blur’s work stands the test of time, crystalised through my own life experiences, but having seen the evolution of Damon from Britpop poster boy, into a diversely talented and inspiringly ambitious musician, that particular lyric made a deep mark. For anyone trying to light the path ahead with creativity, in a cut-throat commercial world, believing that there really is nothing to be scared of to be true is for the vast majority of the time, getting somewhere close to the realm of science fiction. With a love of a certain craft, a vague idea of where it might fit in the world and an even murkier sense of whether there is a career that could allow this seed to stay alive long enough to flower, the odds are not in your favour. The sooner that truth is accepted then embraced, the easier it gets to work with the unpredictability that defines it. But this has always been the case, in every art form. Illustrator, art director, writer, podcaster, hand lettering specialist, lecturer, workshop leader, overdraft expert, panic technician, the list goes on. Some of these many arbitrary titles are more credible than others. They all in some way help me to make sense of what I’m doing and the reasons why on a weekly basis.

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What I do know is that I have survived a decade in the creative industry and even if a lot of the time there is a lot to be scared of, I keep on the path regardless and every-so-often, something positive and personally fulfilling validates that it is the right one for me. I don’t suppose I’ll ever know where it leads and that is, despite the fear, a good thing. That’s why I chose the lyric when it came time to paint onto Andy Cotterill’s series of Damon Albarn photographs for this Lend Me Your Ear collaboration. The quiet moment on Kathy Burke’s sofa lent itself to the sentiment.

He continues to produce work that is always relevant, often ahead of its time and it’s become so routine for him to do so, that most people just nod and consider it what he does. If I know anything of the strange, curious minds that are unable to accept any kind of status quo, to even stop and be truly happy with anything they’ve done, then my guess is that Albarn himself is probably as scared as the rest of us in some deep rooted way and the reaffirmation of that lyric is just as necessary for him as the rest of us who try to stay true to what we are. These days, what is apparent is that my fascination was always bigger than Damon or Blur. As I get into the latter half of my thirties, it seems crystal clear that what drew me towards this bloke from Colchester was the subconscious recognition and inevitable addiction to the ever-changing nature of creativity and the need to become master of the fear to work with it.

The London launch exhibition of ‘Lend Me Your Ear’ runs until 6/6/19 at Stance, 3 Neal Street, Covent Garden and is free to see.

Bikestormz light up the show

The first hour of Saturday goes by and nobody comes down to see the exhibition. That’s fine. I tell myself people will start to drip feed in from the street. The high of Thursday’s packed private view is still lingering, so I wander around the show, now eerily quiet, refusing to sit down and accept that normality has resumed. Then I remember a few bits I can be on with. As I reach into my backpack, footsteps lightly descend from Stance, the sock shop above a brand that has given Andy Cotterill and I the space to put on this personal labour of love, Lend Me Your Ear. It’s Mac Ferrari, co-founder of the Bikestormz community.

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I talked to Mac at the private view as he passionately explained that the bike was the glue between people who may otherwise struggle to see past perceived differences. He passionately explained that when young people are left with time on their hands and not a lot to do with it, a number of bad things are likelier to happen. To me this is not news, but seemingly, to those who make the cuts to youth services, it is either that, or worse, known and consciously ignored.

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Let’s say there’s a kid wearing a different hairstyle or item of clothing, he tells me. Maybe one of the others will highlight this and take the piss. You get the idea. Devils, idle hands and all that. But when that kid gets on the bike and performs a wheelie, or just rides, they are equal, engaged or perhaps just distracted from a reality that does not bring them happiness. His arms are moving with purpose now, eyes seeing far beyond this room, his mind in the world he is trying to build from the ground up. The bike is a conduit of sorts. Mac explains that there are over 4,000 people in the Bikestormz community. Many of them are stars within it, far beyond it. He has a quiet manner about him, but the steel in his voice as he talks is invigorating and I want to work with him. Just like that, massive new scope for this collaboration of music photography and illustration to expand. I hold off blurting out suggestions for now, swap contacts and stifle my growing excitement.

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 In one room we have Mac, Young Urban Arts Foundation’s founder Kerry O’Brien who leaves much of the 130+ people in a state of shock as she reframes the way many of them will perceive gang culture, making it very easy to understand how vulnerable kids are preyed upon and trapped.  There’s also Charlie Dark, who introduced Andy and I to Stance. Charlie is the founder of Run Dem Crew, an urban running club comprised of creative heads. They provide their own form of mentoring for young people. That our work and the support of Stance can bring people like this together is a beautiful thing.

Now meeting again on this slow starting Saturday, Mac asks me how much room I have down here and I look around, shrug my shoulders and say, ‘Quite a bit, why?’ Then he says what I hoped he’d say. Seconds later, 20 young people with bikes pour into the exhibition, nodding, shaking my hand, parking-up around the space, under the artwork on the walls. All the while I hold my phone, taking pictures, mouth open, shell-shocked. Mac asks me to give an impromptu short talk about my story and what’s happening here in this room. I tell them that the music of Damon Albarn, Gallagher brothers and Jarvis, all in this show, made me want to find my own voice in my own way.

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Bikestormz are now Stance ambassadors along with Charlie Dark. They take in the show, ask questions, tell me which bits resonates with them and head upstairs to choose socks given to them by Stance.

 Whilst they’re upstairs, I take photographs through bike wheels, pedals, over handlebars and have to talk myself down from having a go, knowing only too well I’d fall off and dislocate something. Instead I sit and sketch the bikes on the back of the ink painted original lyric for the Damon Albarn image in the show. It reads I AIN’T GOT NOTHING TO BE SCARED OF. Around it I write a message to Bikestormz as a thank you for this moment, which says they should never underestimate how much their energy lights people up and give it to Mac before they leave.

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Bikestormz now have the backing of the Mayor of London and the Metropolitan police. My brain ticks and the cogs turn, thinking of ways I can be a part of this crucial work beyond the partnership with YUAF for this exhibition, how we can ensure this impressive framework is embedded into our society before too many young people are lost. Whilst my own passion for this cause stems from the happiness and belonging my creativity gives me, the desire to see it shared around, such roots often sprout from desperation and various extremes of personal adversity. Kerry’s own brush with gangs in her youth and subsequent escape into music is the foundation for YUAF. Charlie Dark cites disillusionment with his own music-making career as a DJ, a personal quest for fitness and a way to deal with his own mental health issue among others as catalysts for Run Dem Crew. As for Mac, #BikesUpKnivesDown says everything about the motivations of a man who has lost many people he grew up with to murder or prison.

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I spend the rest of the day gloating to friends who come by about how I got my own personal wheelie from Kizzy, one of the Bikestormz riders, in the gallery space no less. Then it occurs to me that if my own experiences as a teenager were any kind of indicator, maybe they are not yet ready to appreciate just how much I mean what I wrote. But Mac knows. Kerry O’Brien and Charlie Dark know. The benefactors of their sweat and tears know. Many of the most effective creative solutions are inspired by personal challenges and adversity, showcased beautifully across these three communities and more people should be thanking them. But there is much to be done. To change cultural thinking, from the person in the office above who files a complaint because the noise of wheels on concrete below mildly irritates them, right through to those in power failing the most vulnerable young people with short term thinking, those of us who know must come together and find strength in unity. After this week’s encounters, count me in.

For more on Bikestormz: http://www.bikelife.tv/tag/bikestormz/

http://instagram.com/mac_for_them

http://instagram.com/bikestormz_

For Young Urban Arts head to http://yuaf.org.uk

For Run Dem Crew head to: https://www.rundemcrew.com/

To hear Kerry O’Brien’s empowering story about young people and creativity: http://soundcloud.com/arrestallmimics/ep138

Vossi Bop

On my Saturday shift at Blockbuster Video in 2001, I showed up with a six-inch blade and casually dropped it on the staff room table along with a wallet, bunch of house keys and a mobile phone. Thought nothing of it. My manager called me out as I started plucking up VHS returns, smiling, her eyes bulging, disbelieving. “It’s for skinning bark!” I pleaded and she said that it should never be seen in this store again.

I was telling the truth, shocked by her reaction, still an 18-year old child who outside of college hours, spent more time on the recently abandoned mill yard and gardens near my house with friends than I did in the town centre, playing until 13, hanging out after that; same thing. If I was not in either of those places, it was a chilly community hall, struggling to get my leg high enough to do karate, or my bedroom, drawing and playing video games, listening to Blur tapes. There was no conscious reason for doing these things. I just needed to fill the hours with something I didn’t hate, sometimes loved. They were merely tools of exploration for a young person trying to make sense of his place in the world and aside from being caught shoplifting and the odd burst of mischief, they were enough to provide a clue about what I enjoyed doing, where my character might activate, or even hit upon something I was good at.

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I’ve doubled my years at the time of writing, a professional illustrator and not all that much has changed when it comes to young people. They still need space to let off steam, someone to speak to, a little love, a place to spend time that doesn’t cost money to enter and the freedom to make silly mistakes like my naivety when carrying what I would never have considered a weapon. Sadly, what those in need actually get is altogether different and mistakes in 2019 tend to be heavier, fuel for dramatic, short sighted media splashes, bringing premature ends to lives and development of what might otherwise be, with a little more care and attention, happy, talented, interesting adults.

I write this piece from a rented two-bed house in a suburb of Manchester, so I’m not about to tell you anything about the struggles of young people on London council estates, but what I do say with conviction is that without a voice, they don’t know how to tell anyone either and that’s when naivety starts to snarl and mutate into more dangerous things. That’s a major reason why photographer Andrew Cotterill and I felt the need to shout about Young Urban Arts Foundation through ‘Lend Me Your Ear,’ our music photography and illustration collaborative project, a showcase of characters who are celebrated, who inspire because they have forged a path on their own terms, as only themselves, succeeding thanks to that identity, not in spite of it.

Andy is the father of two sons in East London. We’re discussing the project themes and he jabs the kitchen air with his forefinger, worried, telling me ‘If you’re a young boy around some of these local estates, you’re affected, directly or indirectly, by gang culture. They prey on vulnerable young people who are seeking belonging, purpose!’ As we discuss why it is important we do not get the fear and remove J-Hus, a grime artist only just freed from prison for possession of a knife, from our project.

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I approached Andy, a talented music photographer, five years ago when I moved to London after building my illustration career in Manchester because I loved the honesty of his style and asked if I might experiment with a few of his images. Photographers can be purists, baring teeth at the idea of any tampering, but Andy fancied the idea of a new life for his work. As things got going, it became deeper than an art project, about strong identity in its many guises, about passion and being different, staying true to the way you feel.  A shared love of the sharp end of humanity, admissions of our own personal trials and the magical things these themes do to help us overcome them. We shared a belief that identity, self-expression and creativity, three essential learned tools of happiness had kept us away from the edge when others in our lives with similar levels of excess energy had gone astray without these compasses.

Today, we hurt because the cutthroat nature of a capitalist society leaves many young people less fortunate than us, with little guidance, less money and troubled minds at severe risk of falling through the cracks before any mentor or outlet is discovered. If you don’t know how you feel, have no way of managing that, nobody at home to help, it’s confusing growing up. The work of Young Urban Arts addresses this in brilliant fashion, but they, like any others are very restricted by cuts and stupidity.

We get our act together, offered a central London exhibition space at Stance; a sock brand doing incredible work across arts, sports, community projects and more. As we’re gearing up, preparing the show, I hear about another stabbing on the news and it breaks my heart. It does not surprise me. The damning, shameful statistics about youth centre closures are easy to find. Under a government who see these places not as the urban temples they should be, where city kids, especially those with a tough start to life can matter, discover a personal voice or meet a friend, but as arbitrary spreadsheet figures to trim, communities are chewed up and swallowed into thick, dark shadows that make those looking in on their world through TV screens jump at their own.


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We like grime. The scene carries a punk restlessness. In his new UK number one single, Vossi Bop, Stormzy says ‘F**k the government and f**k Boris’ and he is far from alone in his sentiment. The UK is agitated, panting and chasing its tail in an embarrassingly inept political state of affairs. As I sit and watch the music video, I feel good about seeing some kickback, painfully aware I am the middle class white man cliché, but I feel good, encouraged by people using music to return fire at those who shout over the top of each other in the house of commons whilst more lives are tragically lost at ground level. Then there’s drill music; angrier, more aggressive, idiotically smeared and saddled with blame for the rise in knife crime. Violence in video games all over again.

To the kids growing up with grime, I hope that Stormzy might be to someone what Damon Albarn was to me back in 1994 and someone else’s Grace Jones in the 1980s; inspiring artists adopted as sages who lead from the front, who show us glimpses of ways we can start to interpret our worlds and express the conclusions in an empowering way. My fires are stoked by something more timeless than the track itself; the passion and dissent that Stormzy oozes unites all the people we have paid homage to in Lend Me Your Ear. Genre and era is largely irrelevant, as is the nature of each individual or bands nature. These larger than life characters showcase through music scintillating examples of what is possible when people lead from the heart and do things with purity, defiance and individual flair, what creativity can do for the soul in ways both tiny and life changing.

Lend Me Your Ear exhibition is open 10-7 Mon-Sat, 12-6 Sundays until 6th June 2019 at Stance, 3 Neal Street, Covent Garden, WC2H 9PU.

Listen to Episode 138 of The Creative Innovation Podcast with Young Urban Arts Foundation founder Kerry O’Brien at http://soundcloud.com/arrestallmimics/yuaf