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.
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.
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.
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