Friday, 14 November 2008

Grime & Punishment:How the authorities criminalise youth culture

This is a response to an article in the register : Full article here :

Police vet live music, DJs for 'terror risk'

Locking down garage...and RnB, basement
Andrew Orlowski
A dozen London boroughs have implemented a "risk assessment" policy for live music that permits the police to ban any live music if they fail to receive personal details from the performers 14 days in advance. The demand explicitly singles out performances and musical styles favoured by the black community: garage and R&B, and MCs and DJs.
However all musical performances - from one man playing a guitar on up - are subject to the demands once implemented by the council. And the threat is serious: failure to comply "may jeopardise future events by the promoter or the venue". (End of extract)

As an organisation that works with black and ethnic minority youth, who make 'grime' music and are linked to so called gangs, we have found the young people we work with are increasingly recent converts or sympathetic to Islam, a religion at odds with criminal behaviour or anything normally associated with 'gangs'. There is undoubtedly a degree of militancy in their conversion or sympathy with Islam, and we are aware of some who term themselves 'Taliban' and are openly hostile to the police and authority. Perhaps this would convince many that these measures are appropriate. The truth however is that these same young people are often searching for a discipline and structure to their lives that Islam answers and which their own communities have failed too deliver. They also have an identity as 'Black British'. This identity allows them to feel pride in their community, nation and heritage, that is different but not necessarily in conflict with mainstream British Identity. This does not mean they are terrorists or sympathetic to terrorism. Like us they were horrified by the events of the 7th of July when the Tube Network was attacked, but remain highly suspicious of the blame placed on Islam or 'Islamic Terrorists' and place much significance on the shooting of innocent Brazilian Electritian, Jean Charles DeMendez, at Stockwell Tube Station a week later.

If these young people pose a threat or risk of harm to anyone, it is sadly most often their own peer group or just themselves. Although we understand and seek to reduce this harm through education, discussion, and advocacy; the 'persecution' or 'targeting' of their music or events seems ridiculous and counter productive.

Their music is a reflection of the brutal realities of their day to day lives (getting stop and searched by the police, being excluded from education & training and a constant fear of harm from street rivals) Most have spent time in the secure estate (Feltham Young Offenders Institution has been identified by informed observers as a principle recruiting ground for 'street gangs', and a steady stream of alienated, disaffected young people are constantly being referred too them by our criminal justice system) It is perhaps no surprise that some have formed an identification with the people of Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine. Most of our young people refer to their community (Peckham) as 'Peck-Narm' in reference to the conflict in Vietnam, which US soldiers referred to as 'Narm'. This is confirmation, along with the dark humour of the use of terms such as 'Taliban', of their outsider status and alienation from mainstream society.

Measures like those mentioned in the original article serve to remind black youth, and those that work with them, that they are always under suspicion, and if they insist on getting together into groups and express their anger (or anything else) they can be branded 'terrorists'.

We feel this was recently highlighted by Newsagent's Jeremy Paxman asking Dizzie Rascal 'do you consider yourself to be British?' over a debate about Barack Obama.(5 minutes into the interview pasted below)

Dizzie Rascal on BBC 'Newsnight'

The assumption being if you are a young black and ethnic minority person in the UK and speak non standard English you are somehow open to having your national identity questioned.

We know young people are very sensitive to 'projections' from those around them, and if society in general label them terrorists, criminals or just thugs...that's is inevitably what they will be. Each generation seems to forget that from Teddy Boys to Punks, young people have attempted to 'shock' and unsettle the status quo. Long may this continue. The alignment of youth culture with something as repellent and horrific as terrorism is taking this nations tradition of demon-izing youth to whole new levels of scare mongering and smearing.

Listen to the tracks 'Positive' and 'Reality' on our ReverbNation player (on the right of this blog) for an insight into the thoughts of our youth.

"They say I'm a criminal,
But the government are thieves.
Ive been hit too many times
To turn the other cheek (crooks!)
They took the bible, re-wrote the psalms,
Took coke from Columbia and oil from Afghanistan.
Wars in Iran, they celebrate when they hung Saddam
Malcom X is gone, he told the black man too stand up strong.
Wars carry on between the good and the Babylon,
Never saw the footprints, the Lord had me in his arms.
Why do the media think all Muslims carry bombs?
And anyone dressed in a hoodie has a fire arm!
Don't get it twisted man."

Jahmai : Reality

Blessed Love : One way to work with gangs

We have been operating a Youth Record Label and studio for the last 8 years.
The last four years have seen us make a considerable investment in our youth recording studios 'Blessed Love ' based in Camberwell. The location is important, being based in Camberwell young people can get to us from either Brixton, Peckham or Croydon without crossing rivals boundaries. Our clients/customers are exclusively young people with an interest in producing their own media/music. Due to thier situation and identity they could also be pigeon holed as being associated with so called ‘gang culture’; this means they are mostly black, male, out of education, employment and known to the criminal justice system. They are also extremely talented, creative, and incredibly loyal and protective to each other and those they care about.
We are totally self funded and receive no support from central or local government. All our revenue is from our principle 'customers' who refer young people to us such as Kids Company and a small band of other youth services who book our services. We work the studio in our spare time outside of our roles as Youth Worker, Music & Technology Tutor and Foster Carer. We are not ‘Saints’,'do-gooders' or anything else like that; we just love our work and are totally committed to supporting young artists who we feel are often marginalised by mainstream culture ('hoodies', 'gang members', 'ghetto', 'thugged out', 'urban' etc) We also felt that our artists needed sensitive non exploitative management.

The offensively named UK 'urban' music scene is undoubtedly manipulative and disrespectful to black musical talent. They are routinely dumped by their labels for white artists, who are often very talented and deserving of success, but ultimately are felt by record companies as more 'marketable' and receive the lion’s share of investment. Recently we have seen a host of talented black UK artists being 'dropped' by record labels in this manner. UK black music artists only ever get one chance at success. Just look at Estelle who had to go to the States to re-launch her career after being dropped by her UK label. There are many more examples of this frustrating and disappointing tendency on behalf of the UK Recording Industry and this will be the subject of future posts.

Slam Poet, Talaam Acey on Hip Hop Culture and exploitation in the United States

Our company was set up because of the huge demand for our unique service that started off in Culture's front room studio. Ten, or even twenty, young people would cram into Culture’s small flat to record and write music on weekends. Many of them had never had the experience of being invited into a functional, loving home in this manner. Wonderful as this was, it could not continue like this. This is what inspired our desire to build a dedicated studio and put in effect our business plan. This resulted in a successful business start up loan from GLE One London. We believed, and still believe, we could build a healthy and socially responsible business that we can pass on to our own children and the young people who helped us mix cement and plaster the studio over one summer in 2004.

The 'Beat Bunker' during and after construction

Recently our service has expanded and now works with young people in Ipswich, Suffolk. This has been a fantastic new development and we are now regularly mixing young people from Ipswich and South London on joint projects and collaboration, dispelling myths about how ‘dangerous’ young people are in London and that any young people outside of the M25 are ‘carrot crunchers’ and ‘farmers’. Our young people tell us there is no other service like ours and we have never had a single incident of breakage, violence or abuse in all the time the studio has been running. Our secret? It is all about ownership and trust, simple as that.

Ipswich artists, Lion I, Rudey Beat Box and Sketch visit the studio

We instinctively distrust the media obsession with gang violence and moral panic over youth crime and especially ‘black on black’ crime. We refuse to capitalise on the Media’s obsession with the subject and its associated moral panic as we feel it only serves to pathologise/criminalise young people and their culture more than it already is. We know the reality of gang culture and know the solution is not solely through policing or legislation. It is also damaging and unfair to accuse the vibrant and creative culture around hip hop/grime music for the recent spates of deaths. It is ludicrous to accuse artists of perpetuating gang violence when they are merely expressing a daily reality. We don’t censor our young people’s music, but encourage them to write 'positive bars' (lyrics) for their songs. We understand its not the youth culture that’s killing black youths but an institutionally racist and oppressive system that excludes them from schools and services and then dumps them in the ‘secure estate’ (prison) that has brutalized many of them or left them with often 'unspecified' personality disorders akin to Post Truamatic Stress Disorder. We are not questioning the need to protect communities from harm from these young people or the need for Justice; it is just that the gross over representation in the statistics of young black males in just about every category of concern (mental health, educational failiure, life expectancy...the list goes on) highlights the damaging and counterproductive nature of current social policy and law.

"Black people of all ages are three times more likely to be arrested than white people. Black people constitute 2.7% of the population aged 10-17, but represent 8.5% of all those arrested in England and Wales. Black people are just over six times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than white people.
Once they have been charged with an offence, black young offenders are significantly less likely to be given unconditional bail compared to white young offenders and black young offenders are more likely to be remanded in custody compared to white re-offenders.In 2004/05, 8.1% of black people under 18 were remanded in custody, compared to 5.1% for Asian and 4.4% for white people of the same age-group."

Select Committee on Home Affairs second report 15 June 2007

It is also about the pointless and enormously destructive 'war on drugs', that like the 'war on terror' only piles on more misery on the victims of poverty, exclusion and exploitation. That’s why our music sounds so offensive and upsetting to some sensitive ears; it’s a reflection of a highly offensive situation that is being 'spat' back into the faces of a deeply uncaring society.

From left : Sipo, Big Show

From left : Boogie, Younger Base

Rest In Peace, Andre Drummond(Sparrow), Sipo Dube, Jamal Newton (Big Show) Ezekiel Adeboyego Ojo (Boogie) Nathan Douglas (Younger Base) those we have known and loved.

We have been to too many funerals of young people who have died as a result of this 'warfare'. We believe we are at the ‘front line’ of an ugly civil conflict that is killing our kids and destroying communities. We work with rival gangs from different postcodes and believe make a modest but vital contribution to the situation that could be replicated. Time and again we have resolved conflicts and kept young people safe from violence and abuse. We are not jumping in front of gun shots or seizing knives; we simply put a bit of love, understanding and respect into the situation. Crucially we are not scared of children/young people. That sounds ridiculous, but probably rings true to a lot of young people who feel no one in authority actually cares about them enough to say "Stop! Lets do something positive and constructive!"

People often ask us why we are not a charity or why we don’t go for funding from local authorities or central government. We reply that many young people sadly distrust organisations with a brief to educate, protect or train. That does not mean we do not believe in education/training or community safety and child protection. We believe we do all of these 'protective' factors successfully without our service users even being aware of them. We have rules and policies and sanctions in place that we enforce, but they are in addition to our non exclusion policy and wish to create a service that’s foremost a fun and exciting environment that feels like a business that values their talent and creativity rather than a service that is trying to reform, change or rehabilitate. We do not feel this does exclude us from funding streams, but we have found it a challenge to remain true to these values and also sucseed in getting funding.

We have always understood that it is dangerous and immensely difficult for our young people to be turned away from gangs into the fabled ‘productive members of society’. Firstly there just are not the jobs or opportunities that are realistically available, and the gangs offer them a real protection from violence on a day to day basis on the streets...we just can’t be with them all the time to be able to facilitate this transformation safely. We wish to engage with so called gangs and work with them too reduce risk and harm. There is an obvious danger here that we could be seen as mitigating, justifying or strengthening the so called gangs or criminal lifestyles. However we feel that these groups are totally missed by most statutory or voluntary agencies that should have a brief to work with them. We know if we started collecting ‘data’ from our 'service users' or demanding that they start accredited courses we would alienate young people who are incredibly distrustful of any sort of officialdom. The problem is often right at the reception area of most services were details are collected and agreements, behaviour contracts, are asked to be filled out.

Ultimately we feel this problem has its roots in the legacy of slavery and a refusal by world governments to apologize, make reparations and instigate a truth and reconciliation process along the lines attempted by South Africa after the collapse of Apartheid.
Perhaps only then can the word n**** can be dropped from hip hop and it no longer seems necessary to punctuate every bar with this brutal and ugly reminder of racism, slavery and oppression. We often express to our artists how we disapprove of misogyny or the glorification of violence and hatred. We are open to young people about our political and spiritual beliefs and cultural preferences and demand that no one be judged or excluded for theirs.

What we really need is a show of support. Please visit our website

and sign up to our mailing list (Its also on the right hand column of this blog) Listen to our music and videos on our Reverb Nation and Youtube page (you are automatically directed to them from the links on our website) Leave us positive or constructive feedback, show our artists you care about their work. The more hits and ‘fans’ we create will help us get to the point of being able to sell our music on ITunes/Napster and set up our own merchandising range (branded clothing, DVD’s etc) We also need you to spread the word about us, we readily admit we are not the best publicists and are the victims of our own humility at times. Perhaps you have skills or experience that could be valuable to us? Please get in touch and spread the word. Thank you for your support .

Blessed Love