NEWS… BUT NOT AS YOU KNOW IT
As I turned on the news on Valentine’s Day 2007, I saw the familiar face of a boy I’d known for many years.
He was a kid who grew up in the same South London council estate as me and who my mum always remarked was a really ‘nice boy’ because he’d help her carry her shopping.
But there was 15-year-old Billy Cox on the screen – found dead in his bedroom with a bullet wound to his chest. As a young Black man from the same area and just seven years older than Billy, it was absolutely heart-rending to see.
That was my wake up call to the destructive impact of the world I grew up in but it would be through grime music that I really discovered how I could help to stop other needless deaths and try to make a difference – both in my own life and with the youth in my local community.
Growing up in Clapham North was extremely challenging. I lost so many innocent friends – some due to criminal peer pressure and others were victims of crime.
As kids, we had to be street-wise just to survive. On the estate, we didn’t have a garden and we weren’t taken to the park by our parents after school – they were often single parents and too busy working two or three jobs just to make ends meet.
Compared to kids not on estates, there just wasn’t enough opportunity for any of us to create a better life.
I had football as an outlet to keep me motivated and not fall into a bad crowd but then, at around 18 years old, I turned on the radio one day in 2003 and heard a sound that instantly changed my life – Dizzee Rascal’s Boy in da Corner.
The songs I Luv U, Brand New Day and Jezebel really spoke to me. One of the lyrics that made me see the bigger picture was: ‘When we ain’t kids no more/ Will it still be about wot it is rite now/ Coz negative signs just keep showin up/ Some of us betta just start growin up’. These lyrics really hit home and changed my perspective of my future, moving forward. I wanted to be in the 3%, not the 97%.
As I devoured the whole album, it sounded so fresh and new. It felt like the future of music and I truly believe it has stood the test of time today. More than anything though, I was listening to a sound that really resonated with me and tapped into my own life experiences.
This was the start of my love affair with grime music.
Not long after, I saw one of Dizzee’s sets and felt the grip that his music had on the crowd. I wanted to give people that same reaction so I started surrounding myself in the underground rave scene and going to community centres in places like Peckham, Clapham and Brixton – where I met loads of people interested in grime.
I’d go to concerts and be inspired by the pulsing of the beats and the cheers from the crowds.
Then from around 2011, I took the plunge and started doing solo stuff – like regional radio sets on Flashback FM, On Top FM and Horra FM – that eventually led to bookings to do grime sets. Finally, I was chasing that high, of hearing the crowd roar from a beat that just spoke to them. It was electric.
I wanted to show people that even though a lot of us from council estates were going through rough or painful times, grime could be both a reflection and escape from that.
As I started to work on my craft, I began releasing material from 2012, including an underground record called ‘Muzik 4 Da Masses’. When I heard it being played on BBC 1xtra, it was a feeling like no other and a dream come true.
It also confirmed to me that, if you believe in yourself and stay consistent with your own art form, there are people in this world that can relate to it. The song got a lot of attention across regional radio stations, which led me to start performing.
The feedback from the performances of the record helped me become the showman I am today.
One day in 2015, I was doing a show in Tabernacle – a music venue on Portobello Road – and Jazzie B from Soul II Soul came up to me afterwards and said he really loved my set. He encouraged me to keep going with it all and to be a positive influence and hearing that just felt amazing.
It means so much to me to keep repping grime because it’s our sound and no one can take that away from us. It’s our story, our theme music and we’re the narrators of it.
That’s why I created an album called D.I.Y because I didn’t want people to forget what represented us in these trying times.
But throughout it all, I’ve never forgotten my roots.
Every time I pass by Billy’s mural in Clapham, it reminds me how lucky I am to still be alive. He had so much potential to do great things, but it was all tragically taken away from him.
That motivated me to become a positive role model to my community and I wanted to change the stigma that the estate we grew up on is a symbol of crime. I wanted to demonstrate that I am a product of my environment but I made positive choices with my life. We all have one life so we need to make the most of it.
So in the last few years, I got approached by Lambeth Council to work on an anti-knife crime initiative, where I’d go to places like Lambeth College, perform a show and then talk with the students about how they can get involved in music.
On one particular occasion in March 2019, the theatre hall inside Lambeth College – which holds a capacity of 120 students – was overwhelmed with almost 200 students trying to get in.
I was taken aback by the reception from the crowd, during and after the show and I felt glad that I was in the position to inspire, both with my performance and responding to questions afterwards.
One kid came up to me after a show and told me how some of his friends had been stabbed or shot. I knew all too well where he was coming from so I told him not to let that slow him down or define him because it didn’t stop me becoming who I wanted to be and it shouldn’t stop him either.
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The initiative just helps show them that even though things might be difficult at home, they don’t have to resort to getting into gangs or violence, they can channel their energy into creative outlets.
That’s the power of grime – it’s an outlet for our pain and struggles, but also our joy, triumphs and determination. Without it, who knows where I would’ve ended up.
CHOZE’s new album D.I.Y. is out now.
Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing James.Besanvalle@metro.co.uk.
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