The arrest of rapper Ashley Walters should force the black community to speak out loud about its problemsby Lennie James / April 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2002 issue of Prospect Magazine
This March, 19-year-old Ashley Walters, aka “Asher D,” from British garage group the So Solid Crew, was told by a judge at Southwark crown court that he would receive a substantial custodial sentence for possessing a converted Brocock air pistol, loaded with live ammunition. Eight months earlier, Ashley and his girlfriend, Natalie Williams, had been involved in an argument with a traffic warden. The gun never left Natalie’s bag, where it was wrapped in a sock, but the warden reported the incident and the police found it when they searched the couple. In court, Ashley pleaded guilty to possession. Immediately, he was plastered over the papers, painted as an arrogant and nihilistic street hood-another symbol of the crisis in Britain’s black community. Ashley made a grave mistake and will be punished for it. I don’t know why he had a loaded gun, but I need to. Nearly four years ago, he was the 16-year-old lead actor in a film I wrote, called Storm Damage. It was the story of the fight for a young man’s soul. Ashley’s character, Stefan, is given a choice: to take a path into manhood which follows the cynical wisdom of a street don, or to accept the salvation offered by his embattled teacher. In the film, Stefan begins to take the lead of his teacher but is eventually reclaimed by the street. Now, it seems, the street has claimed Ashley too. When did it go so wrong? What did he have to prove that was best proved with a Brocock? Ashley is an excellent actor. We saw over 600 young people in our search to fill the nine lead roles in Storm Damage. When Ashley walked in to read, I knew he was different. The part of Stefan was not easy. It required a thoughtful and vulnerable performance. Of the young actors, Ashley was the only one who had performed professionally before (including a role in Grange Hill). He worked hard, he listened, he learned. He took risks and he was supportive to the other actors around him. He brought to Storm Damage a weight and thoughtfulness beyond his years. During the period of filming, he got his GCSE results, passing all ten with good grades. It didn’t seem as if he had anything to prove. He had a confidence that was attractive and welcoming, but never arrogant. His performance was all I had hoped for. The Ashley I know is a smart, unassuming, respectful young man. When he went on to find success with So Solid, I was proud of him. I believed the “Crew” was the most vibrant collective to have come out of Britain since Soul II Soul. In a music scene dominated by inoffensive pretty boys singing bland pop for teenage girls, So Solid were something fresh. Their lyrics may have been misguided and unnecessarily aggressive, but their music had something to say. It was derivative of US rap culture but it had an unmistakable, British sound; although it rejoiced in the transgressions of the world it came out of, it also expressed its problems. At this year’s Mobo ceremony, So Solid walked away with three awards. A group of kids who had grown up together in South London became the breakthrough act of the year; their meteoric rise looked like a cause for celebration. How quickly that changed. The group have since been histrionically accused of seducing their fans into a frenzy of stabbings and shootings. Last year, one So Solid Crew member, Neutrino, was shot in the leg. More recently, he revealed in the song, “U can’t stop dis shit,” that he had, in fact, shot himself. Now, Ashley and Natalie are being held up as proponents of a moral decay in black Britain, which is otherwise represented by Yardies, mobile phone thefts and rock bottom school results. A few days before Ashley’s conviction, Ken Livingstone’s race adviser, Lee Jasper, appeared on television adding his voice to attacks on the So Solid Crew. He said that thug culture was dooming “unwanted” and “destitute” young men and accused Ashley’s band of spearheading the glamorisation of ghetto life. He challenged them to say something positive, to use their position to turn their followers away from street life. I agree. But So Solid self-evidently don’t know how to do that. Despite their success they are so entrenched in the world they represent, they can’t see far enough out of it to become role models. They themselves need to be led. We do not need 19- and 20-year-olds to preach to our even younger children. So Solid have something to say, but not everything. For too long in the black community, we have given exaggerated kudos to those of us who are seen as “special”-the rappers, sprinters, footballers, boxers, actors. Their position alone doesn’t qualify them to be models for anyone. The models we should rejoice in are the men and women among us who live honest, “ordinary” lives in “islands of criminality and violence” (as Lee Jasper put it). The young men who follow groups like So Solid for their music, but aren’t gun-toting, misogynistic hood rats, are the majority. They are the ones with their eyes on the prize. Ashley had the brains to be anything he chose. But he put aside his potential for a life of the street. That should hurt us, anger us, and shame our community. It does me. What hold does “ghetto love” have on our young men that even the brightest of them can’t break free of it? There’s no doubt that my community is confronted by a crisis in family life. With 49 per cent of black families headed by a single parent-and 21 per cent in the white population-we all have to ask how our children will find stability and authority figures. But we also need to take serious care before selecting targets for blame. Ashley came from a single parent family. But that is not the cause of his crime. Anyone who met his mother prior to his arrest would have applauded her for the fine young man she raised. She is a personnel officer. Ashley comes from a good home and has close friends and relatives. Similarly, my mother raised me and my brother on her own. She would tell us, “whatever you do, people will say that you are Phyllis’s child. Make sure what you do doesn’t bring shame on me.” That is my rule of life, and that of many like me whose sole parent was their mother. I first heard this rap at the end of 1981:You will grow in the ghetto living second rate/ And your eyes will sing a song of deep hate./ The places you play/ And where you stay/ Looks like one great big alley way./ You’ll admire all the number-book takers,/ Pickpockets, peddlers and the big money makers./Driving big cars, spending twenties and tens/And you want to grow up to be just like them… It was “The Message,” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, the second major rap record to arrive on these shores from the US (the first had been “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang). Few records, before or since, have meant as much to me. Everything I wanted to say seemed to be articulated in the rhymes and word-play of this new beat poetry. That year, it made perfect sense. That was the year Brixton burned, the year of the righteous riot. That summer, a teacher told me to stay in school because, “there’s nothing out there for you.” It felt like my whole community was unemployed. We were as vulnerable as everyone else to the social upheavals of the time, but we were also a target of blame. Margaret Thatcher had warned that we were “swamping” the country. I remember, in a National Front television broadcast, an old soldier describing his dismay, after fighting to protect this country from invasion in two world wars, that Britain had succumbed to an invasion from from the “dark commonwealth.” As a teenager, I felt unwelcome in my own country. I joined the Anti Nazi League, fought with skinheads and marched against the introduction and abuse of the “sus” law. Almost everyone in my community, however they came to express it, felt the same frustration. The refrain of “The Message” was a majority sentiment: “Don’t push me coz I’m close to the edge.” Twenty years on, why are some of our young men still on the edge? It’s as if no one listened to the words of “The Message,” because they were too busy dancing to the back beat. Since then a lot of things have got better. But some serious things we had to say about ourselves seem to have gone unheard. Twenty years after the summer of ’81, our community is still in a quandary about how to raise its boys to men. Our boys are being excluded from school at nearly four times the rate of white boys. Once excluded, some find themselves in a world where black-on-black killings are rising. There were 21 in London last year. These can no longer be categorised only as imported Yardie murders; they have become homegrown. A generation on, and our most important relationship outside of ourselves is still with the police. Lee jasper came to prominence in the Brixton riots of 1995 and emerged as one of the most vocal and credible critics of the Met. I have not always agreed with him, but I have always believed that he spoke honestly. One of his early arguments was that if the police refused to listen to the valid grievances of the black community then “we revert to the best aspects of the black tradition, which is to get out on the streets and demonstrate.” Lee has attacked the “racism, incompetence and bungling” of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry. But, now, acting as the mayor’s key adviser on race and the police in London, he has stood up and told us to our faces that we must reverse our relationship with the Met, and support it. In a recent article for the Evening Standard, Lee described a “moral vacuum in our community.” He cited boys born from teenage mothers and fathered by the streets, excluded from schools and shut off from social opportunity. Most strikingly of all, he declared that, since the murder of Stephen Lawrence, the Metropolitan Police had changed. That meant, he said, it was now the black community’s responsibility to change its attitude too. He called for the community to report crimes and for a witness-protection scheme that would create confidence in people to help the police. Lee is not alone among black spokesmen in pointing the finger at our own community, rather than blaming white society. The Labour politician, Trevor Phillips, has suggested a return to church-controlled education, school uniforms and corporal punishment. Mike Best, editor of the Voice newspaper, went as far as calling for an extension of the stop and search powers once exercised by the police. He believes that this policy, exercised intelligently, could reduce black-on-black killings and David Blunkett seems to agree. All of this marks a real change in what is happening in my community, or at least how we talk about it. Although Lee’s article appeared in the Standard, it was not directed towards that paper’s normal readership. Most articles I read about my community, outside of the black press, are an explanation of us to everyone else. But Lee Jasper was not asking for something to be done for, or about, us. Using a mainstream publication, he was calling on us to do something for ourselves. Since the riots of ’81 our community has been involved in two conversations, running concurrently. The first conversation has had us talking to the wider community about how we want to be treated. We have worked with and fought police, policy makers, educationalists and employers to make them understand how, consciously or not, they have discriminated against us and would be better off not doing so. That conversation continues. The first major piece of anti-discrimination legislation became law in 1965, the year I was born. It removed the “No dogs. No Irish. No blacks” signs from windows. I have lived through all the subsequent policy-making and legislation. Compare the Macpherson report with the Scarman report 20 years earlier. The wording is different, the recommendations more specific, but at its core both reports are saying the same thing: that the Metropolitan Police must avoid its tendency to criminalise us all because of an inability to distinguish us from our skin. Since Macpherson, I believe, the Met has made great strides. But let’s not forget why. It was because of the mistakes it made and would have made again if it hadn’t been for Stephen Lawrence’s parents refusing to allow their son’s death to go unnoticed. As a black man growing up through the worst of the Met’s behaviour towards us, I was not aware of “institutional” racism so much as the blatant, in-your face abuse doled out virtually every time I was stopped and searched. Some officers seemed to think their job wasn’t done properly unless they told you exactly what kind of a black “fucker” or “monkey” you were before they sent you on your way. The first time I was called a “nigger” was by a policeman who stopped me for riding my bike on the pavement. I was 12. There is no need to disparage the police unjustly. But it is important to remember where we have all come from. Only then can we have any real confidence in the police. We can replace a siege mindset with a state of tense normality; we cannot simply draw a line under the past and pretend it didn’t happen. Then there is the second conversation, the conversation the black community has been having within itself. It has been private, held away from white ears. It has happened in homes, among family and friends, in gatherings of professional associations, in church halls and mosques. We all know its points of reference. It has its own shorthand and patois. We feel this conversation would not be understood by wider society. To say out loud that we are not happy with the way we do things might sound like a betrayal. We do not want to be accused of not knowing the coup, of not being black enough. A friend of mine recently went to a gathering of black professionals. I asked him what people were talking about. He said, “Guns! Everybody’s barking about all the guns. But you still feel like everyone is keeping their heads down.” Why have the black middle class, some of our most articulate voices, said so little out loud? To become middle class is read by many to mean you have “scraped off the black.” What leads young men like Ashley to opt for “ghetto love” is the recognition they get from it. The black middle class needs to change that, to give them a different kind of recognition for what they might become. Perhaps this is starting. Lee Jasper, Mike Best and others are now turning that private conversation into a public one. Lee risks being dismissed as the “house boy” for London’s mayor and accused of currying favour in his role as race advisor to the Met. But what he has said is more important than that. I find myself torn. It is a struggle to find the right response. I do not, however, believe that our salvation from the spiral of violence and criminality that affects many of our young men will be solved simply by improving relations with the Met. For a start, I do not believe that witness protection is a viable option. There are only so many places in Britain a black face can move to and blend in, if protection should mean relocation. Neither do I think a further increase of the stop-and-search rate would help. It was in part the “sus” law that sparked the riots of ’81. You are already seven times more likely to be stopped if you are black than if you are white. Despite an overall fall in use of stop and search powers, the numbers of black people stopped has risen. In London last year, there was a 14 per cent drop in the number of white people stopped, but a 6 per cent increase for black people. So what does need to happen? We need to have a riot of a sorts among ourselves, resurrect part of the spirit of ’81. Even then, there was a lot wrong with how our rage was manifested-the looting and destruction-but we had good reason for making a noise. Now, we need to turn that spirit in on ourselves. In speaking out about our problems, we should also take a look at what we have achieved. Afro-Caribbeans are 2 per cent of the population of Britain, but we have made strides in every area of British life: we are in politics, business, media, music, science, sport, film, medicine. The guys I grew up with came from South London. Brixton was our manor. We are children of the first generation and parents of the third. Of my close school friends, one is now a corporate lawyer, the other an investigator for an insurance company, the third a chief in the fire service. However hard or good life has been, they have remained law-abiding. They are black men of the majority. There is no moral vacuum in our community; or, if there is, it is one shared by the wider community. Is it a moral vacuum that allows two footballers who represent our nation to escape punishment for their part in a near-fatal attack on a young man? Should all British white people be defined by Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate? Or the five young men who killed Stephen Lawrence? Or the police officer who left Stephen bleeding unattended on the floor? Walking from my home to the tube station, I sometimes count the number of handbags clutched tight as I pass by. Some days when I haven’t got my armour on, I want to grab the clutcher and ask her if she’d like to compare wallets. On days like that, I tell Asian shopkeepers to stop following me around as I look for what I am after. This isn’t only fear of a few volatile men who look like me. It also happens because black men in this country continue to be portrayed as something to fear. (When it is so visible a means of power, some will always use it to gain a semblance of respect.) As much as I applaud Lee Jasper for speaking out, we have to bring the past with us. It is no good rejecting the old anti-Met rhetoric if that is merely going to be replaced with a new kind of rhetoric that scorns the black community for failing to control itself. We have many voices and we must use them. If the majority of us do not say our piece, as Lee Jasper has done, then educated and honest people will always come a poor second to someone playing “a bad John,” a kid who finds his self respect in the “bling-bling.” Our young men need alternative means of self-identification to the street. They need leaders. They should be told, and shown, and then told again that they are not less black if they educate themselves, or less of a man because they refuse to settle an argument with a bullet. This is the responsibility of the whole community, regardless of locale, class or opportunity. We cannot let the loud and the young talk for us. The point of being young is that you do not know much. If we remain silent, somebody else will define us, not just to the wider community but to ourselves. For whatever reason, a precious young man like Ashley Walters felt compelled to act up to a stereotype of a gangsta rapper. That world gave him more recognition than the other world-the one in which he has more than enough talent to excel. We need to put that right. We have to take responsibility for our own. Ashley has my love and support, because I know his worth. I believe the incident for which he will probably be jailed is an aberration, and not the measure of him. I have written a character witness, to be presented to the judge presiding over his case. I have begged that Ashley’s punishment fit the crime and not an image of him that fits neither the young man I know, nor the man he could still become.