If I owned a multinational company, I would choose Activist as my Chief Executive Officer. It’s quite rare to meet somebody who is so focused and determined to make their mark in this world and Activist (real name Jehu, but known to his friends as ‘Acti’ or ‘Jay’) is a man that you would want on your team. He gets an idea and he makes it happen – he achieves results and he makes people sit up and take notice.
I first became aware of his work as a rapper a few years ago when Acti made a track with Lifford Shillingford called ‘Closure’. As I probed to find out more about him, I discovered a multi talented man who has lived through some extremely challenging times in his young life, but has somehow managed to turn it around in the most refreshingly positive way. His most recent project is a series of short films called ‘Urban Prayer’
I met up with Acti and some of the Urban Prayer cast at Tinsel Town in Farringdon. Over mounds of wings, lamb and cheesy chips, we shared jokes, stories, and aspirations for the future, and although I arrived to meet one friend , I felt that I left with six friends whose experiences will resonate with me for the rest of my life.
Acti introduced me to Kwame, Fade (also known as Smash), Tommy, JJ and Serena and our first discussion was about how they all met. Acti explained that he has spent most of his life travelling between his mum in Brixton (South London) and his dad in Archway (North London), so the group are a mixture of friends who came together through living on the same housing estates, friends of the family, college, social media and youth work. It’s clear that most of them go back a long way and, the teasing, the in jokes and the knowing glances demonstrate that lifetime bonds are firmly in place here.
Many of the estates were founded by the Peabody Trust, an organisation that provided housing for London’s poor from the 1860’s. All of the guys talked about the violence on the estates, about having to know who everybody was and whether they were for you or against you. There was one way onto the estate and one way off, and you only went out to go to the shop or to fight – there were so many broken noses around. Nobody talked proudly about it – these guys were not showing off – they were just telling me how it was and the description made me think that it wasn’t very far removed from a prison with the lack of freedom, lack of basic personal security, basic conditions, and bullying hierarchy. Fade recalled going into the woods next to the estate with some friends to test guns (which would later be used in firearms offences) by firing them against trees, and at the time it seemed like normal behaviour, but when he thinks about it now he can’t quite believe how dysfunctional the scenario was.
The estates weren’t all about bad times though – Fade and Kwame talked fondly about football matches where everybody would somehow be united and forget the pressures of inner city life (until somebody went in for a bad tackle, and then the fights would resume). JJ indicated that times were changing and he thought that the violence had calmed down a lot in recent times. Fade explained that violence isn’t just something you do without thought – every punch, every wound inflicted – it hurts. If you are going to go in, you have to have a reason, you need to be sure that the consequences are worth it, and sometimes the consequences are just the fact that you survived the situation. Acti also reflected about bad times in his life – he has been stabbed three times, and he mourns a close friend who very recently was murdered for his £300 laptop by an 18 year old. Events like this have been a major source of material for his rap poetry. He explains that the very personal experiences are the ones that he can portray best in rap or film – he knows about other situations through friends, but he can talk about being stabbed because that is a scenario that he identifies closely with.
Kwame is proud of his Ghanaian heritage and talks in a very entertaining way with expletives, jokes and gems of knowledge all blended together and rolling off his tongue more silkily than the peach smoothie that he is drinking. Together with Fade (who is equally entertaining but in a quieter and more considered way), he discusses how they did time in prison for robbery and firearms offences and how they also found an outlet in rap music, having released tracks in the past. It seems that whatever your situation, and however negative it may seem, artistic expression, and especially music can be a very valuable outlet for dealing with issues and getting your point across. There was also a feeling among the group that it was an advantage to have an older brother to show them the ropes, and how important it can be to have the support of other family members when you are living day to day in a tough situation.
Acti discussed his childhood and the level of poverty that he, his mum and sister dealt with on a daily basis. He felt the need to rob to survive and spoke of the moral dilemma that his mother felt – knowing that the money he gave her was the result of petty theft, but also knowing that it would be enough to put a chicken on the table to feed them all. I found this story one of the most confronting, to think that in a presumably civilised country like the UK, there are children living in abject poverty while others casually sip prosecco – the price of a glass of prosecco would provide a roast chicken dinner for a family of four. Putting this into perspective makes the world seem truly crazy.
Acti doesn’t smoke or drink. A long while ago he decided that those activities were a waste of money and were not going to help him buy new trainers or a car. He soon realised though that robbery was not the path that he wanted to pursue, being stabbed made him think long and hard about his future and helped with the decision that there must be a different path to follow. All of the members of the group who had a challenging past have now turned their lives around and are using their experiences to help young people. Many of them do youth work either as a paid job or on a voluntary basis, and they talk animatedly about how they have helped some of the capital’s most vulnerable youngsters. While telling a story about one particular youth with an overload of attitude, Acti stated that he has ‘zero tolerance for disrespect’ which gives an idea of his direct and candid approach, but he does appreciate that you can’t help every one of them, you can only use your personal life experiences to challenge their thinking, and then let them find their own way.
JJ talks about how he spoke to one youngster , a wannabe drugs dealer, and explained to him that he already had a business brain, albeit for illegal activity, so why not transfer that business skillset to developing property – something straight that could set him up for life – and this is a key point – the ability to explain to young people how they can make a positive change, and doing it in terms that they can relate to.
There is a general feeling that the system is still failing its pupils in some areas. We spoke about how some schools are run with money being the driving factor, especially schools for children with special needs and mental disorders (such as ADHD). The teachers feel that they are not encouraged to try too hard to help the pupils reform because less pupils means less school income, and the owners of the school, whether private or government, want to keep it going so that they can keep making money. I found this quite sad that children could have their potential suppressed, while somebody else gets rich as a result.
I asked them about the filming process for Urban Prayer and Tommy said that it was filmed in areas of North London that they were all familiar with. Calmly confident Tommy is the member of the group who is an officially ‘trained actor’ and he recalls them filming a scene in episode two, after a fight where he had been stripped down to his underpants, and was sitting by a garage. The passers-by seemed quite alarmed at what was happening and kept asking if he was okay, not realising that they were making a film. This gives an idea of the realism involved in this project.
It was clear that the whole group are passionate about the filming process – their faces come alive when they discuss it and it’s good to see the enthusiasm and warmth for what they are creating. The cameraman and director is a guy called Mark Potter, and Acti stresses that although everybody has ideas, Mark is very much the man responsible for the finished visual.
They all talk about how Acti has the concept for the film in his mind and he knows exactly what he wants to achieve, and even if they try a different approach, they usually end up being directed by Acti because he is determined to get the effect and the audience reaction that he has conceived in his mind. The whole group have a massive amount of respect for Acti. JJ, a smart, charismatic guy who up to now has been talking relatively light heartedly, adopts an air of seriousness as he exemplifies this with the comment that he has had ideas in the past which he started for a while, then put them on hold, and would never get back to them, but Acti is a man who sees things through – he has a strong motivation to push his ideas forward and achieve results.
A few years ago Acti released a track called ‘Something in the Air’ (ft Dom B) which tells the story of how his younger brother goes out to the shop and doesn’t come back. He gets set upon and killed by another youth. Urban Prayer is the follow up to this and tells the story of how Acti wants revenge for what happened. It is gritty, confronting and powerful, but very real – it is a horrible story but a story that you can imagine actually happening. He has big plans for the ending, but he is keeping those ideas close to his chest at the moment.
The films also feature Siobhan McInnes, Jay Marsh, and Jaype Omotosho.
Serena is a friend of the group and sat fairly quietly throughout, as I did, listening to the tales and being entertained by the guys. At one point Acti declared that he was going to marry a girl like Serena – he states that he is tired of women who are obsessed with shoes, hair and eyelashes – he wants a woman with much more substance, someone who will challenge him mentally, and Serena is already thinking about college and education and where she is going in the world.
The time whizzed by and I felt honoured to get an insight into the minds of this charismatic and passionate group of friends. I would love to see this project develop into something much bigger – maybe a TV two-parter, or even a mini series. It is certainly well constructed and I know that the team have invested part of themselves in every frame. As we said our goodbyes and left the restaurant I hugged Serena and whispered “I’ll come to the wedding”. “You’re definitely invited” she replied.