This piece appears as part of our initiative on Identity & Representation, a six-month-long project highlighting different facets of identity and how they shape the practices, conventions, and conversations happening in the Highsnobiety world. Head here for the full series.
Describing Canadian rapper Drake as an Anglophile is somewhat of an understatement. From collaborating with British artists like Giggs and Skepta to using English colloquialisms in his songs or making up his own (think: “Gyalchester”), Drake is quite the fanatic – especially when it comes to UK grime.
Neologisms aside, the most obvious sign of his devotion to the scene has been his decision to join forces with Netflix to resurrect Ronan Bennett’s crime drama series Top Boy. First airing on Channel 4 back in 2011, grime veterans Ashley Walters (Asher D) and Kane Robinson (Kano) have reprised their roles as the series’ protagonists.
Depicting life for POCs in underprivileged inner-city areas, the show is rife with scenes focused around gang culture, drug dealing, and knife crime – the latter of which has been a rising problem within the capital. This year, there have been 99 fatal stabbings in London, 18 of which have been teenage deaths.
With young black men and boys seeming to be the demographic that’s suffering the most, Top Boy’s return arguably couldn’t be timelier. In an age of Brexit, Boris Johnson as PM, and rising levels of crime and poverty within the city, we spoke to a group of young people of color to get their opinion on the series and whether they think it’s shedding a much-needed light on these pressing issues.
Naomi Grant, 21, Camberwell – Filmmaker and founder of LAMBB
As a young black woman living in London, what are your thoughts on the rising levels of knife crime in the capital, especially where POC are concerned?
For a time, there was a looming sense of fear in my area. I think knife crime within our community is being perpetuated by many different factors, such as systemic racism, oppression, and poverty. But the most prominent factor is collective mindset – believing that “the ends” is all that we have and all that we can reap from. This idea that we’re at the bottom of the barrel and therefore at war with anyone and everyone to get the scraps is toxic.
As a budding filmmaker, how do you think ‘Top Boy’ succeeds in appealing to young people?
Top Boy is significant for black youth culture at the moment because it encompasses this new Black-British identity that’s emerging, which is separate from the African American experience. This identity is currently more so represented in music, thanks to grime, but it’s slowly filtering through to TV and film. The series also touches on the themes of mental health, gentrification, and immigration – all of which plague parts of London today and the young people that live within those boroughs. Art is meant to reflect the times after all, and I think Top Boy does just that.
Do you think casting the likes of young rappers Dave and Little Simz has made the show more relatable for younger POCs?
The introduction of Dave and Little Simz’ characters has made the show more exciting – especially for the younger generation who may not have watched the show from the beginning. Additionally, Dave is at the height of his career, so him being on a show like Top Boy makes his experience of success seem more attainable, in a way, for those who look to him as a role model.
Benjamin Opoku, 24, Tulse Hill – Actor and intern at Sony Music
Are there any particular ‘Top Boy’ characters that you personally identify with?
There isn’t a single character that I don’t relate to in some way because there are scenes that some of us see quite frequently – the prime example being the instances of knife crime. If I could pick someone from the new season, though, it would be Ats. Many of us know what it’s like to try to make things easier for those that have to care for us, and it’s hard not to do this without crossing certain boundaries.
Do you feel that the soundtrack adds an extra layer to the show?
Personally, I love the fact that the soundtrack was made by “us,” i.e. black people who grew up in London. Rather than simply trying to appeal to the masses, the soundtrack was engineered to help the show keep its identity in an unapologetic way. We need more of this attitude, as it helps to create opportunities for the wider black community.
Are you concerned at all that showing young POC engaged in crime and violence will fuel negative stereotypes?
Our concern needs to be less on trying to change others’ minds and more focused on trying to fix our own mentality. Young black people are going through some big issues here in London, and my first concern is saving them – not trying to save face for someone that isn’t helping.
Rebekah Walker, 26, Sydenham – Co-founder of Selective Hearing
What do you think ‘Top Boy’ gets right about portraying life in London for POC?
Elements of Top Boy have been dramatized for TV, but there are people around me that I know who have experienced the same issues. They’ve grown up in single-parent households, lived on a council estate, or have been groomed into gangs – some have come out alive, others haven’t been so fortunate. Top Boy also covers the systemic racial discrimination that our young black boys face in school.
Asher D and Kano play the lead roles in the show. Do you think that their reputations in UK music have influenced the show’s credibility, especially amongst young black people?
Definitely. As my friend Dings said, “Kano is a national treasure and must be protected at all costs for his Top Boy performance.” Both Asher D and Kano have lived experiences similar to scenarios that can be seen on Top Boy. Plus, all you have to do is listen to any Kano album to know that he fully embodies what it means to be a Londoner.
Recently, the Home Office decided to print chicken boxes with anti-knife crime rhetoric. Do you think ‘Top Boy’ does a better job in communicating the gravity of youth violence in London?
When I saw the chicken boxes trending online, my initial thought was: “What on earth is the correlation?” There are people who genuinely believe that black kids who eat at Morley’s are likely to carry a weapon – what a bold and blasé move. Top Boy has been able to accurately depict the extent of youth violence happening across the country. While I understand the Home Office wants to tackle and end the issue, there needs to be a deeper understanding from those in power as to why some young people are caught up in that life.
Isaac Hibbert, 16, Norbury – College student
As a black teenage boy growing up in London, are you worried about the increase in knife crime?
Being a black boy in south London is very scary and very worrying. It’s not even a case of being a person who wants to live that life; you still have to watch your back because some people just want to trouble you. They want to take things that your mum bought for you, or take things that you’ve earned, because they want to show dominance. Some people just don’t even care about going to prison. They want to take someone’s life – that’s just how certain people are these days.
Does anyone talk about ‘Top Boy’ at your college?
At my college, girls often talk about how it’s opened their eyes to how those types of boys are. Boys don’t really talk about it in the same way: they tend to talk about whether it’s a good episode, or what scenes should’ve been cut out. Some have commented saying that the lifestyles of the characters in the show are unnecessary, while others understand it more because they’ve lived that life or know someone who has.
Are there any actors in ‘Top Boy’ that you look up to?
I don’t think there are any characters I look up to, particularly. I do respect the actors, though. I think Kano especially played his role perfectly. On the whole, the cast did a good job of making me feel like I was on that journey with them.