ASHER D from the UK Garage collective So Solid Crew is appearing in the play Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads at the National Theatre in London. He hit the headlines when he spent nine months in prison for possession of a gun, which he got after a series of attacks left him in fear for his life. Asher is now developing his acting and music career. He spoke to Kevin Ovenden.
The play you’re in, written by Roy Williams, looks at racism and “English identity”. What character do you play and what questions does the play raise for you?
He’s called Barry. He’s in his early twenties. He’s patriotic-big supporter of the England football team. At the same time he doesn’t get the concept of this whole English thing. He partakes of all the chants and the hooligan side of things but he doesn’t have a real idea where it’s coming from.
He’s very naive. It takes his older brother Mark, who’s just come back from the army, to open his eyes. Barry is mirroring what Mark has gone through-doing everything to fit in as “English” only to discover that there is racism. Throughout the whole play there’s a conflict between the idea of Englishness and the reality of racism.
Barry thinks that if he wraps himself in the England flag then he will be accepted as English rather than black. There are a lot of suggestions in the media that that is what we should do.
This play makes you think, not just about black and white, the colour of your skin. It’s about who owns the country. It’s very full on and upfront, but it’s very enlightening.
How do you think racism has changed as you’ve grown up?
I don’t think the fundamental things are changing at all. Racism is changing in that it is becoming more professional, more articulate and more disguised. You’ve got people like the BNP running in elections. They want to get into positions of power. So they put on a professional image rather than running around killing people on the streets. The play touches on that.
I performed at the Astoria for the Unite Against Fascism launch. That was something I did because I thought it could help. There are people out there who could vote the BNP in. We have to think about that seriously. We’ve got to do something positive to stop it. The people we’ve got running the country now are bad enough. If these BNP types get in, we’ve got no chance.
You’ve got this new type of racism, against Muslims and asylum seekers. It is fuelling a new hatred. It’s also fuelling wars.
In your book you have a lot to say about the circumstances that encourage racism and crime, and some strong words about the politicians.
Look, they do know what is going on and the cause of a lot of the problems. But they turn a blind eye.
One of the main causes is money. A lot of people just don’t have any. That’s what’s causing a lot of kids to go out and drug deal and rob and so on. Course, a few people are just out to get a reputation. But the main reason is people just trying to support themselves.
There’s the problem of schools. A lot of black and ethnic minority kids are getting thrown out of school. Once that happens you’re on the way down. You find a lot of kids at home doing nothing because they can’t get into school. These kids are left on the street, where there is nothing constructive to do. There are no youth clubs any more.
When I was growing up the youth club kept me off the street. That was our little haven where we could go and be ourselves. It was at the youth club that I discovered my talent and was able to take the first steps in my music. In south London there’s nowhere to go. Even I have problems. It gets on my nerves, loads of kids hanging about on your doorstep. It’s not like they really irritate me-it’s just that they’ve got nowhere to go and nothing to do.
They are sitting on the road watching drug dealers drive by in big Porsches and they feel, “That’s what I should do.” What’s the alternative? They have none. The majority of these kids would accept a lot of things if it was offered them. Then you’d be able to say you can be this or that person in the future rather than being in jail, dead or on the stuff that you are selling. But working at McDonald’s is not an alternative.
Guns are a big problem. They are flooding the streets. I don’t think that is directly down to the people. I don’t know people who bring guns into the country.
That’s done by super-rich people. The main bulk of guns and drugs are coming in from a small number of big dealers. They don’t live in Peckham or Brixton. If you look what’s happened to me it shows people can get out of being trapped in the ghetto. Most people are still pulled down, and even I still face the pressures.
I managed to use my time in prison wisely, despite the system. But I had two kids, a girlfriend, a family, people who loved me and a record deal to come out to.
But in most cases people go backwards in prison. The government and the police need to realise this. They’ve created people whose bread and butter is crime.
Sending them to prison does nothing to transform them. You don’t go to jails and see screws whose main aim is to rehabilitate people. There’s a lot of hypocrisy from the government about crime and what is happening in the inner cities.
You’ve also said the government is hypocritical over the war on Iraq…
Exactly. Tony Blair goes to war with Saddam Hussein. He’s straight in there, blowing up the place, shooting people and whatever. It’s shown live on the news 24 hours a day. Dead bodies in the street. Yet I’m supposed to be a bad example because I write a tune about something I saw on the street the other day.
I don’t think so. He needs to check himself. You can’t be telling kids violence is not the answer, but at the same time do the same thing. Then they put it all on the music, on So Solid Crew or whatever. The government doesn’t like to take responsibility.
For them it’s not about helping people once you’re in power-it’s about getting in there and helping yourself to stay there.
How do you feel about the war and the occupation?
I’m strongly against it. There was no real reason for it. There was no evidence of what they said was there.
Blair has just put us at risk. It’s been about scaremongering and greed. I’m not saying Saddam Hussein was the nicest person in the world-he wasn’t. But this has made the world a more dangerous place and what’s happening in Iraq now is terrible.
It seems like the kind of things we’ve been talking about are now more likely to be taken up in music and in other culture. Where do you think urban music in Britain is heading?
It’s in a funny stage. Garage came out. It was underground at first and then it expanded to become commercial. The violence and the culture that surrounded the music have put a big cloud over it. It’s stopped promoters buying into it. Now some of it is mainstream, but a lot is still underground.
Now there’s a big recession in the industry. CD sales are down so a lot of labels don’t want to put the money into new artists. Most artists are certainly not making much money.
At the same time UK hip-hop is taking off. A lot of artists are going to the States and working with people over there. Hip-hop in the UK is much more about taking up issues than in the US.
So Solid grew up listening to a lot of these American artists-NWA, Ice Cube, Snoop Doggy Dog and so on-and we thought yeah, gangsters, we want to be like these people.
So we came out with that kind of image and attitude. But what we realised is that these people have never done any of the things that they were talking about.
Now we are more conscious and are talking about the situation we are in and how we got there, what we feel about it. We have to talk about being broke, about the estate, about why my mum kicked me out. These are things that come from the heart and are more real than a lot of the music in the US.
That’s where I want to go musically and I’d like to take that over to the States. But acting is my bread and butter. I’ve got two films coming out this year and I really want to develop the acting side along with the music.
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