Law student Davina Ansah found her voice during Covid-19 lockdowns. Image: Isha Shah
Davina Ansah took to the stage at EartH (Evolutionary Arts Hackney) at the end of February. The venue had seen Johnny Marr, Richard Hawley and Kae Tempest perform – but Ansah, a self-confessed “rockumentary junkie”, was different. She’d never played her songs to a crowd before. But thanks to Run the Track, she was.
A law student by day, Ansah found writing poetry in the depths of lockdown quickly became a gateway. She hadn’t even played an instrument before, but was soon learning to play the drums, buying a keyboard, then a bass. Inspiration came from all directions – Aretha Franklin documentaries and old footage of Woodstock.
Ansah was one of a group of young creatives showing off their talents on the launch night for the Helix State album, the product of Run the Track. They had been hard at work for 16 weeks, first listening to talks from people inside the industry – label distributors, radio producers and songwriters – and then working on the album.
Studio 36, where Ansah took to the stage, is a new space inside EartH, the East London venue converted from a derelict art deco theatre. It’s a community space with a studio, funded with help from Big Issue Invest, the social investment arm of the Big Issue.
How did Run the Track come about? “It actually started off as a bit of a vanity project, if I’m honest,” jokes Jammz, a grime artist – but also a theatre performer, scriptwriter, composer and brand consultant – who was the brains behind the scheme.
Breaking into creative industries is hard, and there’s a lot he wishes he knew when starting out.
“I just wanted to take everything I’ve learned, all the knowledge I’ve learned through my journey and just basically give it to people who are having difficulty trying to access the careers that they want,” says Jammz.
With such an opaque industry, young people can often focus on the craft without realising there’s a whole other game which needs to be played.
“Creating for me is like 20, 30 per cent of the game, 70 per cent is everything else. All of the soft skills, all of the networking, all that kind of stuff as a creative you don’t think of initially,” he adds.
Like Ansah, lockdown was a drag for 18-year-old Louis Friedman, but also a spark. With Friedman struggling in the depths of the restrictions, his mum unearthed a camcorder from the ’90s.
“I’d just go out to bits of London that I hadn’t been to before and film,” he says. From there, he learned to edit and frame shots. He filmed a rave and got the footage posted on an Instagram rave account. But sustaining the work financially is hard, and Friedman realised the need to spread himself wide, DJing and producing too.
A lack of opportunity can be an abstract, structural thing. But it can also be tangible. Friedman is a big grime fan, citing Simon Wheatley and the late Jamal Edwards among his inspirations.
“That whole grime movement to an extent was birthed in and out of the youth clubs,” he says. But that doesn’t exist in the same form any more. He recalls going to his local youth centre to learn production and finding one computer for the 40 people present.
As the government launches a crackdown on ‘antisocial behaviour’, and home secretary Suella Braverman decries “hordes of youths loitering in parks”, Friedman’s experience is not unique. Youth services have been cut by 69 per cent since 2011, with 750 youth centres closed. “If you don’t have the father figure, or the right education system in place to take care of you, it’s very easy to get lost in drug culture and gang culture,” Friedman says. For Ansah, a connection made through the programme has opened the door to record a debut single. One day, perhaps, the concerts in the rockumentaries will be hers. “In all honesty, that would be the dream. To perform somewhere and having everybody singing along in front of a crowd you can’t see the end of,” she says.
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