Beats bus, with Steve Arnott on the left alongside his fellow tutors. Image: Beats Bus Records
The streets of Hull are home to a bright, brilliant and slightly mad-looking truck known as Beats Bus. It is painted with giant aliens and a snarling mouth with a gold tooth and a DJ playing his set.
Open the doors and you’ll discover that the bus is (quite miraculously) a mobile recording studio, where young people learn to create hip-hop songs, play around with beats and experience the joy of music. As it sings out, people are drawn to Beats Bus and join for a dance.
But what’s even better is that it is a grassroots non-profit designed to help young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, including those living in poverty and at risk of criminal exploitation by county lines. Beats Bus is using the power of music to change lives.
Steve Arnott, who founded the group back in 2017, says: “We wanted to take down financial barriers for young people to follow their dreams. We’ve got the mobile recording studio so we can go into estates and places that don’t usually have access to making art and music. You’ve got all these young people with all the dreams and aspirations but they don’t have the facilities to do it.”
They’ve got a free mentorship scheme for young people, they run outreach schemes, and they’ve got a studio in Hull’s city centre where the young people come every Thursday night to make music and socialise.
Beats Bus Records creates music with a powerful message: young people have written songs about racism, society, the pressures of life and the importance of speaking out about your mental health struggles.
Arnott says: “There’s a lot of pressure on young people to have the latest gadgets, the latest clothes, all the peer pressure. It’s getting harder and more young people are turning to places to get money where they shouldn’t be.
“We want to show them that they can create their own career choice or their own path of choice with music and the arts rather than taking choices that’s going to lead them down a wrong path and ultimately, end them up in jail.”
Arnott has more than two decades of experience as a hip-hop emcee playing gigs around the UK (for which he is better known as Redeyefeenix). He recently worked with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation to create a music video for their song “The Power of We” which is all about smashing stigma.
His colleagues, the other tutors, similarly have a lifelong love of the arts.
“Music has always been my passion but I was doing it as a side thing,” he says. “I was working dead-end jobs just to pay the bills, wasting 45 hours a week. It has massively changed our life since. We’re all now doing music, which is something we have loved all our lives and we’re teaching it to young people. It’s just so rewarding.”
It’s not always easy. “It’s definitely much harder to get funded now,” he said. “We’re having to work much harder hours and we’ve had knock-backs recently.”
Beats Bus Records hasn’t gone without recognition. It has won 10 awards for work in the community, and they launched a documentary called A Northern Soulwith local filmmaker Sean McAllister which was shown all over the UK in 2018.
Last year, the Crime Commissioner funded Beats Bus to get it wrapped in graphics with imagery around the county lines – so it immediately starts a conversation with young people.
The key focus for Beats Bus Records now is on campaigning to keep young people away from crime and exploitation. They’ve also created music videos with digital media agency INIT Creative to try to tackle knife crime.
Arnott says: “There’s been a lot of incidents around where we live involving knives and a lot of young people losing their lives to county line activities and county lines. So we’re really focusing on keeping young people safe.”
It’s Arnott’s dream to get Beats Bus Records going in other cities and help more young people.
“You can change your path with creativity,” he says. “People can sometimes earn £1,000 a day from doing stuff they shouldn’t be doing. And they ask us: ‘How can you get us that money?’
“And we have to say: ‘Look, we can’t get you that money but we can guarantee you a safe life. You’ll never be looking over your shoulder. You’ll be doing something creative and building something for yourself. It might not be an instant hit, but if you work hard at it, you could be successful and you can earn some good money one day.’
“I think the most important message is that creativity for these young people is so important and there needs to be a lot more support to help them grow their talent.”