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Bedroom MCs get exposed

HIGH HOPES: (L-R) Shavani Seth, Ade Oyefeso and Calvin Demba star in Youngers

IT’S A tale anyone familiar with the British grime scene will know all too well: aspiring MCs and producers making music in their bedrooms; showcasing their skills on the Internet; and, in some cases, garnering a large fan base.

This experience is at the very heart of the UK’s grime scene, which enabled acts like Dizzee Rascal and Tinie Tempah to flex their lyrical muscles and earn huge followings, long before the mainstream began paying attention to their skills. And it’s this experience which is explored in the upcoming E4 show, Youngers.

Written by renowned British talent Levi David Addai, Youngers is set in Peckham, southeast London and follows a group of friends fresh out of school with a heart for music. Like Dizzee and Tinie before them, they are trying to make an impact on the UK urban music scene, creating music in their bedrooms and showcasing it on the internet. But at the same time, they’re trying to negotiate through teenage life in their world where it’s more about swagger than scoring straight As.

One of the first shows to tap into the heart of the British urban music scene – and perhaps the first comedy since Desmond’s which aims to show the positive side of Peckham – Youngers focuses mainly on Yemi, an honour student and aspiring producer, and Jay, who enters a local music competition after getting disappointing GCSE results. And if the trailer is any indication, the eight-part show looks pretty funny.

Addai – the writer behind last year’s heart wrenching BBC Three drama My Murder – tells us more about his fresh, witty and original new show.

What made you decide to create Youngers?

Channel 4 and Big Talk Productions came to me with the idea they had of developing a show about two friends trying to make movements in the urban music scene. After grilling them over their intentions of doing an ‘urban drama’ I was pretty forthright with the things I believed would need to happen in order for it to be unique and successful. Fortunately they listened and trusted me.

Who do you think the programme will appeal to?

Youngers is a really fun show and has a broad appeal. The young – and young at heart – will of course get more of the references, but the friendships, banter, hopes and dreams of the characters are really engaging.

What would you say to the cynics who fear this might be another drama that ticks the boxes of racial stereotyping: black wannabe MCs who hail from a council estate, etc?

A character is not a stereotype – it’s what they do that can make them fall into this category. My characters are just living life while chasing their dreams. Music is the uniting theme, but there are other ambitions too. If by stereotypical you are referring to the ‘black yutes aimlessly or criminally running around in the endz’ then Youngers is definitely not that!

As a black writer, do you take into account what some might feel is your responsibility to portray black characters in a positive light, or are you more concerned with just telling good stories?

I’m a black man who works as a screenwriter, but I’m not a black writer. But I am fully aware of representation in my work and I’m very cautious that I don’t further perpetuate negative stereotypes. But that doesn’t mean I can’t write using slang or feature hip-hop music.

Judging is done on every level, not least with young black males. I love hearing about young black males who might not look like an Apprentice contestant, but are as focused and working hard in their careers; people like [SBTV founder] Jamal Edwards, [YouTube sensations] The Mandem on the Wall, and my friend [actor] Daniel Kaluuya. Even seeing the young black actors in Youngers at the first read through, I had to smile. They weren’t being seen as black urban youths or some hoodies, but as professionals, like everyone else on the table. 

In your experience, have you found any truth to the conspiracy theory that British TV bosses are only interested in commissioning ‘road’ dramas – think Channel 4’s Top Boy, BBC Three’s West 10 Ldn and Channel 4’s adaptation of Roy Williams’ play Fallout – that give a particular representation of the black British experience; namely gang culture/street culture, etc?

I personally haven’t found that, but I think that’s because I’m pretty upfront from the beginning about my sensitivity on representation. But what people don’t tend to know about, is the amount of shows that get developed and don’t make it onto screens. This isn’t always because a commissioner is like, ‘this idea is centred around a black boy working in a library – I don’t want that, where’s the guns and knives?’ It’s an issue of quality. Just because something is different and doesn’t conform to stereotypes, it still has to be quality! I myself have had ideas in development that have been rejected – numerous ones! 

But I will say, there is sometimes a tendency for commissions for shows that are ‘issue based’; be it something that has been in the news or in the public eye. This can sometimes be used as the reason why certain depictions of the black community are shown on TV, so channels can feel justified that they are ‘asking questions’ and ‘responding’ to an issue.

Do you think the raw/organic development of the British urban music scene – aspiring artists/producers making music in their bedrooms and going on to find fame – is inspiring for other up and coming MCs, or does it create false hope, making every wannabe MC think they’ll be a star?

My heart is with anyone that takes up the initiative and uses what they have to build something. But I do think there is an issue and it’s a consequence of a generation that has grown up on reality TV and the expectation of instant success.

More needs to be taught about hard work and hard work over a long period of time. If you want longevity, you need more than a Twitter following or Facebook fan page. It can take years, even decades to perfect your craft – but certain people don’t want to hear or accept that and so look for shortcuts. But the hard work builds your character for the times of waiting, the times of being let down and even the times of success, because success can sometimes be fleeting. But if you have built your character, you will have the tools to aid your craft to continue success long-term.

Did you find it hard creating My Murder, knowing you were dramatising the tragic real life case of  Shakilus Townsend, who was stabbed to death in a ‘honey trap’ killing in 2008?

My Murder took a lot out of me. It was an incredibly huge responsibility. I didn’t jump at the opportunity to write the programme as I had my worries as to what the BBC’s objectives were. Plus, this was a story about a real human being whose mother, family and friends would watch and relive [the tragedy]. Because I was so moved when I first heard the story all those years ago, I asked myself, ‘If I don’t take this on, who will? Suppose they don’t do it justice and it becomes an hour of stereotyping?

STORYTELLER: Writer Levi David Addai

What is your proudest achievement to date?

Career-wise, it’s the fact that I’m working and getting things made. There are so many writers out there working hard, trying to tell their story and get their words green-lit [pitched]. I’m blessed to be in this position and I take none of it for granted.

Youngers starts on E4 at 7.30pm from March 20

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