Picture: Leona Lewis in Hackney. Copyright: BBC
Leona Lewis was at home with friends expecting her father to pop round with a CD that she needed. “He phoned and said, ‘How badly do you want this CD? I’ve just seen a guy throw a petrol bomb’.” One of her friends got a call saying that the bank where she worked had been firebombed. With little sign of the police being able to stop the riots in Hackney, east London, last summer, Lewis told her father to stay away and put her friends up for the night. “It was crazy,” she remembers. “I was very worried.”
Reports published last week suggest that the police expect a repeat of last year’s events. With the Olympics putting east London under global scrutiny, Lewis, who represented London at the close of the Beijing Games, desperately hopes that won’t happen.
Despite being a hugely successful pop star — she was the first British solo artist to have a debut album go to No 1 in America — she retains a home in Hackney, the deprived borough where she grew up. She has friends and family in the area and for the past 12 months she has been working with its troubled youngsters.
She has a pretty good grasp of the local problems and, perhaps surprisingly for one brought up in an era that blamed society rather than individuals for wrongdoing, she has concluded that much of it comes down to a lack of discipline.
We meet at a fancy hotel in Chelsea Harbour, west London, near where she has been rehearsing for a show. Lewis wears a baggy white T-shirt, her hair pulled up into a topknot. She’s extremely polite and thinks before answering questions in an accent that wobbles between the East End and her education at expensive schools of music and drama.
As an “ambassador” for Hackney in the run-up to BBC Radio 1’s summer music festival, the Hackney Weekend, Lewis revisited her old school and other haunts in search of young people who might use music to turn their lives around. “Pretty much all the youth clubs that I used to go to have shut down now,” she says.
She found children to work with — many of them expelled from school — who were keen to be photographed with her. “But then it wore off and I really had to work to get their attention. From being a bit star-struck it was like” — she mimes looking bored, staring out
of a window with folded arms — “can’t be bovvered.”
Rioting in Hackney, 2011. Copyright: Reuters
The teenagers enjoyed turning their experiences into song, however. “One that really stood out for me was two guys rapping about the area they live in, saying basically that it’s not fun to live there, it’s scary. They were talking about drugs, guns, violence, robbin’, stabbin’. I can’t go into the details about individuals, but they’re living in a very poor area, surrounded by things they should be protected from, and some of them don’t have the right role models in their lives.”
Lewis was not entirely protected from this world herself. The daughter of a Welsh mother, Maria, and a Guyanese father, Joe, who hqad 11 siblings, she grew up with a huge extended family in the area. One of her many cousins was convicted in 1996, aged 14, as the leader of a gang that raped a tourist. Many of her brothers’ friends are in prison and one of her childhood friends was shot dead near where Lewis once worked as a receptionist in a chiropody practice.
What made her grow up so different? When Lewis won The X Factor in 2006, aged 21, she was presented to the world as a star who had appeared from nowhere, who practised singing into her hairbrush before a bedroom mirror. In fact, she had attended performing arts schools for years. “I’m really lucky in that my parents opened a business together that was quite successful, a clothing business with six branches, so I got to travel a lot to India and New York and do nice things and had a good education, so I feel really fortunate,” she says.
She kept in close touch with her Hackney friends and learnt a lot from her parents who worked part-time as a ballet teacher (Maria) and as a DJ (Joe), but also for many years in the criminal justice system.
“My dad was a part-time youth offending officer. He was involved with guys, he would get them into programmes, if they had been expelled, to get some discipline back, some focus. I knew that he got very frustrated because in the way he grew up it was very much hands-on, but there were so many barriers . . .” Such as? “Certain things you
can’t say or do when you are disciplining somebody.”
She does not give specific examples, but says: “I think the people who put these rules in place have not had any kind of contact with these young people. People like my dad should be allowed to approach the job in ways that they think best. More contact one-on-one. They should be able to be more tough.”
She saw for herself how poor the discipline can be when the youngsters she worked with came in and started drinking vat-loads of energy drinks: “They’d go mental and not record anything. They were bouncing off the walls one minute, then sleeping on the floor.” In dealing with this she may possibly have been influenced as well by Simon Cowell, the X Factor impresario and her mentor.
“I had to go back the next day and I’m not confrontational but I really had to kick them into gear. They would play their songs and they’re like, ‘Yeah, this is great’. And I just looked at them and said: no. This is not good enough. It’s. Not. Good. “So their bubbles were burst. I
had to say, if you are going up against other people you have to be the best you can be and this is not good enough. Sometimes it does have to be tough love.
“So they went in again and they did amazin’. So, so, so well.”
As well as more discipline, Lewis says areas such as Hackney need more money. “Hackney is a very poor area. It was industrial, where the workers were, and [it has] stayed that way, not looking very nice. The money is put into central London, places like this” — she gestures around the hotel dining room, out of the window at the yachts in Chelsea Harbour. “The money needs to be filtered out more.”
At the same time she is equivocal about the regeneration of parts of Hackney. “I can’t believe that people go to bars in Dalston. Ten years ago you’d have avoided going there at night. But the downside is that it’s so expensive, the rents are cuh-ray-zee. So people have to move out. It’s a shame.”
She’s on firmer ground describing the inspirational figures who have attempted to take young people’s problems into their own hands. People such as her brother, who set up a part-time after-school club, and her aunt, a social worker who runs a charity offering drumming and dance classes: “You should see how involved the kids get, how focused, and how much respect and love they have for the people who run it — the people who give a crap about them.”
Lewis helps to fund the charity as well as other projects: “We’re also raising money doing shows and fundraising sales because charities need to sustain themselves. But it would help if the government would fund more projects like that.
“People like me can help, going in and talking, and if one person gets an inspiration it might have a knock-on effect. I’m not thinking a miracle will happen, but if I can inspire one person to keep working on their dream then that’s a great, positive thing. But the role models these young people need are people living in the community going through the same daily problems.”
First published in The Sunday Times, 8 July 2011