How hip-hop is helping young people in Hull find their voice
Ten-year-old Jess Baker (not her real name) stands at a microphone in a tiny recording studio behind a hip-hop clothing shop near Hull city centre. “My brain is all messed up,” she raps, “Music is my passion, it makes me not give up”.
Running the sound desk and encouraging her as she raps is Steve Arnott, director of Beats Bus, a project running music and arts workshops for young people in the city, which tackle issues including mental health, bullying and political engagement. “The idea of the Beats Bus first came to me about five years ago,” says Arnott. “There were hip-hop workshops already happening across the city, and I’d started doing workshops for young people. But if you come from a family with no money, parents can’t afford to give their children bus fares every day to come into town.”
Arnott is the focus of a new documentary following his attempts to bring creativity and self-expression to young people in Hull’s marginalised communities. The film, A Northern Soul, by Hull-born documentary-maker Sean McAllister, is set against the backdrop of 2017, when Hull was city of culture.
Established in 2013 by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the UK city of culture, awarded every four years, aims to bring the kind of social and economic benefits that Liverpool got from being the European capital of culture in 2008, when it welcomed 9.7 million and its economy got a boost of more than £750m.
Hull beat competition from Leicester, Dundee and Swansea to become the second city of culture, after Derry in Northern Ireland won the inaugural bid for 2013. Civic leaders in Derry say that five years on, the effects of its year of culture are still being felt. It was an economic success and has transformed the image of the city, although an audit revealed it did not deliver as many jobs as had been predicted.
And last December, Coventry was chosen to be the next city of culture – and was handed £8.5m in last month’s budget to help it prepare heritage and cultural buildings ahead of 2021. The team putting together Coventry’s programme is working with grassroots organisations to ensure events are inclusive. “Austerity is still biting hard,” says Martin Sutherland, chief executive of Coventry City of Culture Trust. “The year cannot just be about a big celebratory arts festival.” As well as tracking the economic impact of the year, Coventry’s team will be analysing the social impact, including on wellbeing, isolation, loneliness and mental health.
Hull’s winning bid focused on “a city coming out of the shadows”. Hopes were high for its year as a cultural hub and the potential to transform lives – more than one in three children in the city live in poverty and it is one of England’s 20 most deprived areas. Although the city of culture title does not automatically confer any monetary gain, as a result of becoming city of culture, Hull received £8.5m from the government, £3m from Arts Council England and more than £10m in lottery funding including £3m from the Heritage Lottery Fund to support its programme of events.
On the face of it, Hull has reaped the benefits: its year as city of culture attracted more than 5 million people to its events and led to 800 new jobs and almost £220m investment in culture and tourism. “I knew that the city of culture would make Hull really proud,” says Arnott. “The first week was amazing, with thousands of people on the streets crying, cheering, laughing. It raised the pride in our people.”
Katy Fuller, an executive producer who helped organise Hull UK City of Culture 2017, now creative director and chief executive of Absolutely Cultured, the organisation running the city’s legacy events, says nine out of 10 residents had been involved in an event during the year – either attending, participating or volunteering.
Audiences from the city’s most deprived areas were included in a number of different ways, and performances did not just take place in the city centre. The city of culture organisers, Fuller says, worked with schools, shopping centres and social clubs to put performances in the heart of communities – and one of the year’s showpiece events, the Land of Green Ginger, was presented in six neighbourhoods beyond the city centre. One of the city of culture legacy programmes is supporting theatre companies and artists living and working in Hull, she adds.
Yet while Arnott’s Beats Bus colleague Dave Okwesia agrees that the events raised Hull’s profile and brought in both visitors and new businesses to the city centre, he says that the benefits were not felt so much in outlying areas or among grassroots artists.
McAllister describes the year as “85% successful”, but he, too, questions whether residents in areas affected by poverty and austerity were able to take part in events. “The city of culture was not really about the estates,” he says.
While A Northern Soul is a story about Hull’s year in the cultural spotlight, it’s also a powerful counterblast to the “poverty porn” of TV programmes such as Channel 4’s Benefits Street. Arnott is shown juggling his efforts to get his Beats Bus project on the road with an arduous job in a warehouse, struggling to make ends meet as his debts mount.
“In the media, political and national discourse there has been an increase in negative depictions of poverty,” says Campbell Robb, chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which part-funded the film. “It became obvious to us that we could not change laws and policies without addressing those attitudes.”
Although the film focuses on Arnott, the story it tells of in-work poverty is one faced by growing numbers of people, with one in eight of the UK workforce (3.7 million people) living in poverty. “This film will resonate with everybody who watches it because this is the reality of lots of people’s lives,” says Robb. “While it tells the story of one man, it tells the story of a generation of people.”
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McAllister says his film is having a zeitgeist moment. Since its premiere at Sheffield documentary festival in June, Arnott and McAllister have travelled nationwide, speaking at dozens of screenings – often the film has been shown alongside Ken Loach’s drama I, Daniel Blake. The documentary will be shown to MPs this month and it is being aired on BBC2 on 18 November.
Back in Hull, Arnott has secured £11,500 from crowdfunding to run the Beats Bus as a social enterprise, enabling him to give up his warehouse job and to focus full-time, with four colleagues, on running music, performance and art workshops for young people around the city.
“The original idea, which we want to go back to, is approaching communities and estates where kids are knocking about on the streets because they’ve got nothing better to do,” he says. “We want to give them something better to do, give them a bit of advice and maybe stop them getting in trouble, messing about and maybe breaking the law. Youth clubs have been cut – we can be a travelling youth club.”
And his ultimate aim is to take the Beats Bus project beyond Hull. “We want to branch out to take it wherever people want it,” he says. “If it works well, it can work well anywhere.”
A Northern Soul will be shown on BBC2 at 10pm on 18 November