When Jamal Edwards MBE was growing up in Acton, west London, youth clubs were his lifeline: the founder of £8m media empire SBTV left school with just a handful of GCSEs and was told by his teachers that it didn’t matter because he would “only be going to work in Safeways”.
But through Bollo Brook and Friary Park youth centres, Edwards was able to complete film courses and experiment on music studio equipment. At 18, he launched an urban music channel on YouTube and amassed millions of viewers and subscribers, helping to launch the careers of countless underground rappers, UK grime stars – and Ed Sheeran.
“Those opportunities set me up and they’re not there now for young people,” says Edwards.
Fed up with government cuts to youth services that have been blamed for record-breaking levels of youth violence in England, the 29-year-old is fighting to take back control for young people on the estates he grew up on. He has refurbished and reopened four youth centres in Acton, west London.
“We’ve been going for 22 weeks and are engaging with hundreds of kids on a regular basis,” he says. “But I want it to be thousands. I want to give the kids different experiences and listen to what they want. The biggest thing I want to give young people is make them know their potential.”
Edwards negotiated funding from Google and the Wellcome Trust, and says the project began 18 months ago and has cost “under £100k” so far. “There was a lot of hustling at the beginning – even trying to get a conversation with the people that owned the buildings or the housing association,” he says. “I spent a lot of time on LinkedIn finding senior people to talk to and guessing their emails.”
He is now developing a long-term strategy to ensure that the centres are kept open and running beyond the next three to five years, with plans to replicate their success on estates across the country. Edwards is well-connected and is making the most of his contacts for the sake of his not-for-profit spaces.
“I’ve got a kid who wants to be a mechanic; we hooked him up with an apprenticeship with Mercedes Benz. Nike donated tickets to a football match. Rihanna’s nail technician did a workshop at one of the clubs. Ed Sheeran came down. Hopefully it has a knock-on effect, but in terms of activities we plan, I always try and link it to what the kids want to do and what I have access to. I want to give them as many different experiences as I can.”
According to analysis by the Labour party, 750 youth centres have closed in England since 2012, with spending on youth services down by 67% overall in the same period. The party has pledged that it would create a nationwide network of clubs and services for young people as a way of tackling mental ill-health, school exclusions and youth violence. In May, research by the all parliamentary knife crime group and children’s charity Barnado’s revealed that councils which closed the greatest number of youth clubs had seen the biggest local increases in knife crime. Incidents of knife crime are now at the highest level recorded by the Office for National Statistics since 2010-2011, when comparable data began to be compiled.
Busayo Oyedoyin believes Edwards’s work is essential but that responsibility lies with government. “Austerity has taken away our youth services, which are essential – youth clubs are safe havens for young people,” says the 19-year-old anti-knife crime campaigner.
“Good youth clubs allow young people to have a safe space and not be involved in antisocial behaviour. Theresa May announced a national plan for knife crime in May but it was just words; we need actions. Knife crime is a contagious disease spreading across the country, not just London.”
Edwards agrees but remains undaunted by the challenge ahead. “Part of me thinks I have a responsibility as well. You have to give back to the community – that’s a passion of mine. And a lot of young people know me and follow me, so I feel I have a responsibility to them and to show this can be done. If I can do it off my own back, it could make councils stop and think ‘if he’s doing it, what are we doing?’. Hopefully it might inspire some fire in them.”