In 2000, when he was seven years old, Cashief Nichols moved with his mother from Jamaica to Peckham, south London. They wanted to be closer to family and to widen their opportunities – which Nichols certainly did. As the rapper Cashtastic, he released his debut mixtape, Alarm Clock, in 2014, which included collaborations with the grime stars Kano, Wiley and Ghetts. Shortly afterwards, though, his stay in the UK came to an abrupt end: “I was put in a van and told where I was going,” he says. Nichols was ordered to return to Jamaica.
Seven years on, he is back in Britain, starting music afresh as Cashh. But he remains bruised from a lengthy battle with the Home Office. “Growing up, it was instilled in you to belong wherever you go,” he says over a video call. “I was just the kid whose parents were from Jamaica.”
When he received a national insurance number at 16, he thought this meant he was eligible to stay and so began the process of applying for indefinite leave to remain, which meant weekly visits to an immigration centre. At the time, Nichols was gaining national attention as part of Peckham’s prolific rap scene. “Nobody knew my immigration situation,” he says, laughing. “I’m an up-and-coming rapper and I’m trying to disguise myself and dodge people spotting me!”
At one such weekly visit, Nichols learned that his application had been rejected. As he tells it, he was placed in handcuffs before being detained at Brook House immigration removal centre – “basically prison” – at Gatwick airport. “I’d walk past people’s cells and hear Radio 1 advertising that I was due on the Live Lounge later that week,” he says. Shortly after arriving there, Nichols received details of a flight to Jamaica booked in his name.
Efforts were made to free Nichols, including a campaign by his then MP, Simon Hughes; pictures of him performing at the Royal Albert Hall as a child were brought forward as Nichols and his legal team fought to convince the authorities that he had the right to remain. Ultimately, the Home Office stuck to its stance that he was guilty of overstaying, the term given to people living in the UK illegally (often unwittingly, in the case of children) after their visa has expired.
“It felt like a trap,” he says. “I am sure there are people who are afraid to go through the correct channels because of that. I went forward and said: ‘What can I do to stay here?’ And it was like: got you.”
Arriving alone in Kingston, Nichols was scared about his future, but sure that the situation would soon be sorted. “I couldn’t allow myself any window of doubt,” he says of a period that would end up lasting five years. “The situation could break you at any point and I couldn’t risk that, because I was alone.” Despite his best efforts, the limbo affected him. “For two years, I was in a mental prison,” he says. “I was trapped, thinking I was due back in the UK any day.” He pivoted to working in video production while his legal case slowly progressed. Eventually, in late 2018, his lawyer delivered the good news: his application to return to the UK had been approved and his visa would arrive within six weeks. It came 10 months later. “I sat and waited for my phone to ring,” he says of his final, darkest, period on the island. “You can see the finish line, but there’s someone holding you back. It was terrible.”
Arriving in the UK in March 2019, Nichols began working on music that reflected his experience. The result is Return of the Immigrant, to be released in two parts this year. “As far as I’m concerned, I’m a new artist now,” Nichols says of his name change.
His song Trench Baby is an honest and vulnerable reflection of a tough upbringing, asking for forgiveness for selling drugs while also highlighting the bureaucratic challenges facing him. Life of an Immigrant, meanwhile, is a rallying cry for a marginalised community, “an anthem to give you hopes and dreams and know that you’re understood. If you’re fighting a case and trying to avoid the worst-case scenario, then know that I came back.”
Thanks to Dave, Stormzy, the drill scene and beyond, UK rap has blossomed since Nichols left the country, something he compares to being an injured footballer, “watching your team win from the sidelines”. Still only on a visa and hoping for full British citizenship, he has been attending regular therapy sessions. “As much as I grew up being aware that I was Jamaican, the UK felt like home. I’m scarred from that experience. All I can do is stay positive and try to give back wherever I can.”
He aims to do that with a foundation to fund individual immigration cases. “The Home Office can out-price you and out-time you,” he says. “That’s how they win their cases. A lot of people have strong cases, but don’t have five years of optimism in them. Eventually, they have to give up.”
Nichols is also keen to turn his journey into a TV series, while there are discussions with the BBC about a documentary. There is also his Proud Immigrant clothing line. “I know I sound positive, as if I made it out the other side, but this is still ongoing for me,” he says. “I’ve been chasing stability my whole life and feeling stable here is worrying now. The rug can be ripped at any point.”
• Return of the Immigrant Pt 1 will be released in September