Greg Sekweyama believes words can transform lives – and he puts his time where his mouth is, by running poetry sessions at HMP Brixton.
The Tulse Hill-raised wordsmith speaks to TOBY PORTER as part of our campaign highlighting important work in the community which helps prevent knife crime. Also, below, the St Matthew’s Project, one of those projects featured in the Lambeth Walk feature, has been nominated for a London grassroots sport award.
Mr Gee is also judging a national creative writing competition for children in care and care leavers – half of children in youth custody have been through the care system, so the Voices competition is a vital initiative that gives children in care a chance to express themselves – https://coramvoice.org.uk/
There was a time when South London led the way in preventing knife crime.
That is the contention of radio and TV poet Greg Sekweyama – known as Mr Gee to viewers and listeners.
The former pupil of Kingsdale School, East Dulwich, who has had his own slot on programmes hosted by comedian Russell Brand for more than 10 years, has been getting prisoners to open up about their lives at HMP Brixton for most of that time.
It is a crucial tool in getting convicts to understand their own self-destructive behaviour, he says.
Such methods blazed a trail 10 years ago – and inspired other projects.
Greg believes they were the model for crime prevention strategies a decade ago. But now the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) which has been very successful, has been adopted as the model for London.
He said: “I worked for the Glasgow VRU 10 years ago. They came down from Scotland to London to find out what was going on and invited a whole lot of us back to Scotland.
“We went to Govan, where thousands of shipbuilding jobs had been lost on the Clyde. They had transferred that pride in their work into their pride in tackling sectarian gangs and street crime.
“The VRU wanted to know how London groups were dealing with the problem.
“I saw the parallels then.
“Now we have come full circle.
“They have been seeing gang violence as treatable. But they have maintained that diligence and worked at it consistently.
“London nowadays has so much money, it is easy to forget how much poverty there is. An outsider can miss it because of all the Bentleys and Rolls Royces.
“The only place to socialise now is shopping malls because all the community centres are shut. So the only way to have enough money to spend is through crime.
“But not everyone can have a job in Starbucks and say ‘Have a nice day’ all the time.”
Mr Gee has performed at the Albany in Deptford, in the West End hit Into the Hoods and gets regular work from sportswear manufacturers.
The income funds his work with ex-offenders, such as Bounceback in Brixton; and with inmates at HMP Brixton.
Rhyming is crucial to Mr Gee. “Poetry saved me,” he said.
“I was never a bad kid. I knew them to talk to and know people who have done terrible things. But I was too scared of them. I never schemed to be a millionaire. I just wanted to have fun – chat to girls, play tunes and dance. That’s why I ended up being a DJ. And I have been very lucky to earn a living from it and as a poet.”
He worked as a driver delivering scaffolding during the day and as a DJ in the Fridge Bar and at Baboushka in Brixton Water Lane and a club in Clapham.
One night a friend decided to create a fake poetry night as a ruse to propose to his girlfriend, at the end.
But people really liked Greg’s words. So he went to Brix-Tongue and also started a poetry evening at the Brixton Art Gallery in Brixton Station Road, almost 20 years ago – one of half a dozen similar nights in the area at the time. Brand came to one.
Greg had already interviewed poets for SW2, Loughborough Junction estate radio station – so he quit driving in 2007 and ended up hosting five series of Sony-nominated Bespoken Word on Radio 4, going on to Rhyme and Reason, Eddie Nestor’s radio show, Radio 2, Radio X and also, for prison radio, Poetic Justice – and wrote for Brand’s Big Brother’s Big Mouth appearances
“The model is tricky, though,” said Greg. “My dream is to set up a charity of poets where we all write and perform.
“George the Poet and Kojey Radical are doing what I wish I could have done 10 years ago. The outlets like YouTube and Facebook were not there.”
The prison sessions involve inmates writing about what they got right and what they got wrong.
“You can get some mastery over the outcome,” he said. “It is a positive step in your life.
“What steps ended you up in prison and how can you get out. It is about
self-evaluation. The most powerful poem you will ever read will be about yourself.
“Men are not very expressive – we do not delve into our emotional side. You can at a football match – you see men crying and talking about their family.
“They need a safe space for that. One where they can express themselves but their
pride is not taken away – because when it is, what is left?”
He depicts writing as a conversation between your heart – which expresses your wants, but caused you to end up in prison – and your soul, which wants the best for you.
“Your desires and uncontrolled feelings in your heart can end up hurting people close
to you, and those who want the best for you,” he said.
“It can allow people into your life who have your worst interests in mind.”
The picture of gang leaders as Fagin-types accompanied by Hollywood-style evil theme music is all wrong.
“They are charismatic, welcoming, loving,” he said.
“Gangs can be a safe space. You don’t get people to do what you want by fear alone. They inspire loyalty – when you are down, dad wasn’t around, school excluded you and your mum did not understand, they were there for you.”
Mr Gee describes how one prisoner got him to write love poems to three girlfriends through pure charisma.
“He said he was in a fix, owed a guy
money and he had clocked I had a saviour complex. He wasn’t imposing or threatening – just charismatic.
“He asked me to contact someone on the outside. Suddenly I realised ‘You’re really clever’. In any other field of life, he would have been a successes. That is what a gang leader is like. Their lives are toxic.”
Mr Gee – known to his mum as Greg Sekweyama – was first asked to help with a drama workshop at Feltham Young Offender Institute – and saw a boy he had taught five years before, aged 13.
“I wondered what could have happened in those five years, which for most people are just school,” said Greg. “He went on to kill two people and now won’t be out of prison until he’s over 30.
“I realised words were not just about being witty on Radio 4.
“Sadly, I started seeing people I knew from the area around Brixton – bad kids or bullies
“You don’t see them for years while you get on with your life. They reappear in their 30s or 40s and just look broken.
“From being teenagers who went out dancing with ironed shirts to impress, they have lost all will and vigour.
“I was writing poems about hanging out in South London, relationships and wondered if it could be turned into poetry. You can become the greatest author of your own story.
“It’s not about internet hits but about family, friends, relationships, money problems, your job – what brings frustration; or joy. It can provide understanding and a solution. I get prisoners to challenge themselves to do it.
“Some have a lyrical mind. Some won’t and get more out of cooking or a gym. But
some come back.
“One ended up presenting a programme on Radio Four on Inside Out.”
Mr Gee has also noted the boost in self-esteem that young offenders get when they write about their feelings, which is why he is one of a panel of expert judges for Voices, a national writing competition for children in care and young care leavers – https://coramvoice.org.uk/
Mr Gee contends grime and drill music will not help young black men understand their predicament.
“It is a way of writing which is not self-exploratory,” he said. “The lines and flows are an attempt to impress the crowd.
“The stuff we do in prison is a much deeper level of scribbling. It is cathartic for the writers. It is not Saturday night – it is just for you.”