“Sometimes you can be trapped in this mental prison and society isn’t offering any alternatives. Society is putting these young boys in the box of criminals but not humanising their experience”

Amani Simpson, the CEO of “Aviard” and the man behind Jovain Wade’s new short film, discussed with TCS the impact of the community, the responsibilities of mainstream media, and positive role models on violence and ‘gang’ crime. The “Amani” Short Film has received over 1.5 million views on Youtube since being released earlier this month. At the root of the film is Simpson, who was stabbed seven times and almost died after trying to break up a fight in 2011. This turn of events created “Aviard” – the organisation now ran by Simpson to help young people elevate themselves to reach their full potential rather than falling into a cycle of violence. Instead, Simpson emphasises societal and personal improvement through the utilisation of agency by the community, rather than relying on authoritative structures and mainstream representation. I interviewed Simpson in relation to Aviard’s mission and how elements of the “Amani” short film relate to this. 

1) In researching Aviard, I found that one of the most emphasised ideas is that you compare human beings to an aircraft, in the sense that we all need the correct fuel, engineering and destination to elevate ourselves. How does this relate to Aviard’s goals as an organisation?

“The metaphor relates to the idea that sometimes we aren’t meant to fly. Sometimes the environment is set up to hold us back, but essentially we need to engineer our minds to steer away from that, so we are not being trapped by a mental prison. Its more about trying to make sure that your are improving. So that if you’re unhappy, you can do something about it.”.

2) This idea of self empowerment is also seen at the beginning of “Amani”. There is a conversation with God which is pretty much driven by this self realisation of power, and the ability to escape this mental prison; How as a community, as a society or as organisations can we encourage this self belief to prevail over difficult environments? 

“As a community we need to learn, earn, return. For example, role models like myself and my peers need to go into schools and go into those sorts of environments. We need to go into schools where they are willing to teach because I know that if I had a mentor, a black mentor, that looked like an older brother, that dressed well and had respect and confidence, i’d aspire to be like that. That would have given me what I was looking for in the negative side of things.”.

3) Do you think it goes back to finding more representation for communities that are more vulnerable – Is it more about trying to get more representation for ethnic minorities as working professionals to counter this negative stereotype promoted in the media?  

“Yeah definitely. It’s not just about being distant role models, we need to be in and around that. We as a community need to promote more of these things in general conversation. Someone sent me a video of a boy being stabbed up in McDonalds in my area, and I said ‘Why would you share that? Why would I want to see that?’.  For me one of the missions for Aviard was to create a platform for positive personal development and something that will work to change minds. Like I said before, sometimes you can be trapped in this mental prison and society isn’t offering any alternatives. Society is putting these young boys in the box of criminals but not humanising their experience. I was in an interview the other day and someone asked ‘right, so gangs…’, and I said no, not gangs, it’s a group of friends first of all. They’ve all grown up together and so on, and it develops from there because if one person on the block gets stabbed, then everyone in the area feels like they have to carry a knife. Its a story, not an isolated thing of just someone being a criminal. There are a lot of factors, and there is going to be times when we are faced with hard situations but that is when we have to find ways to promote positivity.” 

4) Within the media I think we see some lack of responsibility. There is a lot of blaming and discourse surrounding gangs, and drill music but when there is a crime committed by a group of ethnic minority youths it is labelled differently to their white counterparts. Do you think this image portrayal holds some responsibility in the rise of violent crime? 

“We live in a society that perpetuates particular stereotypes because that is what feeds the state of fear we live in. We live in a state where people find it easier to fear things rather than communicate. When the media publishes these sorts of things, I think it’s prejudice. Within the team of people that are publishing it, there is not enough representation from the communities that are being spoken about. If we are looking at young people in general, the news is going to say whatever it is they have to say just to sell a paper, and to make everyone choose not engage in that group. But really, they are just humans that are making mistakes as they’re growing up. Really there is no difference between them and a white guy in Cheshire that is getting in trouble. Its just the fact that you’re putting it on TV and saying that these are all hoodies, and gang members. There is no difference – we are all affected by our own adverse experiences and the environments we grew up in.”.

5) So would you say one of the biggest problems is representation and portrayal in the media? 

A lot of visual media does not represent us in a good light. It’s a multi layered problem. For example when I listen to drill music, I understand that it is an opportunity to make money for some young boys and to move away from their areas and express their experiences. Similar to how Grime music was – but Grime artists slowly became more palatable to the public, and the artists were able to change and develop. However, with Drill music, it is just about killing people, it’s not allowing young boys to free their mind. They are constantly in this space where you are seeing it on TV and with the music, what else are the kids supposed to think of themselves? When it comes to drill music, I think it’s just too violent. Its not artistic, you’re just rhyming and talking about violent things. Listening to that every single day cannot be good for your mindset. There’s always going to be violence. For example – Gun Lean. It’s now part of popular culture, but at the same time boys in London are being shot up. I’m not saying that song is directly responsible but it’s part of that culture. Then the news are sharing it, and then videos of it go viral and it just engulfs everything.”.

6) But with that, how do we separate music which could have a positive impact, to Drill music which can be seen as having a negative impact?

Music has a massive responsibility. I think the solution is to create an alternative platform where young people are challenged to talk about something else. Right now people aren’t being challenged to talk about anything else apart from what we hear in drill music. With the showcases Aviard are running, i’m trying to create an alternative platform. It allows young people to talk about more positive things,  so no ones allowed to talk about drugs, or violence, nor are they allowed to swear, because there are other ways to express yourself. If I can impact that a little bit then I will.”. 

7) A couple of years ago, you were stabbed yourself. Knowing that that would have happened, but also knowing that it would have led to Aviard, would you have done anything differently? 

“No. No, to be here right now is a blessing, not even in an arrogant way. I hear young boys and girls saying ‘thank you, because of you I don’t want to be on the street anymore’. And for me, that is a massive responsibility. Me getting stabbed was pre-destined, before I was born, that was meant to happen to me. As much as I could have been upset about it, you have got to elevate, be positive, there is a silver lining on every cloud. It all depends on what you are willing to sacrifice. I had chances to retaliate, but for me, that only feeds into this never ending cycle of fear and bad decisions. At one point you have to break the cycle and move forward. You can never go back, you have got to keep moving forward.”.

From my discussions with Amani Simpson, I deducted a strong emphasis on collective responsibility. Regardless of if you are a white privileged man in ‘Cheshire’ as Amani mentioned, or a single mother on an inner city council estate, we all have a sense of responsibility to look after our kids, siblings, and our community. Through this responsibility, we need to recognise the importance in representation and empowerment. If we allow the mainstream media or authoritative structures to represent communities as inherently more evil or criminal than others, the cycle will never stop. As members of grass-root communities, we are more at risk of experiencing violence than policy makers who have never looked beyond the surface. As Simpson said, society is quick to label criminals and criminal acts but not condemn the social conditions that shaped criminality as a consequence. Both Aviard and Amani Simpson recognise community experience and membership as holding an empowering potential hence why Simpson has been able to help as many young people as he has. We all must follow Simpson in his steps towards reshaping discourse surrounding ‘gangs’, youth and violence. 

To find out more about Amani Simpson’s organisation, follow the link: http://www.aviard.co.uk/