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News / City Life

Meet the Londoner fighting knife crime with a travelling music studio

Justin Finlayson of United Borders
Photograph: Brunel Johnson

With the help of a bus-turned-recording studio, Justin Finlayson and his United Borders project are fighting violence on the Harlesden estates where he grew up…

‘I was born and raised on Church Road Estate in Harlesden. I had a great time growing up in a predominantly Caribbean community where everyone knew everyone. I spent a lot of time on Stonebridge Estate just around the corner. This was before gang violence kicked off between the two estates, making the area notorious.

Some of my friends made bad decisions and went into jail for a long time. Others were murdered. There was a lot of danger around, but I did whatever I needed to do to provide for my young sons, and that protected me: being around family, I couldn’t hang out with my peers.

The death which changed things was that of James Owusu-Agyekum, who got killed across the road from my mum’s in 2016. Everyone knew James was a good kid: he was in university and only went part-time because he looked after his sick mum. That was the tipping point for me. I thought: I need to have a positive reaction of some form. And that was where the original spark came from to start United Borders.

In August 2017 I bought a red London bus with my own money. I worked with a property developer to convert the upper deck into a recording studio. We installed desks, USB plugs and a plasterboard studio booth at the front. Then I went to Brent Council and told them I wanted to try to reduce the gang-related tensions within the borough by working with both sides. They gave me a short-term contract and funding for a cross-border initiative.

I started working with two gangs in Church Road and Stonebridge. These people wouldn’t normally associate with each other, but the idea was that they would link through music. I would load up the bus with recording equipment and take it to Church Road in the morning, then to Stonebridge in the afternoon. The yutes in Church Road were producing music for the yutes in Stonebridge, but the Stonebridge lot didn’t know that. At the end of the week, when everyone had their bars in the right place, I said to them, “You know that Church Road made the music for you?” That brought down their barriers: they were open to working with the mandem.

I went to Stonebridge with six young people from Church Road: the first time in their 18 years of existence they’d gone to the rival estate. They all started making music together and everyone was happy.

Things didn’t go so smoothly after that. The council wasn’t able to provide any more funding because of austerity cuts. Then my bus got stuck in the mud on the way to its lock-up outside London. I had to leave it, and it was arson-attacked overnight. The project was put on hold while I raised money to buy a new bus. With help from a City firm called Merian Global Investors, it was finally delivered in November.

Now we’re back up and running. We also offer mentoring, kickboxing and yoga sessions – I tell the young kids, “Yoga is for everyone, bruv. Sit down, get your mat out and breathe for a little bit.” But the music is the important bit. The future is to move into live music events, providing jobs for hard-to-reach individuals who are not in the education system. The key is doing something young people actually enjoy. As long as we’re doing that, we’ll always be relevant.’

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