(Photography by Jake Lewis)
On any dry night this summer, you could have climbed the steep, unlit hill through a copse in North London and wound up at the foot of Alexandra Palace, the vast Victorian building that now plays host to exhibition rooms, an ice rink, funfairs, raves, rock shows and, most obviously, a giant TV tower that helped the BBC carry out its first experimental transmissions in 1936. It's an impressive sight, grand and assured of its own permanence in a way that feels incongruous in the chaotic sprawl of neighbourhoods that surround it: Hornsey to the south, Muswell Hill to the west, Barnet to the north and Wood Green to the east. Even more impressive, though, is the view from the top of that steep hill that takes in London almost in its entirety: after dark, a distant and serene-seeming ocean of lights that stretches up to and far beyond the sister TV transmitter in Crystal Palace, 15 miles to the south. From here, London looks weirdly asleep, static; not unlike the ossifying museum-city that critics of its ongoing gentrification fear it is becoming. Not that anyone who's made the trek up the slope with a working set of ears will be mistaking London for Paris-on-Thames any time soon.
As any place high on a hill invariably does, Alexandra Palace attracts a decent amount of sightseers most nights, not least balmy summer ones, and each seems to bring their own soundtrack. Turkish teens walking by arm in arm playing afrobeats off their iPhones; students sat on the grassy banks in circles with joints and Joy O; Eastern European guys giving girls rides on their motorbikes, blaring hard trance; cars with dump valves slowing to a crawl to take in the view and the strains of local hero Skepta's "It Ain't Safe". The palace on the hillside is a place where different cultures and lifestyles come to converge, united in a desire to gaze upon a city that for all its nightclub closures, wage-slave baristas and parked foreign wealth remains essentially dynamic, occasionally exhilarating.
Tottenham, where Alexandra Palace resides, is not the most ethnically diverse area in London; it is – according to reports – the most ethnically diverse area in the whole of Europe. Over 300 languages are spoken on its streets, which are home to a large number of Orthodox Jews, Turks, Poles and Ghanaians, and other significant diasporic communities whose bloodlines can be traced back to places as remote to each other as Kurdistan and Colombia, the Caribbean and Albania, Somalia and Ireland. As such, it remains a zone of hyperactive cultural fluidity, even in a city whose inner rings are starting to look increasingly uniform. And this is borne out in the musical connections struck up in the local postcodes.
"I first started rapping when I was 10 or 11," says Awate, a 25-year-old rapper. "I'm the oldest child in a refugee family that wasn't really into Western culture, but I went to stay with some older cousins in Edmonton one summer, and one was really into Nas and Tupac, the other Jay-Z and Biggie. They played me and my little cousin all this music and then said, 'Right, you've got an hour to write some bars and then you're gonna battle each other.' I absolutely merked him. He's never recovered."
Awate is of Eritrean descent, but has never actually set foot inside Eritrea, and is currently living on a terraced street in Tottenham between the busy thoroughfares of Green Lanes and West Green Road. His family, many of whom were freedom fighters in the Eritrean Liberation Front, moved to London via the Saudi Arabian port city of Jeddah, where Awate was born in political exile on the day his homeland won its independence in 1991. It's perhaps not surprising, then, that his parents chose to name him after Hamid Idris Awate, the founding leader of the ELF. The name Awate translates from the Tigre language as "victory".
"For me that's always been very significant," he says. "I've been made to feel like I'm some kind of golden child all my fucking life. Imagine if Harry Potter was born the day Voldemort went away."
"I was just thinking about those Harry Potter comparisons myself," laughs Tumai Salih, or 'Turkish' as he's known, the Turkish-Cypriot producer who first made his name coming to prominence with Hornsey-born rapper Sway – and who Awate now works most closely with to bring his dextrous, indefatigable, hyper-aware wordplay to the world. They met at a showcase event in 2011, where Turkish was impressed with Awate's ability to freestyle as others around him relied on pre-cooked bars. The three of us are sat looking out of the windows of Turkish's studio in Camden, where Awate can see Maiden Lane, the estate he grew up on, being demolished and turned into luxury flats.
"That was so hard, moving out. My estate is so beautiful – architecturally incredible, designed by Benson and Forsyth, in the Camden style, under the tutelage of Sidney Cooke, who was the head architect for the borough. They built the great estates in North London. And now I've left. They're knocking down bits. Have you seen outside now? There's a picture of a white woman and a slogan saying: 'Maiden Lane, a place for everyone'."
Understandably, Awate's latest EP, Shine Ancient, out this week, is preoccupied with the changes that his city is undergoing. "Out Here" tackles the increasingly exclusive nature of London nightlife ("While the blue-blooded are loving what they call fun"); the chorus of "Fever" talks of mayoral distrust and rent hikes; while standout closer "Displaced" – with its key refrain: "It's hard living when the place where you're from ain't there anymore" – eyes up the marketing suite that has encroached upon his home estate, the skyscrapers that have come to form the aloof and priapic skyline visible from Alexandra Palace. Shine Ancient isn't solely concerned with Awate and Turkish's hometown, but it does feel like a personal statement, a global topography of oppression traced back to the council bedroom Awate felt confined to after punishing run-ins with the Met police.
"I started getting hit with police cases when I was making my first album," he explains. "I got arrested on my estate, and then three more times over the next two years, and then I didn't go out of my house much, so those songs became the best-written songs I ever made, because my brain was stuck, jammed."
"When you've got trials coming up, every second you're asking yourself questions from the position of the prosecutor and obsessing over the answers," he explains. "'What if I change this word, maybe that'll help get me off?' – that kind of thing. You're asking yourself questions that are so messed up about who and what you are. The things they ended up asking me – 'Do you hate the police? You're an angry black man, aren't you?'… I was stuck in patterns; thinking about everything a lot longer – including my raps. And that came from mental illness, that came from the police, political pressure, and so it becomes music that comes from a political place."
After beating all police charges against him, Awate made the move to north-east London – an area that doesn't have a great history of harmony when it comes to community-police relations. From the riots on the Broadwater Farm estate that saw local resident Cynthia Jarrett and PC Keith Blakelock lose their lives in 1985, to the more recent unrest triggered by the police killing of Mark Duggan in 2011, there seems to be an undercurrent of resentment waiting to boil over – as it did earlier this year, when a block party ended with revellers and police chasing each other through the streets of Stamford Hill.
Not that there aren't those trying to turn Tottenham into a more positive place. Shay D is a rapper and spoken word artist, youth worker, radio host on Itch FM and until recently ran the Lyrically Challenged open mic night at Dalston's Passing Clouds. (It has, almost inevitably, recently been closed in a chaotic blur of bailiffs, landlords, protesters and police.) She is of Persian descent, but was born and raised in London and lives in the Tottenham area, working in the local community when she's not touring to "educate and empower young people through hip-hop", aiming to use its power to bring together teenagers from disparate cultural backgrounds.
"The songs on my new album, Figure of Speech, specifically highlight socio-economic issues, community spirit, racism, youth violence and sexism, but all point to a positive outcome and how to make change," she says. "This is such a diverse area – so many languages, foods, cultures, traditions and religions that all add up so that we can just live as human beings. I have worked with people from all different backgrounds, sexualities, races, abilities and ages. I don't feel in London you can just roll with one specific type of person. It's impossible. Nothing can beat community spirit."The eclecticism of Tottenham's musical makeup is made clear in conversation with Marrik Shearer, an engineer, producer, songwriter and manager who owns his own studio on West Green Road. Born in Australia and raised in Glasgow, Marrik reels off a diverse list of sub-genres when I ask him what kind of stuff people come in to commit to tape: "Traditional Turkish music, Nigerian rap, African pop, Christian rap… and so many others. My favourite thing about Tottenham is how culturally diverse it is. Unfortunately I'm stuck away in my studio most days, so I don't get out to experience all that it has to offer, musically."
And just because Tottenham offers so much cultural variety, doesn't mean the music that emerges from N17 has to remain niche. The biggest British pop star in the world, Adele, was born and raised in Tottenham. As mentioned before, local boy Skepta has gone on to global stardom after a youth briefly spent dealing drugs on Tottenham's streets turned into one spent shutting down raves, wherever he goes. "Someone who gets born into success, when bad things happen they crumble," he has said of his childhood. "Growing up in London has given me all the tools I need to travel the world and do all the things I need to do."
Awate sees similar benefits, albeit hard-won ones, to that kind of adversity. "If you listen to Skepta's album," he begins, "every single track he mentions police and the school system, and how much those two things seriously messed him up – how they affect your mental health and self-esteem as black people, as immigrants, coming here in diasporic communities – whether it's from East Africa, West Africa, Turkey, Kurdistan, Somali, Irish, whatever… There are so many different communities of that type in North London and if you're part of one, the system is designed to hurt you."
"Tottenham's position as a whipping boy, a place that for the last 30 years the police have been punishing for PC Blakelock's murder – that's what led to the high police presence and harassment that we got all over London. And that's why our bars are like they are. And that's why a lot of people round here rap well, their technique, because they wanna articulate that. What they're saying is really relevant."
However diverse Tottenham is, and however disparate their personal backgrounds, one of the things that Awate, Shay D and Marrik Shearer all have in common is their faith in community and music as a power for positive change. When he was the same age as many of the teenage MCs that Marrik works with at his studio now, Awate benefited from the kind of youth work that Shay D does now, before he repaid the favour by passing on the knowledge he'd learnt at the community centres that sprung up on his estate.
"When my council estate opened those places, we stopped finding dead bodies on the estate, we stopped finding addicts," he says. "They'd have DJ workshops there and Heartless Cru came down – that's where I first learned to DJ. It's important to nurture and keep those places open. So that people can have careers and hopes and dreams."
From up on that hill, overlooking the city from Alexandra Palace, London might seem a static, sleeping place. But as long as at its outskirts it has places like Tottenham retaining their diversity, their disparateness, their life, it will continue to transmit a very different reality to its local neighbourhoods and the watching world far, far beyond.
As part of the Levi's Music Project, Levi's and Skepta have partnered to establish a community youth music space in the heart of Skepta's hometown of Tottenham, North London. Track the progress of the project at levi.com or through #SupportMusic'