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How Musicians Re-Adjust to Public Life After Time in Prison

The headlines pass, and critics move on, but artists like Blackpool grime's Afghan Dan have to navigate life anew in the public eye.

by Kamila Rymajdo; photos by Tibyan Sanoh
10 September 2019, 10:08am

Photography by Tibyan Sanoh

When I met Afghan Dan three years ago he was a nervously fast-talking 19-year-old from one of Britain’s most deprived towns. Quickly, he'd become one of a few faces of Blackpool grime, a controversial offshoot of the London-born genre, heavily reliant on comically feuding preteens. Two Noisey documentaries later and after catching the attention of veterans Wiley and JME, Afghan Dan was collaborating on meme-able tracks with popular YouTubers such as WillNE, while playing gigs across the country. Then it all went quiet.

While his Blackpool grime contemporaries continued to capitalise on their fame, Afghan Dan dropped off social media. And that’s because in January 2018, aged 21, he was remanded in custody for multiple burglaries he was found to have committed over the course of one night. In the back of a police van, desperately trying to find someone to look after his beloved husky, it dawned on him that what he’d just done would quickly become public.

“I knew it would be in the paper straight away,” he says as we sit down in a secluded spot in Blackpool’s picturesque Stanley Park. He wasn’t wrong. Getting his phone out of his pocket, he shows me the Blackpool Gazette newspaper article detailing the rampage that landed him in jail for a year, after being found guilty of taking electrical goods, an air rifle and bank cards.

“Daniel Martin, my mum’s address, burglary,” he says, ticking off each personal detail made public in the article. “I was doing so many that night that I just knew that I’d have to get caught.” As he speaks, wearing a blue tracksuit and boxfresh Nike trainers, we notice a few young fans have spotted him. Dan acknowledges them but lowers his voice: “I was going in and trying back doors, trying sheds, trying cars without gloves on – I was very reckless. It was proper trampy shit, proper rough, but that’s how I was living then. I was homeless, staying at a mate’s house, and I just thought, ‘fuck this.’”

When a well-known musician ends up charged with a crime, they make an awkward leap from managed press clippings to a public state of crisis. If convicted, their behaviour can feel at odds with the image of them that we’re used to. You rarely hear the human side of the story told, too – what was going through their mind? And, after prison, how do they readjust? As a musician, how do you come back from time inside?

Blackpool grime rapper MC Afghan Dan after prison by Tibyan Sanoh

While Dan’s popularity grew online, that didn’t translate into a regular income. “In between shows I was getting impatient and money was getting wasted. I couldn’t save a penny because I had to pay off debts,” he recalls. As he tells it, going inside allowed him to escape his mounting problems, exacerbated as they were by his struggles to get access to his six-year-old son, and his deteriorating mental health. At the time, he wasn’t taking the meditation he’d been prescribed for ADHD and a personality disorder, and was losing confidence in himself as an artist: “People weren’t taking my music seriously so I had no enthusiasm,” he says, avoiding eye contact.

Though in one way, prison felt like an escape from the kind of attention Dan increasingly didn’t want – casual fans shouting his catchphrases at him as he walked down the street – it also perpetuated that uncomfortable dynamic. “They’ve seen you on YouTube and they can get carried away, assuming things,” he says recounting initial conversations with fellow inmates at HMP Hindley in Wigan. Working and reading kept him busy: “I got into self-development books, got a job doing laundry.”

Stef Smith, an artist from Manchester’s Old Trafford neighbourhood, started out in early 2000s grime crew Mayhem. He was caught during an aggravated burglary, aged 20 and, like Dan, kept to himself while inside. “I moved off the wing where all my friends were because I’m on road with my friends, but if I’m in prison with my friends, I’m not going to feel prison for what it really is. I chose to do it by myself, to learn the real thing from it.”

Still, though prison hit pause on his musical aspirations, Stef feels it was a transformative time: “If I didn’t go jail, I would have stayed in my own delusions thinking that if I wanted to blow, I could just blow, without the work that you need to put into it. It sounds mad, but being inside gave me freedom in the mind, helped me get rid of my ego.” You can see that in his approach now, through how he self-financed his accomplished 2018 album Swear Down Not Lying, for example.

Prison also seemed to sharpen Paisley rapper Shogun’s ambition, whose 2016 track “Vulcan” exploded him into viral fame. But when he didn’t show up to court after partially completing community service for a burglary he committed as a teen, he was dramatically arrested – literally before soundcheck opening for Nas – in Glasgow in July 2017. He was jailed in February 2019.

Towards the end of his incarceration, I went to visit Shogun. We’d kept in touch after I’d first interviewed him in 2016. Glasgow’s Low Moss maintained an aesthetic more akin to a leisure centre than a prison, its perimeter softened by well-maintained flowerbeds.

Shogun asked we change the day of our meeting because it coincided with football, which had become a passion during his time inside, improving not only his fitness, but also his outlook on life. He detailed how he’d been writing continuously and planned to drop new music – and even start touring abroad – when out. But his chapped hands, affected by the prison’s water, served as a reminder that prison, however prettied-up, always dispenses with the freedoms most of us take for granted.

MC rapper Afghan Dan in Blackpool 2019 by Tibyan Sanoh

For Afghan Dan, a bit of luck helped. Thanks to a fan uploading his tracks to Spotify and iTunes during his incarceration, he came out to a lump sum of £3,000, which helped him buy some basics – clothes, a phone, headphones. As it turns out, it was going back to Blackpool that proved the bigger issue resulting from his time inside. “When I came out I went to [Blackpool neighbourhood] Saint Anne’s, but I was only there for about three days,” he recounts as we sit down to eat fish and chips by the beach. “I had all my old associates coming in, pissing me off and getting under my feet.”

So he spent three months in Wigan, taken in by the associate of a friend’s mum who supports ex-veterans in her work. Now, back in Blackpool, he doesn’t keep in touch with the other local grime artists, and has turned down an offer from a local management team, who look after Little T and Soph Aspin. Instead, with the support of 1Xtra DJ Kenny Allstar, he’s working on a new EP and getting by with Instagram sponsorships and streaming revenue, while living with his sister. Is he nervous about starting over? “Yeah, because you don’t know where you stand with people. You’re worried because it’s hard to take someone serious when they’ve acted that way.”

We look out at the seashore, where school holidays and good weather have brought crowds of children, who shriek with joy as they play in the shallow water. No doubt many of them know who Afghan Dan is, but no one has noticed him this time. Dan takes one final bite of his fish and throws the rest to the seagulls, who flock to the scattered scraps. Getting up to leave, he says he’s focused, and YouTube views are no longer his motivation: “I just wanna go back to the houses I robbed one day, drop them £200 and say, ‘sorry mate.’”

@kamilarymajdo / @viewtibyan

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Shogun
uk rap
Blackpool Grime
Afghan Dan