After the Grenfell Tower fire, Kensington resident Peaky Saku spoke live on BBC News to Victoria Derbyshire. In a clip that was to go viral across social media he spoke candidly about how he saw things:
“I’m not gonna lie, one thing I wanted to say, though, this thing that they’re saying that, ‘Oh, it might have been a fridge that exploded,’ or something like that, I don’t know about all of that, but what I do know is that they did regeneration last year to that building that they’re talking about doing to all of these buildings. The did it to that building only, £10 million they’re talking about, and put these shoddy plastic things on there that set up alight, because they want more reasons to knock these blocks down. There’s two options: they could either regenerate the blocks or they could knock them down, and after that, I’m not so sure that was totally an accident, I’m not even gonna lie. I’m not even gonna lie to you. You can pause me there, but I’m not gonna lie – the whole situation that’s going on in this area, the way they don’t want us here and they put those rich man’s blocks over there and then they tell certain man in Frinstead [House] they can’t even go into that section, that’s outrageous. I can’t lie. The way they treat man in here is terrible, innit. I can’t even take the belief out of my mind that that wasn’t just an accident, I’m not gonna lie, I think it’s fucked…"
It was off the cuff and, in parts, an articulate exposition of the managed decline and "social murder" that caused the inferno at Grenfell Tower – could you really call Grenfell an "accident"? Nevertheless, the implication of actual foul play flirted with conspiratorial thinking, and you can see why it left Derbyshire reaching for the live disclaimers: "I’m going to pause you there. You may feel that..."
In the aftermath of the fire, with the government failing to provide reassurance, responses ranging from distrust of the authorities to "9/11 was in inside job"-style conspiracy proliferated and anger spread about the failure to quickly announce the number of dead. In this atmosphere, Peaky’s words seemed to hit a sweet spot, and went viral, with mirrored versions of the video clocking up countless views.
"I really think this guy could be on to something here about it [being] an inside job," wrote one person sharing the video on social media.
"People just want an answer," Peaky told me when we met in the flat of his friend Angel, in Whitstable House, the block next to Grenfell Tower, which he likes because you can’t see the charred remains from its north-facing window. "I didn't even give an answer, innit. I'm not willing to say the government murdered off all these people, but, like, neglect was pretty much to the point the government was not considering people as human, innit, but people just kinda jumped on it to say I was against the government."
Since then, a second, deeper layer of YouTube conspiracy theorists have analysed the clip, claiming that Peaky is a "crisis-actor" – someone hired by the government to act as the victim of a catastrophic event in order to keep people scared and compliant. Most of these focus on the fact that Peaky attended the fee-paying public school, Charterhouse. He got a bursary, but conspiracy theorists don’t believe that, calling him "Sneaky Peaky" and claiming he's part of a "Zionist agenda". A Flat Earth truther analyses the hand gestures Peaky makes in his music videos and says, "This guy’s a Satanic player guys. He don’t care what he does." One video is simply titled, "This Little Bitch Went to Charterhouse!!!" One of them seizes on a clip of Peaky talking about the "ongoing questions" around the fire, as if saying "ongoing questions" is beyond a working class person. ("The way he goes around that 'o' [of ongoing]. That’s very, very, super-posh. Trust me, that’s levels.")
Wishful thinking around Peaky’s gilded existence is a fantasy that also appeals to him: "Saying I have Jewish parents and a house in central London. Like, I fucking wish I was a crisis actor if that’s the situation! And let’s face it, I would be a pretty shit crisis actor," he says. The rapper's latest track, "On the Block it Ain't the Same View", the first thing he wrote after the fire, sees Peaky talking about how the scholarship didn't automatically open the door to high society. He tells me there's a video on the way for that, so perhaps there will be more "Satanic" gestures to analyse.
For Peaky’s friend Solèaux – a fashion designer, always turned out in punkish clothes of his own making – being homeless and applying for help from the state after leaving his mum’s house bought its own problems of perception. "Because I do fashion and I don’t want to look bad, I would go to the town hall and say 'I have nowhere,' and they were like, 'You look pretty good.' I’m like, 'How is a homeless person meant to look? Am I meant to look like a bum? I’ve got all my clothes here, the rest is packed away in friends' houses, I don’t know what to tell you.' My mum was like, 'Dirty yourself up. Go in your oldest clothes.'"
After spending all of his earnings on a hostel while he waited to, maybe, at some point, be placed on the housing waiting list, Solèaux spent two years sofa surfing. "It was just stressful. And if you don’t have battery you’re just fucked," he says. "You can’t call anyone so you just roam the streets, bump trains until trains run out, get on busses and take long bus journeys." That, or he stayed out at fashion events and parties all night. The passion for aesthetics that had convinced the council he wasn’t worthy of help gave him something that the state wouldn’t – not so much a safety net as a thread to cling on to. He’s now managed to move into a private rental flat, albeit in Greenwich, far from North Kensington, where he’d love to return if he could afford it.
When I ask Peaky if there’s a possibility for something good to come out of the fire and the attention it’s brought his neighbourhood, he’s a bit nonplussed by the question.
"I mean, people from the tower should get closure." Then, after a pause: "I know, before this, nobody wanted the regeneration. Ideally, in my opinion, the best thing that could come out of the whole situation is the fact that the community is an actual community now. It’s up to people."
Peaky and Solèaux invite us to an art exhibition that takes place five months after the fire in Kensington and Chelsea College, a community asset under threat from development into flats, a local struggle which the fire brought to national attention. The exhibition, put on by the FerArts collective and co-created by Peaky, showcased a variety of local artists in a building more accustomed to holding TEFL classes. Solèaux was among the artists exhibiting. Peaky was selling his T-shirt designs, including a motif with a KCTMO employee in a balaclava saying "what heart?"
They hold a screening of Failed By the State: The Struggle in the Shadow of Grenfell, a documentary produced and fronted by a Grenfell Tower resident of 25 years. It's a fantastic example of amateur community-produced media. More than anything I’ve seen, it places the fire in the context of decades of "so-called regeneration", race, class and capital. It asks tough questions of Barry Quirk, RBKC’s interim head of paid service, and gives airtime to radical proposals for community resistance, including a council tax strike.
When the film is over, the floors opens up to questions. The first is: "I have a question: when can we start that tax thing? I’m the first to sign up."
Since we published this article, the Daily Beast revealed that Redfish may not be as independent as it seems, with strong links to Russian state media.