Twenty-year-old Brixton native Rippa, AKA Jhemar Jonas, is acutely aware of the devastating consequences of serious youth violence. In November 2017, his older brother Michael was murdered in a South East London park. His courage, coupled with the close bond he’d developed with his mentor – author and youth worker Ciaran Thapar – meant that the experience of losing Michael didn’t set him on a path of violent retribution. Instead, it shaped him into a fierce advocate for young people in his community. It’s a mission he’s determined to continue as he begins the next chapter of his life, as a gifted rapper with a positive, progressive message. “My responsibility is to bring hope through my music,” he tells HUCK.
Rippa’s story is at the centre of Ciaran’s book ‘Cut Short: Why We’re Failing Our Youth – and How To Fix It’, which details Ciaran’s experiences of working with vulnerable young people in and around Brixton from 2015 to 2020. The book offers a careful analysis of the complex economic and social factors that keep serious youth violence raging, and makes a compelling, human argument for a public health approach to addressing it.
Following the book’s release in 2021, Rippa connected with veteran producer Toddla T after appearing on his wife Annie Mac’s ‘Changes’ podcast. “Here was a young person who’s experienced that kind of trauma more than anyone else I know, and he has more answers than any of us. So that really resonated with me. I just loved his outlook on everything,” Toddla T says.
Rippa arrived at Toddla T’s studio with a notepad full of lyrics he’d written during a series of night time walks around London. Lockdown had temporarily silenced the city’s incessant noise, and he was inspired by experiencing parts of the capital that often feel inaccessible to young people like him. His sessions with Toddla T shaped those lyrics into his debut EP, Night Time Walk – a clear-eyed, concise collection of tracks that detail his unwaveringly hopeful vision. Toddla T’s euphoric, warm productions evoke London through the eyes of a young person who’s moved beyond the invisible barriers of the block they were raised on.
HUCK caught up with Rippa, Toddla T, and Ciaran to talk about the project, representing an alternative message in rap, taking ownership of where you’re from, and more.
Sonically, Night Time Walk is a really smooth listen. Was it a collaborative piece of work between artist and producer?
Rippa: Toddla was as big a part of creating it as I was. One hand washes the other.
Toddla T: That was the vibe. For me as the producer, it was super important to give the project cohesiveness, so it gives a sense of personality and place. It was about making something that you come away from feeling like you’ve been in a room with J [Rippa] and experienced him.
Toddla T, why were you compelled to work with Rippa?
TT: I think for me, it’s important to balance what comes out of my studio with different messages. Because if I’m sending just one narrative out of this room, I don’t think I’m doing service to culture or society as much as I would like to. So here’s this young person who’s saying some fucking great stuff, and he’s a great rapper. If we combine these two things, it’s very exciting and interesting. It’s almost a duty for me to work with people like J, as much as the people who are gonna get awards and plaques and all that shit. When we met in the studio, it was instantly fun. He has the most addictive energy I’ve ever come across. When he opens his mouth it’s like a human alarm clock! Musically, he’s got a natural gift for rapping and singing too. And lyrically, he represents a pocket of rap that I feel is not represented much, especially in the mainstream.
Why do you think that pocket of rap is not being represented?
R: Everyone’s on a superficial ting. They’re all talking about what’s on the surface. Nobody wants to talk about the real. People follow the badman persona in music, because it might look attractive. So either they’re not taking the time to try and understand the other side of all that, or maybe they just don’t want to hear real shit.
TT: Ultimately, it’s capitalism. What happens in the music industry is anything that’s working is invested in, because it’s all about money from the majors. Matey Bob at the major label isn’t interested in the message of the music, he’s interested in the numbers. Traditionally, the ‘negative’ message sells. It’s an easy win. It’s a harder, longer and less obvious route for an artist to do the opposite. Until there’s real investment in the alternative message, young people just starting out in music probably think there’s only one route to go, to be heard.
Ciaran, you’re still very much on the ground working with young people. How do you think the message in Rippa’s music will be received by them?
Ciaran: I think it will be very well received by young people who are seeking a sound that uplifts them. At every workshop I’ve done, when we’re talking about music, there’s always people in the room – even those who enjoy the ‘cruddier’ stuff – who feel like some of the music takes it too far, it’s too saturated with negativity and violence. I think Jhemar’s music uplifts people, and still engages with real life. But it does it in a way that’s hopeful.
Rippa, tell me about the EP’s concept, and the walks you went on during lockdown.
R: So I hadn’t written any lyrics for a while. One night I picked up my notepad, and I said to myself, ‘rah, I haven’t actually explored all of London yet.’ It was lockdown and the trains were all empty. I’m cheeky, so I said, ‘you know what? Man’s a key worker tonight!’ I just jumped on a random train, got off somewhere like Blackfriars, and started walking. I went from Blackfriars, over the Millennium Bridge, through to St. Paul’s. Then I discovered Barbican! Like, ‘rah, this place exists!’ The night after, I did the same thing. And I kept on doing it. Then all of a sudden the lyrics came.
London is actually quite inaccessible for so many, especially young people, in terms of where they can go and what they can see, be it because of finances or putting themselves at risk in particular areas. What was motivating you on those walks?
R: I was reclaiming ownership of man’s city, init. Because man’s just in the ends, most of the time. I wanted to explore this place and make it feel like home again. It was probably one of the biggest inspirations I’ve ever had in my life. I went to places like Primrose Hill for the first time. And I had no idea places like that were there. I’m going to different places and getting different inspirations, because the block is the block, init. What else is there to say? Those walks helped me understand why the climate on the block is what it is. Because young people don’t come off the block to see what the bigger world is.
T: Like we’ve said though, some people can’t leave the block because of finances or knowledge, or street politics. So thinking about the importance of Ciaran in your life, do you think without his influence, you would have still done those walks?
R: I’m lucky because I’ve always been explorative and inquisitive, but what Ciaran did was really reinforce that. Ciaran has known me since I was 12. I’m 20 now! I’ve grown up with him. As young people, we don’t want to disappoint those who we see are actually supporting us. And I’ll keep it real with you, that’s the reason I’m not in pen right now. The day after my brother died, one of my guys called me because he’d seen it on the news. He was ready to help me get retribution for what had happened. Because where I’m from, everyone gets their get-back, whether it’s on the main road or the back road. That’s just how it is. And I had to find the heart, the courage to say to myself, ‘if I do this, Ciaran won’t be happy. He’ll be disappointed in me.’ That’s one of the first thoughts that came into my head. That relationship is powerful, bro. And that’s one of the reasons I do youth work today. If you can actually nurture that kind of relationship with a yout, it will last forever.
How important is it that young people have the opportunity to experience things outside their immediate surroundings?
C: I think a great thing that Jhemar has long had – as a result of his own personality, but also the support he’s been given from parents, the zest for life he’s got from having come through difficult circumstances, and the mentorship from myself and other youth workers – is cushioning around him. So he feels empowered to explore London, be in different spaces and talk to different people. He’s not overwhelmed by his environment. He’s taken charge of it. I think a lot of people who come from challenging circumstances can be empowered to do that. I think it’s really important that it happens. Jhemar’s walks are an example of an ethos all young people should be encouraged and supported to have. It’s harder now due to public space being made less safe and more surveyed by police. So it’s not easy to achieve, but with the right support over a number of years, a young person can feel very confident in London, regardless of what they’ve been through.
Rippa, does being a youth worker add a further sense of responsibility to your music?
R: I’m bringing hope and positive vibes to the people, through sounds that are familiar to them. I can use my music to spread a more hopeful message, while actually being on the ground working with the yout who need to receive that message. I believe I can give them the motivation to go and do something better with their lives.
Ciaran, how impactful could the fact of Rippa being an artist be to his youth work?
C: It means all the work he’s doing on the ground in youth work is gonna get elevated. He brings his whole self to every space, be it engaging with young people or when he does consultancy with adults, with policy, with the police, doing stuff on social media safety. The music is another way for him to bring his whole self to a different medium of communication. The music and youth work will complement each other really well. You can hear his personality in the music. The music is gonna sit alongside whatever else he’s doing. It means when he’s performing music, he’s also delivering messages and having an impact.
The beauty of mentoring is that it’s not hierarchical, so to finish, what have you both learnt while working with Rippa?
TT: For me it verified that we need to listen to the youth. That’s something that J banged home for me. It’s inspired me that there’s someone like him, from a challenging place, and people might expect him to push a certain narrative. But he’s an alternative voice. That fills me with joy and hope.
C: I’ve learnt a lot from Jhemar. The main thing, which I’d say I think about almost every day, in the same way I think about a lot of young people I’ve worked with who come from challenging circumstances, is you can always pull through. Not only that, but you can actually use your experiences to uplift other people. And the fact that Jhemar does that every day and is so committed to it is infectious. It’s very inspiring. The fact that I have regular contact with someone like that… I consider it a blessing, to be honest.
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