Debtford on gentrification, privilege and south east London

Written by Haseeb Iqbal, a poet from London.

📸 Jerome Toole

 


 

“Still earning respect but it don’t pay off your bills or your debts bruv.”

– Debtford, Bunker Club/Khole

 

Comprised of punk poet / rapper Cecil B, and producer K3MP, Debtford possess a powerful sound built on a combination of “spoken-word and drawn-out chords”, as they describe it when we meet for a walk around their Deptford home. Often politically charged, their distinct tone is hard-hitting, introspective, explicitly blunt and totally unpredictable. And with only two tracks online, there’s a real sense of mystery surrounding their music.

“We’ve known each other for 21 years, since we were four years old”, the two of them work out. Having been separately making music for the last eight years, it was only a year and a half ago that the pair joined forces to start Debtford. “It was just so easy from the start”, adds Cecil, with their years of chemistry extremely evident both on- and off-stage.

On stage, they stand close together, facing the audience. Cecil relaxes the room after intense, forceful verses by taking a seat in an armchair or lying down on the floor, while K3MP moves easily between his controller and the keyboard, always mindful of “the importance of making the musicians’ process visible”. The enjoyment and discipline of live performances has driven their music forward from the beginning, giving them a “kick up the arse, away from the relaxed casualness of making music in a bedroom” and “allowing concrete songs and ideas to form”.

Cecil from Debtford
Photo: Jerome Toole

Those songs and ideas have a deep political focus, analysing the complications of an ever-changing south east London very close to their hearts. “I was born in the room above that shop”, Cecil says, pointing three doors down from The Royal Albert pub and putting into perspective just how close to home their project is. Examining the complexities of gentrification, Cecil acknowledges the positive aspects of new businesses opening in the area: “a good coffee shop is a fucking good coffee shop – I’d rather go to an independent coffee shop than Costa or Starbucks. And a vegan restaurant is probably more healthy than a lot of other stuff”. But with better quality, he observes, comes a higher price, making these hipster-yet-healthy cafes very hard for locals to engage with. “I’m still gonna buy the fried chicken, because that’s what I can afford.” And it’s those who choose to come to the area’s “up-and-coming creative spaces” who keep the new businesses open and widen that gap – often with disregard for the local people. As Debtford know: “There’s a lot of attention on south London musicians, but not south Londoners”.

K3MP’s main issue with the changing face of South London is primarily the rent prices. Pointing at a new-looking brick block of apartments across the road, he says, “I mean look at that building there – that’s been empty for two years right?” “Yeah”, Cecil responds, “It was meant to have a certain amount of social housing and not a single flat has been given”. The scale of the issue, locally, only becomes more pronounced throughout our conversation; Cecil speaks of a friend who has lived in the same flat since birth, which has now been earmarked to be knocked down by the council in order to “build better flats” – something he notes would never happen to an old Georgian house.  They talk about how some people growing up in post-war high-rise blocks struggle with finding a sense of identity because of how little care or attention to detail has been given to building their homes, in contrast to the to treasured character of old townhouses entwined with the identity of middle-class Londoners. And then those middle-class Londoners move into the new-build flats, fetishising and glamourising something that was never glamorous.

K3MP elaborates on this: the problem is worsened when those working-class styles are fed off by the same middle-classes who subsequently move into the “trendy new blocks”, an irritation they address clearly in their work. “You don’t wanna be like us, you wanna seem like us”, Cecil stresses in one of their songs. It’s an issue that was very well explored by Ruka Johnson in her recent Trench article exploring the fetishisation of Camden’s famous Alexandra & Ainsworth Estate, where she grew up. As she writes: “all of a sudden, the same type of people who made my life hell for living here were living here too. Their rich parents were buying up cheap council flats from ex-residents and their “trendy” offspring started moving in.”

Discussing a potential solution to an issue of such magnitude, Cecil believes a lot needs to be done before anything can change. “The people who can enforce the needed change – be it the local council or the government – don’t because they’re making money out of it”. And with over 100 MPs currently profiteering off the housing market, it is clear that the fundamental rules need to be altered before this issue can ever be addressed effectively.

Though their music is full of big ideas and opinions, the casualness of their appearance and setup give nothing away to the crowd. It’s something the pair laugh about – they very much enjoy toying with the preconceived assumptions made about them before they begin, something amplified by the little volume of music they have online. At a few of their recent gigs in fancier locations, Cecil has been wearing a full suit, using his attire to deceive those looking at him. “Well I can wear a fucking suit. Just because I’m from ends doesn’t mean I have to wear a tracksuit”. When the audience are met with lines such as “Fuck off you cunt. Stab a bailiff in the neck with a previously sharpened knife”, it’s their shock that amuses and satisfies the pair on stage. Debtford’s sartorial subversion is part of their work’s strong statement; a nod at the importance of not basing any assumptions on appearances, especially in music.

It’s their disregard for audience expectations combined with their brutal outspokenness that’s almost guaranteed to unsettle everybody watching. K3MP enjoys seeing “the audience suddenly freeze when Cecil comes in with the bars. You can see them wondering ‘is that bar about me?’”. In case it’s not clear, at the end of one of their tracks he declares: “I hope you know I’m talking about you”. (He does acknowledge the irony of generalising the hipsters and gentrifiers with scolding terms like “Reebok classics” and “buzzcuts” while deriding the audience for judging his own suit.) “And it doesn’t mean that if you look like that then you’re who I’m talking about, but it makes you ask the question”, he adds. It’s discomforting. As they say in the final words of the set: “There is nowhere left to hide”.

After a gig, walking past people who obviously haven’t enjoyed their set, K3MP says is “a great thing, since that split in opinion gets the conversation started”. But it’s the shock of them expressing their minds in a genuine, raw manner which highlights society’s issue of too many people being reluctant to voice how they truly feel. Cecil mentions a recent poetry night that was followed by group discussions, which were stopped by the facilitator halfway through, because “everyone was just agreeing with each other, whether they had something questionable to say or not. It got boring”. Too many musicians choose to play it safe and appeal to popular opinion out of fear of being met with dispute. That’s why space for artists like Debtford is essential to ignite a discussion which is all too rare.

With performances full of lyrics deeply rooted in their own experiences, I ask about their favourite lines from Debtford. Cecil’s reads: “These concrete slabs are my red carpet. These ends are my starship. Sky’s the limit, blue life’s within it. We’ve been denied a harness but still try to win it.” For him, it’s about the pride of where he’s from – “I love my working class background, I’m proud of it”, he explains, “and that will never change”.

For K3MP, the line that makes him smile at every gig says: “This posh girl’s love for Morley’s was her way of fitting in. Surely you’re more accustomed to organic, being brought up on a farm fam, I smell porkies. Cos we all know you’re gonna be in a detached house voting for the Tories when you reach your forties.”

Though it’s too easy to feel victimised by Debtford’s lyrics, their introspective nature is evident when they’re recognising their own privilege in tracks such as Washed white, which Cecil says explores “the ignorance of the white man in a position of comfortability”. As he says: “we’re in that position whether we like it or not”.  The most important part of the discussion, for Cecil, is unsettling the audience and forcing them to “actively acknowledge their privilege, whether it’s being a man, a white person, a westerner, working-class, middle-class or upper-class”. Only then, he says, “can you become aware that it comes with a price – people can only be privileged because of the underprivileged. And if you’re not actively acknowledging that, then come to a Debtford gig.”

 

Debtford play The Kite Bar on Friday night at this year’s Brainchild Festival.

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