Exclusives 27 April 2021

GRM Exclusive: Yinka Bokinni Shares Her Story As She Releases Her Debut Documentary, ‘Damilola: The Boy Next Door’

27 April 2021

Following on two decades from an incident that shocked the nation, this year marks the 20th anniversary of the murder of 10-year-old Damilola Taylor. In the year 2000, Damilola’s smiling school photograph became the face of a story, which was unravelled in the media at the time as a boy who lived in a ‘dangerous’ area, consequently driving his home – the North Peckham Estate – to be viewed as solely that.

However, Capital Xtra’s Yinka Bokinni is here to tell her side of the story, through the eyes of a former resident of the same south London council estate, as well as a friend and neighbour of Damilola, who had just moved from Nigeria to the UK. We sat down with the DJ and broadcaster to unveil her personal experience as she explained the process of filming her first documentary, which she holds close to her heart, Damilola: The Boy Next Door.

It goes without saying that embarking on a new experience for the first time would warrant a new set of feelings, but in this particular setting Yinka has combined her professional life with her personal one, and given the nation an understanding of how things can look off-camera.

Asking how she felt making a documentary about someone she was so close to at a young age, and the importance of being able to tell her own story, she said:

“I think it feels nice, in a way. It was really difficult to watch it even though I filmed it, because I know that it isn’t necessarily a happy story and when I say necessarily, of course it’s a sad subject, but hopefully there are undertones of hope in there.

“I’m really happy that I got to tell a story on my own terms, and that my first film is one that means the most to me. I know that not everybody gets the opportunity when they are as new to being on telly as I am, especially to be in a position where I have such control, and to be so deeply involved to the point where I get to interview my own family.”

Having found out about the tragic news of her friend’s death for the first time by watching a picture of Damilola flash up on a TV news report, Yinka explained how “horrific” it felt at the time.

“I remember not understanding, because even though I lived in a notoriously violent area as an 8/9/10 year old, I didn’t know anything different. So, when there would be fights, they wouldn’t ever affect me. We were children, and I think that a lot of people who are from council estates, or more inner city areas that do potentially have more levels of violence, kids are off-limits, we’re not really involved in anything, especially when you’re in primary school. The only person who I knew who had passed away was an aunt who had passed away from cancer a few years before.

“I knew what murder was because I’d watched Eastenders and, you know, Midsummer Murders and all these things so, I understood what it was; but to marry that with my own life and my own personal experience? There was no connection there. Looking back now, I feel like I grew up almost as if it was overnight, I remember feeling very confused, I remember feeling really angry and not getting that somebody I had seen hours before didn’t exist anymore, they weren’t here anymore. It was one of the most horrific feelings I’ve ever had to deal with to be honest.”

The home life that Yinka had become familiar with had all of a sudden changed when she and her community were left with the aftermath of Damilola’s fatal death, forcing them to “move on” in their individual ways. She explained the lasting effects this had on her friends and family:

“It’s almost like a bomb went off which none of us detonated, but we were all left with the devastation of it so to speak. Everybody moved out really quickly, and I never really got to see my friends again up until we decided to film this and I went to go find them. So, it’s something that now I’m older I can look back and say, ‘it was very traumatic’, but at the time it was very much like: ‘this has happened’ and ‘you people need to deal with this because it happened in your area’.

“When I say ‘you people’, I mean the people who lived in North Peckham and the families that existed there. It was very much expected of us to move on, and move forward and somehow, yes, we managed to, but not without lasting effects and lasting grief.  I’m not gonna say that the last 20 years of my life has been full of sadness and upset, but I will say this has definitely been something that has been brewing in the back of my mind and luckily now I’m getting to share [this] with everybody. Especially for an 11-year-old it was a big burden to bare.

“I think it kind of made me able to shrug things off, so I’m the type of person who – I realised this while we were filming – that I can speak about horrific things that have personally affected me, and tell you about it in the most dead-pan of ways, because I think that the trauma of this happening and in the most violent way in which it did happen, has meant that I’m able to disassociate. I don’t think that’s unique to me, I think that it’s a symptom that a lot of people who experience violence when they’re younger are able to laugh it off.”

Within the documentary, Yinka faces the estate for the first time since leaving, as a child, and it was evident the street held a lot of memories for her, as she was understandably hesitant before taking her first steps down Blakes Road as an adult.

“I didn’t wanna go. I know I said it [in the film] but I don’t think people understand that I had to walk past the place where my friend was murdered, everyday, twice a day, to go to school and to come home, every single day. There was still blood on the floor and they left the police tape stuff, so that’s the lasting memory that I have of that road. Even though I remember there used to be a phone box there that I used to ring, and I remember the barbecues, the most vivid memory that I have is the worst one.

“So, I had actively avoided that place and when I had to revisit it just made me feel like I was 11 again, it just made me feel trapped in a way that there’s no way in or out. I’m glad that I went back there and I’m glad that, A – the blocks don’t exist anymore and B – I did get to confront those feelings, because if there’s something that I want, it’s to not be ruled by Blakes Road. So yeah, it was really difficult.”

Embarking on a number of firsts while filming, Yinka also met Damilola’s father, Richard Taylor, for the first time, as he lived in Nigeria at the time of his son’s murder. Recalling how she felt about meeting Richard, Yinka went on to say:

“It was really really nice, I mean, I don’t really get nervous, like I do a national radio show every day and don’t really get scared. In my job, I’m always put in positions where the average person would totally freeze up, but with me I’m just like, ‘oh we’ll just do it’. But meeting Uncle Richard, I was so scared because in my head it was one of the first filming days we had done, so it was right at the beginning when we first went to work and I thought if this guy says he doesn’t want us to do it, I can’t do it.

“It was very much like we have to get his approval, I have to know if he’s ok, especially because we’d never met before so I needed to know he was ok with doing it. The conversation was so lovely, he’s so nice and warm and I’m really happy that I got to meet him. Even if I wasn’t doing this film, I hope that I would’ve got to meet him one day because he’s such a nice man and it really meant a lot.”

As she explains in the documentary, Yinka’s home seemed to become a strong talking point overnight, as multiple news reports associated the North Peckham Estate with crime and danger, whilst her film explores the other side of it. Describing how she envisioned Peckham at the time, she explained that her view of her home was like Lily Allen’s view of London in her famous “Smile” music video, where she sees things through rose-tinted glasses. We asked if the media had changed that vision, as she added:

“While we were filming, it felt like the good times and the fun stuff like the water fights, barbecues and the penny shop; it started to feel like I had made all of that up, because we had focused so much on the bad things that had happened. Then halfway through filming, we started looking into the good things. So, that’s where I got to hang out with Francesa again, when I went to go and play dominoes, when I just started talking more about the good times and even talking to my sister. It made me kind of realise that two things can be true at the same time.

“So, whilst my view of Peckham and my view of my childhood hasn’t changed, I know that the bad stuff is what happened, but good stuff happened too. Whereas before, I didn’t think about any of it because with good memories, they’re almost tinged with sadness, but it’s definitely taught me that two things can be true at the same time, and both of those things are what make up my experiences.  It’s the only childhood I ever had, it’s the only experience that I had up until I was 11 years old. It took a long time for me to realise that you can’t ask every single neighbour for sugar, because in the North Peckham community, we all looked after each other. Whereas outside of council estate mentality, people tend to fend for themselves because they can’t rely on each other. So, I genuinely don’t think I would want to have grown up any other way.

Throughout Yinka’s journey of retracing the history that led to the tragic night of 27th November 2000, she visits Peckham Library whilst filming, to unravel the headlines linked to her former home. A range of newspaper clippings described a ‘disaster waiting to happen’ within the estate, with some other headlines naming it the ‘best’ estate in Europe. Detailing her thought process after taking in the vague outlook of her community, she said:

“At first I just thought, ‘why am I here? This is boring’, because I’m looking at newspaper clippings, and then after like five minutes I saw there was like four big files about North Peckham alone, and I thought ‘this isn’t right, it’s too much’. 

“Like of course, there were points where I was upset and I was moved. But in the library, it just made me really angry because I just thought, this is all the proof that you need, and it kind of reminded me of headlines that I had seen, or stories that I had read, and it’s just the cheek of having twenty years of headlines and then being shocked when a kid died. 

Don’t get me wrong, you can never predict that this is gonna happen, but you can’t be shocked when you leave people in those sort of circumstances. It was a long day and super tough, especially when you read things that are written about you, and they write about you like you’re not even human.”

Going on to explain the potential reason behind its downfall in how it was viewed, she added:

“It was built antisocially. So the walkways that were meant to protect people from the traffic below weren’t lit properly, and there were so many blindspots in it. Like one time I saw a guy and the police were chasing him and we thought, ‘if he gets up them stairs he’s gone’, like once you go up them stairs, if you know the estate, you can find your way from Peckham to Old Kent Road without touching the floor, you can just run into somebody’s garden or jump into somebody’s living room. It was built in a way that it was like a maze, and the people that lived there knew its corners, but if you buss out all the street lights in an alleyway next to your house, it’s gonna attract that type of activity.”

With her first documentary being well-received by peers and the public, Yinka went on to share her experience of wrapping up her first film and what the highlight was for her, as well as the most challenging parts.

“I think overall, it was an experience. Especially because it was my first film, so I didn’t realise that everyone was gonna care. I knew people would care, but just in the confines of where I exist at the moment, whereas it’s clear that a lot more people care than I first imagined. So, I’m happy that I didn’t know because maybe I would’ve felt more pressure, and might not have been able to be so open and so honest with fear of how many eyes would be on it. 

“Separately, I think the most enjoyable part was reconnecting with Francesa. I think it was also working with Ashley [Francis-Roy], the director, because he’s also new and he’s also learning, so it was definitely us kind of growing together. It was also speaking to my sister about stuff that we never really get to speak about, and being able to tell my story on my terms. I don’t know how many people are given that opportunity but the fact that Channel 4 have trusted me with that, it means a lot. I think the most difficult part was revisiting old memories, and revisiting a time that is up there with the worst times of my life for the nation to witness.”

Re-familiarising the nation with a story through a new perspective has been key for Yinka, and as she explained what the most important thing for people to take away from the documentary was, she added:

“I think the most important thing for me is that my story, the one of somebody doing ok/doing well, is not a rare one. I can list names and names of people who grew up in North Peckham who are doing just as well, if not better, than I am, and I want this to be a story that isn’t like a diamond in the dirt. It’s a story of human beings, it’s a story of our lives and it’s a story to hopefully show people that, you know, my friend Damilola was loved and he was a human being, and to do him and his family proud is an aim of mine. I hope that people watch it and whilst they see the difficulties and the challenges and the struggles, they’re also left with some type of hope and to know that the community was a pretty good one.”

We’re sure those who watch the touching film about Damilola’s life will gain an understanding they didn’t have before, as Yinka allowed her storytelling to be a raw and real take on the portrayal of her childhood friend’s life.

Damilola: The Boy Next Door airs tonight on Channel 4 at 9pm.