‘I don’t have a knife on me. I’m free - that’s why it’s called Freedom From The Streets’: Hackney writer Robyn Travis on making peace and understanding violence
- Credit: Shanei Stephenson-Harris
“We weren’t angels. Our behaviours were bad, but we weren’t bad people. There’s no justice in judging youth as criminals.”
Writer Robyn Travis, who has sold out the Hackney Empire twice and launched his third book Freedom from the Streets there last month, is describing his youth in E8.
Robyn grew up in the early 2000s amid inter-estate rivalries that still exist today. Now he's older, Robyn has made peace with the people he once fought and believes his life story and books can help explain what's going on with young people today involved in crime and violence.
He feels misrepresented by parts of the media intent on reinforcing stereotypes and labelling him purely as an ex-gang member rather than an accomplished writer who has been invited to speak at literary festivals like Cheltenham, Harrogate, WOMAD, Bare Lit and Stoke Newington.
"I'm a black man from Hackney criminalised up to the teeth before 16, stabbed X amount of times - I've lost count," he told the Gazette. "[Today] I go anywhere in Hackney. I don't have a knife on me. I'm free - that's why it's called Freedom From The Streets. I don't have fear for nobody and that's what makes you free."
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He added: "If you understand what makes someone become that way inclined, you can really understand why a child kills - it's nothing to do with evil. It's fear.
"I think the streets concept is bulls***. I don't respect what we [did]. There's no morals, there's no integrity - it's self-destructive. The streets for me is nonsense - I have no love for it.
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"But as for the young children who are lost in it, I have a solution to explain what's going on."
His third book follows on from his first - Prisoner to the Streets - and explores solutions, myths and the harsh reality of youth violence in the capital.
Robyn's first book retells his younger days when he moved to a now demolished Holly Street Estate from Tottenham and became involved in violent, sometimes fatal clashes with other young people in the area. These rivalries were dubbed "postcode wars" by the press, though in the case of the Holly Street Boys and the London Fields Boys - whose rivalry kicked off at the turn of the millennium - were from the same postcode area, E8.
At that time he was fighting kids he'd gone to primary school with. Today, some of those people have become friends and even helped him write sections of his new book.
He added: "The guy who I got accused of stabbing has written in the book with me. Also, someone who stabbed me was a part of the book. Would you believe I was supposed to write the first part of the book with the guy who stabbed me?"
Robyn is a passionate advocate for young people and believes his life experiences are useful in understanding what is happening on the streets today.
"We'd been kicked out of school," he said, "criminalised so we were no longer identified as children or innocent. Apparently we knew what we were doing."
He has been invited to speak at prisons such as Aylesbury and Wandsworth. "My book was in tatters in Aylesbury prison 'cause everyone keeps taking it out [to read]," Robyn said.
The launch at Hackney Empire kicked off his UK book tour featuring guest appearances from George the Poet, Peacher, Babatunde, Chyna Soulstar, J Hope and more. Pyrelli and Phoebe One hosted the event, which included a Q&A with the author and live musical performances.