Afropean’s Tommy Evans speaks to Andrez Harriott of Damage on his metamorphosis from musician to mentor with “thinking out the box” a constant.
Tommy Evans: You’ve been refreshingly candid in previous interviews about the reality of the music industry. Let’s begin by unraveling the grit behind the glitz.
Andrez Harriott: Unless you’re selling millions of albums, or even hundreds of thousands, the money just doesn’t return to the artist the way it should. It’s the age-old problem of the music industry: the people who contribute the most, the creatives, are often rewarded last. You have the end user, the consumer, who is rewarded swiftly when they purchase the material. You have the labels that are rewarded swiftly when they release material – maybe not straight away in terms of finance – but even just enjoying the kudos of having the artist helps attract other artists, which continues to build the label catalogue. Then you have the artist at the end who gets paid minus management commissions, lawyer’s fees, accountancy costs, tax on income and VAT. One of the major stories from the past was TLC making millions of dollars, but when it was broken down they were working for peanuts. Fortunately for Damage, our deal was structured in a better way, but it meant the only real money we would see was show money and that’s the same now. End result is that you’re putting in a lot of time but the art, the very reason you came into the industry, is abused.
That definitely happened to Damage: we gave a lot out in terms of our creativity and energy and it returned to us but not in a life-changing way. When you’re young, that’s OK – you don’t have children, a mortgage or major commitments – the little bit of money you do get is spent on trainers or going out, but as you grow older that’s not sustainable. What really hurt us was our business was mismanaged with regards to understanding tax and VAT, resulting in a huge bill. Our accountant said you can choose to be a limited company – meaning everyone can go online and see what you’re earning – or be a partnership and the information’s withheld so you have privacy. We said we want to be a partnership, not fully understanding that if debts are wracked up as a partnership then it can’t be closed down like a limited company; you’re liable individually and collectively, and that’s what really hurt us financially.
TE: And it was you who mainly took on the responsibility of that debt.
AH: Yeah, only because when Damage went down, I went into my married life and wanted to work out what these debts were. When the record label and management disappear the creditors still want to know who owes this money and primarily it was all of the band’s individual names that were connected to the business. I thought I would be smart by contacting all the creditors, then contacting all the boys and saying, look, we owe 80 to 100 grand. I managed to get all the creditors to reduce the amount to 50 grand and they said now we’ve cut it by 50% we don’t even want it in advance, if all of you give us a nice monthly payment it’ll be cleared up in a few years time. But unfortunately, the band were not on speaking terms as a unit and the creditors said since you’re a partnership and it’s you who’s made contact, we now know who you are and where you live, so we’ll be chasing you for the full amount! Two of the guys did pay some money towards the debt but I mainly paid for the first two years. I sought really good expert advice from an accountant and he said the only way you’ll get out of this is to declare bankruptcy. That was a really difficult thing for me at the time because I’d always associated bankruptcy with failure. Fortunately, he was able to get me to understand that some of the wealthiest people in this world have previously declared bankruptcy and it’s a sign of great wealth, moving forward, which I received well!
TE: I bet. Aside from matters pecuniary, how did you manage going “cold turkey” from the narcotic of fame?
AH: The band was always very grounded; we were always a family first. We had our wider family – some of our parents went to the same schools – so we had a real family feel around us. We always remained grounded and I really believe that’s part of the success of Damage and one of the reasons why now we can still be relevant and come back. There are no real horror stories of Damage being obnoxious or unruly, throwing TV sets out of hotel rooms or turning up late for events; we were never that kind of band. So when the fame wound down we hadn’t let it get to our heads to the point where we had departed from the stability of our families or the reality of life. The hardest thing during the transition was people knowing you, recognising your face and then trying to find your way within the world of work because we were not in a position where we had made millions of pounds individually and could go off and invest and do different things. Which is a blessing, because had we enjoyed that amount of success there might have been more turmoil in getting caught up travelling the world and having a crazy lifestyle after the band still trying to find ourselves. The transition for me was easier. I’m a Christian, so faith centred me throughout that process and still does, but the hardest part was coming to terms with having to find some role for yourself in society and maybe going to job interviews.
TE: How did that feel? It must have been crazy going from TV to CVs.
AH: I’d been DJing after Damage for about two years (and still do now) so that sustained me for a few years – I was still travelling and getting that little bit of a buzz from performing. Fortunately, my wife said to me what would you like to do if money was no object? At that point, I could have been selfish and gone into banking or something far more lucrative, but I realised I wanted to give my time to young people. I remember trawling through the newspaper and seeing an opportunity to volunteer. So I gave my time up for a year learning how to be a mentor to young people in custody or prison. I didn’t turn up to those interviews saying, “Hi! I’m that guy from the band!” I used my experiences of travelling the world as a musician as a tool so that young people could engage with me. I had a story to tell but learnt quite quickly that I could not use my past as a springboard forward; I knew I had to dive in at the deep end and learn my craft as anyone else would in order to have credibility.
TE: What other skills developed in the music industry did you transfer to your new setting?
AH: From a young age I’ve had to be a meticulous timekeeper, turning up to meetings and performances punctually. I’ve been able to speak to corporate individuals and people way beyond my age since I was 12. From sitting with lawyers, accountants and heads of record labels to doing interviews on radio and TV, even talking to the stewardess on a plane, travelling the world and conversing with people for whom English is not their first language: all those skills allowed me to go into a room and engage with people. Plus being able to think outside the box when it comes to academia or some of the processes used to engage with young people; coming from my background I was able to bring a completely fresh set of eyes to it. Travelling meant I had more worldly experiences than the average person who’d gone from college to A-Levels to university straight into work. And then working with young people who may not have even left their local area or journeyed across the whole of London, I was able to say as an African Caribbean male that I’d been to Asia or Australia or Germany, places where you don’t think you can go – I’d been there and had an amazing reception.
TE: What did your grassroots activism actually entail on a practical level?
AH: I worked in a youth offending team for eight years and achieved some incredible things. The first thing I did – which sent shockwaves around my industry – was to create a service level agreement with HSBC, whereby all young people in our borough were able to get bank accounts on the day of release, which really hadn’t been done before. Normally, you have to have a National Insurance number, a passport and permanent address in order to open a bank account; so we had young people coming out of prison, signing up for Jobseeker’s Allowance but not having a bank account in which money could be paid into. That was a barrier that increased the chances of reoffending – if you can’t get any money, how are you supposed to survive? I brokered this deal so that young people could get a basic bank account upon release. I had that whole approach doing a lot of partnership work with the private sector in order to increase the outcomes for young people.
TE: We have a shared connection in that we’ve both studied at London South Bank University. As an artist and activist, how was your experience of academia?
AH: After three years of being at the Youth Offending Service, I understood I had the natural ability to work in the industry but didn’t possess the theoretical knowledge to underpin my practice. I’d always been somebody who thought you don’t need university; as long as you can talk to young people, you’re good. Although I agree with that, in order for you to really understand where we’ve got to where we are – with the history of the criminal justice system, the care system, crime and criminology, sociology and how they all interplay – I had to go to university. I had to understand why certain groups in our society are marginalized. I had to understand my own social history as well, how that plays out as an African Caribbean male born in England to migrants. I needed to know this whole picture. And since I came into university without a full academic background – I didn’t do A-Levels, I just had my music industry background – I knew I had to be committed. I came into it as a mature student; I started studying when I was thirty years old.
TE: Which can be advantageous.
AH: You’re not playing games; you understand what it costs financially. I still worked 26 hours a week in the youth offending service because I knew how important it was to keep my foot in practice as well as understanding the theoretical side. I darted between the Youth Offending Service and university on most days for three years, all of that made me take studies seriously. When you were sitting in a lecture and something hit your spirit you just knew, “That’s why that happens,” “That’s why I think the way I do,” “That’s why so many young people get caught up in that situation,” “That’s the psychology why people get involved in certain crimes”. My eyes just opened and it made my practice all the more effective for it.
TE: Tell me about your project, The Liminality Group.
AH: As a senior practitioner in a gang intervention team I worked very closely with the Met police, helping families and young people affected by or directly involved in gangs and serious violence. I moved people into safe houses across London and even nationally for those who needed to get away. I got very high-risk gang members into employment and education helping to reduce serious youth and gang violence in the borough by 50% in partnership with the Met. So when I left that job in 2013, I’d always had this idea of The Liminality Group – a liminal space. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the term?
TE: Something to do with being in-between and not in the sense of a Channel 4 “comedy” programme?
AH: It’s like a no-man’s land, a space where you’re coming from and going to. There’s a lot of barrenness, emptiness and confusion in that liminal space when positioned in the context of a young person. A lot of the young people I work with still to this day are going through a middle passage where they’re not really sure who they are, what’s expected of them from society and where they are going onto in the future. My company is about plugging some of those gaps and working with them in that difficult transitional stage, prior to them offending to where they are now and then reintegrating them back into society. What I actually do is write and develop offending behavior programmes that we deliver in prisons and in the community to get young people thinking differently about the consequences of their actions; to get them to understand law and sentencing in a much easier way; to understand their responsibilities; how to contribute to society as citizens in a smarter way; to repair some of the harm and pain they’ve experienced in their younger childhood which has contributed to who they are now; to get them to look at how they can be exploited by crime and older criminal gang members and to see the dangers of that lifestyle. That’s also drawn me to earlier intervention work in schools with young people at risk of being excluded to prevent them from being sent to Pupil Referral Units, as reintegration back into the mainstream is so difficult. The whole aim is working with the under 18s and reducing rates of re-offending amongst young people, getting them to think in a smarter way which will allow them to contribute positively to society.
TE: What are your future plans?
AH: Future plans for the business are to do something along the lines of the Princes Trust model, where we have different facets of our organization offering courses for young people getting them directly into employment, especially with the private sector; we can offer accredited offending behaviour programmes to give to institutions to deliver on their own; we can have a think tank like the Centre for Social Justice with great academics and researchers around us to talk about what’s going on socially and maybe come up with solutions or impact government to spend more money in specific areas. On a personal level, in order to be as effective as I can be, I need to go on and do my Masters and PhD. My name’s Andrez so it’s got to be “Dr. ‘Dre” one day!