Take it from Tinie Tempah
At the moment the exam pressure is on; everyone you know is probably thinking about their future and all the possibilities that are out there. A few years ago (we won't say how many) our ambassador Tinie Tempah found himself in this same moment. He had to decide what was important to him, and how to make his future completely and utterly his. This week he did what he does best and put pen to paper to write an open letter about the power of youth. He highlighted all the incredible things that young people can achieve, but also the obstacles in their way. Not sure what your future holds? Don't worry, no one does! Butafter reading this, adults will find it so much harder to dismiss you.
"Give Youth Opportunity, don’t dismiss them as a lost cause"
"Surely we all have a basic desire to do good in the world. I believe that in our own unique ways, we all want to help others and make the world a better place for everyone. Young people in particular want to make a difference, but often are dismissed as selfish and ignorant. This is not the case, I constantly see incredible achievements and they have boundless energy and the grit and desire to make a difference. These young people are undaunted by obstacles, but have to find resilience to the naysayers. These people are our future and we need to believe in them more.
"With the right encouragement, we can all do great things, it’s just often young people don’t feel they have the opportunity or the knowledge to really make it happen. They feel limited by their inexperience, their lack of resources and confidence.
"Generally young people can get a bad rap, and when I was growing up there was all this talk of ASBOs, hoodies and broken Britain; quite negative stuff. I’m not sure everyone realises how hard it is to be young in this day and age. Whatever your upbringing, there are so many pressures: if you go to university there is huge debt; and if you don’t have that opportunity, you can feel excluded; you can feel like your horizons are limited, and fulfilling your dream can feel like a very distant hope.
"I had humble beginnings, but was blessed with hard-working parents who taught their family about the importance of doing what you love. We all need to do that; you get out of life what you put into it. They also gave me my drive. You only have one life and if you want to enjoy it, see the world and get the best from it, you have to be either driven or privileged - and I certainly wasn’t privileged! My parents emigrated from Nigeria and came to England when they were in their early 20s. They didn’t have very many qualifications. At one point my dad had three jobs and my mum had two. When I was at an age where I started to see what work was I saw my mum was doing a nine-to-five, and then going to a five-to-ten job.
"On top of these jobs she would fly to Switzerland occasionally to buy jacquard and brocade and amazing fabrics. She would then sell them to her friends who would turn them into beautiful dresses and wear them at their social parties and get-togethers. I remember we were living in a council estate and then all of a sudden, as a result of all this hard work, my mum and dad were talking about buying a house and getting a mortgage. I wanted all of those things I heard them talk about, and it inspired me that more could be done still - they had come from a country with fewer opportunities and they had hurdles and obstacles to overcome but still were able to make something of themselves. So for me, someone born with a lot more opportunities than them, I thought I could achieve more.
"It’s tough to know exactly what you want to do with your life, talents may remain hidden, but once you figure out what you enjoy, you just have to make sure what you love is at the centre of your life. I had a passion, a calling for music; and I was adamant that even if I was busking on the street I’d have been quite happy. I was lucky to find my path but for other people it is not always so clear-cut. Finding that direction and taking your first steps on the career ladder all too often coincide with the new responsibilities of adulthood. What’s more, it’s just not that easy to get a job these days even with a qualification.
"Adult life is just really daunting. Maybe that’s why I took the hippy route! I wanted to decide my own fate and my own destiny - at least when I look back at my life I can say it wasn’t because of Mr Thingy in the head office. It was all down to me. That’s the sort of person I am. But I realise that a lot of people don’t really have that sort of freedom. If you don’t finish college or you’re not getting support from your family or the government, you need to work and you need money.
"Money was one of my biggest obstacles, as it is for so many people. Some of my friends wanted to be pilots but at the end of the day to get your licence you have to pay – tens of thousands of pounds. Where are you going to get that or funding for that, if you are a kid from a council estate? I had to help myself, to give myself the best shot at this. I looked at where I needed to go.
"I actually got a job in telesales to earn £800 so I could make a video. It got played on a DIY TV channel and it was enough to start generating gigs. Also if it wasn’t for that video my cousin would be nothing more than my cousin – not my manager! It showed him I was serious. I also made sure I was in the right places, and became friends with other MCs so I had that support around me too. We were all trying to make it, trying to get that record deal and we would talk and figure things out. I guess I have always been quite optimistic but even I was tested at some points when things looked bleak and I was lucky I had people around me who continued to encourage me.
"It’s just so easy to go off the rails when you’re growing up – I have seen more people than you can imagine do that and I definitely felt there were times when I could have headed off the wrong way. There’s pressure to be in with the cool crew, and there were times I could have got in with the wrong crowd or done the wrong thing. But I stayed strong, and without wanting to sound cheesy or clichéd I think community and support are key. I had a combination of focus and a great support network – three people in particular who really kept me on the straight and narrow. My mum, the constant figure reminding me of the importance of thinking about the future and hard work. Sometimes she’s like a broken record and I think I may have been subconsciously brainwashed! I also had my cousin who became my manager – we’re fairly close in age, just six years apart – and he was as focused as I was. When you say you want to achieve things in life, especially your more ambitious dreams, there are always people ready to laugh at you and rubbish your dreams, but my cousin was encouraging and supported all my ideas and hair-brained schemes.
"Many of the people I know who’ve ‘made it’ – friends like Lewis Hamilton – may not have got where they are today without that backing to help them along. It takes support and encouragement. My support network encouraged me to pursue my dreams. But I also worked really hard to figure out how to get there. I gave myself an ultimatum to get a record deal by the age of 20 – and luckily I ended up signing the record deal just a month before that deadline! That job in sales also helped – I talked to people from all walks of life; and then when I was trying to get my music career going I met people who were maybe not the most welcoming and needed to be convinced, but telesales had taught me the skills to deal with them. You’re basically intruding into someone’s life and trying to sell them something – which in a way is what I am now doing with my music!
"This is the best adventure I could ever go on, and now I want to be able to give something back, to use my good fortune and experience to help others. One of the things I’m doing is establishing a charity called the Disturbing London Foundation, helping people from inner city London from challenged backgrounds who are basically looking for an opportunity – people with a gift, skill, a talent or an idea. In a sense, people like me. You’re showing the right level of enthusiasm and drive – not sitting in your house and imagining it all – but you just need that extra help. Come to us, we’ll just try to help you out in some way. Whether it’s a bursary or it’s work experience, or you need a mentor.
"I have also been privileged to be an ambassador for the National Citizen Service. The three week programme that plays a vital role in helping this generation of young people fulfil their potential in life, at work and as socially active citizens. It takes place at a pivotal time in their lives – at the ages of 16 and 17 – when you start asking yourself questions and thinking about what lies ahead. We are preparing young people for the next stage in their lives, building the confidence that they can live away from home, become self-sufficient and pursue the career they want. It challenges, taking them out of their comfort zone, helping them confront fears and build resilience. The programme also teaches life-skills such as budgeting and cooking, before they go on to work on a social action project of their choice in their community.
"Crucially, it gives them the chance to meet people they may never have encountered before, from different backgrounds, to share a common experience and expand their networks. I’ve been struck by the camaraderie I’ve witnessed between young people who may not have previously hung out or been to the same school, but are coming together to do good for others.
"At that age I would have loved to have this sort of opportunity. We had a little project in my old area called Simba but by the time I was old enough to become involved, it had closed. In hindsight I think it would have been hugely beneficial. When you are young you are not really sure how you fit into society. Everyone has their own ideas, their own hopes, their own dreams of what they want to achieve formulating in their heads; some people are confident, even bolshie, yet some people are shy and nervous and it takes being in a group to know that all these character traits are normal. One is not necessarily better than the other. It just depends on how you use yours.
"I visited one NCS project in Folkestone in Kent last year; the group were raising awareness for a youth centre called The Shed by putting on a gig there. It was inspiring to see, but I also wanted to give them advice and tips on marketing and promoting their show; how to deliver a pitch and use social media. Those guys really didn’t expect it when I pulled up! I think to have someone come along who’s still young, relatable, and who’s achieved something is really important. I kind of see it as my duty to give back. Just like many other ambassadors have done, I wanted to engage with them, to listen, take an interest in their passions and achievements. I hope in some ways, it makes them feel like they too can achieve the things they want: it closes the distance between hope and reality. If it brings them a little bit more self-belief and conviction then that makes me feel good.
"These young people have been volunteering their time for causes that are bigger than them, each giving 30 hours to their community. This needs to be celebrated, so I’m excited to be curating and headlining NCS YES Live a pro-social music and awards show for them at The Roundhouse, Camden on 29 March. It will recognise the great social action work these guys are achieving and will be an event to remember. I hope to inspire more young people into believing that they can better themselves and also help the community.
"But as much as I want to, I can’t do this alone, everyone needs to chip in. We all need to help breakdown the negative perception around young people and realise that these people do care about the country and others around them, and all whilst trying to make their way in society."