In Conversation with Idris Elba on Music, the Arts, and His "Knives Down" Campaign

Read on for the full interview and what Idris Elba thinks Stringer Bell would have to say to the kids.

Music
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Idris Elba is a busy man. The London born star is perhaps best known for being an actor, having graced both stage and screen for the past three decades, as well as being a respected DJ, director, record label owner, activist and founder of Don’t Stop Your Future, his organization that addresses social issues through fashion. Elba is also a rapper and, earlier this month, he released “Knives Down”, a hard-hitting single that addresses the epidemic of knife violence in the UK. It was created in collaboration with up and coming artist DB Maz and produced by Fraser T Smith and FaNaTiX, an intentional coming together of different generations that symbolizes their shared concern around the crisis.

According to official UK government statistics, there were “around 50,500 offences involving a sharp instrument in England and Wales” in the year ending March 2023, which was “4.7% higher than in 2021/22.” These stark figures are what drove Elba to launch his campaign at the turn of the year, a time of “renewed focus, new agendas, a new energy” according to Elba.

For Idris Elba, the knife violence crisis amongst UK youth is complex and nuanced. It’s one that affects all youth, regardless of race of ethnicity and, he believes, is a consequence of years of cuts to community services that would otherwise occupy and inspire young minds and a lack of understanding on the key issues by the media. Elba believes the arts are an important outlet for youth, a way to channel their energy positively, as well as being an avenue into success in later life, and “Knives Down” was his way of speaking in the language of the community affected most by the issue.

“Education wins over everything. If you’re gonna be a badman on road, be an educated badman on road.”

Hypebeast recently sat down with Idris Elba to talk about music, the importance of the arts in positive youth development, UK fashion and, of course, his latest campaign. You can read our conversation below.

Aside from the obvious, what made you make the song and why now?

Well, apart from the continuous rise in knife crime which is getting more and more violent, and what seems like a little bit of a relaxed approach [from the government] to squashing this, I just felt like there needed to be an injection of energy into the crisis. My organization [Don’t Stop Your Future] is three or four years old and is really just an activation brand that’s allowing people to contribute to the conversation by wearing the hoodie. But that just felt like it wasn’t enough. I felt like the platform and opportunity I have can be bigger, more structured, and a bit more aggressive. I started building the foundation of the campaign in October last year and originally wanted to get it out at Christmas, but felt actually maybe this was a time that people want to be together and be, you know, “positive”. So I decided to do it in the new year where there’s a bit more of a renewed focus, new agendas, a new energy.

What impact do you hope the campaign will have?

Short term, I want to get an immediate ban on these crazy knives. Zombie knives, samurais, machetes. Just ban them and make them difficult to acquire, to sell, to distribute, to hold on to you know. I get that, from a young man’s perspective, he feels like he needs protection. I get that. But, on the other hand, some people just want power. They want to be like, “Yo, nobody’s fucking with me,” and I get that also. But I still don’t think these knives have a place in our society. They’re a consequence of a society that’s not looking after young people. They’re a consequence of neglect. In terms of long term wins, let’s get to the root of the problem, and that includes asking “Why?” this is happening, bolstering services so the kids have something to do. Gang culture is gonna be there forever, I’m never going to eradicate that. But what I can attempt to do is get everyone thinking about how to give kids an alternative to fighting, to hating, to stabbing, and ultimately killing their futures. I also think that our long term goal would be for the government to think about sustainable options to rehabilitation and the prison system. Obviously the victim suffers, but oftentimes the perpetrator is either a victim himself or herself. A victim of abuse, of bullying, of bad parenting, a victim of being coerced into a gang. 

It took the UK government a few months to ban XL bullies. Why do you think it’s taking them so long to act on this crisis?

I think it’s classed as a London problem. It’s a nationwide problem. It’s black, white, brown, you name it. And it’s not only related to gangs. Knife culture in England is as old as the turn of the century. There’s a really long history in knife culture and I feel the media doesn’t always know how to talk about it.

The song, Knives Down, has elements from various UK genres. Was this intentional?

It was definitely intentional. First of all, FaNaTiX and Fraser T are both respected producers and work with all kinds of genres. FaNaTiX have a definite new urban sound that spans from amapiano to drill to afropop. Fraser makes anthems, from Dave to Stormzy and all the way up to his own work which includes really great R&B. We wanted to have a song that literally spoke to different people, by design. I’ve never considered myself a rapper, but this song was about proclaiming something, using the verses to say something. And, you know, I’ve got thick skin! I knew I was gonna get questions about why I’m rapping over a drill beat when I’m talking about violence, but the more provocative the song, the more people talk about it. DD mass is 18 years old and this [song] is right in his circumference, you know what I mean? Like, he worries about this whole thing a lot. Because it’s people his age again and again [who are affected by knife violence].

What was it like creating music with a much younger artist, someone from a completely different generation?

Really, the same approach as any song. I laid my verse down first – and it was one long verse! – and he listened to it and was like, “Rah, you’re saying some stuff you sure you want to say?” I was like, “Yeah, I want to say that because I’m old and ugly enough to be able to!” I come from an era of hip hop where people used to say things on records because that’s the only outlet they had. And, for him, he started to just really sort of be more musical about it. He wanted to rhyme. But it’s a really interesting thing is because he came up and said something, he goes, I’ve never written a verse like this. He writes about his world, his culture, his environment, you know. DB Maz’s, Alba records are not necessarily political. And this is his first time coming out, but he’s like, Yo, I really enjoyed speaking about stuff that actually matters and putting it in a cadence that feels modern, where my cadence on the song is a lot more I wouldn’t even say it’s, it’s a bit more like J spades and old school rap. And that is, you know, me like drill. I

What role do you think the arts can have in positively impacting communities?

I think they’re incredibly important. The arts give you a chance of expression. The arts allow you to free yourself a little bit. I think the arts play a big role. I think expression is important. Expression over repression.

“I love what Skepta has done with his line, Mains. He’s a fashion icon, a culture icon. Wales Bonner. She’s killing it.”

What UK designers have you got your eye on?

I love what Skepta has done with his line, Mains. I love what he’s done with that. He’s a fashion icon, a culture icon. Wales Bonner. She’s killing it. I’m a big fan of A Cold Wall and their super curated collections; they come in, come out, and they’re done. And, you know, one of my ambitions for Don’t Stop Your Future is to be a fashion conscious activation brand. At the moment we do basics – you know, hoodies, sweats, coach jackets and what not. All the money that’s made goes back to organizations that fight the fight. But, with the next iteration of the brand, I feel like it’s important that if I’m going to sell people a hoodie, it’s one they want to wear not just for the cause, but because it’s touching fashion. I want to say on Hypebeast now: watch this space! 

When you’re not making a movie, TV show, DJing, rapping or standing outside parliament, what does Idris Elba do to relax?!

I play FIFA! My best thing is to sit down on the sofa when no one’s home, big screen TV – and I’m talking 96 inches! – and just play. I wouldn’t say I’m great, I think in Seasons mode I’m in division seven or something. I love it. It’s so relaxing for me.

Last question – and feel free not to answer this one – but in relation to the campaign and knife crime, what would Stringer Bell say to the youth?

Well, I’ll answer it because, you know, Stringer Bell from The Wire became in some ways an icon to young people. One thing that Stringer Bell was doing in that show was talking about education. And, you know, I don’t care how you cut it, but education wins over everything. If you’re gonna be a badman on road, be an educated badman road. At least that was you’re not going to go to jail. And if you’re smart, you know that carrying a knife is only going to end you in trouble, dead or in jail – fact. I think Stringer would definitely be like, “put that away, if you’re going to be a gangsta, be the best you can be. Don’t be the dumbest one.”

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