The rapper has given a voice to the most deprived – and ignored – people in society.
In a world of information overload, human crises tend to be reduced to dispassionate statistics. The number of homeless children in temporary accommodation has risen by 37% in the last three years, it was reported recently, while the charity Buttle UK estimates that four million children are now living in poverty. These devastating trends signify a wider unravelling of the social fabric, yet to the unaffected such issues often seem remote and unknowable.
Politicians like to deal in headline figures and generalisations because it makes complex problems more manageable, but this approach neglects the human stories at the heart of issues. This is particularly problematic for those MPs from privileged backgrounds that serve affluent constituencies, who often have little substantive experience of the realities facing millions of people.
Many other, ordinary people are similarly disengaged, simply out of boredom or fatigue towards the latest depressing news story. This is a worrying situation, as a lack of empathy or comprehension only widens the gap further between those at the bottom of society, and everybody else.
In this context, Professor Green’s series of documentaries for BBC Three on issues such as male suicide, drug use and homelessness, feels like a vital public service. The musician and rapper, real name Stephen Manderson, presents the realities of these issues in searing detail and without sensationalism. Instead he spends time with four or five different people in each programme understanding how they arrived at their situation, and what their daily struggles look like.
Manderson’s most recent programme, entitled Living in Poverty, feels like a culmination of all his work to date, highlighting how factors like mental health, substance abuse and job insecurity can contribute to ever-deepening cycles of deprivation. Among the people featured is 14-year-old Tyler, who lives in emergency accommodation consisting of two tiny rooms with his mum and brother.
Tyler’s mother does not work due to mental and physical health issues and instead claims disability benefit, with the family subsisting on £80 a fortnight. It means that Tyler must grow up in a cramped, unsanitary living environment where a microwave is the only means of cooking food, the family can only wash clothes in the shower or sink, and the two teenage brothers share a double bed as the only available place to sleep.
From his conversations with Manderson, it is clear that Tyler is a bright and engaging individual, but the psychological scars from his situation are evident too. He is painfully aware that he is seen as poor in the eyes of schoolmates, many of whom lead lives entirely different from his. With nowhere to comfortably rest or do homework, he wanders the streets at night and toys with the idea of becoming a drug dealer to earn some extra cash for his mum. Tyler attends a pupil referral unit for kids who have been excluded from mainstream school, we are told.
Such stories are rarely given this level of care and attention on mainstream TV. Manderson shows himself to be an excellent documentary maker, immersing himself in the worlds that these people inhabit. He clearly cares deeply about the plight of all the people he speaks to, but also witholds judgement and allows them the space to tell their stories. His empathy reflects the fact he has first-hand experience of many of the situations his documentaries cast a light on.
Manderson, whose father committed suicide, was raised by his grandmother as one of six people living in a small flat in Hackney, east London. He was also involved in crime before he broke into the music industry, having been both a user and dealer of cannabis (hence the nickname Professor Green).
When he does offer commentary via the occasional to-camera aside, he is thought-provoking and considered. Discussing Tyler, for example, he acknowledges that some people may criticise the family for getting into such a desperate situation in the first place. But he asks whether, given all the disadvantages Tyler has faced, anyone could really criticise the teenager for ending up in the exact same situation when he is older.
Manderson endorsed Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn at the last election, but he keeps politics out of his documentaries for the most part. Instead, a general sense of disillusionment pervades his programmes.
After 10-year-old Kelly Louise explains her own story of poverty to a packed room of MPs and journalists at an event at the Houses of Parliament, Manderson is delighted by the bravery and poise of the young girl. Soon after though, he reflects on whether such a story will actually make any difference to government policy in the long-term.
“The really sad thing is that despite people being probably quite shocked about what she said and being moved and upset by it all – when everyone leaves that room and the door closes, what changes? Probably very little,” he says.
It is a bleak and troubling view – and one that reinforces the need for more people to wake up to the often-ignored realities of life for millions in this country.