Five days a week Yinka Bokinni entertains the masses. When she’s not busy bossing it at her newly launched online magazine Sistem, she’s spinning tunes and interviewing megastars on her Capital Xtra breakfast show. Either way, she’s no stranger to captivating an audience.
For her latest project, the 31-year-old ventured a lot closer to home. In her Channel 4 film Damilola: The Boy Next Door, Bokinni offers a close-up look at the North Peckham Estate where she lived as a child – a community fractured following the murder of 10-year old Damilola Taylor on 27th November 2000.
In an emotional journey alongside director and fellow producer Ashley Francis-Roy, Bokinni recalls being Taylor’s next-door-neighbour at 11-years-old, their friendship which she harboured as a secret for 20 years and her upset at the media’s portrayal of her home being a “violent ghetto”.
Growing up as one of seven siblings in southeast London, Bokinni remembers how “it was definitely a community I grew up in.
“I remember riding bikes and the smell of cooking when I went to someone’s house. Anyone who grew up in Britain, in a super inner-urban environment before social media, will know that. I didn’t realise that we were poor, or that we went without a lot of the time. Because everybody was kind of in the same boat.”
Still, she’s the first to admit that it was that strong sense of unity and resilience that helped shape Bokinni into the ambitious all-rounder talent that she is today.
Here she frankly discusses her memory of “Dami” and the cathartic effect of filming The Boy Next Door after years of hidden grief.
Why did you want to talk now about your friendship with Damilola Taylor?
Because it’s been 20 years. His name is a name that you hear, or you see his picture, and immediately remember at least some of his story. It wasn’t purposely done that it was going to be in 2020, the year that the Black Lives Matter movement has resurged and we are louder and more visible than ever before. This is simply a coincidence.
I think there’s something quite serendipitous about telling a story of Black grief – and Black joy as well. There’s a sense of identity in all these things that I hope the film [will also be] for people. I’m trying to honour my friend who would’ve been 31 – in a month’s time it would have been his birthday. If not now, if not this year, I’m not sure when we would’ve been able to tell the story properly.
How did you go about shaping the documentary?
We started in October of last year. It was very much Ashley Francis-Roy and I. We kind of hashed it out along with the assistant producer Nelson Adeosun. They contacted people, I messaged people on Facebook. I really wanted to make sure that my sister and my siblings had a hand in what we were saying so we could speak to the right people. It was definitely a community effort.
[Previously] I’ve been a victim of: “Let’s make a documentary and stick a camera in Black people’s faces.” But I’m not an opportunist like that, to do that to my friends and family about the area I grew up in. I felt I had a duty of care that is quite rare in a film. Yes, it’s going on telly and yes, it’s my first film on the channel. But I need to make sure that [they’re] comfortable and looked after before, during and after filming.
Do you have a specific memory of Damilola that has stayed with you all of these years?
I have loads of memories of him. I think the strongest memory, apart from meeting him and the day that he passed away, was when he was climbing on a balcony that was on the fourth floor or something. He was doing it with no hands and just walking along. That was way too high for me – I’m a second floor kind of girl!
But it was only the daredevils [who did stuff like that], and I remember one of the other kids, my friend’s brother saying to him: “You need to be careful because if you died, your mum would miss you, so get down from there!” I probably remember it so well because of course he passed away a few months later. I remember him being so fearless. It’s a fleeting glimpse. It’s not a memory of a stroll or a conversation but it definitely sticks out in my mind.
As an 11-year-old, do you remember how you felt when you first heard about him passing away?
I think I remember it now more than ever because I’ve had to relive it so much over the last year. It’s a feeling of helplessness. He isn’t the only person in my life that has died or been taken, but definitely the first one that’s been close to me who’s died in such a violent way.
I remember the shock of not really understanding what was going on. But also, it almost being expected because of where we’re from and the environment we grew up in, and the reputation of our area. We were expected to understand it and get on with it. We were very much expected to cope, and I remember being extremely scared that someone was gonna kill me.
I remember being extremely confused as to what it meant to be killed. It was an overwhelming sense of confusion that wasn’t really taken into consideration by the adults who were dealing with the situation.
How did you deal with that grief?
I don’t think I did deal with it. I think I dealt with it when we filmed the documentary, if I’m being very honest. I didn’t think it was going to be as difficult to film as it was, or even as difficult for everyone to see it. I kind of thought: “I’m gonna have a show on Channel 4, woo!” And then very quickly during filming I was like: “This isn’t fun. This is actually my life.”
It’s been quite overwhelming – on Instagram, people are reaching out and speaking to me about it. It’s resonating with people in understanding that you’re not alone in not knowing how to deal with grief. It’s helped start the process of healing from it. I think it’s all about communication and having those conversations.
Do you mind people seeing that more vulnerable side to you on screen?
Of course not – especially nowadays when we’re encouraged to be more human than ever. I’m not your typical presenter: I’m a chatterbox. I can be strong and vulnerable, I can be loud and be pensive. I’m human, and for long enough as broadcasters and presenters, we’ve had to slap on a smiley face when the world is on fire. You’re meant to be a robot and stick to what’s in your lane. There’s more of a responsibility now for people like myself to actually speak about what matters. I’m more than open to be seen as vulnerable and all the things that I am. Because ultimately it’s the truth.
You speak so fondly of your Peckham community. How has that shaped you?
It has definitely made me who I am now. When I think of how thick-skinned I am, how difficult it is to annoy or offend me, when I think about my sense of humour… Even my sense of taste in terms of clothes and music and people I keep around me, it’s very much intertwined with who I am and where I’m from.
Growing up in a community where everybody chips in, and feeds everyone, and looks after everyone, has made me a bit warmer, and more open to meeting new people, or trying new things. We were in a mish-mash of cultures, people find it so hard to believe that… My mum’s Irish, my dad’s Nigerian, so at any given moment we could have boiled bacon or egusi stew. Then I celebrated Eid with my neighbours and we sat on the floor with the big blanket, we all prayed together and ate together. Not in an appropriation kind of way. It was really eclectic. I hope I’m a product of that.
How did it make you feel going through these old articles and seeing how negatively the media depicted your estate? Do you recall witnessing any violence there as a child?
It was really tough. Ultimately it’s one side of a coin, but it’s still the truth. I wouldn’t look at the articles and think they’re lying. I’m not naive enough to believe that the dark alleyways and stink of piss is because it was a utopia. When you’re a kid you definitely have rose-tinted goggles on. You definitely do things in a different way, with a certain innocence.
Sometimes when we would see violent things happen, my sister would bring us inside. There was grass outside our area, and every few weeks an air ambulance would land on it because someone would try to commit suicide on the 8th floor, things like that. We just thought it was an event because there was a helicopter in our estate. We didn’t think of the reasons these things were happening. Now as an adult I’m like: “Oh my God, that was very dangerous.” But as a kid, you’re just thinking like, the flashing lights are over there…
What do you want viewers to take away from this documentary?
It’s quite a complex one because some people tell me that it’s a story of grief. Some tell me it’s a story of recovery. Some people tell me it’s a story of joy. Some people have told me it’s a story of memory. I think it’s all those things. I just hope that people watch it and just feel something. I really did put my heart and soul into it, and I gave away a piece of myself for people to just look at. I hope that I’ve done my friend and area proud.
How do you want Damilola to be remembered?
For the child that he was and the person that he could have become. I hope that I showed his story wasn’t inevitable, he wasn’t destined to be a victim. I know how his tale ends, I know he was taken and that he is a victim. But he didn’t live his life as one. I hope the film showed that there was a boisterous, annoying, funny, fearless 10-year-old, just like somebody’s son, daughter, neighbour, niece, nephew, cousin, brother, sister, whatever.