Joy Crookes knows this neighbourhood. The musician grew up here, hung out in the area’s parks, performed her first YouTube performances in her bedroom a few streets away. And now the BRIT Rising Star 2020 nominee is back, moving into a flat on the road on which she was raised and paying it back to the community that formed her.
“Here”, broadly, is Elephant and Castle in southeast London. And here, specifically this afternoon, is the basement of St Peter’s Church, Walworth. This far-from-creepy crypt is the bright, welcoming home of InSpire, a local hub, club and café promising “Learning”, “Arts” and “Community”.
Despite her increasingly busy diary – the 23-year-old releases her debut album this Friday, the eagerly-anticipated Skin – Crookes clearly remembers her last visit here.
“They were doing a market for local creative businesses – people making jackets, people making jewellery,” she says, smiling widely. “It was amazing to see so many independent businesses, particularly from South London, having a space and doing their thing.”
Having a space and doing their thing: it’s for those simple but powerful reasons that Crookes is putting her boots on the ground and reaffirming her roots in Elephant and Castle. She’s partnering with Timberland on their My Community Our Nature campaign, an initiative that sees cultural leaders work with the outdoor lifestyle brand to step up for communities across Europe, bringing people together with urban greening projects and in general encouraging people to spend more time in nature.
For Crookes, that means helping InSpire’s youth club facilities. As she points out, “funding is extremely important in this time”. As for what she wants that funding to achieve, her ambitions for her project are both hyper-local and city-wide.
“Because we want to work with nature, we’re redeveloping an area outside the church to let young people be more connected with nature, particularly in a time of TikTok, social media and people being locked into their phone. And we are funding them to be able to go on trips beyond this area and have an opportunity to see outside South London.”
Ask what it was about this collaboration with Timberland that appealed, and Crookes’ answer comes directly and firmly: “It’s community-based projects. I love to watch brands give back. I love brands that let me do the talking. And I love when people put their money where their mouth is. It really is as simple as that.”
That passion comes from personal experience. As a child growing up in Elephant and Castle, she had access to a couple of youth clubs, albeit ones that were a little further away. Crookes remembers that “music wasn’t so much of a thing, but you could do basketball, tech – being in front of a computer – and sometimes tennis. Then, just being able to sit and talk with people your own age, but being in a safe environment to do that – that was amazing for me.”
It was, she agrees, a refuge and respite.
“A lot of us are children of immigrants,” says this daughter of a Bangladeshi mum from Dhaka and an Irish dad from Dublin, “and we’re from working-class families. So the end of the working day was not three or four o’clock for our parents. With both my mum and dad working, it was much easier for me to be left somewhere safe like a youth club.”
That sense of security, engagement and inspiration helped make Crookes the woman and the artist she is now. And it gave her the confidence to explore the city’s open mic scene on which she cut her teeth as a teenage singer, songwriter and performer.
“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve understood more [about] my roots. And because I’m public-facing in my job, that makes me feel even more grateful for my humble beginnings and the people who have got me to where I’ve got to.
“But this area also got me to where I’ve got to,” she adds. “If I didn’t have a South London background, it would be hard to pack a punch when I’m trying to say no to a music industry person. Street wisdom is one of the most important tools in terms of navigating my way, as my own boss, through something like the music industry.”
Those are strengths that Crookes still values and feeds off. You can hear as much in her 2019 single London Mine (“Bangla noise on Brick Lane, that’s the sound of my home”) and on various tracks on Skin, notably When You Were Mine, which offers lyrical shoutouts to various Brixton locations. No wonder her debut is one of the most exciting British album releases of autumn 2021.
“London keeps me on my toes, creatively,” she states with a grin. “I have a song on Skin called 19th Floor. It touches on the way London moves and how fast it moves. And it’s completely true – sometimes London has a way of making you feel so small, like you can’t catch up with it, and it swallows you up.
“In those times it’s really important to lock myself in my bedroom, smoke too many cigarettes, watch some Netflix, and feel like I’m getting myself back again.”
Or Joy Crookes just comes back to her cherished home, the place of heart and hearth that she simply calls “Elephant”. As she says, “the pace here works better for me than the entirety of London”.
That’s the value of the community, of nature, and of roots.
The Fall campaign culminates in a public vote to decide which of the projects among the UK, France, Germany and Italy will benefit from a large-scale community and urban greening transformation in Spring ’22. To vote for Joy’s project follow the link here.