Home Sweet Home: From 69 Manor Road to the Royal Albert Hall and back to Newham Leisure Centre.

Music gave Kane Robinson a voice. When he was growing up, reggae was constantly playing at his home in East Ham; the sound pummelling through the ceiling, rattling the walls. His uncles had sound systems and on their regular family holidays to Jamaica, Kane and his cousins would make up their own lyrics to reggae songs and perform them in front of their parents, aunts, uncles and whoever else would listen.

Fast forward to roughly 25 years later, and I’m talking to Kano – one of grime’s greatest – about how he has just performed in front of family again. But this time –  as part of Jamaican rum brand Wray & Nephew’s Wray Residency series, which has previously put on shows with Ms Banks and Gaika – he was back in east London playing an intimate show at Newham Leisure Centre, his old stomping ground where he used to come as a kid. 

We’re talking about how, as he surveyed the crowd from the stage in the tightly packed venue, he could see a lot of familiar faces. “There were so many friends I hadn’t seen for ages. And there was family. A lot of my family come to my London shows but this time there were family members who’ve never seen me perform before – Uncle Eric and stuff like that, so it was sick.”

The intimate nature of the show meant he could recognise a lot of faces from his youth – even some that he’d mentioned in his lyrics. “I was up there performing and I could just see people. I always namecheck people in lyrics and in ‘T-shirt weather’ I say “Jennifer be yawning” and Jennifer’s there. And then I mention Ray-ray and she’s over there. So many people – it was just weird! It’s like my lyrics were alive!”

Fifteen years, six albums and three series of Top Boy in, a clear theme always there in his work, whether on screen or on record, is the telling stories of the community around him, the lives of people who are often ignored. Of what home is and what it was like growing up in East London. His songs tell the journey of the path he took to get here, beginning at his childhood home, the famous 69 Manor Road mentioned in the opening lines of ’T-Shirt Weather In The Manor’. That area comes alive in his words. The people, the buildings, the energy of the place. It was here that his uncle introduced him to his record collection, which was full of ragga and dancehall artists. It was here that he traded lyrics at school, getting in a circle in the playground with a beat-boxer. It was near here that he started his career, spitting bars on pirate radio with the legendary and pioneering N.A.S.T.Y Crew. Even before he had a record deal, Kano’s ability to deliver the tightest rhymes with ease and confidence was undeniable. 

Since his 2005 debut album, Home Sweet Home, through to the masterpiece that is last year’s Hoodies All Summer, Kano has shown he’s one of the greatest around – not just in his flow but his ability to tell stories through his music about the community he grew up in. He was raised by his mum who worked as a PE teacher at a local school in East Ham. His mum actively encouraged his love of music; buying his brother some decks, Kano a mic from Jamaica and, for Christmas one year, a brand new Casio keyboard for them both. (It was that keyboard he made ‘Boys Love Girls’ on). And, as he has risen up, Newham has remained the canvas for so many of the stories he tells.

It makes you understand why this show meant so much. In just 24-hours, Kano and Wray & Nephew transformed the Leisure Centre into a full-scale music venue. How did it feel to be in that leisure centre – all the memories and the history that was wrapped up in it from his childhood? “I loved it man. It was a crazy day for me because the day before we had our Drumsheds show which was my biggest show in London to date and then, the next day, to come back to my old leisure centre with all the same production and all the strings and everything – it was very surreal. And to do it with D Double E and Ghetts – we were smiling all day.”

“it’s about leaving home and trying to achieve big things in the big world and not forgetting where you’re from.”

From the 10,000 capacity of the Drumsheds to this, it’s a reminder of his journey and how far he’s come. For Kano, it was about giving back. Partnering with Wray and Nephew meant he was able to make sure the show was for local community members – with 100% of proceeds donated to local causes. They gave out vouchers for Jamaican food and there was “a community feeling, knowing that people will get to see a show like that”. It felt like he was able to repay what the community had given him. “We go around the world and we try to achieve and it’s about leaving home and trying to achieve big things in the big world and not forgetting where you’re from. There’s a difference between a memory and being present, being seen, going back, putting on a show. Let people see you. Inspire. That’s the shit that we’re about.” 

‘Class of Deja’ – a track that looks to the past by seeing him reconnect with Ghetts and D Double E and nodding to Deja Vu FM, but feels viscerally now – was a highlight of the night. “It’s a big energy tune – sometimes I wanna be in the crowd just to see it – but it means a lot more because of the people on the track and they’re a big part of my journey. Ghetts is one of the people I started with and D Double is probably one the biggest inspirations out there for me in terms of music, so it was amazing.”

The story of that track is just one of the many threads back to his youth. With his family right at the front during the show he reminisced about his childhood in Newham, and what the place still means to him. “I’ll let you into a little secret,” he told the crowd. “I used to do trampolining here… So when the opportunity came, we had to take it back to this place and show it some respect.”

I ask him more about that time – what it meant to be back in the place he spent so much time as a kid and the role the leisure centre played in his life. “During the holidays they used to open and me and my mates and my cousins used to be there. Your mum could drop you off before they went to work and then you were occupied for the whole day. And as an adult I appreciate that now. You know they’re safe and having fun and all that kind of stuff.”

“I played football there, they had the trampolines, there was swimming, there was an athletics track. Then when I was in the district leagues that’s where our big cup games used to be. That leisure centre played a big part in my life – and making that a part of my musical journey as well was really cool.”

That journey hasn’t just taken in East London but also Jamaica and those family holidays. That comes through in his music. Hoodies all Summer not only features Popcaan, but you can also hear dancehall influences mixed in with hip-hop and grime – reflecting those Jamaican roots. “My mum would be playing reggae or, when I was older, I got into dancehall music. I was just fascinated in it from the beginning and massively inspired by it and it always comes out somehow, even if it’s just a bassline or if the sub is so low… I just love it.”

I ask why he always comes back to ideas of home in his lyrics. He ponders the question. “I’m just inspired by home and I’m always trying to represent where I’m from and I’m really proud of that. That’s not just where I was born but my heritage too man – we were taken to visit Jamaica every year when we were younger and that comes out in my music as well.”

“My whole experience of life comes out in my lyrics and east London is a major part of that. It’s the same for all the artists I like as well, you know what I mean? You have to know where they’re from to understand them – like Jay-Z rapping about Brooklyn or whatever, it paints a picture. It’s like it’s being lifted off the page and there’s a truth being told. And that’s why I embrace where I’m from.”

And from 69 Manor Road, his path has taken him to now being recognised as one the greatest artists we have. Jay-Z called him one of the UK’s best rappers, Stormzy shouted him out at Glastonbury, and Wiley said he was sent from God. And he’s now playing venues like the Royal Albert Hall. That was a special night for him. “It didn’t really sink in straight away – it was more a couple of days later when I saw all these videos online – it was like I was seeing it for the first time so it was a surreal experience. People are still talking to me about it. It was one of those shows – there were about 5,000 people in there but about 10,000 people told me they were there, you know,” he laughs. “It was something I wanted to do for a long time – probably from 2006 or something like that when I saw Jay-Z there and it’s great to add myself to the long list of history on that stage. That’s something that I’m really proud of.”

It seemed to underline his place as one of the very best. But even as he’s risen he’s always maintained that authenticity to tell the stories of people who don’t have a voice. And to be a face for those growing up in the community – a reminder that you don’t have to ‘stay in your lane’. In the documentary that came out for 2016’s Made in the Manor he said “There’s definitely a feeling of we’re not supposed to be shit, or have shit or become anything great… I just wanted to be so much more and just to do better”. He admits Stratford has changed beyond recognition since the time of his youth and pirate radio. He says overall that change feels inevitable but is also worried about what gentrification and change does to the community. As he speaks, you can tell how passionate he is about being there to inspire people, to show people that stuff is possible, to not be held back by people’s perceptions of what you can do.

“it’s not about being a ‘role model’, it’s about being as real as you can”

Hoodies All Summer was a statement about our times. Where Made in the Manor was an introspective reflection on his journey. Hoodies was a state-of-the-nation record, bringing questions about what it means to be black and from Britain and looking outwards to speak about what was happening in his community. Just like his role as Sully in Top Boy has helped reveal the reality of what life is like for many in the city, Hoodies told the story of those who aren’t often listened to. When he was making it he said that he “kept thinking about myself in the future, looking back and could I be proud of what I’ve done?” Listening to that album and speaking to him you understand why poet Caleb Femi called Kano a modern-day Bob Dylan or Tupac for Britain’s youth. “In these times of uncertain political leadership, the endz have found their own prime minister in Kano,” he wrote, with Kano laughing at the thought of being announced as the “The endz minister”.

But, you know what, it makes sense – Kano tells his story as a Newham native, someone who’s able to humanise situations, inspire people and represent voices that aren’t being represented. He praises his Top Boy co-star Dave “for not settling and always saying things in his own way… he’s gonna be here for a while.” And he talks passionately about how inspiring it is to see other artists do what they believe in and say what they feel.

“For me it’s about all of us – not just me, but all the artists – being able to inspire the next generation. I was talking to Little Simz about it and it’s not about being a ‘role model’, it’s about being as real as you can. I’ve experienced a lot and I wanna share that experience, I wanna help people. I know just seeing it makes it more real, it allows you to believe that it can actually happen.” 

And more than that, it’s about giving back. “That’s one level but also just helping people out too and shining a light on the community that played a massive part in my lyrics and in my story and to help out the community was a cool thing to be able to do.”

Does playing shows like the Royal Albert Hall and the Drumsheds make him take stock, think about his legacy? “You know, you need to take time to realise what you’ve achieved and stuff – occasionally you get those moments and being in the leisure centre was definitely one. Looking at D Double and Ghetts it just hit me for some reason – it had come full circle in a way and I’m so proud about the path that we’ve taken.” 

Now Hoodies is finished, it’s time to look forward to what’s next. He says a trip to Brazil “got ideas flowing” and that he’s inspired “more by conversations with people and what they’re going through in the area” than what’s in the newspapers. These shows feel like they’re ending a chapter: but he’s not a planner. “I get quite scared about that actually because I don’t know what’s next. But as you get a bit more experience you just kind of realise it will come. You gotta live through it and get the stories and then at some point it will reveal itself and you can pull all of that life out and create new music.” You don’t doubt him. Kano is an artist who’s always done things in his own time and in his own way.

Follow @wrayandnephewuk. The Wray Residency series sees Jamaican-influenced artists headline alongside local grassroots talent and take over empty retail units or unusual community spaces for one-off, intimate events.