If I wasn’t in the rap game, I’d probably have a ki knee-deep in the crack game.
Because the streets is a short stop.
Either you slinging crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot
The Notorious BIG, probably the greatest rapper of all time, spat those lyrics nearly a quarter of a century ago on the second track, Things Done Changed, on his first album, Ready To Die. He was talking about how the quality of life in his neighbourhood in Brooklyn, New York, had deteriorated since his childhood, to the point where the only ways out were to become a successful music star, a big drug dealer or a professional sportsman.
Fast forward to 2017, in the UK: last week to be precise, and Anthony Joshua’s brilliant performance in winning the WBA heavyweight championship belt against Wladimir Klitschko to add to the IBF and IBO belts he already held.
In all the pre-fight hyperbole – online, on TV, the radio, and in the written press – we were retold one of the oldest cliches in sport: that of boxing being such a great way out for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The picture most of them painted was of a young man who, having fallen in with the wrong crowd, was starting to get involved in petty crime. He joined a boxing gym, discovered a lethal right uppercut – his equivalent of the “wicked jump shot” – and now, thanks to the noble art, he is a multimillionaire and holds the most prestigious title in sport, the world heavyweight title.
And it’s all true. Boxing has changed his life for the better. I’ve met Joshua a couple of times and he really is one of the nicest, most down-to-earth young men whose acquaintance you’ll ever make, so I’m not sure he was ever going to become the modern-day Scarface that some of his biographers would have us believe he would become, had he not decided to pursue a career in the squared circle. Nevertheless, boxing has been good for him. And this is only the beginning for a kid who is on his way to becoming one of the most wealthy and famous human beings on the planet.
But let’s not be suckered into believing that Joshua’s success in any way provides a road map for black kids from disadvantaged backgrounds in general. Joshua is an outlier who has been blessed with the perfect physique, an enormous amount of guts, tremendous talent and the capacity to work hard enough to be the best on the planet at what he does. If you were to design the perfect athlete from head to toe, he wouldn’t look too different to Anthony Joshua.
By definition though, that can only apply to a very few people. The truth is there are more lottery winners than there are men who have made life-changing money from boxing, which is probably the hardest, most physically demanding sport there is.
#BlackMenofCambridgeUniversity #BlackBoyJoy pic.twitter.com/Vgcr7Wzuos
May 1, 2017 Cambridge ACS
The real way out for youngsters from a disadvantaged background (I’m not even positive that Joshua fits that stereotype in any case) is to ensure that a young person receives a good education. So it was heartening to see the pictures posted online of 14 young black students at Cambridge University this week. Like Joshua, they’ve worked hard to get where they are. And most of them probably come from a similar background to him, too. Sadly, I’m yet to see anyone describe applying to Cambridge and being accepted as a “way out”. There still might not be enough of them at the top universities, but I’d be willing to wager that there are far more black boys who have benefited from a good education than have been saved by a boxing gym.
For the past nine years my company, Powerful Media, has been showcasing in an annual publication, Future Leaders, 100 of Britain’s best students of African and African-Caribbean heritage. Many of them have been Oxbridge students, pretty much all of them are at a Russell Group university, and we send the publication to schools because we believe role models whom young people can relate to – like the lads in the Cambridge picture – have such an enormous influence.
It works, as the incredible number of testimonies from young people who read the publication when they were in school and who have since been profiled in it tell us. “Many of the young people we interview for the magazine say that it’s not that they are smarter than their friends, it’s just that they chose to work hard because something has triggered in them the belief that they can do well in life,” says its editor, Adenike Adenitire.
Because of the efforts of people like us, the Cambridge boys and many other organisations, such as the Amos Bursary and Elevation Networks, which are giving young black kids an opportunity to view success from a different perspective, the future is bright and we will see more young people from tough backgrounds succeed at the highest levels.
A quarter of a century ago, when the Notorious BIG was spitting those lyrics, many of us really did look at sport, entertainment or criminality as the only opportunities to be successful. Thankfully, since then, things done changed – for the better.