The London-based nonprofit and Sonos Soundwaves partner is rolling onward with its mission to empower youth through music after arson struck its bus-turned-recording studio last year.

 

Parked on a busy main road in North West London, the United Borders bus is hard to miss. The former public transit double decker bus was renovated by Justin Finlayson, founder of the London-based youth empowerment nonprofit United Borders. In place of the traditional red, oyster card readers and conventional seating, the new bus has been painted all black, kitted out with Sonos speakers, a recording booth, and monitors. Inside, a group of teenagers are hard at work making music, crafting beats, and turning tough life events into memorable lyrics.

In April 2018, the first United Borders bus was destroyed in an arson attack, incinerating hard-earned investment and breaking the hearts of those who had supported the project. At a time when social mobility is more pronounced than ever in the UK, and the links between austerity, social deprivation and youth violence are ever clearer, staring into the ashes, Finlayson vowed to rebuild the project and make it even better.

Soundwaves is a social impact program created by Sonos to support youth music education around the world, helping young people in need to realise their potential through creativity and technology. United Borders is a fitting partner for the program, providing life-changing opportunities for at-risk young people to realise their ambitions via music education. Sonos’ deep roots in music and technology offers tangible benefits for a partnership that aims to support the next generation of artists and innovators. Nearly a year to date since losing the original bus, Soundwaves is enabling United Borders to continue delivering quality music education through studio production, music therapy workshops, well-being classes and mentoring, helping Finlayson to pursue ongoing efforts to support local young people and establish an extraordinary community programme.

Finlayson, a former youth worker and music industry professional, founded his charity in 2017 to help vulnerable young people at risk of falling in with gangs, to find hope and healing through music. He was inspired by the death of James Owusu, a student and carer who unrelated to gang activity, was killed in a random gun attack in his neighbourhood of Harlesden.

“It’s weird how a community works, because you’ll have someone like Nines who’s a prominent MC who everyone respects, and then you’ll also have someone like James, who was studying and looking after his mum, and was also respected. That death hit the community really hard.” Finlayson’s own son Rico was also targeted in a near-fatal, unprovoked knife attack, bringing things even closer to home for the founder.

Nevertheless, he remains calm, motivated and positive in his mission, offering mentoring, yoga classes and soon, business courses to the young people aboard the United Borders bus. However, music–with its transformative potential and ability to appeal to everyone in their own special way–is the pulse of United Borders, and of Finlayson himself.

“I’ve always been involved with music, starting with Ms Dynamite and Akala, when Akala was known as Metric,” he explains. “I’ve toured with him all over the world. I struggled academically myself, so I’ve always been into arts, and using arts as an outlet for young people who might not achieve much academically.”

While there is much funding for some genres of music–with opera receiving 62% of Arts Council funding in 2018–UK rap, grime and drill haven’t received the same support, making Finlayson’s achievements even more impressive. The biggest of them to date, he says, is bringing together rival gang members from the Church Road and Stonebridge estates, who had no idea they were collaborating on the same music for two weeks. When they finally came together, there was camaraderie rather than chaos.

“The session ran over by four hours,” Finlayson remembers. “They didn’t want to stop so we recorded the whole thing. That was the eureka moment when we realised we could get people who had been at [odds] to come together.”

Nimo, a volunteer with United Borders who also works in politics, remarks at how important the work that takes place there is; having grown up with six brothers, she saw first-hand the discrimination towards young black men in the educational system. The bus has a small sharing library which includes copies of Akala’s new book Natives; in it, the rapper-turned-poet and activist unpicks “the press obsession with gangs, and making gangs synonymous with young black boys.”

Conversely, says Finlayson, his project is all about connecting with those young people – showing that you like them and that you understand the traumas they’ve endured and the world in which they live. “I think traditional academia has to catch up with what’s currently here … they’re studying ‘Of Mice and Men’, but they’re more interested in how to monetise their YouTube channel,” Finlayson says.

One such student who floundered in traditional education but has discovered a creative outlet at United Borders is 14-year-old Jason. He first heard out about United Borders while at a pupil referral unit, having been excluded from mainstream schooling. Now he comes to the bus two to three times a week, bringing friends with him and meeting new people.

“I’d just be chilling in the ends if I didn’t have this” says Jason, a gifted rapper who is keen to learn about music production. His highlight so far, he says, has been learning how to engineer beats and editing his own tracks. “Everyone here is calm,” Jason says. “You make a mistake, you learn from it. Practice makes perfect”.  

Today he’s focused on making music and staying positive, thanks in large part to Justin’s course. “Now I stay away from the wrong people and do me,” he says.

Despite a strong start–building those important bridges between local rivals and giving young people a much-needed confidence boost–Finlayson has even higher hopes for United Borders. He wants to put on a music festival, and help the boys in the project to become the community leaders and industry professionals of tomorrow. But, most of all, Finlayson just wants to see these hugely talented young people succeed. “The fact that young people are creating music that the rest of the world wants to hear, on hardly any money–for me, that’s indicative of their brilliance,” he says.