The winter months are drawing in and the days and nights are growingly increasingly colder and challenging. According to statistics more than 11,000 people sleep rough on the streets of London every year. Rather disturbingly, a report by Shelter in 2019 estimated that on any given night in 2019, more than 280,000 people in England were homeless, but in the last year this has grown to 253,000, the highest figure for 14 years. Many of these are living in temporary accommodation, but since 2010 those sleeping rough sleeping has increased by 141%.

Slightly blurry photo of a packet of chips in a box thrown away with slugs eating it. Text at the top left reads Night Jam Bittersweet songs for the sleepless city

Back in 2006 I had the opportunity to work with New Horizon Youth Centre, the day centre for homeless young people in King’s Cross, London, at the invitation of London based arts producers Artangel. The idea of NightJam was both intimidating and appealing in equal measure. As always, with such unknown projects, I accepted, recognising how much meaning and insight such projects give to me personally, as well as to others.

My own homeless experience

My own experience of homelessness is modest by comparison. In 1999 I was homeless for a year, with all my belongings stored in an industrial lock up, ironically also in King’s Cross London. I lived in Liverpool in a hotel, and when in London couch surfed between different friends who kindly took care of me. This was one of the strangest times in my life, with no fixed address, no mobile phone, no landline, and no way of contacting me other than email, which at the time was still quite a rarity. I can’t deny that it was a personal challenge, extremely lonely and taxing. 

I would regularly take the train to London to pick up a change of clothes, CDs and books to read and then return to Liverpool. Perhaps I would see friends, but mostly I would jump on the next train and sit in Liverpool John Moore’s University Library and read magazines and search their archives, and eat in cheap cafes. Liverpool at this time was not the dynamic city that it is today and was only just beginning to be reinvented.

Inside a storage unit, filled with cardboard boxes, poster tubes, metal furniture, plastic bags, a bicycle pannier

Curiously the press considered this almost an affectation, writing at the time how ‘intriguing’ it was that I was such an elusive character, as if I had deliberately chosen such a lifestyle. Far from it. I felt isolated and downcast and longed for ‘normal’ life again. In time however, life was restored and this rather cheerless experience became a memory of another ‘me’ in a sense. Tragically, this is not the case for countless others.

The fear and joy of the unknown

So, choosing to work with young homeless people in London had a deeper resonance for me than perhaps the curators realised. I still remember the first day of walking into New Horizon Youth Centre and how apprehensive I was. I was immediately instructed not to speak with any of the young people outside of the building, for fear of questions of how they knew me out on the streets, nor to visit the loo alone, for my own safety.

I was introduced to a small group of young people, from a former boy soldier from Africa on the run, a Portuguese guy on the search for a new life and a beautiful teenage girl who was escaping the horrific beatings of her father at home. To look at her and see her immaculate nails and perfectly coiffed blonde hair, you would never for a moment have imagined her to be homeless. But as she told me, she slept on the night bus to keep warm and safe and showered at the local gym.

3 men and one woman sit around a table looking at a laptop computer. All are dressed very casually in jeans and t-shirts. A white man sits on the floor in the middle, smiling, looking at something on the computer whilst the other look on amusingly

All the warnings I had been given turned out to be completely unnecessary. There was an immediate bond with the people, with music as the signifier. We spoke about what we wanted to create together, and whilst I created melodies and beats on my laptop, they were keen to tell their stories in words. The final works explored the sense of freedom and fear, celebration and solitude of the concealing darkness.  

So, welcome to the London that never sleeps, yeah, will never dream – can’t – and will never see…Yeah, while you’re counting sheep…”
MC Utta, Sleepless City

Over the aching beats and lonely piano of Sleepless City, three soft voices spin bitter words of exhaustion and despair in the dark underbelly of the city: “I’m in the depths of London / Straight up in the depths of a dungeon.” In the elegiac breakbeat song S’alright, two people in very different parts of the night reassure themselves everything’s going to be fine.

How does the city sound and look at night?

From 21 April until 19 July our NightJam sessions continued. Given the transitory nature of the young people the participants were frequently changing, but over time we were able to build up a few recordings together. I suggested giving them each a disposable camera so they could document their nights to share with others, to experience how the city at night looks and sounds to their ears and eyes.  I was warned that these would most likely either be lost or exchanged for food, cigarettes or drink, but I wanted to believe in them.

A week later every single camera was returned, as each young person demonstrated a professional commitment to following this through. The images were very revealing of their nights as most of us slept, taking images that were at times eerie, startling, contemplative and funny. We used many of them for a slide show at the final presentation of the work, and on the artwork of the CD we produced together.

The surprise of kindness

At the final event in London everyone was invited and we shared in a spectacular evening together, where some of the young people turned up in their finest outfits. At one point I found the young blonde girl standing by a staircase in tears and checked in with her to ensure she was okay. In her broken voice she explained that she was not accustomed to people offering her such supportive words, and such kindness was very new to her. Almost immediately my eyes were equally filled with tears.

Curtains, slightly open, in a bedroom of a house, with a net curtain seen in between. They look old and fade with a flowery pattern on them. The flash of the camera illuminates the image in the middle

We gave a box of the CDs to each of the young people who were utterly thrilled to have taken part in this project, and in some ways, I hoped it had given them a sense of worth that they more than deserved. Some months later I got word that one of the young people had gotten a job and settled into a flat in London. I was delighted and felt almost like a proud father, and hope that in some ways perhaps these sessions had offered a sense of self-worth and confidence that had missing from some of their lives.

NightJam in 2021

And here we are in 2021, 15 years later. I’ve made the music available online and the video I made at the time too. Though the CD release is now out of print, I’ve made all the recordings available again in high quality, with a series of extra remixes that were commissioned at the time too, and which have never been officially released.

Lyrics for the song S'alright, by MC Magic and MC Sweetie

This remains a free release, but 100% any monies raised will be given directly back to New Horizon Youth Centre to continue their support for young people. So, please, please consider donating a little more and supporting the countless people that remain homeless on the streets of London.

Download NightJam in full here

Read more on the Artangel website