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Tony Supreme on the power of music to change lives: "I’m about exploring wellbeing and freedom through music"
10 years ago, Anthony Olanipekun finished a prison sentence. Now he's the CEO of a charity called Grounded Sounds — and an advocate for the healing power of music
In June 2019, when All City was a column for British GQ, I wrote an article about the work of a music charity based in Brixton, south London, called School Ground Sounds. To do so, I interviewed a range of young musicians who’d passed through their programme, including 17-year-old Paul Goumou. After completing his sentence at the local Youth Offending Service, Paul was supported to pursue his dream of becoming a professional drummer. Four years later, he tours with Burna Boy.
This spring, refreshing its purpose and celebrating its partnership with Soho House Foundation at White City House in west London, School Ground Sounds relaunched to become Grounded Sounds under the leadership of Anthony Olanipekun, otherwise known as the radio host and DJ, Tony Supreme.
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I meet with Anthony in the cafe of Brixton House theatre to hear more about his own remarkable story. Well-built from a tea-total discipline of early morning gym sessions, with long dreadlocks and rimmed glasses, he carries the considered yet calm air of someone you would want selecting your records as well as overseeing a charity that works with vulnerable young people.
As we take our seats, Anthony mentions that he’s just returned from a weekend leadership residential in Winchester. It has forced him to reflect on how far he’s come over the last decade.
“Yesterday was Mother’s Day, so I went to my mum’s house and gave her a card. I was saying to her that 10 years ago I missed Mother’s Day because I was in a cell, you know? I was serving a sentence,” he says. “So everything that’s happening this year feels very important. Seeing where I’m at 10 years later, on this leadership programme that I never thought I’d be on, feels very divine. It is a reminder that a lot of the work I’m doing today started ages ago. I’m only now starting to see the fruits of it.”
Anthony developed a love for music from a young age: he was born into a Christian Nigerian household where his dad would play funk, Afrobeat and soul vinyls, and he remembers becoming inspired by watching The Lick with Trevor Nelson, a popular television show on MTV Base in which its namesake would present the latest drops in Black British music.
He grew up in Fulham and went to secondary school in Victoria. These parts of London are not typically associated with high levels of poverty or crime, but the educational catchment area Anthony belonged to included many teenagers travelling from south-of-the-Thames. He was a committed student who aspired to become a youth worker, but he found that social problems among his peers could easily spill into his own navigation of adolescence.
“South London in the mid-2000s was a very different place to what it is now. You can walk through Brixton and not be approached now. Then, it was like…I wouldn’t come to Brixton unless I was with someone from Brixton, you know? I got into the cycle of defending myself, and then becoming the aggressor. As I got older, going out clubbing, being in group situations where it’s not really something to do with you, but you’ve got to defend your friends…it was a lot to do with ego and masculinity, with not backing down,” he recalls.
A mistake while completing his undergraduate degree at university in Essex would land him a two year prison sentence in HMP Brixton.
“It was a moment to reset, strategise and reckon with the situation I was in. I did a lot of thinking, I read so many books, I wrote poetry. I started to think about what I wanted to be doing in the future.”
A turning point came when he first heard Erykah Badu’s 1997 album Baduizm — regarded as a formative body-of-work for neo-soul, the pre-millennium sub-genre borne out of the marriage between soul music’s easy-listening melodies and low vibrations and the boom-bap drum patterns and danceability of hip-hop.
“People would send in CDs, and there was one time that we swapped a couple of CDs and in the stack we received was Erkyah’s album. Me and my cellmate listened to it almost every night for months. It was the first time I felt a sense of freedom because of music. Immediately, I knew there was a deeper level here for me of mental wellbeing, positive messages, soothing sounds.”
On completing his sentence, Anthony returned to university to finish his degree. With support from his probation officer, he volunteered for a range of organisations to gain youth work experience. He started delivering workshops in schools for Safer London, a citywide charity which seeks to prevent violence and exploitation among young people, eventually managing a cohort of volunteers.
On the side, he performed poetry, learned to DJ and founded his own radio show, Soul Surge. In 2019, he landed a full-time role as a presenter and producer of the breakfast show at National Prison Radio (NPR), which broadcasts to 80% of prisons across the country. It was based at HMP Brixton, so he returned to the building of his incarceration — this time as an employee.
“That was mad for me, a full circle moment. It was like, I’m back, but in a different capacity. I’m helping people,” he says.
After two years of working at NPR, the pandemic hit. With prisons locked down, Anthony handed in his notice. He soon came across the job advertisement for CEO of School Ground Sounds.
“From radio producer to CEO of a charity? That’s a crazy jump! Initially, I was like, there’s no way I’ll get this! I felt imposter syndrome the whole way through the application process. But I made it to the next stage, then the stage after that…and when I got it, it took me about a year to stand in it and be confident.”
He’s been in the role for nearly two years. Moved by learnings from his own transition into adulthood, while upholding his ongoing passion for arts education, Anthony’s renewed vision for Grounded Sounds is to leverage music to support all young people who are in proximity to the pressures of inner-city life, rather than only focusing on those who are deemed, on paper, to be most ‘at risk’.
“I think there is a narrative within society, and the charity sector, specifically, that looks at risk in a particular way. If you’re a young person who is ‘at risk’, to most people it means you are committing crime, you are involved in violence, you’re at risk of prison or death. But from my understanding it is more about geography. If you grow up in an area like Brixton, you’re at risk because you’re a young person, full stop.”
He wants to plug a service gap that is lacking for a silent majority of teenagers who, due to being neither the most harmed nor the most academic students, miss out on deserved support.
“Their grades aren’t bad, but they’re not getting the top grades, and they’re not a cause for concern, educationally. They may be described as easily distracted or talkative, but they’re not causing enough of a disturbance that they’re sitting in the isolation room. They go under the radar. But they’re still going home to areas where their friends are the ones who do have behavioural issues or are getting involved in crime. They’re one decision away from stepping into that risk zone.”
Through also continuing to run initiatives like Soul Surge, which is now a registered company and events platform that promotes artistic wellbeing and showcases soul and jazz talent, Anthony keeps exploring music as a force for progress.
“The music industry can do a lot more. So that’s one of my missions, pushing that message to get more people to give back. The personal journey I’m on currently is exploring freedom. How can we use music to create better futures? How can we create a better life for people, even if it’s just an experience that lasts five minutes, or an hour in a workshop? It’s those moments of joy and freedom that I think shift and change people’s lives. I’m about exploring wellbeing through music. How can music be a vehicle for joy?”
By Ciaran Thapar
Find out more about Grounded Sounds here.
Donate to Grounded Sounds here.
Become a Friend of Grounded Sounds here.
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