Ashley Walters: Shadow of the gun

Ashley Walters is coming to terms with life after serving time for firearm possession. The former So Solid Crew member tells Kaleem Aftab how he relived the experience for Bullet Boy
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"Most people think Bullet Boy is biographical," says Ashley Walters, at a gastro-pub on Abbey Road. "They ask me, 'How much of that was you?'" For those who know Walters only as MC Asher D from So Solid Crew, it would seem a good question.

"Most people think Bullet Boy is biographical," says Ashley Walters, at a gastro-pub on Abbey Road. "They ask me, 'How much of that was you?'" For those who know Walters only as MC Asher D from So Solid Crew, it would seem a good question.

In 2002, Walters was given an 18-month prison sentence for possession of a loaded converted Brocock air pistol. It was another blow to the image of the garage band; in July 2001, two men were injured in a shooting outside a So Solid Crew gig at London's Astoria. In Bullet Boy, Walters plays a petty criminal called Ricky, who is leaving prison after serving time for gun possession. Ricky returns home to Hackney's "murder mile" determined to reform but, despite his intentions, is soon reclaimed by the streets.

The main connection between Ashley Walters and Ricky is that they have served time. But, whereas Bullet Boy delivers a rather depressing take on gun culture in urban areas, Walters is living proof that it is possible to learn from past mistakes. Since his early release, after seven months, for good behaviour, Walters has written a biography called So Solid, appeared at the National Theatre in Roy Williams's Sing Yer Heart out for the Lads and released a solo album The Street Sibling. Bullet Boy marks his first leading role in a film.

Despite his best efforts, however, Walters has struggled to shake off his reputation as a gun-toting criminal, as does Ricky in the film. "I could relate to a lot of things that the character had gone through - jail experience, wanting to change your life around. That was a big part of what went into the film and I'd been through that. I felt sorry for Ricky. When I came out of jail, no one cared. I was ridiculed. I think once you come out of jail you should be left alone and people should leave the past behind, but instead people feared me. People thought, 'Asher D is a criminal, so be careful'."

The solo album flopped; Walters says his record label had lost faith in him. There was little publicity and the label refused to make any videos. The book didn't sell many copies either, although Walters is happy with the results because writing it gave him an opportunity to assess his life. It is sometimes easy to forget that the artist with the boyish face is still only 22.

His sentence was seen as further proof of the hold that gun crime was taking on young, black males. Walters was from a broken home. His mother struggled to bring him up on a south London estate, and his father, who was in and out of prison, was a peripheral figure in his life. Walters fathered the first of his three children aged 17. And So Solid Crew were inspired by the lyrics of gangsta rap and the hip-hop lifestyle, which promotes materialism and eulogises the hardships of urban life.

Looked at like this, Walters is a perfect example of the young black male that inspired plays such as Kwame Kwei-Armah's Elmina's Kitchen and Roy Williams' Fallout. But scratch beneath the surface, and the miscasting of Walters in the role of ogre becomes abundantly clear. From the age of five, Walters was sent to the Sylvia Young Theatre School. His mother, Pamela, wanted her son to avoid trouble. His shining talent soon won him a role on Grange Hill, and, in 1986, he wowed audiences with his commanding lead performance in Lennie James's TV film Storm Damage. During filming, he got his GCSE results and passed all 10 subjects with good grades. James was taken by the smart young man and later provided a character reference at Walters' trial. When he was arrested, James told me: "People have got him wrong. He is a good boy that is far from the So Solid persona."

Walters took a part playing a gay character on The Bill, much to the dismay of his friends. Walters remembers: "People were actually upset with me for doing that. I could not walk down the street without mad comments. My thinking was that, if someone in the future offered me a big role playing a gay character, would I do it? I wanted to be in a situation where I knew the answer and that would also let me challenge myself."

After his acting success, Walters got involved with So Solid Crew as an MC, through Supreme FM, a pirate radio station. The group's debut single, "21 Seconds", went straight to No 1 in 2001. Walters is immensely proud of what this group of working-class kids achieved, despite the lyrics' aggressive defence of the "street" lifestyle. "I felt that I had a right to say whatever I wanted to say. Up until then, no one was saying it for me. This was my chance to be political in a sense. People look at it and say kids don't know about politics, but I think that is what we are going through every day and we just don't know that it is politics. I wanted to talk about my hood, my block, my problems, so I did. Sometimes, maybe, I went too far. I hit the nail on the head too hard."

So Solid Crew won three Mobo awards in their first year. The overnight success suddenly put Walters in a position of responsibility. A lot of people began to have an emotional and financial interest in his career. "That is the big problem," he says. "You can't treat everyone the same way, because the money wasn't that much. A lot of tension comes through money. Right now, money is very secondary to the things that I do. I tend to not get paid for a lot of things, just because I don't want it to influence me." Back then, he spent £1,300 on a gun that he could have bought for £50.

Occasionally, he laughs at his stupidity but the overriding emotion is one of embarrassment and shame. Since leaving prison in October 2002, Walters has become a prominent member of the anti-gun lobby. When we start talking about this he is quick to say: "I don't want people to think that I'm doing it because I want to be accepted or to look good. I generally think that there are a lot of things that need to be done." His activities have so far been limited to a few talks, mostly in schools.

Walters is insightful and eloquent when talking about the growing problem of gun crime. The first thing he wants to stamp out is the perception that it is confined to black males. "If you are only thinking that there is only gun crime in the black community, you are living in a dream world. It is going to get to the point where the people who do not see the problem now will find gun crime on their doorstep."

In another attempt to change perceptions and in a sign of his growing maturity, Walters has dropped the Asher D moniker, which he adopted because he thought Ashley was a girl's name. After lunch, I accompany him to a rehearsal for a National Theatre fundraising event. On the way, he informs the publicist that he is going to keep wearing the jeans, trainers and sweat top that adorn his small frame because he feels uncomfortable wearing a suit. When the MC refers to him as Asher D, the announcer is quickly reminded that he should be calling him Ashley Walters.

The music, which reflects a change in musical direction, includes a lot of jazz and classical influences. The lyrics remain personal, none more so than the song that Walters is singing in rehearsal. After he comes off stage, he tells me: "The track I was just performing there is about my partner's younger sister. Last year, she was the victim of rape. They caught the guy but it was thrown out of court. That whole experience shook me up, especially as it was someone close to me. So I wrote a tune and I gave it to her and, as people do, they got their hands on it. From nowhere, it was like the whole of Peckham and Brixton was liking the tune and saying it was heavy."

The biggest change since Walters' release from prison has been his reconciliation with his father. As with many pivotal moments in his life, this is inspiring a song. "I'm going to make a tune about my dad going through cancer. I had a lot of problems with him but I'm getting over that. He has grandkids and I want him to see them. We've been talking and I've never known him as much as I do now, which is weird."

Walters has decided to produce the album himself. It's 80 per cent finished. He is looking for a distribution deal but is prepared to release it himself. He has also formed a TV production company, which is developing a script he hopes will be made into a drama for Channel 4. He is filming a part in Goal, in which he plays football for Newcastle United.

For now, he hopes that the public will overcome its prejudices and accept that Ashley Walters is nothing like the media persona of Asher D.

'Bullet Boy' is out on Friday

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