Music preferred to machetes in East End gang wars

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The Independent Online
AKTAR AHMED is one of the most promising stars of new wave Asian rap music. But in January the 18-year-old, whose performance name is Aktar- Vata, was beaten, hacked and stabbed by a gang of around 30 youths on his way to the local youth club. No one thought he would perform again.

They were all wrong. Today he takes up the mike for the first time since the attack. Aktar was just one of the many who have fallen victim to a growing wave of street violence among young Bangladeshis in London's East End. He's performing at a concert organised as part of the London-based Arts Worldwide Bangladesh Festival that kicked off last week.

"When I saw the axe I thought that was it: I was going to die," says Aktar, recalling the attack. He needed 100 stitches and still carries scars all over his body. Eight teenagers have been charged. Looking sharp in a turquoise and white Moschino shirt, the plastic "designer" tag hanging off it, his emotional recovery shows a remarkable strength of character. "I went to Hell and back with 12 cans of Coke," he says, referring to the fact that Coca-Cola was the only thing he could swallow when he was in hospital.

The Asian gang wars are a lethal cocktail of the teenage street violence that has been part of the East End culture for generations and the arrival in Britain of the kind of "black on black" violence from American inner cities. In the East End, the preferred weapons are machetes, steel pipes, and samurai swords.

A clue as to where the teenagers take their cue can be found in the local video store. It is almost entirely stacked with LA gangland films such as Boyz N the Hood and Posse.

"The younger generation in Tower Hamlets are just small-time gangsters," says local youth worker Abul Khayar Ali, 25, who last year formed an organisation called Asha (hope) in a bid to encourage the youths to put aside their violent vendettas. "Asian drug dealers are clever: they are businessmen and they keep a low profile." He said the fights were usually on an "estate to estate level, or over a girl or because someone didn't like the way someone else looked at them".

A local youth club, St Hilda's in Club Row, has been instrumental in encouraging Aktar to persist with his rapping skills. It was a youth worker there who put Aktar in touch with Asian Dub Foundation, one of the most important groups in the Asian music scene an whose members are the musical heroes of young Bengalis in east London. ADF, which has been dubbed the new face of British folk music, is headlining the centrepiece event of the Bangladesh Festival at the Barbican next Sunday with a team of drummers from Chittagong in Bangladesh.

Through ADF's education project, ADFED, founded last autumn, Aktar and his "crew" are being coached to develop their talents. Their lyrics are about their own experiences growing up in the East End from racism to the Brick Lane bomb and what Aktar calls "the disease", an unprecedented heroin epidemic that is ravishing East End families, Bengali and white, on the areas impoverished housing estates.

The youths know what they are talking about. "Round where we live you see 13-year-old boys dealing in heroin," says Aktar, who lives in Bethnal Green. "I've seen them offering it for free." One of the crew, a Filipino boy called Krayzie, also 18, says he was hooked for two years on heroin, smoked through silver foil. "My brains weren't mature enough. I didn't know what was right or wrong," he says. "In the end I just stopped. I locked myself in my room. I could see what it was doing to my grandparents." He said his involvement with Aktar's crew also helped him to come off the drug.

Aktar's backing musicians are an embodiment of the multi-cultural inner city. They can all rap in fluent "Jamaican", the result of hours of listening to ragga music. And they have also swapped other linguistic skills. Through his friendship with Krayzie, Aktar speaks a fair amount of Tagalog, the language spoken in the Philippines. And Krayzie, who grew up with Bengalis in Shadwell, adds: "I'm the only Filipino who speaks pure Bengali."