Getting to the heart of A Northern Soul

Steve Arnott, managing director of the social enterprise Hull Beats Bus, talks about how he got involved with the documentary A Northern Soul, which will be shown on BBC2 on Sunday night

Steve Arnott (Photograph: Being the Story)
Steve Arnott (Photograph: Being the Story)

Growing up in Hull was difficult in many ways. I bumbled through life being pushed about and bullied and accepting that this was the way things were. We had no money. I was the only kid who turned up to school with a note explaining that my uniform wasn’t clean and why I wore trainers instead of shoes because I had only one uniform and mum had to save to provide shoes.

I can remember walking to school one day at the age of 10 dreading what the day would bring, when I saw a kid a bit older than me putting out a big piece of cardboard on the road. He brought out a ghetto blaster and what he did next blew my mind. He got on the floor and started spinning on different parts of his body. I walked across to him and blurted out "what are you doing?" He said it was a windmill.

The only windmill I knew was the one on the postcard from Skidby that nana had sent me, so I repeated "that was a what?" If this kid had turned around and said "f*** off and mind your own business" then I truly believe I wouldn’t be telling this story. But he didn’t. He said "let me explain" and that day I was introduced to hip-hop. I knew I had a connection somehow in some way. All I needed was to fit in somewhere. Hip-hop opened the door and invited me in.

Hip-hop dreams

I always dreamt about being a hip-hop artist, but as I grew older I realised the key to success wasn’t to sell records, it was to pass on the knowledge and skills to help a new generation. That was how the Beats Bus was born.

The Beats Bus is a mobile recording studio that delivers hip-hop and confidence building workshops to young people. When Hull was made the City of Culture, I applied for funding. When this was rejected I started the year with a sour taste in my mouth. I was convinced that the Beats Bus ticked every box and fitted the criteria perfectly. I’d had the idea for a while, but I knew that all eyes would be on my city and that somehow I had to get the Beat Bus onto the road. Just before the City of Culture year began my friend had made me aware that the documentary maker Sean McAllister was working in Hull and was looking for a character for a documentary. She suggested I meet him.

Sean was screening his film A Syrian Love Story and I ended up introducing myself to him and my Beats Bus dream. I left Sean my number because I had to leave for my 6am warehouse shift the next morning. I received a text from Sean saying he would like to meet and the rest is history. A Northern Soul was born.

Camera shy 

Trust was a massive issue for me. Having the camera there felt a bit weird at first. I found myself being careful what I said and how I acted because I didn’t understand what Sean wanted to show. Nor could I see how my story could be as powerful or as touching as A Syrian Love Story. But watching the film made me realise that Sean helped his characters and shone a good light on them. After spending a month or so with Sean I found him very humble and I felt at ease speaking to him. He makes you forget the camera is there. His constant questions lead you into speaking about things without you realising. We agreed to film whatever he thought was important and I trusted that Sean had my best interests at heart. 

I never thought the film would ask so many questions of the life that most working-class people just see as 'the norm' and just get on with

Steve Arnott

I hadn’t seen the film until it was screened at the Sheffield Documentary Festival. That's how much I had grown to trust this genius of a man. Until I watched it, I didn’t think about the issues the film has raised. To me it was never about poverty or struggle – it was about positivity and the importance of community work. The poverty and struggle just happened as we were filming. I never thought the film would ask so many questions of the life that most working-class people just see as "the norm" and just get on with.

The impact of the film has been far beyond anything I ever imagined. It was discussed in the House of Commons and there was a screening in parliament. This made me think that unless people like Sean take the time to tell these stories then they stay unheard. Working-class people need a voice. If I have inspired more people to speak about their struggle, then that is great, and I hope things can change.

For me the most important message of the film is the transformation of young people and how important community work is to giving children belief and confidence. It changes their lives and their choices, and that’s what we aim to do. Hip-hop made me believe in myself.

The future

The film has inspired me to write a five-year plan to roll out our work nationwide and then internationally. At the warehouse I couldn’t see a month into the future, never mind years. I walked out of my warehouse job of 10 years because I could see Beats Bus workshops were changing lives.

I’ve read letters from parents that made me realise the power of what we had created. I am now the star of a film. It's a real rollercoaster of a film that I still find hard to watch. I bared my life for the documentary. When I watched it, it saddened me, but then I realised why I had done it: to show the power of the Beats Bus and the work we do. Since the film came out we have won two big contracts in Hull and have been nominated for two business awards. I believe this is largely down to Sean and his belief in me and the Beats Bus. One thing the film has made me realise is that the more people we get to talk the louder the voice becomes until someone, somewhere has to respond. I want people to see how important community work is to making the world a greater, more respectful place to live in for generations to come. 

This article is an edited version of Steve Arnott’s original talk at sounddelivery’s storytelling event Being the Story 2018. A Northern Soul will be shown on BBC2 at 10.05pm on Sunday night

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