Dancehall Days: We The Ragamuffin

Why Julian Henriques's original "ragga" masterpiece is Peckham-born and bred

Working with a purely improv script and local grassroots cast, Julian Henriques’s We the Ragamuffin provides a fascinating glimpse into the hybrid world of "ragga," gun play, and dancehall in the British-Carribean community of Peckham.

Two decades ago, Ragamuffin originally premiered at The Bouncing Ball club on Peckham High Street. Last Friday’s screening to a parking lot-full of Peckham’s newer inhabitants felt different to the director, but no less a celebration of cultural heritage—and a hommage in the face of ever-present gentrification.

“The audience has changed,” Henriques noticed. “For the new urbanites the film served as a little window to a past they mostly weren’t around for...That’s how gentrification happens. It’s not just happening in Peckham, but all over the world.”

That’s how gentrification happens. It’s not just happening in Peckham, but all over the world.

What inspired you to make this film?

A chap from Peckham named Russell Newell approached me as a filmmaker and said he had this story he wanted to tell. I’d never met him before and didn’t really know Peckham then, but the project originated from his enthusiasm and ideas.

How representative is We the Ragamuffin of Peckham?

The whole film was shot on location in Peckham, but the Ragamuffin culture -the current version of reggae at the time - was inspired by Jamaica. If you listen to the music, you can hear all kinds of beats that hearken back to Africa. But the artists featured in the film developed a distinctive crossover style, like Mikey General who sings the main song. It's a uniquely British black Carribean–inspired music scene.

Would you say gun violence was a greater problem than it is now?

Unfortunately, gun violence was a big issue then, and still is today. There was that shooting of a young mother over the weekend who was caught in a crossfire on the High Street. Dancehall is a creative volcano in terms of the popular culture, but it does have this other downside of violence. What we were trying to do was to find a different angle to tell the story. The message is pretty clear—they’re literally the lyrics of the songs. 

It's a uniquely British black, Carribean–inspired music scene.

What was the most challenging aspect of shooting?

Working at the street-level. There was a cast member who managed to get himself arrested between one day’s shoot to the next.

Do you agree with Channel 4 that the accents and idioms might prevent audience members from following the plot? 

I’m not totally decided. The advantage of subtitles was that we didn't have to compromise on how the cast expressed themselves: they could be as idiomatic as they liked. But the main cast and production crew claimed that it was racist and patronizing. That way of getting the go-ahead from a broadcaster for a film of this nature—this is the sad thing—today, it would still be considered too risky. How crap is that?