Ashley Walters is making another name for himself. The So Solid Crew man who spent time in jail for possessing a firearm is on the up…
Asher D's involvement in So Solid – the collective of south Londoners who literally shot their way to fame in the late 1990s through both their music and off-stage antics – had already added ample notoriety to his name by the time he was incarcerated in 2002.
Yet scratching beneath the surface, it soon becomes clear the ‘badboy from the streets’ label does not really fit the 24-year-old entertainer. Although he grew up on a notoriously tough Peckham housing estate, Ashley had a theatrical training at the top London drama school Sylvia Young’s – past pupils include Denise Van Outen and Billie Piper.
He has been acting since the age of four, starring in roles on everything from Grange Hill to The Bill, and has graced the stage of the National Theatre on more than one occasion.
So are there two Ashley Walters? “Growing up I didn’t see it like that…“ he states plainly. “I was just trying to balance the two worlds of doing Sylvia Young’s and growing up in Peckham. But when I look back, yeah, I think I was leading a double life.”
Since his release from prison, Ashley has been less spook and more mainstream in his approach to living. He is a father of three who clearly realised it was time to grow up.
“A lot of the stuff I was involved in and doing had to stop ASAP! And in the past four years it's really turned around.” he states.
It is hard to disagree, with the fruits of his new labour all too evident around town. Tube stations have recently been emblazoned with the image of his bare chest as the marketing for his latest film, Life’n’Lyrics, went into overdrive. Although the movie has not received the critical acclaim of his previous cinematic offering, 2004’s Bullet Boy, it has certainly raised the profile of the actor.
And last week saw the release of a first solo album. Three years in the making, it draws on a diverse range of musical influences.
“It’s so many different things…I grew up playing jazz and classical piano, and so we fused some hip hop and grime and a lot of what’s on the street at the moment with this. It’s a new sound that’s come out of it.”
The album, entitled ‘In Memory of a Streetfighter’, is dedicated to an important figure in Ashley’s life.
“That was my dad’s nickname – street fighter” he reveals. “He passed away in the middle of last year so the name was a way of me giving him something back.”
Although the pair were never particularly close, Ashley says he grew to admire his dad as he began to realise certain truths about his life – including his nickname.
“Obviously people are going to assume it's about street fighting, which he did and it’s partly why he got his name, but it meant a lot more that that,” he explains.
“It’s about being a survivor and battling to overcome a lot of the negative things that come your way. And I think everyone’s got a street fighter in them.”
Bringing up three kids before you’ve even passed the age of 25, as Ashley has, must be keeping those battling qualities alive and kicking in the Walters family?
“It’s tough” he responds. “It’s another job. Every father and every mother is constantly learning. All this talk of being ready and planning a baby… it's just talk really. You can never be ready.”
He had his first child at 17, and despite the variety of pressures since, is still together with the mother of his children.
“It’s definitely been tough to maintain that relationship over the years” he states.
“Half the time I haven’t really been there so it’s essentially been long-distance. But she always gave me the space to go and establish myself.”
This is now reaping the rewards for Walters.
Recent endeavours include a role in the latest series of the BBC hit drama ‘Hussle‘, and the release of his next feature film, ‘Sugarhouse Lane’, early next year. With all this industry, has prison helped Ashley find some new discipline?
“I think it’s like school, if you want to learn from that experience you can” he states plainly.
“I went in there thinking I’m never coming back again, so what do I have to do to make that happen?”
Determination is apparently not a new acquisition, rather a trait instilled during that childhood of rich extremes.
“I had a very pushy mum,” he reveals. “If I ever had spare time or said I was bored she would give me something to do. It was a good thing and probably one of the reasons I’m in the position that I am now.”
That view seems particularly apt when you consider the fate of many of Ashley’s contemporaries who grew up around him in Peckham. Opportunity in such places is not served up on everyone’s plates.
“There is definitely a problem of people feeling excluded – not everyone can be doing what I’m doing and it's sad because there’s so much talent out there that goes unnoticed. That’s why you get this whole rebellious attitude from a lot of kids on the street,” he explains.
“They want to belong but there’s no way for them to do that, so they create their own rules, their own gangs and they stick together. They feel safer that way I suppose.”
As gun crime continues to escalate in London, many are pointing to the influence that rappers exert on disaffected youths.
Ashley worked with US rapper 50 Cent, a self-confessed former drug dealer who claims to have been shot nine times, in his multi-million dollar biopic Get rich or Die Trying. Is 50 Cent somebody he looks up to?
“As a businessman, I think he’s incredible… but other than that I don’t have too much to say about him,” Ashley replies.
“Talking about what you see around you on a daily basis, whether it be negative or positive, is completely different from glamourising violence, and I think every now and then he crosses over that line.”
Many claim So Solid Crew were themselves guilty of such a charge, but Ashley feels this is a hypocritical assessment.
“As a society we tend to pick a scapegoat, like rappers, for problems. But Sony Playstation still has games with guns on it and people snorting coke to get energy… and this is computer games for kids. That is worrying! Even books will have a knife or a gun on the front cover. It’s basic promotion. But any time a rapper does it, all of a sudden there is a big hype” he argues.
He feels the rise in gun culture is in greater part due to the example set, not by rappers, but by those in power.
“Tony Blair gives the impression that it’s alright to kill lots of people, occupy someone else’s country and bully them,” he states. “The advice the kids get from the Government is that when you can’t talk about it, shoot people.”
It is an interesting view from someone who appears to have the measure of political operators.
“Prime Ministers and Presidents are essentially actors” he declares.
“They are given their lines, told how to move their hands and how to make people listen to what they are saying.”
So would he consider a redeployment of his own acting abilities to a new stage – in Westminster?
He laughs at the idea, replying: “I don’t want to be made out as that guy who thinks he knows everything. I enjoy being able to have a dialogue with people, and have them respect me because I’m talking sense, rather than simply because of who I am."
With that said, how will a young truly representative member of the black community ever emerge on the political scene?
“I think someone will come through who is willing to represent the black community and the disaffected youth on a political level – it's just not going to be me” he states emphatically.
We will be hearing a lot more from Peckham’s latest rising star.