Yinka Bokinni: “How the killing of my childhood friend shaped the woman I’ve become”

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After 20 years of shutting out the tragedy that rocked her childhood, DJ and presenter Yinka Bokinni is speaking out about the killing of her friend Damilola Taylor – and the impact it had on her entire community – in a vital new Channel 4 documentaryDamilola: The Boy Next Door.

“Move people to hell and then call them devils.” These are the words DJ and presenter Yinka Bokinni utters as she sifts through newspaper clippings about the north Peckham council estate in Channel 4 documentary Damilola: The Boy Next Door. The damning headlines on ‘Third-world Britain’ are all that’s left of the community she grew up in. 

The concrete tower blocks of the south London neighbourhood – consistently characterised by drugs, violence and gang culture in the press – were demolished when Bokinni was still a child. The final blow was dealt by a tragedy so horrific that it shook the nation: the killing of 10-year-old schoolboy Damilola Taylor, who was slashed with a broken bottle by a 12- and 13-year-old as he walked home from computer club at Peckham Library in November 2000.    

Damilola and his parents had moved from Nigeria to the UK that year, and he swiftly befriended the local children – including the little girl who lived next door to the Taylors, Yinka Bokinni. Today, 20 years after Damilola’s death, Bokinni is finally ready to speak out about the effect the tragedy had on her and her peers; the people who rallied around him and yet were dismissed at best, vilified at worst. 

In the hour-long film she revisits north Peckham, fuelled by the desire to tell Damilola’s story from the perspective of those who really knew him and to document the aftershocks of grief and trauma that continue to ripple through the community. It’s vital and heartbreaking, from the footage of a confused 11-year-old Bokinni being interviewed for Panorama to cathartic conversations with her sister and her childhood best friend. Here, she speaks to Stylist about how she told a story so close to her heart.

Firstly, why did you feel it was important to revisit Damilola’s story, 20 years on?

For a long time, I didn’t tell people that I knew Dami, or even that I was from that north Peckham estate. There is stigma and there was some shame there. But over the past few years something has been niggling at me, I felt like I needed some sort of resolution. I’d been thinking about everything from my first kiss to my first day at college – all these things that Dami never got to do. It felt like it was time to reflect; the truth is I’d never really dealt with his death and what it meant until we started making this documentary

It’s a really emotional watch. What was it like for you, revisiting those memories?

It was a lot, especially because I’ve never done a show like this before – I’m usually working on red carpets or on the radio talking about Skepta’s latest tune. So this is a completely different side of me, and the fact that it’s a story I’ve been personally affected by made it even more tough. It was emotionally draining, but I felt like I wanted to do Damilola the service of telling his story correctly. 

Twenty years is a long time but it doesn’t take away the sting or the sense of grief. So it feels very fresh, especially because it’s the first time I’m speaking about it. All in all, it was a baptism of fire into the world of documentary filmmaking.

As you interview friends and family it becomes clear that most of you have avoided talking about the impact of Damilola’s death. Why do you think that is?

I’m not here to pretend north Peckham was sunshine and rainbows, and I think when you’re from a place that’s notorious for its violence, you can become desensitised to it. I grew up in an environment where there were guns, drugs, stabbings; I was used to seeing that. Damilola Taylor was the first person I knew who had been murdered, but he’s not the only person. And when horrific things are happening a lot, you feel you can’t make it better by talking about it. You move on, you try to be strong, you don’t dwell on the bad times. But a symptom of that is you don’t actually deal with what has happened. It’s not OK, because it almost normalises our struggles in the eyes of the outside world, too. 

When Dami died, the police didn’t knock on our door even though he was in our house every day. There was no support. The only people who came were from Panorama, or salacious tabloid reporters looking for titbits to fit into their one narrative of Peckham. And I know I can’t dispel a myth in an hour, but I just wanted to show a different side to the community – to show that, actually, when these bad things happen to people like us, it does stay with us and it does affect us.

Yinka Bokinni presents Damilola: The Boy Next Door
In Damilola: The Boy Next Door, Yinka Bokinni returns to north Peckham estate, her childhood home.

There’s a real pride in your community and sense of hope throughout the film, despite the tragedy at its heart. Why was that important?

I wanted to remind people that I’m not the only person who’s doing OK from back home. Look at [actors] John Boyega, Ashley Walters, Damson Idris. We’re not victims of our circumstance, but we are proud to have clawed our way up from Peckham. We have that fighter in us, that strength. I think of [rapper] Giggs, who would book me to host his gigs even if there was no need for a host, just because I was trying to become a DJ. We back each other. But what gets pushed all the time is ‘the gangs, the knives’. Don’t get me wrong, I’d have loved to have grown up in a rich area and not been poor, but our circumstances don’t define us.

I feel like people who grew up in places like me, we do start on a minus. And when you add in being Black and being a woman, it’s like, actually, when we get to these heights we should shout about where we’re from and show others what they’re capable of. Filming this documentary has ultimately taught me that two things can be true at the same time: I can be proud of where I’m from, I can love my estate and love the people, but I can also be honest about the fact that it was tough, the fact that we’d wake up with cockroaches in our bed some days. That’s just the reality.

Do you think Damilola’s death has had an impact on the woman you are today?

A colossal impact. Even now, talking about it makes me feel so heartbroken. It’s something I won’t be able to shake. I remember getting the bus to school and going past a corner shop that had the South London Press headlines up in the window – every day they were about Damilola, but the one that sticks with me is: ‘He died alone’. I’d think about that very stairwell, that lift shaft where we used to play, where he died. Fifty yards from my front door. So dark and cold and lonely. I just remember thinking, ‘I can’t imagine anything worse.’ So I don’t think it’s any coincidence that I’m such a people person, always trying to reach out and connect with my friends and make sure people never feel alone or unsupported. I send kisses on work emails, for god’s sake.

What’s the one thing you hope people will take from the film?

It’s very much our take on what we experienced, the people who knew him and grew up around him. Dami’s story was one of tragedy, and I can see now with some distance that it was traumatic, but I want people to see that he had a community around him and he was loved. I think a lot of us would have chosen to grow up in different circumstances, me included, but not if that meant I didn’t have the memories I do of Damilola. If I could go back and change things, I wouldn’t change the fact that I met him. I just wanted to do his story justice, and I hope people see a different side to it. I didn’t want to make another film about this poor little Nigerian boy who didn’t stand a chance in London, because ultimately, he was one of us.

Damilola: The Boy Next Door airs on Wednesday 28 October, 9pm, Channel 4

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Images: Channel 4 Press, Olufemi Bokinni

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Meena Alexander

Meena Alexander is Stylist’s sub-editor. She mostly writes about music, TV, film and books – all the best things in life.