If anybody deserves a medal for parenting, it’s Ify Adenuga. All of her children – Joseph Junior (aka Skepta), Jamie (JME), Julie (Former Beats 1 DJ and NME Awards 2020 co-host) and Jason (producer and graphic designer) – turned out to be creative juggernauts. Now she’s written a memoir, Endless Fortune, that apart from showing the ascent of her talented progeny, tells the story of her own incredible origin.
Born in Lagos, her life was uprooted by the Nigerian civil war, which ravaged the country in the mid-1960s, forcing her family to flee – with young Ify fearing her father would be killed at each checkpoint. In 1980, she headed to the UK in search of a better life, where she met her husband Joseph Senior at their workplace of a bingo hall in east London.
NME caught up with Ify Adenuga to discuss Endless Fortune – a memoir that takes in the ascent of grime, overcoming adversity (including a shooting that wrongly implicates her family and nearly tears them apart), and witnessing her offspring reshape culture in their own image.
When did you decide that you wanted to write your memoir?
“The moment that he [Skepta] won the Mercury Prize he was craving in 2016 for ‘Konnichiwa‘. When he won, he went: ‘This is it. I’m home’. That was when I thought ‘I have to document this’.”
It’s fair to say the internet fell in love with you – and your dancing – at the Mercury Prize. Did you have a good night?
“Yes. It was a shock he won! As soon as they announced it, I felt a chill down my spine. I grabbed a bottle of what I thought was champagne to spray to celebrate and accidentally ended up covering Kano’s mother in red wine!”
Did your children learn anything about you through reading your book?
“They’d never heard my life story. They knew there was a war in Nigeria, but didn’t know the details of what I went through. Jamie said: ‘Mum, when Junior said you were writing a book, I didn’t know you had so much to tell!’. That’s what I missed with my own parents. Maybe I’ll die happy now that my children know about me!”
You paint a moving picture of growing up in – and fleeing – the Biafran war. What impact did it have on you?
“It strengthened my sense of survival – wherever I am. Even though my survival in England when I first arrived is different from survival in a war and place of deprivation, it gave me a drive to keep going. As horrific as it was, I wrote this so people would know what we went through. It wasn’t easy to survive – like when we were evacuating my grandfather from close to the war front and packing his livestock and yams into a jeep. All you can hear is shells going ‘boom!’, and you’re praying the next one doesn’t land on you.”
What was the most challenging part of your book to write?
“The hardest part to write was the shooting, because it forced me to relive it.”
That’s when there was a shooting on the Tottenham estate where you all lived in May 2004, and Skepta was wrongly blamed…
“It was because of the struggle to get my family to where we’d got to. We’d survived our children not falling in with the wrong crowd and ending up in prison, and then coming round to the shooting – it was painful thinking back to how it affected me. Everybody on the estate was pointing at my family, but we weren’t involved. We were eventually vindicated, but we had been evicted by our Housing Association and pushed around B&Bs. It broke me. But my survival mode kicked in where I said: there’s 24 hours in a day and you just need to take one hour at a time.”
When did you realise that Skepta and JME were going to make it in music?
“It didn’t come easily to me because at the time, grime was getting a bad press and associated with knives, guns and shootings. Even I was apprehensive about having two sons in a music genre that everybody wanted laid to rest. When Jamie’s ‘Serious’ came out, although I was upset because he shot the video in front of our temporary accommodation because I was worried the council would evict us again, I was happy because of what he was saying in the lyrics, the attention he was getting, and the fact he was enjoying it. When I heard ‘Serious’, I hoped it would stick. The rest is history!”
You used to drive the teenage Skepta to rundown estates and fenced off commercial venues to do music with his mates. What was that like?
“My heart was in my hand! I used to rack my brain about what I was going to say to dad should he find out we’d been out all night. You’re afraid but at the same time, you’re excited because you’re helping them and at least you know where your child is.”
Did Skepta get his politics from you?
He got involved in everything I was doing and the social issues I got involved with. When there were complaints about kids on the estate, I decided we needed a teenage representative on our Estate Tenant’s Association – anything we don’t like, the representative can feed it back to the youth so they’ll behave themselves. We made Junior the representative which worked because people gravitated towards him as a leader. Maybe he took the leader of young people on the estate too far where he was actually going and physically trying to stop fights. Some children came from Wood Green and tried to attack a young boy on the estate and steal his necklace. Everybody was scared to stop it. But Junior grabbed the knife and got the chain back. Watching me going into police stations and representing young people as an Appropriate Adult rubbed off on him. He got his politics and leadership qualities from me – and his creativity from his dad.”
What have been the most surreal moments of your kids’ rise to fame?
“When I saw P Diddy on Junior’s FaceTime screen talking about a remix, I thought ‘Wow! In my house!’ I was looking out of my backdoor seeing if I could spot anyone from my community to go, ‘Come and see P Diddy on the screen!’ That was a moment when I thought: ‘This is going to happen for him’.”
Why do you think all your children ended up as creative powerhouses?
“In my culture, you try to raise your kids to become doctors or lawyers. I had that target in my head that Junior would become a doctor and Jamie a lawyer. However, the day Jamie came home with [music-making software] Fruity Loops, he got the interest of everybody in the house. Dad’s field was computers and electronics and that fired their imagination and laid the foundation for their future. They were all into music and enjoying it, so I wasn’t going to talk them out of it and persuade them to go into medicine just to please me. When I realised they love what they’re doing and can earn a living from it, I thought I don’t have a doctor, lawyer or accountant in the family – but I can employ them!”
Are you in touch with the mothers of any other grime artists?
“I suggested once to Kano’s mum after the Mercury win that us grime mothers should get together and do something like a grime Loose Women. Where we can talk about what the children are doing, how it impacts us and makes us feel – because I wanted to sustain the good name that grime had earned. She’s a very busy woman and we never got around to it, but I’d still like to do it. But it’s drill that’s getting the bad press now – I can’t even bear to listen to it!”
Endless Fortune is co-published by OWN IT! and Boy Better Know (BBK) and is out now