Words by:
Photography: Udoma Janssen
Co-Director/Stylist: Ademide Udoma
Production Manager: Daniel Falodun
Photography Assistants: IVOR alice, Charlie Benjamin
Set Design: Annie Alvins
Set Design Assistant: Rufus Wilkinson
Makeup: Blessing Kambanga
Hair (Little Simz): Amirah Ajikawo
Makeup (Little Simz): Nibras
Stylist (Little Simz): Luci Ellis

This cover story is taken from Issue 129. Get your copy now via the online store.

Kane Robinson looks annoyed. You may know him best as Kano: grime legend, N.A.S.T.Y Crew alum, the one who made a sudden, masterful swerve into acting as livewire drug dealer Sully, in 2011 drama Top Boy. Now, as the show gears up to return for a second season on Netflix (a fourth season overall, including the Top Boy: Summerhouse series originally made for Channel 4 in the UK), Robinson sits low on a spindly wooden chair, ready to be photographed. He’s probably in character.

To Robinson’s left, co-stars Little Simz, Micheal Ward and Ashley Walters relax into position; a stylist tweaks a collar, fluffs a trouser hem. Music – like Diddy’s Bad Boy for Life – is punctuated by the mechanical click-click of the camera’s shutter. The smell of paint hangs in the air, recently applied to the walls of a kitchen-like setup, complete with a battered linoleum floor and dado rail. Each outfit pulled for the day is from a Black designer, many of them Londoners.

Kano wears: Jacket and jeans: Martine Rose, Top: ABAGA VELLI, Trainers: Adidas
Little Simz wears Jacket: ACNE Studios, Cardigan: LOUTRE, Trousers: 16 ARLINGTON, Shoes: UGG
Micheal Ward wears full outfit: ABAGA VELLI, Shoes: Jordan Luca
Ashley Walters wears full outfit: ABAGA VELLI, Trainers: Adidas

Over the course of a crisp winter morning, the four stars settle into a rhythm: easy patter and head-flung-back laughter interspersing moments of focused intensity on set. You wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell from their serene demeanours just how high the fever runs for their show’s return. Out there, the people are hungry for Top Boy – you only have to look as far as the comments under just about any photo Ward posts to Instagram. The recurrent theme: “Top Boy when?” Ward laughs at a mention of this, saying: “It’s a weird one. I’m just gassed that people appreciate the work we do.”

Walters gets it, too. “I do understand. I get messages on social media like that from a lot of people around the world who love the show. That’s an amazing thing. We obviously want to grow that audience,” he says, breaking away from the photoshoot to talk. Walters plays Dushane, the titular top boy hunting for leverage in the drugs market of a fictional east London housing estate (he and Robinson are also now executive producers). But the truth, he says, is that he couldn’t make the show primarily thinking of its newly expanded viewership. “[People] love it because it was that small show that had that realism and authenticity. We want to make sure we maintain that.”

Micheal Ward wears full outfit: ABAGA VELLI, Shoes: Jordan Luca
Little Simz wears Jacket: ACNE Studios, Cardigan: LOUTRE, Trousers: 16 ARLINGTON, Shoes: UGG

That “small show” looks somewhat different now to what it did in 2011. Writer Ronan Bennett still sits at the helm of Top Boy, as he did when, in 2013, Channel 4 cut its run short after two seasons. It might be bigger, elevated, more slick now, but it remains anchored to the heft of universal themes around challenging relationships, power, pride and what it means to be a grown-up. Drake revived the show in 2017, pitching it to Netflix (alongside Bennett, who, with a wry smile, credited Drake as doing the bulk of that work in a Netflix-produced Top Boy documentary). In 2019, it returned, careening to the top of the most-watched shows on Netflix in the UK in its first week.

But there’s more to the show’s appeal than the probing and emotive storylines woven together on screen. Top Boy has become a cultural juggernaut in Britain. It grows stars and makes stars. Walters’ acting career was propelled following his So Solid Crew days, as he transitioned away from music. Ward continues an ascent that would make most stomachs lurch, moving from portraying Jamie – the upstart rival of Dushane – to starring roles in critically lauded films. In the interplay between music and TV, Top Boy makes casting multi-talents like Robinson, Simz and Mercury Prize-winning rapper Dave, look easy. The show speaks to an ongoing dialogue between fiction and reality, song and script. It is the latest iteration of Black British expression.

Last season saw Dushane and Sully return to Hackney – from Jamaica and prison, respectively. Ward’s Jamie had filled the power vacuum in their absence, and they sparred back and forth for the spot atop the podium. By the end of the ten-episode series, Dushane’s moral compass is wobbling dangerously. Music carries viewers between scenes and plotlines – the bounce of AJ Tracey, Bugzy Malone or Headie One pulling us closer into the pace of a story where lives and livelihoods quiver near the brink.

For Simz, switching between music and TV sits naturally. Between setups, she squeezes through a narrow door, in full photoshoot drip, so we can find somewhere to speak. Simz then sits with me, locs swept up high and fanning delicately over her face, full glam bringing a layer of sparkle to her skin’s natural glow. She holds the same peaceful presence now as she does on screen embodying Shelley, a single mum working for a better life.


“I think everyone’s got a story,” she says, clasping her hands, instantly seeing a link between music and acting. “Like, a song is a poem, a poem is a story, a story is a film – they’re all linked. The idea is to make people feel something.” It’s no coincidence that Top Boy has cast musicians. Some, like Simz and Walters, already have acting experience in their stash of talents. Others, from Dave to rappers Scorcher, Bashy and Lefty in the Summerhouse series, bring a clarifying energy to first-time roles.

What they have in common is an affinity with and proximity to the communities that colour the stories of Top Boy. You don’t have to live out the street life to stand on its periphery – these artists are able to bring the realism that the audience so treasure because of the things they’ve seen and heard in their own lives.

Jacket: ACNE Studios, Cardigan: LOUTRE, Trousers: 16 ARLINGTON, Shoes: UGG

It’s immediate, visceral storytelling, in the same way that SL going hard on verses about street life on UK drill smash Tropical or Giggs capturing a hectic night-out energy on 187 is immediate, visceral storytelling. Both songs feature on the show, mirroring the staccato language of tense moments, and the languid lull when characters like Dushane, Shelley and Ats are struggling to devise their next moves. With UK rap and grime birthing so many charismatic stars it’s no surprise some of them have seamlessly crossed over into acting.

Robinson initially placed acting and music in two separate lanes in his head. “As time went on, I thought, ‘You know what, I’m going to approach acting like an artist would,’” he explains. “And what I do in my art is try and find where the truth is. To pressure-test and poke holes in everything, change, mould,” before hitting the sweet spot where a performance comes together. He, like Simz, heard the call-and-response between chronicling city life in music and fictional drama.

Jacket and jeans: Martine Rose, Top: ABAGA VELLI, Trainers: Adidas

On the show, that sounds like UK rap, grime, drill and smatterings of reggae contrasted with icy soundscapes composed by Brian Eno. The ambient pioneer has worked on the show’s music since 2011, pulling from his archive of thousands of pieces before matching them to the show’s mood. In episode five of season one, Ats’ teacher explains his unusual behaviour to his mother over the trembling, almost whine, of a synth. It captures the unease both women feel, foreshadowing how Ats’ fall from exceptional student to gang pawn will play out. “I’m very sympathetic to this kind of sound landscape; it’s the kind of dark, malign side of ambient music which was always a big part of it for me,” Eno told Hot Press in 2019.

The show’s soundtrack can drift as a scene develops, or build to mark a moment of high drama. Fans won’t soon forget how Flohio’s 10 More Rounds drives the intensity up, up, further with every bar, in the finale of the last season. The London rapper’s chest-thumping track pumps out of the speakers in a car as Jamie is tipped off where to find Sully and Dushane, hoping to ambush them once and for all. That Top Boy pulls this off without ageing the show terribly speaks volumes. The songs instead serve as a time capsule: ‘this is how things were, for us.’

Music links arms with plot to drive home naturalism. Of course, the show’s take on realism could also be read critically, through a squint. Top Boy has been called out – by former Mayor of Hackney Jules Pipe, comedian London Hughes and various academics – for perpetuating negative stereotypes about Black British life, as well as glamourising violence. “I think in terms of glamourising,” continues Simz, “people need to wake up. It’s real life, this actually happens every day. Whether or not it’s in your world because you’re so far removed, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”

“A song is a poem, a poem is a story, a story is a film – they’re all linked. The idea is to make people feel something”

Little Simz

Placing Top Boy in the context of the British kitchen sink dramas of the mid-20th century casts concerns about its depiction of life on an estate in a different light. When that form first took root in theatre and film, it was heralded for presenting an unvarnished depiction of white, working-class life for the first time. Top Boy does not have to represent the experience of every Black Brit – it doesn’t even have to do that for every Black Brit in east London. But it does show a fictionalised version of one particular experience, now on an international scale.

As Walters puts it: “I made a vow in the beginning that if I did this show, it would have to be authentic. The person I want to like the show is the person that I’m playing. We start with them.” The point is not to turn Top Boy into a stand-in for the experiences of every Black Brit. It is to acknowledge the internal conflicts that humanise characters often relegated to “Gangster 1” or “Dealer on corner” in the credits of other forms of entertainment.

Robinson feels enabled to shape his character, going through scripts and stopping when “it’s like, ‘I don’t believe this here – what if we tried it like this?’” Simz, Walters and Ward all talk about how collaborative their roles are on the show, with Ward adding: “I’ll always speak up when I feel like something’s not quite right, especially script-wise.”

This is surely how a show created by a white man from Northern Ireland came to mean so much to young, Black Brits. The Black diaspora in Britain has had to fight to move from post-colonial assimilation to being true to ourselves in a majority white society, all under the crush of explicit and implicit racism. If you don’t identify with the most violent moments in the show, you will still see yourself in its handling of love, personal growth and ambition. After all, how else could a show about an east London estate resonate with audiences around the world?

Full outfit: Martine Rose, Shoes: Air Jordan

Back at the shoot, Ward sits on a sofa near the stylist’s dressing area. He’s relaxed, dressed in black. Because he started his career as a model, this part of an actor’s commitments seems to be second nature to him. As one of the youngest cast members, and a Top Boy fan himself, “it’s still quite surreal”, he admits. “I don’t know if people expect it to be normal for me, but even when I was doing scenes with Ash, I’d be thinking, ‘Rah… I’m actually on set.’” He erupts into laughter.

On the phone the next morning, he’s reflecting on Jamie’s duality as a tough guy in the outside world, but a parental figure to two younger brothers at home. In his own life, “I feel like I’m someone who’s quite vulnerable; I wear my heart on my sleeve”, he says, wanting to show young fans that the version of life they see on social media – the accolades, the swish red carpets – only makes up some of his experience.

“They think everyone in my position is sorted. But nah, sometimes you cry, you know? Sometimes I think about my dad, and I miss him a lot, and I don’t know how to control those emotions.” Ward was a baby when his father died, but he references his father often on social media, and slips those feelings into the folds of his character.

Full outfit: ABAGA VELLI, Trainers: Adidas

It’s no doubt what led to his BAFTA Rising Star Award win in 2020, or his lead role in Steve McQueen’s Lover’s Rock film from the Small Axe anthology showcasing untold Black British stories. It’s been a big few years for most of the cast since Top Boy’s Netflix revamp. From Dave’s 2019 Mercury Prize win and Simz’s record-breaking, three-night run selling out London’s Brixton Academy, her first Brit Award and Robinson’s Royal Albert Hall homecoming show in 2019, their star presence continues to grow.

This was never a guarantee. Black Brits have always contributed massively to the country’s culture, but have tended to be shut away in niche categories. Grime mutated from UK garage on pirate radio, at clashes, largely ignored by a music press pushing nu-rave, indie and other rock subgenres. On TV, Black performers elbowed their way through in comedy, leading to sketch standouts like The Real McCoy in the 90s, and hidden-camera classic 3 Non-Blondes in the early 2000s.

But in scripted drama – on screen, rather than in the healthy scene of Black playwrights that has thrived since the 70s – Blackness was made to sit in the shadows. Walters pins 2004 film Bullet Boy, in which he starred, as the first time Black British stories were told in a way that didn’t feel gratuitous or exploitative. “As far as I’m concerned… I can’t believe I’m saying this,” – he adds as an aside, chuckling – “looking back, the most iconic films or TV shows about street life, I’ve been in.” Before his role in Bullet Boy, he feels there wasn’t an understanding of how to document Black boyhood and manhood on screen. “Those stories were being told, but not in our sort of way,” he says. “And not with that social realism behind them.” He now regards Top Boy as a “huge turning point for TV”.

“I’m someone who’s quite vulnerable; I wear my heart on my sleeve. sometimes you cry, you know?”

Micheal Ward


Micheal Ward wears full outfit: Martine Rose, Shoes: Air Jordan
Little Simz wears Jacket and hoodie: ABAGA VELLI, Cardigan: LOUTRE, Trousers: LOUTRE, Shoes: CAMPERLAB


In the time since Walters’ turn in Bullet Boy, artists like Dizzee Rascal, Skepta, Stormzy and Simz herself have exploded onto the mainstream, not only in the UK but globally. We’ve seen the rise and rise of urgent, brilliant Black writers like Michaela Coel and Theresa Ikoko, the playwright behind 2019 film Rocks, leading the way for a new generation of artists.

Of course, Black British creativity has run through this country for decades, with a river’s rush. The difference is that now it’s being acknowledged and admired. It’s being understood as part of the canon, and part of the fabric of Britain. Black Brits aren’t outsiders anymore, looking in, politely knocking and asking to be accepted. This is their home. And after being overlooked by the mainstream, or crudely pigeonholed, they’re navigating how to reflect themselves back into the broader culture. The cast of Top Boy are clear examples of this.

Ashley Walters wears full outfit: ABAGA VELLI, Trainers: Adidas
Kano wears: Jacket and jeans: Martine Rose, Top: ABAGA VELLI, Trainers: Adidas

Even buoyed by success, each star I speak to retains a bond to their upbringing. Simz references growing up in a single-parent household filled with love. Ward sees a similar link between his and Dushane’s childhoods. Without a father figure at home, “from an early age, I was looking for that role model outside of my home”, he admits. For a while, those people tended to be men in the streets.

Top Boy receives such acclaim because it maintains a link between personal stories and the realm of big-budget entertainment. You may clock a stereotype where others find the potential to turn it inside out; the stereotype becomes a smokescreen. These characters are drawn as real people, not caricatures.

Jacket: ACNE Studios, Cardigan: LOUTRE, Trousers: 16 ARLINGTON, Shoes: UGG

Simz sees this. She finds beauty in how Black British artists of all kinds are stepping forward to tell their stories. It’s important for her “to have people know and understand that your story is not embarrassing”, she begins. She leans back in her chair, pulling a bomber jacket tighter over her torso. “I think there’s shame about that within the Black community, like, ‘Oh, I didn’t grow up with a dad,’ or however you feel embarrassed. But it’s not embarrassing – it’s your life, and it’s your truth.”

This cover story is taken from Issue 129. Get your copy now via the online store.

Top Boy season two is out on 18 March