There’s a profound parallelism to be found in Aaron Roach Bridgeman’s commitment to youth empowerment.
A highly popular TV and documentary presenter, live event host and travel vlogger, Aaron has launched a dynamic career through his gift for words. Best known for co-hosting Sky 1’s What’s Up TV and Sky Art’s Unmuted, he has interviewed A-list celebrities in music and culture, as well as presented highly rated documentaries on social injustice.
The confidence Aaron exudes both on-screen and off stands in incredible contrast to his teenage insecurity. Having witnessed gun and knife crime growing up in North West London, his reflection on his youth carries a difficult yet humble introspection. In beautiful circularity, it also inspires his mission of supporting young people as how he was supported in his early adult years.
Aaron gives upskill sessions at youth organizations like True Cadence, and is currently running Brent Futures, a leadership programme he co-created for young black leaders in his neighbourhood. With a steadiness that grounds his easy charisma, Aaron talks about his passion for youth work and improvises an exclusive spoken word performance.
How does your current life look like to the younger you?
To be honest, I wouldn’t have believed it. The younger me was quite antisocial, so to hear that in 10 or 15 years that I would have been someone whose life and career revolves around meeting and speaking to new people, I would have been like – never. Never at all.
But you know what? As much as I was antisocial, I did always have a way with words and politeness that would influence situations in a positive way. I would be the first person that my friends would ask to speak to a ticket inspector if we haven’t got a ticket. There’s also an element of me that knew that I wanted to do some sort of performing, but I didn’t have the confidence back then.
I’m thankful for the voice I’ve been blessed with, so I use it.
How did you first get involved with youth work?
One of the first things [that inspired me] was being a part of a European Talent Development Programme called Roots and Routes. They would take us to workshops in different countries with creatives from all around Europe, and we would do shows or projects with them. They always encouraged us to take these skills and share them with young people, and the importance of passing on skills started to stick in my head. When you acquire skills or experience, you share it with younger people, especially those from the same background as you.
Even after I became a presenter, my mind had always been on, ‘I want to try and help young people.’ They were a little bit more tenacious and open to risk taking, but in the wrong ways. Being on TV gave me a bit of gravitas, so to speak. Rather than using this fame for something else, I could use it get into schools and to speak to young people.
I met with the organization Lives not Knives, who trained me up. I got officially accredited qualifications for working with young people through my time of working with them. And then from there, the journey just never stopped, even up till now.
Tell me about co-creating and co-organizing your youth leadership programme, Brent Futures, in your own borough of Brent.
I’m very, very proud and happy about it, because it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. Applying funding to work specifically with young people in my local borough required having a charity or an organization, so I did a pitch together with two young black men through their organization, Loud Speaker. Luckily, we won the funding, and now I’m part of them, in a certain sense! Since they’re based in Liverpool, I’m facilitating, organizing, and running the project, and it’s been going well.
There are things that I’ve grown up in and around that has maybe given me a level of PTSD, but I try to see everything as blessed.
How has your journey and youth upbringing affected your attitude towards life?
I think one of the major things that my youth upbringing has done for me is give me humility as you know just how much of a struggle life can be. When somebody says to you, ‘I want to pay you to use your voice and your experience as a job’, that can only humble you in a way where you become appreciative.
My journey has also given me a very rounded understanding of all types of people. There are people who – not to any fault of their own – haven’t experienced life’s different situational contexts. I’ve rubbed shoulders with people who are millionaires, but then I’ve grown up around people who could just put one meal on the table. Those were my people, and that gives me an authenticity and acceptance when I’m speaking. Just as I understand if someone has unfortunately been brought up in a struggle, I also respect if someone may have had everything given to them, because it means that maybe someone, whether it be their parents or their grandparents, has worked very hard to allow them to have that opportunity.
Moreover, I understand that even if people may be in a much more affluent social status in life, they also have problems. Trauma doesn’t discriminate, and so I think that’s why I’m happy that I’ve grown the way that I have. There are things that I’ve grown up in and around that has maybe given me a level of PTSD, but I try to see everything as blessed. I see all of it as experiences that have helped me to have a broadened horizon about life.
What or who are you most grateful for in your early adult or teenage years?
Oh, that’s a good question… I’ve been saying it a bit more in recent years, but I do have to give my parents some credit. My parents – and Caribbean households – were very, very strict. They just about gave you a centimetre and not an inch, you know. (laughs) At the time, it was very frustrating, but it must have been scary for them having a young son who was very close to [gun and knife crime]. Somebody was shot in the head outside my front door – when things of that nature are so close to your home, you have to understand why a parent would maybe want to hold their child closer. When I think about it in retrospect, I think a lot of their discipline and strictness ultimately had a bearing on who I am, decisions I made, and how I went about things.
I also have to give it to the people that I’ve met on my journey who had more faith in me than I had in myself. These amazing people really believed in Aaron Roach Bridgeman before Aaron Roach Bridgeman believed in himself. I remember being confused by the fact that people wanted to like help me build a career. (laughs)
Young people need is to be literally and directly shown about the plethora of opportunities that exist for them.
What do you think young people need support with the most?
Well, there’s more than one thing. First, young people need support from traumatic instances. If they have people around them who have lost their life, injured, or attacked, or if it’s even happened to them, they need some form of aftercare to unpack and better understand it. Otherwise, they’re just going to remain with that same level of pain, anguish, and frustration – it might manifest into something else. Hurt people hurt people, unfortunately, for the most part, so we need to work through our hurt as adults and as young people.
The second thing is that young people need is to be literally and directly shown about the plethora of opportunities that exist for them – not just the big ones, nor just being a YouTuber or a rapper or a singer or a sportsman. Young people are very perceptive. They have to see something be done for them to believe that it’s doable, particularly someone who looks like them or comes from a similar background as theirs.
How would you comment on the influence music has on young people, particularly music with more debatable topics and lyrics?
In regard to debatable topics, one thing that I’ve always said is that I do not think music is to be blamed for the proliferation of problematic behaviours, because they are happening before music and after music. But still, music can be used to inflame issues. Young people can utilise music to send taunts or threats or jabs at people who they’ve got a problem with. Unfortunately, that then causes for there to be a back and forth, which then can inflame issues. But there was already an issue, so how do we get to the root? It’s easy to blame the attributing factors, but we need to get to the root to really address that.
You’re currently a facilitator on The Expression Project at True Cadence, not on music, but on public speaking. What skills would you like the participants to learn from your experience?
The biggest skill that I’d like them to learn from my sessions at True Cadence is probably belief. Self-belief, and confidence. It took me so long to get to the stage where I fully believed in myself, so I try to fast-track younger people to get there earlier, not for them to be big or arrogant, but in a way for them to be able to fulfil their potential sooner. If I could help them get to their peak of self-belief, when they’re not scared anymore to show what they’re capable of – that for me is an achievement.
Are there any future projects in youth work that you would like to share?
My [upcoming] project in [my] borough is dedicated to offering aftercare for young people. I’m going to be starting my own charitable organisation as well, so I’m moving in steps towards making that happen. I’m not there yet, so bear with me – I’m pushing towards it.
What advice would you give to young people who might be struggling with finding their way?
One thing I’ll say is, get to know yourself. Know what you’re genuinely interested – not what the cool thing is to be interested in. Utilise your passions, flipping push on all cylinders and make your passions pay your pocket. Know what your USP is as well – what is unique about you – and find where your community is and connect with them, because they are going to be part of you being able to monetize that interest.
It took me so long to get to the stage where I fully believed in myself, so I try to fast-track younger people to get there earlier.
You’re a music-maker in the sense that you perform spoken word as well. Would you like to improvise some spontaneous bars to inspire young people out there?
I’m thankful for the voice I’ve been blessed with, so I use it,
But I’m starting to feel like I abuse it,
I try give truth secretly like a wink,
But true to the proverb – you can bring a horse would water, but can’t make it drink,
No matter how thirsty,
The truth’s worthy,
But the truth’s wordy,
And there’s no dictionary for life,
If only we could look up & live the antonym to strife,
So I stay looking smiley, entertaining and happy,
If they only knew the fly from Venus that traps me,
Nothing to do with where women or men are from,
This is more Redemption Song,
Snakes charm me,
Fakes alarm me,
So I ring the bell,
What’s truth, if there’s no truth to tell?
What’s a purpose, when you purposely fail?
Too many would rather dwell with dumbness,
Than show how great they are & accomplish,
So I tend to dwell with my day 1s or alone,
Not many understand why I stray from being a clone,
I’m not special, neither do I stand out,
I would just rather stand up for something, than stand down,
If it’s not work then I’m on my Rihanna – Man down,
Disappearing act – there has to be a purpose for hearing my voice sound.
I don’t just want to be around, for the sake of being around.
That’s how we go in circles.
So, solidify your shape, find your formation,
Let cultivating a culture of cohabitants with purpose be our creation!