Skepta, JME, Julie and Jason – the four Adenuga siblings – are laughing as they remember building a go-kart as kids, raiding the factory next door for crates and pallets, their father’s toolbox for screwdrivers and bolts, wheels from a discarded pushchair, and making steering mechanisms from string.
“If you wanted something and it wasn’t there, you just made it,” says Jason. When they finished, they dragged their kart to the top of a hill by the estate, and Skepta remembers, “going down there with the biggest joy in my heart”, thinking to himself: “This life, man, you can just make what you want. You don’t need to buy anything.”
That has been the guiding mantra for a family who could lay a claim to the title of the most creative clan in Britain. In the past decade, the two older brothers and famed MCs, Skepta and JME, steered grime’s second wave, helping to build the success of British rap via their record label Boy Better Know. They have played huge stages at Glastonbury and Wireless, while Skepta has won the Mercury prize, scored three Top 3 albums, launched his own fashion brand and been the subject of tabloid dating gossip from Naomi Campbell to – once again this week – fellow Tottenham star Adele.
Julie, the third-born child, swiftly went from presenting on Rinse FM to being announced as one of three main presenters on Apple’s radio station Beats 1. The youngest sibling, Jason, was a producer on Skepta’s album Konnichiwa and, as a graphic designer and artist, has made album covers for both his brothers. A new memoir by their mother, Ify Adenuga, Endless Fortune, explains how they got here. It was drawn from diaries she kept about “any little culture shock I experienced” as a Nigerian immigrant bringing up her kids on a London council estate.
Today the family of six, completed by husband and father, Joseph Sr, are gathered around a table in a photo studio. The children arrived in tracksuits and shorts, their parents in regal traditional Nigerian dress. “When I read the book,” Julie says, “I realised that Mum was a person. You haven’t changed, I know you as ‘Mum’, but you’ve been like this from early – it’s always been you.”
The early chapters capture memories of Nigeria sinking into civil war. Ify was 10 when the country fractured along ethnic lines in 1967: the Igbo people and other ethnic groups in the south and eastern regions seceded, calling their new country Biafra. Her early chapters are a frank account of that chaotic period, as her Igbo family fled Lagos for their homelands with 13 of them in the back of a pickup truck, Ify cramped under a tarpaulin hearing Nigerian soldiers at checkpoints telling her father: “Shut up or I’ll shoot you.”
The fighting stretched over two and a half years, claiming more than 100,000 lives. A Nigerian blockade cut Biafra off from food, aid and oil. Ify remembers how “there was nothing to eat”, how farmers “tilled the land, two or three consecutive seasons going”, until “nothing would come out of it”. Villages in the new Biafra were haunted by kwashiorkor, a severe case of malnutrition that swells the stomach and slowly kills those who have it, including two of Ify’s siblings.
An estimated two million people died of starvation, a time so bereft of hope that Ify remembers how young men fled the villages to join the Biafran resistance on the frontlines, the wail of missiles a reprieve from the slow death of hunger and famine. In Endless Fortune, Ify writes: “Death became the boogieman that visited us every other week to steal one of us … I almost lost the will to live.”
When the war was over and Biafra surrendered, uneasily reuniting Nigeria, Ify moved back to Lagos for work before flying to the UK in 1980. She hopped between relatives, cleaning the Bank of Illinois in the City of London for £11 a week. Those relatives advised her to head home, warning her London would be harder than Nigeria, but she enrolled to study business management and met Joseph when both worked shifts at the Top Rank bingo club. By the early 90s they were married with four children, living streets away from the Broadwater Farm estate where riots had broken out in 1985. “We didn’t know what a socially deprived area meant,” she says. “It didn’t register with us – we were just there to get a job and look after our kids.”
Nonetheless, Ify writes that “it was difficult at times to keep the roof over our heads”. Struggling to meet mortgage payments, they lost their first home in Tottenham and were rehoused by the council on the nearby Meridian estate. Growing up, the Adenuga house was a Nigerian enclave in 90s Britain: brooms were woven from straw, and their father would DJ house parties into the early hours. Skepta says of that time: “The moment you step out of your house, you step into a different world. Your friends, the people around you, they could live next door to you, it doesn’t matter, they don’t understand what’s happening behind that door.”
As the eldest, he was handed “this big chore”, he says, “to have an understanding of both lines. It took me so long to navigate through that – going outside, having that life, then coming inside and having this life.” Julie also remembers the frustrations of low-income living, her frustration at being unable to replace broken dishwashers and vacuum cleaners, thinking that “life is getting long because we don’t have money”.
Early in the millennium, grime was emerging, evolving out of UK garage and drawing on Jamaican sound system culture to become the soundtrack of Britain’s inner cities. When the sound took hold in north London with pirate radio stations such as Heat FM, boys from Meridian – JME and Skepta among them – were on the frontlines. Their freestyles and radio sets were captured on grainy DVDs, their skittish flows throwing up portraits of their lives as they sliced through growling, often Skepta-produced instrumentals.
Jason would see his brothers build beats on their PlayStation and soon followed, at the same time developing a love of drawing that he has “held forever”, after finding a folder JME had of anime drawings and feeling like “this is what I want to do: drawing and copying all day”.
Their creative gifts flourished – Ify tells of the boys flying in and out of the house to pirate radio sessions and gathering with friends in the front room, reciting lyrics deep into the night. Julie studied performing arts, feeling that “my creativity didn’t manifest in the way that these three did. Part of me is a little bit sad about it. They did it kind of blindly, like it didn’t matter what else was going on. I felt like I always had to protect everyone and be of service. As much as I didn’t want to stand out as the only girl, I couldn’t really do anything about it – I ended up being the middle child who is the facilitator.”
They inherited their creative spark from their father, who had studied architecture, and as a child in Nigeria would craft yo-yos from beer cans and string. “Back home there was no money – you don’t get toys,” he says. Growing up, the kids watched him build things from scratch, such as a desk for Julie, and repairing fridges and freezers. “They got all that skill, knowledge, creativity from him,” Ify says, sat next to her husband. “They got their personality and being themselves from me.”
JME continues: “What Mum and Dad gave us was the power of imagination. There was so many things that they imagined and made happen. Now, if I’m in my house and I want to lay the garage flooring down, I just look on YouTube and think, ah, I’ll just do it myself.”
Throughout their careers they’ve expressed the nuanced realities of Nigerian life in Britain. In 2007, Skepta covered the classic west African highlife song Sweet Mother, infusing the gentle percussion-led productions with jittery grime, and rapped about Nigerian delicacies in 2019 on Greaze Mode: “I’m gonna need some palm wine / I’m gonna need some pepper soup.”
When Skepta’s fourth album, Konnichiwa, won the Mercury prize in 2016, Ify was by his side on stage in traditional Nigerian attire, the kind of clothing usually reserved for African hall parties and weddings. A couple of years later, in 2018, when Julie presented the music outlet GRM Daily’s annual Rated Awards, she wore the same.
Recently, the Adenuga family have deepened their roots. On a trip back to Nigeria, Skepta was ordained as a chief in his father’s village. He remembers seeing young boys dangling their legs from the top of freight trucks driving the roads into the village, and it made him reflect on the life his father had left behind. “That was the last level I needed to make both outside and inside the house make sense,” he says.
Ify and Joseph Sr are grandparents – JME and Skepta have daughters. Julie, who has left Apple Music and started her #JuliesTop5 music discussion series on YouTube, describes their births as “the two happiest days of my life”. They all remember an afternoon in late 2018 when the boys broke the news of the pregnancies. Skepta arrived at the home to tell the family, followed a few hours later by JME and his wife, who were unaware of what had happened. When the coincidence set in, Julie was crying and Ify was on the floor. Joseph Sr stood in the kitchen, shaking his head in disbelief, thinking: “This is mad.”
“It was spooky,” Jason says. “That day was a real life thing, it peaked.” Skepta adds: “It was almost like the feeling when someone dies that’s close to you, but the opposite, and it’s two people.”
JME was typically calm amid the melee. To raise his daughter, he says, he’s pulling on the values he was raised with, using “all the positives from my childhood. You don’t need to buy your kids a life, you literally just build it with them.”
• Endless Fortune by Ify Adenuga is co-published by Boy Better Know and Own It!, RRP £18.99. To order a copy for £16.52, go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15.