Last week, the humble town of Paisley celebrated making the shortlist for the prestigious UK City of Culture. Given the area’s rapid economic decline, thanks mainly to the multi-national consumer cathedral of Braehead Shopping Centre erected on its periphery, Paisley’s inclusion as a finalist in the prestigious national contest was welcomed across the country.
But while people lapped up the first bit of genuinely good news associated with the town in years, Paisley’s most electrifying cultural figure in recent times was locked up in a Scottish prison.
Having been arrested moments before he was due to support US hip hop legend Nas at the O2 in Glasgow, Shogun, real name Joseph Heron, was remanded in custody for failing to appear at his community service. When news broke, it ignited broader public interest in the 20-year-old emcee, who came to prominence in 2016 when his music video, Vulcan, went viral thanks to a write-up from Vice. When news broke of his arrest, two of Scotland’s biggest tabloids ran with the story.
The public reaction, initially at least, fell into two camps. One lot thought it was a bit harsh to handcuff him just before the biggest moment in his career. Others claimed it was unfortunate but also felt Heron should have been more responsible in dealing with his obligations to the court.
But two days later, Shogun’s rising star hit its first plateau when the debate around his arrest was reframed by revelations that he was on community service for housebreaking on Boxing Day, 2014, in Paisley.
Housebreaking is not the sort of crime usually associated with ‘bad boy’ rappers. For some reason, it’s much cooler if you’ve shot someone or sold heroin. Bizarre, I know. Housebreaking is usually, though not always, a thoughtless, juvenile act of desperation perpetrated by people who have become emotionally detached from reality. They commit the crime based on the delusion that they have no other choice. This may allude to the thorny reality of Heron’s life.
First things first, if you fail to show at court or repeatedly don’t turn up for your community service, then you are openly inviting the police back into your life. I talk from experience as someone who has been through the court system and who was grateful to be handed a similar non-custodial punishment. I also know what it’s like when this stuff finds its way on to the pages of national newspapers.
Had I failed to comply with my community disposal order, I would have given rise to the suggestion that I was not sorry for my crime. Worse, that the judge’s decision to be lenient, by not jailing me, was mistaken. There were times when circumstances dictated that I could not meet my obligations but these were negotiated with a phone call.
That said, for the last 12 months Joseph Heron, who like many ‘bad boy’ rappers grew up on a housing scheme, has been in a media whirlwind due to the success of his music. Music which is not only spellbinding, but creative and deeply thoughtful. Attributes which, admittedly, are not reflected in his recent behaviour. This duality is indicative of contradiction at the centre of his life: he wants to change his circumstances for the better but he is struggling to escape the gravitational field of social deprivation.
For young men like him, low self-esteem and a lack of positive male role-models can often act as a curtain raiser to criminality. This does not excuse raiding someone’s home – far from it – but we have to see his crime in its proper context. He was 17 when it happened and since then he has turned much of his life around. His success in just one year, which includes millions of Youtube hits, support slots with some of hip hop’s most critically-acclaimed artists, as well as overwhelmingly positive media coverage, proves that he has the talent and willingness to transcend many of his difficulties.
Granted, Shogun’s apparent lack of concern for the terms of his disposal order reveals, if anything, a lack of maturity. But, at 20 years old, the extent to which he’s been able to turn his life around, from housebreaking to becoming the hottest artist in the Scottish music industry, shows he is moving in the right direction. So much so that he is, arguably, more culturally relevant than Paisley itself.
Apart from his crime in 2014, his contribution to Scottish society has been overwhelmingly positive. His honest, heartfelt and intelligent music speaks directly to the fears and problems of our disadvantaged youth in a language very few cultural figures understand. You only have to read or watch one of Shogun’s many interviews to see how articulate, thoughtful and humble he really is. His potential as a positive role model for young people is simply undeniable. The truth that Heron needs to hear is that he’s done wrong and must take responsibility – unreservedly. No ifs, no buts. He must make the necessary amends to those he has harmed and pay his debt to society. This wasn’t like stealing a bag of Haribo from WH Smith. Housebreaking is not a victimless crime – no matter whose house it is. But I suspect he already understands this.
Those of us on the sidelines passing judgment must also remember that this is a young man with his whole life ahead of him. He was a kid when this incident occurred and he hasn’t engaged in criminal activity since. While holding him to account for his crime, we must also remember that this has been no ordinary year for him. A factor in why he’s handled things so poorly might be because he’s managed to turn his life around with such disorientating success that his sense of priority has become a little skewed.
One would hope that this unpleasant wake-up call acts as a blessing in disguise.
Darren McGarvey is also known as Loki, a Scottish rapper and social commentator @lokiscottishrap