Karl Lokko has witnessed the sharp end of knife crime, first hand. By the time he was 18, he had been stabbed, shot at and attacked with a butcher’s knife. He had carried weapons himself and watched his best friends die in front of his eyes.
This violent path began at just 12, when Lokko and two school friends formed the south London gang, Mayhem and Disaster (MAD), to defend themselves in local ‘postcode wars’. Within two years, their faces were plastered across the front pages: a symbol of the terrifying rise of gang crime in the capital.
Now a poet, community worker and devout Christian, Lokko could be the person to fix Britain’s knife crime problem. The 29-year-old is godfather to Richard Branson’s grandson and counts Prince Harry as a friend (he was a guest at the royal wedding and on the <Today> programme the duke edited before Christmas).
When we meet, the 6ft 5in Lokko bridges two worlds, wearing a smart camel pea coat and matching sweater on top of tracksuit bottoms and trainers. The only sign of his previous life is the scar above his left eye, where a rival gang member stabbed him when he was13.
There couldn’t be a more pertinent time for action: the latest figures show fatal stabbings in England and Wales have hit their highest level since records began in 1946. The steepest rise is among men aged 16 to 24, who accounted for nearly a third of the 285 knife deaths in the year ending March 2018, a number widely attributed to an increase in gang violence in London, where separate figures from the Met Police show that half of all knife offenders are aged between 10 and 19.
In a tragic illustration of the problem, Lejean Richards, 19, became the third teenager to be murdered in the capital this year, when he was stabbed to death half a mile from Prince George’s primary school on Tuesday night. The news was poignant for Lokko, who lost two friends in his teens – one murdered a few miles from Westminster.
“All of my peers have got scars; it’s not a new thing, it’s just no longer exclusive to certain areas,” he says. “We are in this together… London is oil and water: we boast of being a multicultural society, but the truth is, we ain’t.”
Lokko grew up streets away from Joanna Lumley’s million-pound home near Brixton, but the London he remembers was worlds apart – cash-strapped, crime-ridden and cut-off.
Contrary to stereotype, he came from a “very happy home”, the younger son of two hard working Ghanaian parents. At primary school, he was singled out as a child genius and he sat his SATs three years early, aged 11. Though Lokko’s parents, scared for their children, moved the family out of the notorious Cowley Estate in Brixton when he was 10, violence followed them to Oval. Local gangs stole Lokko’s bike, threatened him on the bus to school, and regularly chased his brother home.
“I had to be good at dodging the minefield of my local area,” he says. “We were constantly being intimidated. This was terror.”
Lokko was 12 when he witnessed his first shooting, while he was playing football. The older boy hid the gun under a shirt by the goal and joined the game, telling Lokko to act as though nothing had happened. Going to the police wasn’t an option.
“Police hold such a vital role in the community because they’re the face of the mainstream, of the Queen, of the politicians,” he says. But in treating him and his peers as suspects rather than subjects in need of protection themselves, “they taught me that I wasn’t part of the mainstream.”
With the short-sighted logic of youth, Lokko and two friends decided that if they couldn’t beat the gangs, they would have to join them – and form their own. MAD soon grew to 50 members, mainly young black men, but also those from Irish, Asian, Turkish, Moroccan and Chinese backgrounds.
“It was to cope, to survive,” says Lokko. “Immediately we felt the benefits. Our self-esteem raised and we felt, maybe there’s safety now.” But what began as a schoolboy means of achieving “inclusion, belonging, accountability, camaraderie and affection” soon escalated into violence, with fellow members engaging in joy-riding, muggings and drug dealing.
Within a year, Lokko was carrying a knife for self-defence – first from his parents’ kitchen, then the local market. By the age of 14, he had been slashed in the eye himself, during what he describes as an “area dispute” with a rival gang. “I started to panic when I felt the breeze going through my face,” he says. “Mum didn’t really want to look at me [after that], it hurt her on a deep level.”
The more violence Lokko witnessed, the more he felt an inexorable part of gang culture. It was a quick spiral: he remained a committed student, but teachers denounced him as “riff raff” . “I acted blasé, like I don’t care but, my days, it destroyed me,” he recalls.
Although one of his friends, 15 year-old Alex Mulumba, was murdered in a street fight in Kennington, just days before Lokko took his GCSE exams, he passed and accepted a place at sixth form college. The first day was exciting, fresh with the possibility of a new chapter. But that changed on the bus home when a friend was attacked by a rival gang and Lokko stepped in to “save his life”.
At the end of the line, the attackers “evaporated” and half a dozen undercover police pounced on Lokko. In the scuffle that ensued, he claims he was beaten with batons and pinned to the floor, unable to breathe. In the van, on the way to the police station, he adds, the officers kicked him and demand he say, “Sorry, I’m a good n*****”.
“I literally thought they were going to take me to the woods and kill me,” he recalls. He was advised to admit to a section four public order offence – “a slap on the wrists” – or else face charges for assaulting six officers. Lokko never went back to college.
It was the patient interest of Pastor Mimi Asher, a fellow gang member’s mother who took him in when he was 21, and encouraged him in to a job fundraising for the now defunct charity, Kids Company, that turned him from gang leader to anti-youth violence campaigner - crossing paths with the likes of the Branson family, who soon became friends.
He now consults for corporations such as KPMG, Virgin and Unilever, advising them how to nurture talent from diverse backgrounds, as well as holding speaking events and advising charities. At an event for the Big Change charity, through which he had already met Princess Beatrice, Lokko was introduced to Prince Harry. “There was just a click,” he says. “I saw him, he saw me and we ended up meeting quite regularly to chat about what can be done in the country.”
Rather than demonising kids with knives, Lokko says, we need to understand that they are addicted to a destructive lifestyle in which “mental assault, misidentity, misinformation and hopelessness all cause the offended to become an offender”.
“It’s like a porn addiction,” he says. “It’s not chemical but it changes the grooves of the brain.”
For example, at one point he saw prison “as a great way to network”, rather than punishment – though he was one of only a handful of gang members not to be jailed, their crimes ranging from drug dealing to murder.
Lokko, who is soon to launch a think tank called New Eden to explore solutions to gang violence, is critical of current methods. Stop and search might temporarily remove a gun, knife or violent teen from the streets, for example, but won’t stop the cycle of gangs replacing them.
Instead, he proposes rehabilitation centres and ‘gang referral orders’ – akin to those used in drugs-related offences where medical and therapeutic treatment rather than punishment is prescribed. His language echoes that used by Scotland’s successful Violent Crime Reduction Unit, established in 2005, which reduced high levels of knife crime by treating the problem as a public health issue.
He adds there should be additional support for the parents of teen gang members. “My Mamma now gets to rest when she hears a siren, but her blood pressure has suffered,” he says. “Let’s not blame [parents], let’s support them.”
A new father himself – his wife Cassandra, a social media influencer who runs ‘Faith and Fitness’ sessions for young women, gave birth to their son Lyan last year – Lokko can’t help but worry about history repeating itself. But sitting in a cafe in the Croydon suburb of Addiscombe, where he now lives, Lokko admits, “My son is middle class, and it’s usually a those at the poorer end of the spectrum that are seduced”.
For many of his friends, there was no redemption. “Some are dead, some are insane, some are legitimate businessmen, some are in the exact same position." He is still in touch with a few, including a former rival who was later groomsman at his wedding.
And while Lokko grew up with a knife in his pocket, his son Lyan is likely to be friends with the younger Bransons and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s upcoming arrival.
“My narrative means I can’t not believe in change,” he says. “No matter how bleak the situation is, I am hopeful.”