Ragga man WATCHMAN was once an inmate at Brixton Prison. Today he has an office there. The rapper spoke, Tony Cummings listened.
David 'Watchman' Williams is well known to the authorities though with the passing of the years the reasons for this interest have changed considerably. Back in the late '80s David was in and out of prison and in 1991 faced a long stretch for assaulting four police officers. Today David heads up two groundbreaking organisations, R.A.P. Academy, a music communication and life skills programme encouraging young people to turn back towards education and employment, and Harvesting Man's Potential (HMP), working in prisons to teach literacy, numeracy and principles for successful living. If this astonishing about-face wasn't enough, Watchman is also an award winning, internationally acclaimed ragga artist whose latest album 'Like Neva B4' on Survivor Records' OTR subsidiary is a breathtaking set of turbulent rhythms, witty raps and powerfully prophetic messages to the unchurched. On a cold winter's evening Watchman caught a train from London up to Stoke-on-Trent and on the Rimmerama programme spoke at length to Messrs Rimmer and Cummings about his past and present.
David's teenage years were extremely troubled. "I was a very violent and aggressive young man. I had such a bad temper. Looking back as a Christian now, I wonder if it was because I had a lot of learning difficulties when I was at school. I couldn't read and I couldn't write. I've heard it said if there's anything worse than a rage and frustration that comes out of us it is the things that don't come out of us. Maybe because we don't know how to express ourselves. Also, as a young man I was stitched up by two CID officers in Brixton and I guess that also kind of fuelled a lot of this anger within me as well because I was very young. After those sorts of encounters in my life, those difficulties, I took up boxing from a very young age but I just didn't have the discipline. I would walk across a zebra crossing in the middle of the cars and cars would be skidding at my feet and I would be turning around to the drivers and I would turn on the drivers, knocking the driver out sometimes at the wheel! I had such aggression and anger.
"My father said, 'Look you can't stay in the house, you are too violent.' I had to leave the family home. I actually got myself into a hostel in Peckham. Yet again I beat up everybody in the hostel. A housing association said to me we aren't going to re-house you, you can keep the house. So I had like a six-bedroom house all to myself where I started having raves, started having parties, became a very confused young man. I had girls in nearly every room and they were my girls and I would go from one room to the next until I settled down in one room for the night. Looking back now I can see the Devil was trying to take my life because I was going the right way about it. I was such an angry person.
"One of the last sentences I had I was in a top, high security prison in Bellmarsh in 1991, the year before I got saved. It was for actually beating up four police officers. I actually knocked one out during a tussle that we had and I was actually looking at nine years for that. But fortunately I didn't receive the penalty that was really due to me at that time."
It was while in prison awaiting sentencing that David learnt to read and write, by copying his girlfriend's handwriting from the letters she sent him and by studying the book in his cell - the Bible. As the weeks of intense study went on David became extremely religious. He remembered, "I began to talk to people about God based on the God I knew from the Bible I was reading. I didn't understand the grace of God but I knew about the law of God. I still had this anger but I still knew God was a loving God. I would share this to certain guys within the prison and people started giving their lives to Jesus, getting saved through what I was saying to them. It was like I was a Christian but I didn't know it! I don't know if that makes any sense but the only way I can put it is like I got saved under the law. I believe there is still power in the law because I was very religious. Certain days I wouldn't come out. I would be fasting, I would be reading the Word. I would hear from God. God was telling me what was going to happen at court. It was crazy but this particular time, all these strange things happened around me. A drug dealer gave his life to Jesus. There was a skinhead, he gave his life to Jesus in the prison. It was a weird combination of people getting saved. I was actually asked to go to court to see if I could get bail. The Judge said, 'No way! You can't get bail, you're too violent, you've got to go back.' On my way back to prison I had the Bible in my hands and the Bible opened up in the book of Ezekiel and it said, 'Young man, I call you to be a watchman.' That's actually how I got the name Watchman. I closed the Bible with tears in my eyes and I said, 'God, I don't understand.' I opened it up again, it fell in a different part of the Bible and it said the same thing! 'Young man, I call you to be a watchman.' Exactly the same thing! I got back to Bellmarsh prison and was on the landing with some shears, cutting this guy's hair. Then the screws - pardon my expression - came up and said to me 'pack your kit, you are going home.' So I got out of that prison. I just came from court and they said no, but I think God wanted me to get my identity, know who I was and I got out of that prison within 24 hours. I came out and went home and said, 'Mum, I am a watchman.' She didn't understand me. That was in 1991 and by September 27th 1992 I got born again and started living for Jesus."
There was nothing half-hearted about Watchman's faith. He recalled, "I got born again and I gave away everything. I gave away all my music because I loved music; gave away all my clothes and my haircuts were just baldheads, very low, nothing fancy. It's just how I was. Within six months of being saved the Lord spoke to me and I never forget what he said. He said, 'The Devil has had music in captivity far too long. I need you to take it and use it for my glory.' That was it. This was the message, getting the music back which I got rid of and which so many people viewed as the Devil's music. But I knew I'd heard a word from God and I was just obedient to the word that I heard and I just started taking it from there. Within a very short space of time God was opening doors for me to minister."
Watchman's ragga and dancehall music were considered completely beyond the pale by the more conservative elements in the church. But more and more opportunities emerged for Watchman to perform - sometimes in big concerts, like with US gospel stars Commissioned, sometimes in prison ministry where his powerful testimony gave him instant credibility amongst the prison community. When Watchman finally released an album in 1998 it was no low key, low budget production. 'Contemporary Christian' on Flintwood Records (distributed to UK Christian retail by Word) was produced by Mafia & Fluxy, two of the biggest producers in mainstream reggae. It won awards for Watchman. In 2002 came another album, 'Tongues Of Fire', this time distributed by reggae specialist Jet Star and featuring guests like mainstream star Frankie Paul. But it was the R.A.P. Academy founded in 1998 which, even more than Watchman's masterly grasp of rhythms and rhyme which took up much of Watchman's time. He explained the vision. "The fundamental aim of the R.A.P. Academy programme is to help young people develop their self-esteem and character. Get them back into employment for those who haven't had education and employment and training. We'll help to get them back into it with the medium of music, which is the fundamental aim of the programme. It is not to make them professional musicians or singers or songwriters but to get them to grasp a sense of identity and purpose. Young people are influenced by music and I believe it's important to get a good message across. We encourage young people in all the songwriting that they do, no cursing, no swearing. Then we say to them, 'You're widening your vocabulary, do something different.' It's quite interesting and it does actually work. We actually deal with life issues, maybe something they are currently facing or something that's very much a part of their daily life, knives, guns, fighting, you know, there's a lot of that as well. We are addressing these issues in a very subtle way. We are able to give a level of counselling as well. We have seen so many young people talk about these issues 'cos they have been writing about what they would not have talked about before. We have actually had reports speaking positively of the effects of the programme. There was one lady who has been counselled for like two years. When she began to write and be part of the R.A.P. Academy programme we were able to deal with some issues that needed to be dealt with."
The week we spoke to Watchman, the R.A.P. Academy had received an award. With a broad smile the ragga man recounted, "It was actually selected within the Black Business Awards down in London. It was for entrepreneurial and social enterprise and we were recognized for the work we have been doing. That was very exciting, to be acknowledged for the work you are doing within the community. Even more so as a musician as well."
As if Watchman wasn't busy enough, he now has a second project underway. He explained, "I've just opened up a new project in Brixton Prison and my office is situated in there. It's called HMP, Harvesting Man's Potential, and I've managed to get it accredited by LOCON, London College Network. I've managed to get it funded by the Home Office and it's also supported by Lambeth Education. It's an adult education programme that I've put together and it is currently running in Brixton and is soon to be launched at Bellmarsh Prison. It's quite ironic because Brixton was the very first prison that I served a sentence and Bellmarsh was the last prison I'd done my sentence before I became a Christian."
Despite the big demands on his time the gifted rapper hasn't forsaken his music ministry. His new 'Like Neva B4' album examines many themes with wit and courage - like the song "Doesn't Matter Me" which skilfully nails the scourge of many churches - a critical spirit. Watchman commented, "I wrote that track a good way back. It's like people have always got something to say about you but it doesn't matter me. It doesn't matter what they say about me, the way I dress, the way I look, the way I smile or the way I smell! It doesn't matter me! Just let me do what I am doing for Jesus and let me just do it well with all my heart."
Another powerful track is "Materialistic". Watchman commented, "We say that we are being blessed but I wonder are we really being blessed or is it actually a curse, if you understand what I mean. Sometimes we get things because we are hoarding things. We think, 'I'm blessed, I'm blessed, I've got four cars and three houses. God is blessing me.' But is God really blessing you or is it you actually just obtaining these things for your own selfish gain and not really thinking of others? What I am saying is we need to be very careful. I always say, God doesn't mind you having nice things as long as nice things don't have you."
Watchman has come a long, long way from his brutal and brutalised past. He has recently graduated from the Brixton Bible Institute (which is part of Ruach Ministries - the mega church pastored by Bishop John Francis - who makes an appearance on 'Live Neva B4'). Yet despite all Watchman's numerous achievements the rapper, evangelist and community worker keeps pretty level headed about his achievements. He recalled, "There was a time once in my life when I felt I must be so special. I remember one time I was up to do a massive show. I said to God, 'Why am I doing this show? There are other people I know who would suit this show more would probably do a better job than me.' I was kneeling down at the side of my bed and God said to me, 'It's because you are willing.' That's all it was! I thought he was going to say, 'It's because you are my son and you're my delight.' It was none of that! He just said it's because you are willing. I think if you are willing and you are available God will use you."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.