Friday marks exactly 20 years since a 10-year-old boy named Damilola Taylor was murdered in South London on a public housing estate. Damilola died 10 weeks after moving to the UK from Nigeria when he was stabbed with a broken glass bottle on his way home in the suburb of Peckham. A pair of brothers — aged just 12 and 13 at the time of the incident — were later convicted of his death.
Damilola’s senseless killing was one of the most high-profile murders in the UK, and it sent shockwaves across the Black community abroad, especially in Nigeria, from where the Taylor family had emigrated in the hope of giving their children a better life.
Two decades on, one of his best friends, radio presenter Yinka Bokinni, has set out to tell Damilola’s story through the perspectives of people that grew up with him. The result is the documentary Damilola Taylor: The Boy Next Door, shown in the UK on Channel 4.
In her film, Bokinni, now 31, opens up about her friendship with Damilola and speaks to people about his death for the first time. She returns to the shuttered estate where Damilola was murdered to retell his story in her own words. The film is ultimately a moving look not just at her friend’s death, but also at their upbringing in one of Britain’s forgotten places.
"I know that it's a sad story. I mean, I lived it, I've lived it my whole life," Bokinni told BuzzFeed News via Zoom. "I know it's not one that we're going to watch and laugh and joke, and it's not a light watch. I know it's heavy. But I don't want the tragedy and the fucking cockroaches and the dilapidation of the estate to get in the way of the story of Peckham and the fact that it's a dynamic place and the fact that I'm not a diamond in the dirt."
Damilola and Bokinni were close friends. They played together and Damilola often hung out in Bokinni’s home. She saw him as her brother. Star Wars actor John Boyega was also a close friend of the young boy and was one of the last people to see him alive.
Shortly after Damilola’s death, Bokinni and her family were interviewed as part of a special BBC Panorama investigation into the murder. “If you read all the magazines and everything you’d think that he was really gentle and everything, but he wasn’t,” a young Bokinni said on Panorama. “He was like my little brother, rough, and he didn’t really care what he’d done, but if he hurt you, he would say sorry and he would apologize.”
In the archive footage, Bokinni’s late mother also speaks to the presenter. Bokinni had completely forgotten her mother was in the episode and hearing her voice made her emotional. "When I put the DVD in, I just burst into tears, because it was the gravity of the situation," Bokinni said.
Bokinni never got to have a conversation about Damilola’s death with her mother as an adult. There were so many things she now wishes they could have talked about. "I didn't get to have conversations with her about the circumstances and the state of the environment that we grew up in," she said.
Hearing her mother again in her own words, and seeing how much she tried to make a better life for her, saddened Bokinni. But now she feels a sense of fulfillment that her documentary might show people the reality of her upbringing — and perhaps make her mother proud.
Bokinni said she was flabbergasted to learn while making the documentary that no one from her childhood had ever sought professional help for the trauma they experienced growing up. "It's so crazy because when I speak to other people, if they were to tell me my story and it was their point of view I would advise that they speak to somebody," she said. "I would advise that they lay things out and work out tools to deal with it."
Although the loss of Damilola affected her deeply, she too suppressed the traumatic feelings for the past two decades. Making the film proved to be a cathartic opportunity to figure out how to deal with her past. "It's almost like my childhood, because of the trauma, had been like a jigsaw with pieces missing," she said, "and then slowly, I'm like, Oh, no, this makes sense.”
Bokinni slowly realized she had developed a romanticized view of Peckham while growing up, but making the documentary allowed her to take a step back and view her childhood home from a more objective point of view. She likened her experience of growing up in South London to Lily Allen's music video "LDN" where Allen views things around her through rose-colored lenses.
Toward the end of the documentary, Bokinni ends up looking over all the articles about her friend’s murder and some about the estate. One of the stories she read predicted that someone would be murdered, almost as if it was the inevitable fate of growing up in inner-city London. She was also angered by headlines describing how milk delivery workers and police felt unsafe visiting the estate due to the gang presence, and yet families were still being moved into the area despite the well-documented violence. “Some of the things that my mom tried to protect us from, like calling us in early when people were running around, fighting and all that, knife crime, police,” she said. “All this stuff that I just didn't know any different when I was younger.”
The 31-year-old presenter said she's ultimately not sure what impact her documentary will have, but she hopes she honored her friend and her area.
"I just want everyone to know that he matters, that his life — yes, his death — [but] his life matters," she said.
"Ultimately, when people look at pictures of him, especially that picture that is so famous of him, they just see a victim,” she said, “and I see my mate that I hung out with, and I saw my friend who I fought with and who was 10 years old with me, as opposed to the inevitability of the sad photo.”