My dad gave me the name Rajai – Funny though, as it’s an Indian name and my father is Jamaican and has no connection to India.
Actor, Knife Crime Survivor
Age: March 1995, although I feel a bit of an old soul.
Provenance: I was born in Kingston, Jamaica.
How long have you lived in London? I came over with my nan when I was two years old to live in Streatham. My mum joined us a bit later. I went to primary school, secondary school and 6th form college in Streatham.
Occupations: In the last few years, I have been in a documentary and have worked in a few music videos – playing the lead role in the music video Beautiful Little Fools, by British singer Jorja Smith, was special. In 2019 I won the best actor in the Discover Film Festival awards for my role in the dramatic short film called Goldfish. The moment I heard my name called was up there with some of the best moments in my life. I was in genuine shock when I went up to the stage: I almost felt my voice would not come out and when the words did come it was a bit overwhelming. I was very happy, grateful and proud of everyone who worked on the film. It reminds me, of my first experience of acting was playing the role of Scar from the Lion King in my last year of primary school. I really wanted that role and I still remember the opening lines.
Passions and Interests: When I was a kid, I loved football and was really good at it. I still love football although I don’t keep up to date like I used to. I’m a music person, I really love my music. Sometimes when I’m low, or even when I’m happy, I feel like I need it to operate at maximum efficiency for certain tasks. When I was young, I was kind of made to sing in church and in the house with my siblings. I think it may have stemmed from around those ages, just my love for sound and rhythm. I’m a proper weirdo when it comes to my taste in music, and I tend to surprise people a lot with my wide range of music genres and the fact that I know, quite a bit if not all, the lyrics to most songs. I love hearing real pain and/or emotion in someone’s voice when they are singing or delivering their music, especially if I feel I can relate. I really like Tracey Chapman’s Fast Car because it’s a nice throwback for me as I’m quite a nostalgic person. She expresses a lot of pain she witnessed from her parents and the pains and struggles she went through because of it, the burden and the responsibilities she took on before her time, which really resonated with me when I first heard it. Her voice is so unique and powerful anyway, so it’s very difficult not to be moved when she starts to sing her truths. People are mainly shocked when I pull up a song that seems like I would’ve been too young to even have listened to, to have understood or even liked, especially when I know all the words, but that’s just me. I like a lot of things, which I didn’t think was something special until people would comment on it, making me realise it was a skill that I had been randomly blessed with. But then again, I feel like memory is the root of most success, especially in education: most of it is listening learning and retention of information.
What do people know you for? It happened on the night of Wednesday 3rd May 2016. It inspired the first tattoo I got on my left forearm, in February 2019, which was that date in roman numerals: III.V.MMXVI. In a strange way, many people have heard of me and know me through an incident that changed my life. I was walking home one night with a friend, and I was just around the corner from my home when I was attacked by a man who jumped out of a car and came running at me. He asked me where I was from, but before I really could say much, he stabbed me straight in the chest, in my arm and the middle of my back. I tried to walk towards my home. I thought: if only I can get there, but I collapsed. I was in so much pain. Luckily, my friend came back and put me on my side and tried to get an ambulance. Ironically, I collapsed right in front of our local ambulance depot, but it was closed. I was thinking, I’m only 21 and I don’t even have my driving licence. I have never met my dad, I don’t even know what he looks like, is he still alive? Why am I dying alone on a street with no family around me? Eventually, I realised paramedics were cutting off my clothes and I was in an ambulance. My chest was opened, and my heart was elevated out of my body while they did the surgery. They had to crack my sternum to separate my rib cage and expose my heart. I had never seen staples before waking up in ICU and seeing them going all down my torso. You can only imagine how tight that made me feel. Most, if not all, movement felt restricted all the time. I couldn’t walk initially, but I gained some strength through support from family and friends and from being mentally driven to be better and out of the hospital. I remember at one point telling my family and the nurses that I wanted to go home. Seeing my friends and family leave after a time was a lot to handle, especially when I couldn’t sleep because of the stab wound to the back and staples down my torso and arm, making almost every position uncomfortable. I came out of hospital fully motivated and driven to be my old self again, so I began making trips to the shop across the road and to the park around the corner accompanied by a friend or two. I felt secure there as I was at the most vulnerable point I’ve ever been in my life. The full recovery I would say took two years. I don’t really get upset about it. I try not to anyway. There were times where I’d literally think about it and go silent. I do have my driving licence now, at least. I remembered, at school and 6th form, being in the gym and becoming quite strong for my size, then to come home from hospital and not be able to move through the door to my block without assistance from my friend. I couldn’t even get out of bed alone: I needed someone to hold my arms while I tucked my chin into my chest to stop my head from jerking backwards, putting strain on my freshly healing chest wound. The bones in my chest were only a week or so into their recovery when I was discharged and didn’t feel normal again for the best part of the following two years. Even after working out a bit, to gain some strength, the bones underneath still felt sore and vulnerable for a long, long time. I worked out with friends at the park around the corner from my house using the fitness apparatus. The first time I even tried to get down into the press-up position I will never forget. I felt like the weight of the blood and organs in my chest were going to cave in my ribcage and tear open my wound and I stood up immediately. This, alongside the block door episode, was almost like the epitome of how shite I felt in myself and just how weak and vulnerable I felt physically, which seriously affected my way of thinking around those times.
Thoughts on London? Growing up, London is the best city in the world next to New York because that’s all I ever heard or saw when I was young. It’s also the best city because you’re from there, like how you support England in the World Cup, or get immediately excited when you see a landmark in an advert or in a film, just because it’s London. In primary school, the violence I can recall being genuinely intrigued and worried about was the 9/11 and 7/7 bombings. I don’t remember being too clued up on anything even remotely gang-related or being aware of anything that went on if it didn’t make the news that my parents, friends or teachers at school had watched. The transition from primary school to secondary school for me was a big one, because I didn’t get into the school around the corner with most of my friends, so I felt like I was out in the big wide world alone, almost. Having to get on buses and make your whole way to school without parental guidance is a big thing that a lot of people probably don’t even realise has a real eye-opening effect. The first thing I noticed is that anything can happen on the roads, no matter what, and anyone could be an enemy, even unprovoked. I’ve had a group of boys from another school corner me at the bus stop because I was apparently giving them dirty looks. I’m not the type that goes out looking for trouble, but it really showed me from a very young age that London is not always as sweet as primary school and adverts first made out. On the other hand, London is full of love, energy and diversity. For me, it’s just a case of getting used to it, like with anything. After a while you become one with the social etiquette, like how to behave in public and around people, so you can best go about your everyday life and avoid problems. Obviously, people anywhere are unpredictable, so there are going to be occasions where certain problems can’t be avoided, even if they’re unprovoked or justifiable and these situations are literally just unfortunate. The older I got and the more people I knew, the more stories I heard, the more places I went and the more things I saw, the more I had a rough idea of what London was and what it was like to be a Londoner. This came with a lot of negatives, which kind of work out as positives because you learn the hard way that, as much as we are all humans, we are all very different, and we don’t think, feel or act the same. As a Londoner, because we mostly have the same commercial music and films and news and curricula, we all end up with the ‘Londoner’ mentally without even knowing it, until we’re put next to someone from outside our home city.
Leaving college was an even bigger eye-opener than starting secondary school because, by this time, 6 or 7 years had already passed and I was used to life and London and all that came with it, only to realise I was in a pool of peers who are in an era of having nothing to do and, if you do, you’re the lucky one. Like, being out on the road, you can tell who is in and around your age group, from their dress sense to activities to lingo to things they talk about, which is all good for making friends, but it’s also very easy for bad people to distinguish who’s young and who they can trouble without having a parent or the police on their backs. It sounds weird to even say, but I know I’m not the only young person who felt that way. Even the colour I am sometimes made London different for me, as I learned about racism and was perceptive enough to be able to detect when people were being offensive to me because of my race, which has defo happened a few times. It’s crazy, because for me it hurt the most when racism came from older people while I was young, like the weird looks and the treatment of my mum from strangers and professionals. It’s mad because when you’re young you don’t see these things. London is just a microcosm of the world because everything that happens here happens worldwide. Long story short, I would say London is a crazy place where everything has its place, and you just have to find it. There’s something here for everyone, but there’s also so much distraction, which paves the way for all the things we dwell on that we shouldn’t and all the problems that only get worse through ignorance. I think Londoners compare themselves to other cities worldwide and feel some sense of satisfaction with not having the worst of the problems, because it literally could be worse. I think that’s the London mentality right about now and I don’t know how much worse it will get, but sometimes things have to get really bad for people to come together to find a solution. London is definitely a great city, don’t get me wrong. We have so much potential for greatness. There’s just a lack of proper communication and trust in the government at the minute.
I met Rajai the night he won the award for best actor at the Discover Film Festival, with this project I am always searching for unique characters who can help explain life to us. We met in Streatham in South London, had a coffee and looked around the area where Rajai lives and the actual spot where he was attacked. His story makes you think about how life can change for the worse in a mere second.
Conversation & Portrait by Tallulah
October 2019, London, UK
Published June 2021