Defiance and hope: alternative rap duo delve into the world of youth mental health / by Afshin Rohani

a nervy pre-show bedroom rehearsal at CajCastle studios - still from 'anxiety rap' (photography: Claire Meiqian)

a nervy pre-show bedroom rehearsal at CajCastle studios - still from 'anxiety rap' (photography: Claire Meiqian)

by Afshin Rohani |

Now more than ever we should let the voices of the young be the measure and truth-bearers of a fragmented culture of ill health. This is what I’ve learnt from spending time with two musicians who revealed their deepest fears on camera.

Capturing raw stories has always been my dream and I recently started to make short documentaries. As the beginning of this year kicked in, I wanted to seek out a story that I felt reflected today’s UK youth culture.

I started to chat with friends who could connect me to individuals I could profile, I was immediately drawn to one photo of a guy and a girl wearing flamboyant clothes standing on a inner-city stairwell with a thoughtful disposition. The two young rappers pictured call themselves - The Knighthood Society.

This perplexed me, as an avid student of Hip-Hop - I had thought that most of the golden age of personal expression and protest within the artform had been lost to derivative sub-genres. Was London holding out on me? I was anxious to meet them.

At our first encounter we gradually got past the initial awkwardness that is transitioning from social feeds to friendship. The group’s rap music was direct when it came to mental health and identity and it had touched me that they would be so honest, I told them that whenever I experience anxiety the most comforting thing is knowing that I am not alone; they felt the same.

Nicki (pictured left) with Henny at a house in East London that serves as a safe space where they create edgy music videos and record tracks.

Nicki (pictured left) with Henny at a house in East London that serves as a safe space where they create edgy music videos and record tracks.

Nicki and Henny Knightz (both in their early 20s) were immediately drawn to the idea of telling their story so far as artists through the lens of everyday anxiety: as a kind of catharsis aimed to reach others who may also face similar struggles. Over a coffee they both simultaneously opened up whilst hiding behind their laptop lids–we decided to start shooting right away.

With little equipment and only one day and one evening to work on filming in and around Hackney it had to be simple, true to life. In the film Henny expresses how music has been the only constant in his life amidst a backdrop of loss looming over him. Producing music in his nerdy home-studio and writing lyrics helped to deal with the death of a close friend and act as a searchlight poking at the inner workings of his psyche.

"Recent research suggests that as many as 1 in 6 young people will experience an anxiety condition at some point in their lives."

(Anxiety UK)

Nicki knew Henny as they lived close to each other though they hadn’t been properly introduced, it was only through a mutual interest in music that she connected with him and immediately found a kindred spirit. When they started to collaborate, she came out of her shy shell and slowly found the confidence to perform her rhymes in front of others as he took her under his wing.

Both of the Knightz self-identify as social outcasts with severe anxiety who have also stumbled upon depression, the pair use the imagery of British aristocracy as a way of empowering themselves - the self-crowned establishment navigating authenticity; in our current landscape of mixed messages.

While finding a voice and questioning what we deem entertainment the music video for ‘LoneWolf’ features a dramatised street kidnapping where Nicki fights for her life. In the track she decides to channel some real life experiences into a campaign that inadvertently became a social experiment. Teasing online - a fake missing persons poster was published...the dissonance of reactions naturally flooded in.

Through this defiant promotional stunt the group cut away at the veneer of what it means to be normal in the digital age, the controversial poster was so believable it was spread faster than they had anticipated. Even friends of Knighthood shared the post on social media before reaching out to either of them directly to check if it was even real.

In the months since meeting the duo and releasing the film: 'anxiety rap' the current king of Grime Stormzy and even Prince Harry (a sort of real life knight) have decided to tackle the once untouchable silent killer that is mental health. Sitting back, I can’t help but feel that I came across this topic at the right time and that the Knightz story is sadly not so uncommon. Yet, it offers an account of how art can uncover the failings of society and provide insights into the symptoms and drivers of human suffering.

In short, some hope:


This week marks a national push to talk about mental health with broadcasters and advertisers chiming in on the issue. Even my cosy cynicism needs a little reality check, this is progress. Let us share more meaningful stories.