'They lassoed him, dragged him round the playground, he was five and had rope burns on his neck' - Edinburgh hip hop artist CTRL on the pain behind his new EP
Edinburgh hip-hop artist Chris Thomas, better known as CTRL, found himself recalling his inspirational granddad, Jimmy, while working on his much anticipated new EP, Life and Times.
The release, which includes new single See it Now, currently available on all streaming platforms, will allow listeners a “deeply honest insight” into his backstory and personal life. From the racism his grandfather endured after arriving in the Capital in the Forties from Sierra Leone through to his own present-day struggles.
Chris’ drive to stay true to himself resonates throughout the EP, with the influence his granddad brought to the fore on a track called, Hard to Love, the lyrics of which include:
'I gotta vent, pain harder than it’s evident
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This relevant from my tone I’m tryna be grown
Cos my roots lead back to Sierra Leone
I’m the clover of the founder of the diamonds you own
Granddad was black and 14 surviving all alone
Prone to the racism. Taught that we don’t moan
For a long time without a place that he could call home
Thank you to the man that rescued his chance
It’s eventually birthed CTRL to give you a glance
The future I create it, the past is what has made it…
You can try and save it, maybe you phase it...'
“It's important for me to be honest in my music. It felt right to talk about where I've come from in life,” says the 24-year-old explaining, “My granddad, Jimmy Thomas, was hospitalised until he was about 17. When he was 14, a Scottish doctor came across him in Sierra Leone and booked him passage on a ship to Edinburgh for treatment on the NHS.
“After he was discharged from hospital, with a fused kneecap and one leg shorter than the other, he found lodgings in Tollcross. Each day he walked from there to Ramsey Technical College in Portobello where he studied electronics, but even though he passed all his exams, he could only get work sweeping up and cleaning in a shop in Princess Street, until a man, an ex-military pilot called Alex Kirk, took him under his wing and helped him out. Many years later, my granddad repaid his kindness by employing him in one of his businesses.”
Although Chris was young when his granddad passed away, Jimmy’s legacy and strong sense of justice lives on in his grandson.
He explains, “My granddad had a huge influence on my dad, Richard Thomas, who passed away in 2016, and that had the biggest impact on my life. It's shaped me into the person I need to be to conquer anything. Literally.”
To paint a picture of the man his granddad was, Chris turned to his auntie, Louise, he says, “She remembered granddad would always try to help folk out, people were cool with him.
“Unfortunately, the kids my dad and his brother and sister went to school with weren't quite so welcoming - my uncle got battered most days for being a n****r or a s***o and would be chased home crying most days.
“My auntie remembers vividly, being upset for him but not knowing how to fix it. My granddad used to go mental cause my uncle Michael wouldn’t fight back, he’d just run. My auntie got to school two years after Michael and soon learned to defend him but she too remembers being the victim of racism, of going to her friend’s door and being told to 'F*** off' and that she 'wasn’t welcome'.”
Another incident, however, had far more sinister undertones.
“My granddad had to go to Tollcross Primary after three kids lassoed my dad and dragged him round the playground, he was five at the time and was left with rope burns around his neck. On another occasion he had to go up to James Gillespie’s when an older, female teacher, called my auntie a 'Black tramp' in front of the whole class. She cried for days and was so humiliated, but my gran and granddad were right up there to sort it out.”
Chris continues, “The way he prepared them all for the racism they faced was by telling them they must always stick together, that all they had was each other.”
After pause, he adds, “In fact, I've just remembered, in the 90’s he very nearly got deported back to Sierra Leone. I think his saving grace was that he had businesses, including a big furniture shop on Easter Road, and owned lots of property and had paid small fortunes in tax - his naturalisation certificate was his pride and joy.”
Chris, who was educated at Flora Stevenson’s primary and the Royal High, says that although he himself is “White in skin colour” he still “feels the pain that his dad, auntie, uncle, and granddad went through”.
“It's very interesting to see the contrast as I’ve had a very easy life. The difference the colour your skin makes is worlds apart. It's important for me to be honest in my music so it just felt right to talk about where my family has come from in life. I never forget where I'm from. There is still much to do. You could write a book on what still needs to be to done about racism. It's very deep rooted and, I believe, a large part of western society is built to effectively support prejudice.”
Despite baring his soul on Life and Times, Chris, who first made a name for himself on the Capital rap and hip-hop scene as a DJ before founding New Vision Records with Paddy Do Rego in 2021, hints there's still more to come - he has an album set to be released in the Autumn.
He says, “I take inspiration from what I’ve been through, and as life continues to throw challenges my way, I’ll continue to flip those experiences into something positive and try to find the lesson in each one of them.”CTRL’s EP, Life and Times, will be available to stream through streaming platforms from Monday, July 25.