This Is Candice Carty-Williams’ World. We’re All Just Living In It.


Words: Natty Kasambala
Photography: Henry Jay Kamara

As we all delve into the BBC’s captivating new drama series, ‘Champion’, TRENCH meets the cultural powerforce behind it. We explore how showrunner Candice Carty-Williams’ love of UK garage and seminal underground station Channel U helped spark the early ideas of ‘Champion’, and how she is shifting the landscape of TV and literature, one project at a time.

“I grew up in Streatham, like Dave,” Candice Carty-Williams says with a wry smile. “And me and my family moved to Lewisham when I was 8, so I’m kind of a Blue Borough girl myself.” Today, however, we’re back in South West London, near where it all began. Candice has stepped off set where she’s in the process of filming a TV adaptation for her award-winning debut novel, Queenie. We decide to meet at the vegan café En Root, nestled within the Ritzy Picturehouse at the heart of Brixton’s Windrush Square, which feels appropriate given the role the surrounding areas have played within the 33-year-old writer’s life and work, from the gentrification explored in Queenie to the sprawling community of People Person. She’s even wearing a T-shirt with a train station graphic on it that states her philosophy simply with the bold font: ‘SOUTH LONDON’.

With her new (first ever!) TV series, Champion, Candice Carty-Williams has drafted Lewisham to serve as the richly textured backdrop for the story of a Jamaican family, both united and brought into opposition by their bone-deep love of music. The title is also the family name and we watch as rapper Bosco (Malcolm Kamulete) and his sister, Vita (Déja J Bowens)—who’s been bolstering him behind the scenes for years—battle it out for success in an industry and a world that doesn’t always love them back. “The South London of the show is almost like its own South London that we’ve constructed, like a metaverse,” Candice says. With its own original venues and cafes to the rule of having no real-world music playing on the radio, this alternate reality becomes host to a vibrant rollercoaster drama of dreams and rivalry and a dynamic celebration of Black music and culture.

“I watch music videos to relax... I just sit and obsess, and I used to do that when I was a kid too.”

While Candice qualifies for the nonbelievers that “it’s not really a musical, it’s just a drama with music,” the sonic world of the show feels super grounded and varied without latching onto too many sounds or trends of the time. We see the characters spar against each other, bar for bar, lay down lyrics in swanky studios and captivate crowds with their live (yes, live) performances. Taking inspiration from the likes of Insecure, Champion also boasts its own official soundtrack, with a 26-track project—released through 0207 Def Jam—composed of music from the eight episodes. Grime icon Ghetts and R&B empress Ray BLK (who also stars in the show as ‘Honey’) were both brought on as music executives; the new and original music was mostly written by them, as well as Birmingham rapper M1llionz, with music supervision by Cat Grieves, consultancy from Hattie Collins, and appearances from the legendary Shola Ama, super-producer Toddla T and rising soul-stirrer Debbie. “Working on the music for the show was the best part for me,” Candice beams.

Elsewhere, Champion indulges us with the intergenerational stories of the wider Champion clan, capturing glimpses into the cultural forefathers that helped birth the genres we know and love today, in the form of reggae, Lover’s Rock or even community radio. “I’m so interested in the genesis of everything,” Candice explains. “I’m like, ‘How did we get here?’, having watched music from where it’s coming from, where it’s gone and where it’s going now. One of my favourite things is at the beginning of “Lyrics” by Skepta and Novelist; there’s a sample of that Pay As U Go [Cartel and Heartless Crew] soundclash and it’s things like that—everything came from something! It feels incredible to shout that out.” Being able to draw similar threads through parents and elders was crucial to telling the story of the siblings: “It felt like if these kids are musical, they’re gonna come from musicality.”

Much like the Champion family, music has been a lifelong obsession for Candice and served as the driving force of this project. The series opens with a throwback vignette of the two siblings as children, rapping along enthusiastically to So Solid Crew’s “21 Seconds”. As they battle for attention, Bosco eventually winning, the camera lands on a young Vita basking in the neon glow of the old-school chunky television set, eyes visibly glistening with the reflection of the performance and foreboding to her fiery ambition. “That was me when I was a kid,” says Candice. “I couldn’t believe how lucky I was in life to have this stuff in front of me.” She recalls not having Sky at home so splitting her time between her cousin’s house at the weekend and her best friend Isabel’s house during the week to get her daily fix of Channel U was essential.

“I don’t know if I should say this, but I was a Torrent Queen...”

“Anyone who’s asked me in interviews what I do to relax, I tell them I just watch music videos; I just sit and obsess, and I used to do that when I was a kid too,” Candice admits. Her passion for music culture as she speaks is blatant, expansive and almost feverish as she confesses, “I don’t know if I should say this but I was a Torrent Queen.” From looping her mother’s Kool & The Gang VHS, to mainlining early freestyles of Giggs, Ghetts and Little Simz, tracking down demos on Limewire through to diving into the ‘90s and ‘00s R&B of MTV Base—with an inevitable alt-Black girl detour into the likes of Paramore and The Kooks, and a 5-minute gush session about getting to the front of Jai Paul’s show last month and crying to the sounds of “Str8 Outta Mumbai”—Candice says with complete confidence, “Books were the beginning, and TV is now this part, but music has been the biggest part of my life.”

Growing up, Candice was a quiet kid amongst a storm of big personalities. “I was quite lonely,” she says. “I grew up in a sort of mad family of mad people. It was loud and I was always the quietest person so I would observe a lot, all of the stuff! There was a lot of toxicity and a lot of pain. So I just kind of retreated and I was very in myself. Music, reading, TV, anything that took me out of myself, anything that was a story was my escape.” Something in the controlled nature of fictional formats gave Candice solace, she supposes, whilst also imprinting lifelong values in her too, sometimes from unexpected sources: “As a life lesson, knowing that the truth will always come to light—I learned that from EastEnders—to this day, I don’t lie to anyone because I know it's gonna come out if I lie. That’s why I focus so much on TV, film and music. That’s what I knew and that’s what raised me, essentially. That’s where I got my learning from, an understanding of what things should be.”

In person, that sharp-tongued honesty and moral attention hasn’t eased up since. Making it no surprise then, that when Candice made her professional start in the world of publishing, working in marketing at HarperCollins imprint 4th Estate, progress was top of the agenda. She ended up launching a short story prize in collaboration with The Guardian aimed at discovering and assisting BAME authors in their first steps into the literary world—an initiative that is still going strong to this day, having supported the likes of published authors such as Bolu Babalola and Kasim Ali. “It sounds light but I really liked my job, and they were very supportive,” she says. After moving companies, she became even more conscious of the lack of diversity in mainstream adult fiction: “I knew that there was a space because look at what Malorie Blackman did. I always read books where I could see myself, when I was like 11. And then as I got older and older and older, into my twenties, I was like, ‘So… there’s nothing?’” Inspired to fill that cultural gap, Candice took it upon herself to author the very kind of stories she wanted to read.

Her best-selling debut novel, Queenie—a story about a 25-year-old British-Jamaican woman whose world is unravelling around her—went on to win Book of the Year at the British Book Awards, making her first Black author to ever do so, as well as being longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Today, she laughs dryly as she tells me, “Natty, we sent that book out to fourteen publishers. Four of them said yes. The other ten of them said, ‘This isn’t going to sell’, ‘No one reads books by Black authors’, ‘There’s no one Black working here so no one could work on it effectively’, ‘There’s no market for this.’ We heard everything.”

Now showrunning two consecutive TV shows on two of the country’s biggest networks, it’s clear that there’s a theme in Candice’s career, one of unapologetic disruption. “I like to go in somewhere, fuck it up a little bit and leave,” she laughs. But being one of the first to swim upstream comes with its own challenges too. “I think you just have to be a specific type of person to do it, you have to have a lot of fortitude,” she says, admitting that the last few years, she hasn’t had much fun. “I’m a very sensitive person but I also don’t take shit. I try not to buy into the idea that I’m lucky to be anywhere, because I work hard.”

And throughout the whirlwind of the last five years, the other thread tying her CV together is how intentional she’s been in keeping Black women as the nucleus at the centre of the art she creates—in all of their raw, complex and beautiful glory. Within Champion, those nuances of micro and macro-aggressions are at times eye-wateringly spot-on as Vita wrestles with obstacles and doubts on her journey to self-actualisation. She’s laughed at, dismissed, manipulated, talked over and even sidelined by her own family. Candice sums it up: “Sometimes the call is coming from inside the house… It has often been Black women, if not always, making space for other people and putting themselves second, because we have always been taught that. That’s something I’ve recognised since childhood. We don’t all treat each other well and that’s something we need to talk about.”

Next on her list, once Queenie wraps, is some well-deserved time off, but there’s no doubt that whatever it is she puts her mind to next, it’ll continue to blaze new trails for Black British representation that feels both true to life and expansive in ways we haven’t seen before. Of her priorities, Candice says, “I don't really care about social media. I don't really care about the metrics. I don’t really care about money, at this point. Success, to me, means that everyone’s eating, and that everyone is seeing themselves.”

Watch Champion now on BBC iPlayer.

Posted on July 12, 2023