Picture Me Bowlin’: Compton Cricket Club, Hip-Hop and Politics

“I’ve always been into music. People should rap about their experiences in life and for me, Cricket happened to be something I was experiencing.”

Like many other music-obsessed teenagers, Isaac Hayes regularly found himself surrounded by like-minded youth under the Southern Californian sun, revelling in their common interest. He wasn’t attending festivals or local venues though; he, his family and many of his friends were in fact playing cricket.

Hayes was born into the unique situation of a life consumed by cricket, despite his otherwise conventional Angeleno lifestyle. His father Ted Hayes played a key role in the formation of the LA Kricketz from the city’s Dome Village in the mid-90s and by the time Isaac came of age, he proudly donned the uniform of the now-internationally-recognised Compton Cricket Club.

The sport has allowed Hayes and the rest of the team to travel across the globe, gaining experiences that many from their background would unfortunately not have had the opportunity to. Their playing tours to the U.K, Ireland and Australia have provided the international sport media with a feast of material, which can still be consumed to this day. From the BBC to ESPN, The Guardian to the Daily Mail; every major publication and film producer has wanted a piece of America’s favourite cricket team at some point.

Part of the charm from an outsider’s perspective is that it presents a positive image of a neighbourhood which is seldom portrayed that way. The purpose was to share the on-field ethics and disciplines of cricket with local youth, as well as providing them with a proverbial sanctuary absent of gang-related volatility.

While Compton has seen a grand decline over the last two decades, as recently as 2016, a murder/homicide rate of 35.4 per a population of 100,000 residents was recorded in the city. The numbers ebb and flow from year to year but consistently make for difficult reading. As of 2018, the overall crime rate was higher than 95.7% of U.S. cities. Around the world, the general reputation of Compton is determined by an unmistakable, excellent contribution to the American pop lexicon and regrettably, a culture of relentless crime.

“A lot of the kids grew up without fathers,” Hayes told me last Spring, as he connected over Skype from his L.A. home, following a failed meeting during my recent transatlantic trip.

“They are not the best basketball player, best rappers or most popular. They had no direction and without any extra-curricular activity, they are left with nothing to do but take drugs or sit around and drink all day. We know what idle time does, it creates bad behaviour. Cricket was a way to channel their boredom and give them some direction.

“It’s a game of patience and it can make a change. It’s the chess of sports, it’s about using your brain. Often here in America we don’t think and we’re quick to do something like pull a gun.”

Some people just can’t get their head around Compton’s youth playing a sport that is so extremely uncommon in America’s sporting vocabulary, despite it being the world’s second most popular game. The team’s adventures have put them on the field with some of the greatest of all time, yet you’d have a hard time convincing Hayes’ fellow Californians.

“I played with Brian Lara and people in America don’t really realise how major that is. I actually batted with one of the greatest of all time. When I tell them I played with Lara, I tell them it is like playing with Kobe Bryant. We played against a team called Lashings, who at the time were made up of the equivalent to the 1992 USA Basketball Dream Team, which is how I put it into perspective to friends and family. Those truly are mind-blowing memories.”

While cricket became a priority, their on-field activity wasn’t the only outlet for Isaac and his brother Theo.

“So, we did a few songs that represented our interests and passions. One of our tracks was named ‘best cricket song ever made’. I really cared about the fact that the combination of cricket and hip hop hadn’t been done.”

Under the name ‘Theo & Isaac Hayes and Cloth The Band’, the brothers released original singles such as ‘Bullets’ – a track intended for children who seek a way out of gang lifestyle and into a more peaceful civility. Their music was praised as some of the best cricket-inspired music in the sport’s history and spent some time on rotation with MTV UK. They enjoyed some airplay down under also, being played on several Australian radio stations, resulting in increased press coverage across the country. In an act that aligns with the club’s ethos, the Hayes’ organised events such as ‘Hip-Hop Cricket Rap For Peace’ at Los Angeles City Hall, where they showcased some of their tracks.

Using music as a means of escapism is hardly uncharted territory, but for children in areas of Compton, escaping reality simply means more. The Hayes brothers knew this and were inspired by some of the West Coast’s greatest to ‘spit their truth’ and help others.

“2Pac is my all-time hero. A lot of rappers are one-dimensional with their themes. Pac showed that there were multiple sides to him as a person. He was woke before woke was a thing and opened up a lot of minds.”

“Kendrick Lamar is one of the greatest writers in the genre’s history. I like Vince Staples, Dom Kennedy. California has always put out other dope MCs but they’ve often been underground. We’re known for gangster rap but there’s so much more than that, that’s not all California  hip-hop is.”

Strangely, I happened to connect with Isaac just days after the fatal shooting of L.A. rapper Nipsey Hussle. Rarely are there musicians who mean as much to their community as he did, due to an unrelenting passion for community activism and lyrical message that inspired budding entrepreneurs. As somebody whose family has spent so much time attempting to stop such violence, this spoke to Hayes on an emotional level.

It’s really sad about Nipsey. The impact he had on not just Los Angeles, but America and the world is powerful. People are out on the streets mourning his loss, this is huge. I’ve been attending memorial celebrations and events; people are really hurt, he will truly be missed.”

“It just feels so endless. A friend of mine was murdered just six days ago. You never get used to it and you have to realise that a year later, you’ll have to put up with it again. It was difficult for me to deal with it, so I can’t imagine how his family felt. Through both music and sport, we need to keep showing them the way out.”

Katy Haber is a film producer from England whose filmography includes cinematic touchpoints like Blade Runner, Straw Dogs and The Getaway. Along with Ted Hayes, she played a crucial part in bringing cricket to the Dome Village with the Kricketz and subsequently, Compton. Through her philanthropic endeavours and association with BAFTA, she wound up inspiring the homeless to play the game and has been involved with several of their international tours. Coincidentally, I spoke to Haber on the same night that the 2020 BAFTA nominees were announced, from her house in the city.

The LA Kricketz play under the Hollywood sign
The LA Kricketz practicing in the Hollywood hills.

“Well, in England, I have memories of Isaac and Theo performing their rap song to Prince Edward at Windsor Castle’s clubhouse. Then in Ireland, we helped create a moment between Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. They actually talked to the team together about what 800 years of ‘gangbanging’ can do to a country, amid the volatile times of Irish relations.”

Talking to Haber is a fascinating experience. She can rattle off endless stories that would otherwise sound implausible, but with steadfast conviction; a tale she shared with me of what happened in Northern Ireland during the 1990s is one of them.

“We met with them and Mo Mowlam. That was one of the most amazing moments. Isaac and Theo were in the conference room in Belfast, running up and down the conference table, performing their rap song with a boom box blasting out in the corner of the room. This was right in the middle of the Good Friday peace talks, she had arranged a meeting with Adams and McGuiness and there we were, pacing up and down on their furniture! Shortly after, we presented various cricket bats and hurling sticks as signs of goodwill.”

Gerry Adams in conversation with Ted Hayes.

Some of those in attendance still believe – with varying levels of sincerity – that it helped change the political landscape of the United Kingdom and Ireland forever.

“Yeah, Ted was convinced that we played a part in the Good Friday peace talks,” she laughed.

In 2020, Compton Cricket Club are looking for ways to reignite the enthusiasm of the local youth and bring in a whole new generation of players to the club. Naturally, much of the team have gotten older and perhaps don’t need the team in the same way they once did. As a result, we haven’t heard any cricket-infused lyricism for quite some time.

However, if they were to nip it in the bud now, the team’s legacy would be an inspiring one. They may not have moved mountains, but they used their passion to reach out to those in need. Ultimately, Isaac and his family’s story is a perfect example of how music and sport often share a common purpose – to bring people together.

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