Alternative Monday 18 – Johnny BANG Reilly

Johnny BANG Reilly’s start in life was rife with challenges. He was bullied, beaten and put into care. This led to further issues as a young adult – prison, life on the streets, struggles with drug abuse and attempts on his life. We invited Johnny to work with our students because he had turned his life around. He had taken control. Realising that only he could change the direction in which his life was heading he had refused to let his past define his future.

Now a transient poet, filmmaker, voice over artist, mixed martial artist and business owner, Johnny’s life is rich in experiences and full of love. He uses words and movement not just to express himself and keep fit and agile, but as a navigator exploring the spaces around him, making poetry with his body.

After learning about our work with The CE Academy, Johnny identified with the students who had been excluded from mainstream education for reasons such as anger management, non-attendance and disruptive behaviour. “I know this energy very well, I was just like it”, he added.

Johnny’s life experiences are clearly marked on his face – as art. Each tattoo telling a different story. In 2017, the first glimpse of Johnny was an arresting one for our students, not a style of artist or a persona that they had encountered before. His presence silenced and held the room for some time. Fermynwoods staff were watching Johnny, Johnny was watching the students, the students were staring at him. He remained silent, trusting that very soon, someone would ask a question. Finally – “What do your tattoos mean?” “What was your life like growing up?” One student answered his own question of why Johnny might be considered an artist, rationalising that martial arts could be an art form too.

Realising they weren’t being judged, students began discussing their own health, thoughts and behaviour. After having some personal realisations, students were eager to learn some disciplines that could channel their thinking.

For a second set of students the following day the journey to this point was more immediate. Sensing a different energy in the room, Johnny began the day not with silence but with the invitation “Who wants to fight me?” Subtly choreographed and directed in a focussed and positive way, students were able to take control of their emotions and channel their energy. Hands that had been learning to box were then used to care for a fledgling bird that had become trapped in the fence at Sudborough Green Lodge. After setting the bird free, the students themselves were freer; having released some burdening emotions and discovering possible alternative paths for their futures.

A few months later, Johnny sent each of the students a jacket from his clothing range and the pride and appreciation on their faces was a true marker of the profound impact he had made on their lives. It wasn’t the value of the jacket itself but what it symbolised. They could now wear their own work of art, a second and thicker skin, telling their story of a day spent with Johnny BANG Reilly.

Emma Davies

Reflecting on his time with Fermynwoods, Johnny wrote the following.

Out in the middle of somewhere
I became conscious of a creature
Pulsating with life
A beautiful structure of nature
I was in awe of being so close
And witnessing such detail
I came across this creature …
They call it …

Johnny BANG Reilly

Listen below to Emma’s spoken word response, and look out for more Alternative Monday posts every fortnight, looking back on some of our favourite alternative provision activities over the past 10 years.