The Okofos were a popular Congolese family at the heart of their community in Hackney. Ronald Okofo, a proud musician and dappy dressing Sapeur is welcome at every wedding along with his beautiful wife Beatrice and talented children Jessye and Thomas Joseph. But things are not what they seem. Beatrice is tired of Ron’s womanising and dreams of being the lawyer she trained to be. She is also concerned for the future of her son in an area where knife crime seems to catch up with every single black boy she knows.
Her son Thomas Joseph ‘TJ’ is a talented singer – so when he gets scouted by an exclusive boarding Choir school at 7 – it is just the opportunity Beatrice dreamed of for him and herself. However Ronald and her Congolese aunties have other ideas. Ron in particular seems deaf to his wife pleas – why does he never seem to listen? Then when she discovers Ronald with another woman and a knife in the pocket of her best friend’s son, these two events result in her accepting the school place. She leaves her husband and her community and starts a new life with her children Jessye and TJ.
By thirteen TJ had become lead Chorister and is applying for Eton. Encouraged by his proud mother, TJ’s dream is to become a world famous opera singer.
But when TJ’s Bea passes away – TJ is forced to leave the protective bubble of his boarding school and return to Hackney under the care of his estranged and eccentric Congolese father Ron. Jessye and TJ find their father a shell of his former self, his designer suits sold and living in poverty.
After the funeral TJ returns to school only to discover that his voice is breaking. His previous status and identity shaken, he starts to question if he ever belonged in this white middle class world. His father then makes the decision to put TJ in the local state school in Hackney.
His school choir master Luke Mason, himself a scholarship boy, tries to rescue him from his fate and get him on track to apply for Eton. But Ron is determined to wrestle him from this mostly white world and take him back to his roots, his music and culture. If he reclaims his son may be he can also reclaim his dignity?
A fish out of water – TJ does not speak Lingala and the only thing he knows about Congolese culture are a few lullabies his mother used to sing. His father immerses him and his older sister in a whirlwind of Congolese weddings, music, and culture. But Ron struggles to connect with TJ and be the dad he wants to be. It dawns on TJ and Jessye that Ronald has now lost most of his hearing after years of subjection to the loud music he loved. But he refuses to get help and this isolates him further from the world, job opportunities and his children.
At his new school TJ struggles to fit in and is called a ‘coconut’ by his new peers who think he sees himself as better than them.
But when TJ is stopped and searched for the first time, his new school friends Mo, Patrice and Shantay take him under their wing to teach him the ropes. Soon he becomes immersed in their musical scene of Drill and Grime whose lyrics speak about the realities of being a young black person growing up in London. His friend Mo is a talented rapper – but TJ’s sister disapproves of his violent misogynistic lyrics and tries to re-focus TJ on his dream of becoming an opera singer. Why hasn’t he even sung a note since leaving Choir School?
Things start to improve for Ronald when his deaf friend Femi gets him a job as a traffic warden. Slowly he starts to accept his new identity as a deaf person – gets some hearing aids and even learns to play the drums again – picking up the reverberations. He teaches TJ and his friends Seben and even offers to join them in the pursuit of winning the school talent show.
Ron saves Mo from taking revenge on a rival gang member – by focusing his energy on making music – and TJ gains new respect for his dad. And with the help of his sister Jessye and his old choir master Luke – TJ also finds his singing voice again – a high and unique Counter Tenor. He finally shares this new voice with his friends and they go wild. Ron’s drums and TJ’s operatic voice give their sound the originality it needed and they go onto win the competition. Then just as TJ finds a new voice with which to sing – Ron’s hearing deteriorates further and it becomes clear that the one person he wants to listen to won’t be able to hear it. Is it possible that listening is more than hearing sound? And can music remain inside you even when your ability to hear it has gone?