Music being used as a platform for social change isn’t a entirely new concept, but in 2015, during some of our darkest days, it is as necessary as ever—if not the most it has ever been needed. As an art form, music is one of the most powerful and personal forms of expression. Whether it is consumed on a personal one-on-one basis via some murdered out BeatsTM, or experienced as part of larger living organism, within the crowd at a live show—music holds the power to connect artist and listener in a uniquely intimate way.
It seems like fewer and fewer artists are aware of the power their voices hold, but those that do are the most powerful of all. In spite of his youth, Kojey Radical is one of those artists.
In the following interview, the East London creative and myself chop it up to blast his intentions wide open—talking about his multiple lanes of creativity, his perspective on London as a breeding ground for artists, and his upcoming project, 23 Winters.
TOM WINSLADE: The best way to describe your artwork is eclectic. Off the bat, how would you describe Kojey Radical to someone unfamiliar with yourself?
KOJEY RADICAL: You know what, it’s weird. Even I find it difficult to explain. I would honestly just say I’m a person living through my art. When I was younger I wanted to be a cartoonist, and although that dream disappeared, I’ve always had this interest in creating art. My journey through different lanes led up to music, so I find it hard to describe it as just one thing, really. I’m a poet, music artist, director, creative director, and contemporary artist.
Better than boxed in, though, right? Did you first start expressing yourself sonically or visually? I know you just mentioned cartoons...
It was definitely visually to start off with. It was crayons. I used to love drawing with crayons, even though I could never colour inside the lines. I guess I figured out early on that it was gonna be an interesting journey [laughs] — I was rebellious from day one.
I’m guessing that’s where [the creative collective] PUSHCRAYONS‘s name comes from, too?
Yeah man, in my earliest memories I was just drawing with crayons every day. It’s a play on the phrase “pushing paper’“ in a business sense. I say “pushing crayons” in the same way, but instead of the working every day in an office vibe, it’s about working every day through your creativity.
I feel that. What would you define as your preferred medium though, if you had to choose?
You know, my preferred medium at the moment is writing. It’s a catharsis in a sense—I think people forget how important words are. Even just in a normal conversation, you start to pick up and learn certain things. There’s a power in being able to place your thoughts in a sentence.
I see what you’re saying about it being cathartic. That’s interesting. Would you say the majority of your art is a catharsis in that sense? Rather than conveying or delivering a specific message, it’s actually more selfish?
Yeah, like I never really set out with a specific goal in mind, it’s more about just getting out what I’m feeling. Once it’s all done, the only thing I can really do is hope that people understand the way I’m feeling, you know? Later down the line I might be making a completely different sound or speaking on completely different subject matters, but if it connects with someone at some point then that’s cool.
That’s the running constant throughout your art then, the fact it’s so personal to you. By putting yourself out there, you hope people connect on the same personal level?
Yeah, 100%; It’s that idea of empathy. Even just in meeting people, you look for things you have in common. That’s your first natural instinct. So if I present myself in that way, I guess listeners or viewers present themselves back by having those things in common with me.
I wanted to talk about the structure of your music. It’s all very poetic, which is obviously synonymous with hip-hop, but the focus is very much on the narrative behind each track and the story-telling aspect. How do you approach creating music?
I used to focus on lyrics first and then approach a producer, but I think when I was working like that my structures became too stagnant. I’d have this long 62-bar verse with an 8-bar chorus, which works on tracks like “Bambu,” but there are other records where your groove is so instinct that you want to hop into a part you can repeat. It became more about understanding the structure of what makes a song, whilst still bringing my element of poetry to it. I feel like those songs are the ones that make you feel and appreciate the instrumental a lot more, the way it bounces off it. I’ve just been open to different processes, because different producers work in different ways. I’m learning not to dictate the song too much through long pre-written verses, instead working back and forth with a producer to find a flow.
So you’re finding and developing your sound naturally as you work with different people?
Absolutely, I feel like you have to. I think a lot of artists are afraid to show their journey in music, because they want the instant gratification of millions of plays or views, but at the same time, if you think about the way the bigger names in music have stuck around, it’s because they’ve shown a development in their sound constantly. You might not necessarily like the stage that they’re currently at, but you at least know you’ve got a catalogue of so many different sounds to go back to and appreciate.
I think that’s the most exciting thing about a musician putting out new work. I always get frustrated when an artist releases something and people are upset that it doesn’t sound like something they’ve already put out. That makes no sense to me.
Exactly. If you’re upset, just go listen to the old album. How many sequels are actually good? It’s about it landing at the right moment, too. One artist’s sound might suit the mood at a particular point in time, and then down line, once you’ve got a better understanding of the artist, you’ll be able to appreciate their developed sound—rather than listening to part two of effectively the same album.
You mentioned your poetry before, and I was going to say that your lyrics could often stand alone as spoken word. How do you find working with producers to transform your poetry to music? Do you produce yourself at all?
I’ve never produced, but I try to get involved in the production process as much as I can. Whether it’s a case of me asking for things to be added in or taken out, tweaked a certain way, made to sound like this or that, blah blah—the producers I work with enjoy that process because then it starts to feel more like a collaboration. I think music is all about the idea of collaboration. Nowadays, people are doing a lot of the self-produced, self-written, self-performed thing—which I’m guilty of in ever other aspect of creativity, apart from music. When it comes to music, the collaboration process is so important.
“THAT’S ALWAYS BEEN OUR ETHOS, REALLY—NOT TO BE LIMITED BY OUR IDEAS, BUT TO CREATE THE BEST POSSIBLE PRODUCT WITHIN OUR MEANS, THEN REACH HIGHER.”
Looking at the sort of response you get from your work, you’re on track to inspire a lot of people. With that in mind, I was wondering who inspires you? What music did you grow up listening to? But also visually, what visual artists resonate with you?
Let’s break it down into different sections. If we’re talking art, I’d say Basquiat, Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, Salvador Dal'i, Chris Ofili—there’s a lot, man—Steve McQueen; A lot of people don’t know that Steve McQueen was an artist before he was a director. He’s cold. I respect them all for different reasons. If we look at the first three, it’s because they managed to solidify their own identities through the art itself, while also creating art that defines and became a reflection of that decade. I want that. I want people to think about this generation of music and consider me, like, Kojey’s sounds was a turning point in creative freedom and creative rebellion.
Music-wise, it stretches so far, man. It’s a dark question. I see genres as emotions, so if I’m feeling down I might listen to some blues, and I’ll have my favourite set of blues artists. If I’m feeling on a turn up and I want to go out, I’ve got my favourite set of turn up artists. You know what I mean? It’s why our smartphones break things down into such precise categories. It’s because we’re confused as humans as to what we actually like and when we like it. Growing up, though, it was everything from Sam Cook to The Streets or Oxide & Neutrino, Benjamin Zephaniah, Gil Scott-Heron—then you’ve got Erykah Badu, Andre 3000, Yasiin Bey. The Strokes, Maverick Sabre, Hoobastank, Rage Against The Machine. Then you’ve got the grime days... I’m gonna go out on a limb and say one of my favourite grime artists was Bearman, and no one remembers him, but Bearman had one of the sickest tracks of the time, that “Brown Bear Picnic.” There’s just so many, the lists goes on. All for different reasons, but that’s beauty of music.
I think that’s the answer I was looking for. With your art crossing over so many different channels, your music isn’t really for the hip-hop kid who solely listens to hip-hop and therefore only goes to hip-hop shows, is it? It’s more for music lovers who appreciate a broad spectrum of sounds, such as yourself.
It even comes down to the performance itself. I’m a poet, so technically if you come to my show, you’re going to a poetry show—but it is nothing like that. I read this one thing where they tried to describe me as a “poetry rockstar’” [laughs], and that is the cheesiest, deadest thing ever right? We do crazy stuff at the shows though, like my guitarist will start shredding with one hand while everyone’s turning up. It’s just mad entertaining, it doesn’t matter your favourite genre.
That also plays into what you said about smartphones and how people want to categorise and label everything—when they can’t define it, they freak out. They want to put a label on what you do, but they can’t.
I mean, if they’re wasting time trying to label it, then they’re not really listening. It’s not that deep.
I wanted to speak some more about PUSHCRAYONS. Aside from music, you credit a lot of your creative work to PUSHCRAYONS, so I was wondering what the background is on that?
PUSHCRAYONS is the collective that I creative direct, and it houses so many different spectrums of talent. For us it was less about who, and more about what we are creating. People have little knowledge about who PUSHCRAYONS is, but they enjoy the work. I feel like as soon as you’re not able to link it to a particular individual being good at what they do, it starts to become a little more interesting. That way, people consider the product for what it is, rather than who’s responsible for it. That’s always been our ethos, really—not to be limited by our ideas, but to create the best possible product within our means, and then reach higher. It’s about having the freedom to create.
In that sense, the collective’s ethos ties in with the way you produce your music. It’s all about creative freedom and producing art on your own terms, not necessarily following the “correct” path or following an industry standard.
I feel like people think that there’s one formula for success, especially in music. They feel like they have to hit certain benchmarks and so they rush to achieve them. Getting playlisted, getting signed—I’ve never really believed in following that pattern.
Let’s talk London for a minute. The city is popping with young creatives right now, so how would you describe your relationship with London and its impact on your work? From where I’m sitting, the two seem intrinsic to one another.
I am so thankful to live in London right now, in terms of it being this generation of artists growing and climbing. No matter if every artist coming out of London gets the attention they deserve, you have to respect the ideas and the bravery—the freedom that we’re showing. I find that now, more so than ever, I’m not really checking on American artists or what’s going on elsewhere. I’m listening to London, but also the UK in general. There’s so much going on here, and I can go link them easily. I can go play them what I’ve been working on, and I can chat to them about their things. It’s very real.
And that physicality is so important.
So important. And I love it, man. I think it’s one of the best times to be creating, especially because there’s so much fucked up shit going on. In terms of society, there’s so much going wrong. It’s the perfect writing time. Speak on some shit, say something. You know what I mean? There’s too much energy in the city right now.
On the subject of British artists, who do you back right now? I know it’s politics making sure you name the right people, but honestly, who do you fuck with?
See this is the thing, when it comes to music I am no one’s friend. When it comes down to the music itself, I’m a listener and a fan, first and foremost. If a homie fucks up, I’m going to tell them. With that in mind, 808INK—definitely. I feel like “Billy’s Home” was one of the best projects to come out in 2015, worldwide. Yung Reeks, Neverland Clan, Mirra May, PBGR—their work ethic is crazy. Tinyman—he’s somebody who’s grinded and produced something unique, just pure energy. KwolleM—he’s put together this dope project called “Mellow Grime,” where he’ll take an acapella and reproduce it in a more mellow manner, so it becomes a completely different song. I can keep going, there’s bare of them.
That’s the thing, though, it’s truly an endless list of people creating right now. I mean, I discover new people daily and I feel like although London’s always been active like this, it hasn’t necessarily always been so diverse, you know?
Yeah, man, there are so many separate entities. All these different crews and scenes start to exist, but then the coolest thing about London is that there’s always the opportunity for them to intersect. It’s a small place, and everyone kinda knows everyone. I mean, it’s a huge city, but when we’re talking about our world within it, it’s very tight.
You recently premiered the visuals for “Open Hand” at the Tate Britain, which is crazy. That place is prestigious. I was wondering how that came about and how you’d describe that process. When creating the video, did you know that would be the end point?
When we got the offer, the video itself didn’t exist. They gave us that space and that whole opportunity based on our merit. It was actually Tate Collective, a young group who are part of Tate Britain who clocked on to the “Bambu” video and said they wanted to get me involved. Myself and Stephanie Kane of PUSHCRAYONS went down for them to explain everything and I remember us just glancing over to each other like, “What are we gonna do in this space?” I dropped the text to the rest of the crew when we got out of the meeting like, “Yo, this is the deadline the Tate have given us. Let’s get this done.”
The whole thing was so surreal to me. With my roots in art, just having my work in the Tate at any point was always going to be a goal or a highlight. It felt like I was ticking off so many boxes for myself so early on. I don’t feel like I need the approval or validation of anyone really, like, I’m just gonna go out and do my thing anyway. I’m just living, I’m not waiting for people to care—but seeing the response to the video and the queue for people to comes see it in the Tate Britain was mad. The whole thing was so organic. With me being from Hackney, just seeing people come from all over London to see my work was crazy—especially the different demographics that attended. It was a massive step for me.
Getting personal for a minute, I saw you tweet something about your father recently that I found quite interesting. You mentioned something about playing him your music and how it led to a conversation that “woke you up.” I was wondering what new perspective you gained from that exchange?
For real, I’m gonna break this down real quick. So, I’m a child of African diaspora, which basically means that although I’m obviously British and I’ve lived here my whole life, my parents are very much outside of this culture. All the achievements and the things that are important to me, I will relay to them, and they won’t get it. It will just be alien to them, so for a very long time they knew I wrote and that I was interested in music, but they had no idea about the scale of things and how they were happening. To a certain extent, I never really felt the need to play them my music, I was at least content in the fact that they knew I was doing something constructive and they were allowing me to go and do that.
This year kinda ran away from me in a sense. I released “Bambu” and “Open Hand,” went on tour, had the Tate exhibition, sold-out shows, TV and radio appearances... the year just completely snowballed from one thing to the next, and I just wasn’t keeping up or stopping to appreciate what was happening. Record deals and co-signs were flying around and I was honestly just lost in it. I’m smoking more, running around with girls—and it’s all just to dilute the fact that I’m not really understanding what’s happening.
So, I went to go see my dad recently and we were talking about all these different things, and he was sharing stories about how Ghana used to be in comparison to how it is now. I don’t speak the language, so my only real sense of the progression of Ghana is from him and what he’s lived through over decades. So, the moment I played him a record about a story that he had told me, he just started smiling and told me that he’s proud of me, and that just reset me, man. I wasn’t around my dad a lot when I was young and our relationship only really started when I was 19, so it’s still very new and very sensitive to me. I’m still wanting the full relationship, so the more he speaks and the more advice I get from him, the more I start to understand about myself and why I choose to move at my own pace. That single conversation with him about all those things I mentioned before, and the fact he doesn’t understand it, it just makes me question if those things are even important—and the answer is that they’re not. They might validate me in the eyes of different people, but they don’t validate me as a person. That single conversation reset my perspective and the entire focus of this upcoming project.
Man, that’s so important. I actually noticed that you described your upcoming project [23 Winters] as your “most honest work to date,” which I guess ties in with that enlightenment. I was wondering what you meant by that though, because your music has always seemed to come from a very personal and honest place; Is it just a case of digging deeper than you have before?
Yeah, I think it is. I mean, the interest in me is still baffling because I haven’t given too much of myself away just yet. I put out the Dear Daisy project last year, which was quite personal and went down well, but a lot of people discovered me from “Bambu” or even “Open Hand”—so there’s still an interest into why I write so brazenly, with that Who gives a fuck? kinda vibe. This new project that I’m putting out is really me becoming a man. It’s me looking back on why every year my outlook on life got a little bit colder. Once you reach that point of This is who I am, fuck it, you start to say things that kinda surprise you—the fact that you’re willing to put yourself out there like that. That young arrogance—I don’t care. The formula of life is so boring to me now. I don’t care about the constructs, I don’t care about none of that. What makes me a role model? I’m a living hypocrite. I’m not afraid to show that I’m human. Maybe it’s the only honest piece of work that I have, but it’s coming—and again, it’s a project for listeners.
You’re pushing your upcoming show in Hackney at the top of next year pretty hard at the moment. It seems like it’s going to be pretty special, so what should people expect from this performance, and how will it set the tone for 2016?
The show is gonna be insane, and the reason I say that is because everyone crosses the new year line with this new lease of life, and that normally dissipates by the second or third day of the month. You get to the end of that first month and you try to figure out what that new year really means to you. Occasionally you see something that restores the faith or energy that you started the year with, and this is that show. This is that “Do we have a new Prince? Do we have a new James Brown?”—a person that can conjure the same aggression or thought patterns of a Roots Manuva, but perform like an FKA Twigs. And we do have that. And you’ll see it on January 28th. It’s gonna be the best thing you’ve seen in your life, at home in Hackney.
It’s lit. We’ve covered the show, we’ve covered the new EP, but what else can people expect from Kojey Radical in 2016?
To be honest, don’t expect anything—but whatever does happen, respect it, listen to it, share it with someone. And I’ll be grateful. I’m gonna continue to live my movie. I’m gonna get the sequel, I’m gonna get the whole franchise. I might even put my life on Netflix.
Kojey Radical & Chill.