Kojey Radical Is the Creative Chameleon You Need on Your Radar
The multidisciplinary artist, musician and menswear designer talks creativity, British society and why he thinks God is a woman
When I arrive at Hoi Polloi, the trendy restaurant in Shoreditch’s Ace Hotel, Kojey Radical has just polished off a full English, despite having Instagrammed a photo of himself gravely ill in hospital only a few days before. “Yeah, I was dying,” he says, nonchalantly, “but, even in a hospital bed, there’s only about three hours of feeling sorry for myself that I can do.” “You’re fine now, though, right?” I ask, tentatively. “Yes - I’m trying to get my Wolverine healing factor in full effect,” the 25-year-old smiles.
A true polymath, Kojey Radical really does seem like he has superpowers. Not only is he tall, charismatic and impeccably presented (he’s made it on to our best-dressed men of the week roundups for a reason), in person, Radical – real name Kwadwo Adu Genfi Amponsah – vibrates with a palpable creative energy. He is an artist in the realest sense of the word: the millennial multihyphenate is a spoken-word poet, rapper, visual artist, designer and creative director of menswear label Chelsea Bravo.
He’s also got his own media collective, Pushcrayons, via which he controls all of his avant-garde aesthetics. Radical’s visual art coexists with his unique, gravelly baritone take on hip hop; Radical deals with big issues, from race and religion to self-worth and society. And big brands can’t get enough. He’s recently collaborated with Apple’s Beats, as well as Adidas and luxury fashion retailer Ssense on a film about mental health. Then there’s the work he’s done with the Tate Britain and an upcoming exhibition at Somerset House.
When we meet, the East London native – who was born to Ghanaian parents – has just returned from a trip to Ghana, having been commissioned by BBC Radio 4 to make a documentary on the diaspora, “connecting the African influences in my music with me growing up here”. Growing up in East London, he says, has “prepared me for life in a way that I can only really be grateful for. It’s a special kind of battle training.” Judging by Radical’s endearing, self-contained confidence, it’s clearly paid off. During the course of our conversation, Radical covers everything from his ascent to modern-day renaissance man and burgeoning involvement in menswear to the state of British society and why he thinks God is a woman.
GQ: Have you always wanted to be an artist?
KR: I always knew I wanted to be an artist; I didn’t know in what capacity. My first love was drawing, illustration and painting. Then I’d always have an image or final product and feel like that there was something else I could do. That forced me to learn other mediums. I started dabbling with fashion and film until I got to university, where I started studying illustration and creative direction, with a minor in cultural historical studies as well. It was there where I learnt to put all of these different influences and practices into effect and started to understand what I was creating or who I was as an entity… That’s when I knew that it doesn’t really matter to what degree or capacity that I’m an artist, all I want do is make art.
GQ: When you were starting out, did you sense a negativity from others about the path that you were choosing?
KR: I feel like on a societal level, there is a lot of damnation when it comes to choosing a creative subject. Luckily, I have a supportive family where, even in their ignorance, they’ll still try and help you. My mum definitely was the best example of that. She didn’t know what I was doing with the arts since the day I picked up a pen or a pencil. But she never told me no, she never told me it wasn’t worth pursuing… I think any of the negativity that I faced just came from trying to introduce something to people before they were ready to embrace it or understand it. I’ve been doing what I’ve been doing for the past four years now and I haven’t changed the formula or switched anything up. It just feels like now people have seen enough to say, “I get this now.”
GQ: There was a time when artists were afraid of doing anything too ambitious or experimental if they wanted to exist in the mainstream, but increasingly we’re seeing a return to receptiveness within popular culture to sociopolitical commentary.
KR: It’s interesting to see how everything has come full circle. There was a point where being part of a do-it-all-yourself generation and being a “slashie”, like “I’m a model/singer/songwriter”, was a bad thing. But now you have to be. You have to have a million side hustles. People also used to be less afraid to speak up. Nowadays, as much as we’re in this sociopolitical climate where voices are being heard and respected, they’re also being condemned for having opinions that differ from popular consensus. That can lead people to just build up this fear of being wrong: none of us are right.
GQ: Do you think it’s an artist’s responsibility to engage with sociopolitical issues or do you think there can be art for art’s sake?
KR: It’s up to the individual. A lot of the time people just talk the talk. I never wanted to be that person – “Something’s going on. Quick, phone Kojey.” I might not know enough or have an opinion yet. When you assume that role, people forget that your opinion isn’t gospel. Yes, I might have these strong thoughts and feelings, but a lot of the time it’s about my experiences, not the subject. To speak about things politically, to have a voice, it wasn’t, “Yo, I’ve decided this is me. That’s my brand.” I just woke up and I care. I wrote it down, then I went to the studio and recorded it. I’m just a person dropping a stone into the ocean, the waves do the rest of it. I remember last year I did a show in Paris at a festival, which I didn’t know was in protest of the elections for people who didn’t want to vote. I’m headlining and I’m throwing on “Open Hand” – which I wrote about four years ago – and I’m seeing the crowd break out into this massive roar. Then, I couldn’t understand why this was such an important song. I’ve realised that the meaning of the song hasn’t changed but it’s taken effect in somebody else’s life.
GQ: What do you think is the biggest issue for young people right now?
KR: Living through the decisions that old people make for us. That’s across the board – politically, economically, values. A lot of the values we have were decided by old people that were living in a completely different generation with no access to the things that have shaped a new direction of thought. How can someone tell me how to act on Instagram if they didn’t know what Instagram was when they were young? There’s a generational shift that keeps occurring that doesn’t translate to the decision makers. Now, as a generation, we have to live through it and say: all right, they’ve decided that for us so there goes nothing.
GQ: Did you vote in the general election?
KR: I voted this time around. I voted for Jeremy Corbyn. Then nothing happened. It’s so frustrating to speak about British politics. Last year the elections were the most fun because it’s the closest we came to winning, [but] then we lost. Then we just go back to accepting life. The majority of the world’s leaders are creating an atmosphere that allows and incubates methods of thoughts that divide people on a ground level. And your leader has to be the defence against that. If you feel like the leader you have is joining in, you’re just as screwed as the rest of the world. We might point and laugh at Trump, but we’ve got someone who’s willing to shake hands and hug up to Trump. Like the situation with Russia. If that war kicks off, Theresa May is not going. Who’s got to go? We [the youth] do, for the decisions that old people make for us.
GQ: You’re the artistic director of menswear label Chelsea Bravo. What’s that like?
KR: So I have to give respect and praise to Chelsea Bravo. She’s the main designer and it’s her brainchild. I sent her a long email about how much I loved her work after seeing it on Not Just A Label a while ago, then she came down to a shoot and I was wearing her clothes. After, we sat down and had ice cream. I told her about all of these ideas that I had and she believed in me… Working so intimately with a designer like Chelsea means I’m learning first-hand experience of working within a fashion house that I probably wouldn’t get somewhere bigger. I’d be making teas. It’s nice because she’s a female designer making menswear, and having a different perspective on that kind of thing helps the brand. Sometimes my input is as simple as, “I wouldn’t wear that,” and giving reasons why.
GQ: Is fashion something you want to do more of?
KR: Yes. I definitely want get into designing more of my own stuff. I’ve got a name for my brand already, “Francis And The Artist”. Francis is my dad’s English name – he hated using it because he didn’t believe in having to have an English name. I remember the first collection I designed was all based around his living room, because he’s got a house that’s still from the Seventies – pistachio wallpaper, velvet seats, corduroy, so many clashing colours and textures. Then “And The Artist” is based on the theme of the brand. What I would do was I’d find another contemporary artist and collaborate with them in making a garment. Each piece had an artist attached. The first collection we did was based around a record I put out called “Bamboo”. An artist called Paloma Demanet had done a portrait of me with all these cigarettes in my mouth, so we made these shirts using ten screen prints to make up the portrait on the front then a poem on the back.
GQ: In Gods Body (released in September 2017) is not only your biggest project, but also your most critically applauded work to date. It’s all about humanising God. Are you religious?
KR: I was heavy on religion. I used to serve for the Catholic Church. [But] there’s a point where you have to make sense of religion on your own. I think everything in life is based on cycles. This is how I came up with In Gods Body. Life and death, everything is a cycle. Which is how I managed to draw the conclusion that God is a woman. For the Earth to exist in any way that’s understandable for me, it would have to be born. And if the Earth was born, God must be a woman, or where did it come from? Also, even on Earth as physical beings, women are the only beings that can understand life before and after creation. That’s why the voice of God is female on the record (it’s narrated by actress, poet and screenwriter Michaela Coel, best known for Black Mirror and her own show, Chewing Gum). It was God, in her most human form, talking to me.
GQ: Tell us about Pushcrayons. It’s described on Twitter as a “creative collective and creative arts and media agency”…
KR: It’s a creative collective. We’ve never been too strict on what it is. It’s the same thing with my music and genres: to describe and present it to people you need to have “Pushcrayons is a creative collective that bla bla bla”, but, actually, our ethos is all about collaboration and making it an open-source collective for people to come through and learn, experience and then move on. It all started in my final term of university, when I just got bored of drawing. I was in the class with 30 other artists and we’re all going for the same job that doesn’t exist. I didn’t want to do that any more, but then I was already in a system that says you have to draw. I found a different way to present what I was speaking about as art. I asked if I could present sound as art and they said no, I was going to fail. I did it anyway, got a first. So it paid off in the end. That art project ended up being my first EP.