Meet Kojey Radical, the rap artist and poet messing with God
When Kojey Radical walked the red carpet after being nominated for two MOBOs last November, wearing a salmon-red suit imported from Nigeria, he looked entirely comfortable in front of the press. This is a black British-Ghanian man with inherent self-confidence, and plenty of wit, who isn’t afraid to shake things up with his strong political beliefs and even stronger sense of personal vision.
Although Radical played his first headline show less than two years ago, in January 2016, it’s easy to forget how young the 24-year-old is. Growing up in a diverse area of east London, Hoxton, he has deep, resonant voice that swells out to an all-encompassing growl when he’s performing. A surprisingly light, bubbly, quick-to-come laugh is the only thing that betrays his youth, plus the infectious energy he brings to the stage during his live shows.
Radical’s music is relatively genre-less, but it sits somewhere between grime-y hip hop and alternative rap with a generous helping of spoken word. He’s never been comfortable purely calling himself a rapper. He started scribbling poetry in college, before studying illustration at the London College of Fashion and switching to music in his final year. He is also the founder of PUSHCRAYONS creative collective and the art director of menswear brand Chelsea Bravo.
Thanks to his artistic and poetic background, his work always feels intentional, and not to its detriment. His last EP, 2016’s 23 Winters which got him the MOBO nom, was an effort which illustrated his aim to seek guidance from his father; when it launched he explained that he’d “made a promise to my dad and to myself that I will carve my name on any stage, any song, any piece of art I create and make sure my legacy is cemented in excellence”.
It’s no surprise then that he started work on his latest release, an EP called In Gods Body, the very next day – after a friend told him to make music about how he was feeling.
The first track, released earlier this year, was called “After Winter”, and it is connected to his previous release by a themic thread of race, identity and social politics, except, of course, this time Radical is taking on God, too. Collaborations take centre stage, and In Gods Body features tracks with grime MC Ghetts, Atlanta rapper Miloh Smith and Michaela Coel (of Chewing Gum fame).
We’re part of the generation doing the most – music, poetry, art. How do you define yourself at the moment?
Kojey Radical: I just say that I’m a contemporary artist, from east London. I’ve been working on my poetry and art since I was young-er (laughs). I still feel young. That’s really been a big passion of mine. Using those principles you find mediums to be able to express yourself, and music was definitely a big outlet for me.
Where do you think your self belief comes from? Watching your career from afar, it doesn’t feel like you’ve been taken aback by your successes so far.
Kojey Radical: Oh boy. It’s so hard to say, but I think it comes from the idea of being from the ends. And your options are very limited anyway. So I think if you want something enough, you realise that you either go for it or you let it go. You surrender to the pitfalls that life introduces you to. I think from early I knew that I had no care or passion for anythng else. It’s less self-belief like, ‘I am the shit’, and more so ‘anything that I want can happen, I’m capable of acheiving’. And the results kind of speak for themselves.
How long have you been working on In Gods Body?
Kojey Radical: I’ve been working on it for about a year. I started the day after I put out 23 Winters. I went to the studio the next day at wrote ‘After Winter’. I think I have a habit of doing that. When I went back to the studio that day I got asked an important question which kind of set the precendent for how I was going to lyrically create this project. My main producer asked me what I wanted to say on the next record. And then he asked ‘how do you feel?’. And then I was like yeah. Any which way that I feel something, we’re going to create. I had to start diseccting all the things I had to unlearn in order to relearn again.
Is the re-learning to do with more than music? The EP is pretty political, you talk about a lot of issues to do with race and touches on manhood and even feminism. Have you always been quite woke?
Kojey Radical: (laughs) From young we’ve grown up in this diaspora of the millennium. We’re in this age where we’re desensitised to certain things and a lot of conversations are either shied away from or hyper-normalised. It’s easy to find us in these trains of thoughts. Now, more than ever, there’s an uprising and a need for difference. It normally comes down to equality across the board. I think for me, it was important to have those conversations in my personal life, and the project is based on those conversations. The same way that 23 Winters was based on a conversation I had with my dad. You kind of just learn from your surroundings, and for me art imitates life.
What specific conversations inspired tracks?
Kojey Radical: On ‘Utopia’ I was sitting down with Collard, the singer on that track, and talking about when you feel like you’re discovering and you’ve reached a new sense of learning or self, there’s this weight, or this pressure, to kind of keep it to yourself. It’s always about, when’s the right time to say this? That helped us form the chorus for the track, and formed the basis for a lot of the other songs. Or, on ‘Notion Avenue’. It’s a lot more lighthearted in terms of conversation. But I was in New York and driving around with these two girls and they were listening to my music, but they were pretending to like it, because I did music. Because I have friends in music, and a sense of status. But then the lyrics explain that sometimes when you’re talking to somebody in this superficial vein, you unintentionally reveal deep things. In the second verse the girl was talking to me about not feeling comfortable in the skin that she was in because it was too dark, and that she couldn’t have conversations with anyone because they’re pilled-up and on xans, and everyone’s so much slower.
In having these conversations have you ever felt really shut down, or challenged on your beliefs?
Kojey Radical: There was a point where I felt like the fact I spoke out about things made me a bit of a commodity. ‘Oh, we’ll just get Kojey to talk about the social, political stuff’. But then, not necessarily be open to the way he thinks about these things, or what he has to say. To a certain extent that’s almost censoring myself for the sake of notoriety. I wanted to be able to been seen in these places, to be able to speak out, but when it came to speaking out they’d be like ‘you can’t say this‘. But it’s like, they knew what I was about before I came here.
In Gods Body is a really powerful title, what does it speak to, for you?
Kojey Radical: What do people understand God to be? And for me it came down to flawed. God is flawed. And I am a personal believe that we all have a bit of God inside of all us. It’s about this idea of humanising godliness and actually just accepting that all the things we see are just the things around us.
When did you sort of start realising that you didn’t concieve religion in a standard way? Did you grow up in a religious household?
Kojey Radical: I was an altar boy in church. I went to a Christian school. Religion was definitely always there. I knew I always had questions, and I knew religion wasn’t necessarily a thing that likes to be questioned. And, I didn’t necessarily think it was my place to denounce it but I knew that if I couldn’t totally accept it then it wasn’t my place to do so falsely. So it was never a case of ‘Okay cool, I don’t fuck with religion.’ I respect every person’s religion which is why like in songs like ‘Kwame Nkrumah’ I say things like ‘I fasted with the Muslims and I prayed with the Christians, I’ve been around the desperate. I know why they did it.’ It’s this idea of it doesn’t matter what religion you belong to, there’s a sense of understanding that we can all reach in the fact that we all believe in the common idea of there being something greater than us.
And that’s a sentiment that’s quite prevalent at the moment…
Kojey Radical: Exactly, that’s why for example, in the last scene of After Winter, we had all the women there in the final scene but they were all dressed in hijabs. I went to school in Bethnal Green. I grew up in east east London, they’re a part of my everyday culture. So for me now to look at my childhood and all these things that I’ve been around, all of these people I’ve accepted and who have accepted me and embraced me with love, and see the way the news is selling the aspect of a whole religion or type of people is mad. D’you know what I mean? It’s like ok cool, am I supposed to unbelieve everything that I was shown as a child? I was shown acceptance and love in those religions. This is so prevalent, even the way voting has changed. You can predict political movements just based on the fact that you can promote ignorance to people and sell it as fact.
You’ve done some amazing collaborations on EP. How did you meet and reach out to some of the less well-known names, are they friends or people you particularly wanted to work with?
Kojey Radical: The music that we have managed to create on In Gods Body is so unlike anything that’s coming out at the moment, but it all exists within the scene that we have. Why does it sound like nothing else? Everybody apart from two names on the feature list are from the UK. It’s not from London. The idea of putting Shola Ama on the same song as Collard is like, their voices sound angelic together – it makes you want to cry. Collard is going to be one of the biggest names to come out of the UK.
Also, you got Michaela Coel. Which is interesting because she’s known to a lot of people for her comedy, but this is a very serious work.
Kojey Radical: Michaela has always been a really beautiful soul in terms of appreciating. When she likes something she will reach out and say, ‘Yo, I fuck with this’. If you follow her and just know her from her TV series, you might not necessarily know all of the things she speaks on constantly; in her live streams, on her Instagram posts. But I knew it was always something that she wouldn’t shy away from. I remember writing the poem out and I sent her an extract and she was like, ‘This is beautiful, I want to come in and read it for you.’ And I knew that there was something in her voice that felt very relatable. I didn’t want all of the subjects on the project to feel male-dominated. I want people to listen to it and envision themselves in these scenarios. When you hear her voice come in, there is something about it that, for me, feels sisterly, it feels motherly, it feels godly, it feels friendly. It feels so familiar in the fact that it makes me feel comfortable that I’m ready to listen, and once people listen to that extract, the whole project opens up.
Is it supposed to be about experiencing that sort of feminine side to yourself?
Kojey Radical: There is a lot of hypermasculinity within hip hop, to the point where if something happens that is anything other, it becomes talked about and it is very taboo. For me, that was so weird because actually, if I touched on certain things, or spoke about certain things too honestly, people started looking at me in another way. I’m like, why would I ever let the viewpoint of another human being dictate how I feel as a person about any subject matter? That comes down to everything, from love to politics, to gender, to sexuality, it doesn’t matter. We could talk about anything and we can use our art to imitate life because these are things that happen around us constantly. What did you think of the project?
Genuinely, I really enjoyed it. Just from a purely musical standpoint, I had it playing in my room last night and it was just really nice to listen to.
Kojey Radical: What songs stood out?
The most powerful one for me was probably ‘Mood’. There was just something about it that spoke to me. ‘700 Pennies’, one of the lead singles, was another favourite.
Kojey Radical: ‘700 Pennies’ is one of those songs that I’ll make and I’ll sit on for so long because I always feel like people aren’t ready to naturally accept that side of my music yet. I used to make songs like ‘700 Pennies’ a lot back in 2014, my first project. There’s a large part of my audience that loves my more sentimental records. I wanted to put it out there because I was going through long-distance love and paranoia in love, and to challenge this idea of love songs having to be sweet when the situation might not actually be so. With the difference in tones in the project, it starts in this place that is very boisterous, and starts to discover itself towards the end. ‘700 Pennies’ is right in the middle of that epiphany, so I thought if that came out first and people can vibe with it, then they are probably going to love this whole project.