It feels incredible that Afrikan Boy first sprang onto the scene a decade ago. His breakout track One Day I Went To Lidl was a piece of grime that was an almost perfect example of the form: funny as fuck, with lyrics spat over a beat that could drive nails, all infused with serious social insights into the life of an immigrant growing up in London. It was all the more remarkable that Afrikan Boy was only 16 when he made the track. Rather than sign with a major (more on that in the interview) and watch his career funnelled into increasingly wack versions of Lidl, AB went his own way, recording tracks with M.I.A., shooting videos in refugee camps in the Sudan, working on mentoring programs in London, and, most recently, performing in The Jungle, the demonised Calais refugee camp . With a show in the Roundhouse Rising Festival taking place in a couple of weeks, with a new track, Border Business out now, and heavy new single called Kunte Kinte on it's way, and an increasingly interesting position as a (relatively!) elder statesman of the increasing UK Afrobeats scene, it seemed a perfect time to see where Afrikan Boy is at today...
You were an artist talking about your African heritage a considerable time before the current crop of UK acts working within the Afrobeats scene – do you ever feel you came to soon?
The timing is what it is. I can’t ever say I felt like I came too soon – I just knew that when I started music the only way for me to be different was to represent the African character in whatever I was doing, which was grime at the time. That’s how Lidl came about, playing on immigration and passports, cos that’s how I grew up and I knew no one was talking about it. I’ve actually been quite inspired cos I’m seeing these guys coming up in the past 5 years, and Afrikan Boy was part of them conceptualising who they are now as artists. They have what I didn’t have back then, this great influx of media and videos and African tracks getting in prime positions in the charts. My influence was more the culture I was living through in the UK. It’s interesting as I’m still feeling my way around it – there’s a whole scene that’s growing up in the UK that I’m not necessarily a part of because I’m in my own lane.
You don’t really fit into the Afrobeats scene
Yeah people like Fuse ODG and Mista Silva, they’re my guys, I’ve done collaborations with Silva and people like that, but I still see the gap between what I do in areas like grime and what they do, but it’s quite interesting for me. I think I’ve been a pioneer and established myself, so a lot of the guys know I might not do the Afrobeats as it sounds now, I’ve still been one of the guys that started it, it’s cool. I’m just linking up with the new guys now.
Have you spoken to Skepta at all? He’s someone who’s been around for the same time as you who is being a lot more vocal about his African heritage now
Skepta is definitely someone who’s been in touch – he’s always embraced it in a way, but now there’s a vehicle, people are going out to Africa, they’re going to Ghana or Nigeria and doing business. He was the producer of the beat for Lidl as well. It was Wiley’s beat and Skepta remixed it, so we’ve been in dialogue about remixing it and bringing it out properly. We’re just waiting for the right time.
Is it true you couldn’t afford to sign your contract with EMI when you first started?
Yeah! I didn’t have the money for any lawyers. My mum taught me, don’t trust contracts, and don’t sign any contract without a lawyer. EMI came and talked to me when I was 16 or 17, they were really interested and wanted to capture the buzz of Lidl at the time – I didn’t want to just be pigeon holed as ‘that Lidl guy’ although ironically I still am – I didn’t have the funds for a lawyer, mum was grinding to support us, and it didn’t seem realistic. I don’t regret my decision though.
I don’t know that it would have helped you, the majors haven’t got a great history of working with UK black artists. Most of the grime artists that got signed in the mid-00s got shafted.
Exactly. My vision back then wasn’t to be a one hit wonder. But I’m still here 10 years on.
Do you think it’s getting harder and harder for poorer kids to break into entertainment?
Mentoring is important. Being young you’re gonna get distracted, having a mentor there that can guide you is vital – there are so many things to deal with at once. I didn’t have access to a mentor and I probably would have learned a lot faster if I did. But I feel like young artists have a lot of power these days – if there wasn’t MySpace, MIA wouldn’t have contacted me and I wouldn’t have blown up. Kids have got 10 of that, 20 of that now.
There’s a big difference between blowing up on social media and getting on the radio though
True – Lidl isn’t my most radio played track. I didn’t know then as a 17 year old why I was hearing certain tracks on radio and why I wasn’t hearing my track. I didn’t understand then that emailing a DJs email address taken off a website is not actually going to get you played hahaha.
I heard you recently played a show in The Jungle in Calais,
That was a highlight for me. Obviously a lot of my music is about immigration, so playing in the refugee camp, I changed the tense in what I said, changing ‘you’ in the lyrics to ‘we’ – I wasn’t talking about life as an immigrant to someone who hasn’t lived it – I was performing in front of people who knew that life. It was an amazing show. I was in the Sudanese camp. Because I’d previously been to Sudan and picked up some lingo, when I was doing the mic check and I wanted to usher the crowd closer, I dropped the Sudanese for ‘come closer’ and ‘yeaaahh man’ and they were rushing forward –they’d had a lot of folk singers from France but they hadn’t had anyone speaking to them in their own language. Secret Cinema asked a lot of artists before they called me, and everyone said no, they didn’t want to perform in a refugee camp. They hit me up Friday night and I went out to play on Saturday morning. Some of the people in the camp messaged me at a later point to tell me they’d made it to the UK.
The camp’s being destroyed isn’t it? I don’t feel like I know enough about the situation to really offer commentary. What are your feelings on the camp being pulled down?
In terms of solutions to the issues bigger than the Calais camp – there are camps all over – the closure of one camp is only gonna spring the birth of another. It might even be in the same patch of land. The crisis is still going on, people are still gonna leave and they’re gonna need to go somewhere. Countries are playing pass the parcel with people, like – nah you take them! You take them! After being there and talking to the people, sharing the can of baked beans and the lickle piece of bread they eat, sitting there in the cold, I realise these people are moving countries to better their life, and that need is always gonna be there, regardless of a camp. Before the camp there were refugees, after the camp there will be refugees. I’ve had opportunities to work with different communities; I was involved in a play in Berlin working with various refugees that had made their way to Germany, turning their stories into a drama production. The struggles, hearing their stories, I’m seeing grown men cry when they reminisce about the life they used to live back home, and then I fully understand, raa, for some people leaving home is not a choice – they had to. You know what I mean? They cry when they think about the standard of living they had compared to the standard of living they have now. It’s not like these people are beggars – some of them had real status. It’s quite complex and it’s been going on for a while now.
Did you feel like there was a very different attitude in Germany to England?
Hmmm. I’m not sure. I wasn’t fully immersed in Germany – I imagine it was quite similar in terms of the good and the bad. There are some people in Germany who have really stuck their arms out – they give keys to their apartment to refugees for them to have a place to stay. Some people are really trying their best, and then there are others who don’t want the refugees, who are like, fucking get out of Germany. So there’s good and bad
Do you sometimes feel that you’re expected to be vocal on this issue because you’re African – shouldn’t other artists be stepping forward as well?
Everybody has their dreams and where they wanna go. I won’t talk about something if I don’t have knowledge or a genuine interest in it. Obviously there’s loads of humanitarian issues that we should all have an interest in, but it’s not every charity worker who hits you up on the road that you’re gonna give money to. When I look back on when I started music and why I talked about immigration, it wasn’t because I wanted to be the spokesperson on immigration or refugees – I just knew that when I grew up I knew about fake passports and people who were 23 in college posing like they were 16. I was like, I know these people, so it was very natural for me. It shouldn’t just be me, or musicians who talk about it, but it’s as simple as when I see people out in Calais bringing pots and pans and cutlery I think, even if that’s your contribution, that’s cool. It’s not gonna solve the problem but it’s your contribution.
Going forward musically – cos you’re an artist foremost
And a politician ahaha
When you say you’re ‘in your lane’, what lane is that?
Haa! Now I’m stuttering. What lane is that? I’d like to call it afro grime cos that’s the title I coined all the way back when I made Hit Em Up. It’s a loose term, but it represents the British culture in me as well as the African heritage. Whether that’s using accents or whether it’s the topics I’m covering, telling stories through the eyes of another African boy – as I see the name as covering all African boys. Musically I want to bring in more African instrumentation, still continuing with the fusion. I want to add a twist – even if no one gets what I’m doing now, but I’m still a pioneer making something new that people get in the end, then I’m cool with that. I’m doing some Afrobeats, writing some vocal melodies in Yoruba, making some house with different percussion, and still doing some grime – I’m just doing what I do and trying to make it better than anyone else out there. There’s a lot going on out there musically, but I feel there’s a lot still to be done. We’ll see how it goes! It’s a work in progress…