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Shunaji 5 London Chris Almeida

On the Rise

09 May 2019, 08:00
Original Photography by Chris Almeida

Armed with a drum machine and bars that glitter with strength and self-assurance, Shunaji is the reluctant cool girl ready to agitate UK hip-hop.

In a quaint flat nestled in a Catford terrace, rapper/vocalist/producer Shunaji nurses a green tea, her eyes haloed by half moons of bright white liner. We're a few weeks away from the release of her new EP, Blue Melon, a collection of deeply sensual and often fierce hip-hop reminiscent of A Tribe Called Quest – and she's just found out she's been nominated for Glastonbury's Emerging Talent Competition.

“I listened to the playlist Glastonbury made of the artists in the shortlist and they're all amazing, every one.” She smiles. “It's such a mix of different people, too: some have thousands of followers, and others aren't even on social media. Everyone deserves to be in the finals. I feel really lucky that the people felt my music would potentially bring something to the festival.”

Placing Shunaji alongside other artists in the current UK rap landscape is near impossible: her brand of lo-fi hip-hop sounds much more alligned with 90s 'conscious' rap greats than anything modern created this side of the pond. With beats that are jazz-flecked and almost economical in their construction, Shunaji's voice skates between spitting bars and delivering luxe, soulful vocals, always pitched somewhere between all-knowing and nonchalant.

Despite her distinctly forthright persona on record, Shunaji confides that confidence came to her quite late, and the mass acceptance implied by her Glasto accolade still feels a little surprising. Growing up in Rome, Italy, during the 90s, she was made to question her place in the world: “Y'know how teenagers are... everyone wants to look the same, everyone wants to fit.” She says. “I wasn't like that. I was always confident inside, I guess... but other people tried to undermine that in how they treated me.” One of the few Black girls in her school, she speaks frankly about experiencing “a lot of racial abuse” in her teens: “I often say about Rome, I sometimes wish no one was there – like it was just a deserted place. Because it's beautiful – and I know not all people there are bad because I had friends there – but [racism] is the kind of thing that makes you want to leave a place. Being in the middle of the med, [Italy]'s surrounded by so many different cultures, there's so much from North Africa and Asia, so it's hard to wrap your head around...”

Now a resident of South London, she says her immediate environment has transformed, and pinpoints her move as somewhat of a developmental milestone: “When I moved to London, I was done with everything. I knew moving here was going to be overwhelming... in fact, my first day that I got here, I enrolled in uni and then I remember going to Mile End Road and I almost fainted!” She laughs. “'Cause it's just such a big city, so many people. But I love it here. I moved here for the sense that you can be different, that lots of people can exist together from lots of different countries and backgrounds.”

Anyone who's caught Shunaji's most recently singles will note the stamp of Italian heritage on her lyrics, with stories of ancient history and Roman ruins weaved throughout. But there's also a streak of nerdery – particularly a generous use of Star Wars references. Shunaji is more than happy to acknowledge her geek credentials: as a kid, she “used to spend a lot of time listening to music, skateboarding, writing books, developing my own craft. I met so many people online from all over the world. I used to play massive multiplayer online (MMOs) games, too.” Today, she's more about yearly trips to Comicon (“I've been Jasmine from Aladin and also Mario from Super Mario”) and her die-hard love of Harry Potter. I ask which house she'd put herself in: “Hufflepuff. That is where I belong. I'm Cedric Diggory, like... yeah I'm cool but also I'm super chill.” He dies, right? “Yeah. But he's solid. Deceased, but in our hearts.” She laughs.

Sandwiched between bars about Han Solo and Lando Calrissian, Shunaji is also set apart by her blunt discussion of sex and sexuality (sample lyric: “Release me from the jinx so I could fuck him on the kitchen sink / I need another fix I think / I'd fix you in a blink”). She recognises just how valuable this expression can be, in a world where women are often still play the object in a great deal of music. “For me, talking about sex is just self expression, because sex is part of my daily life. I don't feel any sort of taboo about it. And it's so widely sold, even in music, in all genres, in the mainstream.” She notes how the goal posts are often moved for women artists: “This whole shock about 'She said something about sex!' is so hypocritical. As long as it's men degrading women about their sexuality, that's fine – like 'Ah, I fucked this bitch'. But when it's more delicate and intimate and actually human then it becomes really scary.”

Both serious fans of old school, more socially-conscious hip hop, we share a frustration at the weirdly stunted attitude to gender and sexuality a lot of the scene's fore-bearers took – even when the rest of their politics were on point. I mention Q Tip – someone I thought might have been a foundational inspiration for Shunaji's eclectic, MPC-based grooves – and a blink-and-you'll-miss-it lyric that always bothered me on his 2005 track "ManWomanBoogie" (“Can man be stronger if a woman was there? / I would have to say yes / Can woman make it without men being there? / She would have to be blessed.”)

“For me, what's really hilarious is that it's obviously not true that women can't make it without men.” She smiles. “Many men convince themselves of this to give themselves value or a stronger position in society. Most Western societies are built on the idea of having power over other people.” Shunaji reflects on the complex intersections of gender and race that can surface in rap: “I think, for a lot of Black men in hip-hop culture, while hip-hop can be about liberation, it can also be about the oppression of another group. In the pyramid of power, they want to be above someone else. And I think women of colour lose out hugely in that power dynamic."

"That's why I'm very confident in my desire for respect and independence. I don't let other people dictate my positioning in the world and I'm not afraid of speaking up – I have nothing to lose, I can only add to the conversation and raise some consciousness.”

With her EP waiting in the wings, Shunaji is locked into preparation for the launch, designing everything from the artwork to gig flyers. “The whole EP is very diverse.” She says, when I ask if she can pick a track that would provide the uninitiated with a useful snapshot of her work. “But 'Curtains', the final track [sums things up]. It's a free verse kind of rap, a lot of words. It's more old school.” Shunaji describes the song as “a bit of a diss track to my 'windmill' enemies: I have a lot of visualised ghosts from the past and people who have done wrong by me.” I pull her up on that first bit – what are 'windmill enemies? “You know Don Quixote? He goes out fighting windmills [that he imagines are giants]. For him, that's the enemy, but they represent the enemies of culture, of modernity and what's being lost. I don't have actual enemies like 'Shuanji's a ...whatever', it's more past experiences that I want to exorcise.”

As for what happens post-Blue Melon, Shunaji's brimming with excitement for her turn in the Glasto competition – even if competing against other artists feels a tad jarring: “Sometimes, people underestimate how much heart musicians put into their art. And to compete with others, over something that comes from the bottom of your heart, it's really hard. Out of thousands of applications, for eight people to make it, it's amazing that we've got here and I think everyone should be allowed to play.” More concerned with creating a sense of togetherness than bagging the star prize, she's even happy to compromise on her stage time to give everyone their chance to shine. “I say, 'It's fine, I'll share my slot with you, we can all play one song!' We can all make one big band.” With a slew of other festival appearances ahead of her – from the Lauryn Hill-headlined Love Supreme to Gilles Peterson's We Out Here – it's at least not long 'til she'll have the spotlight all to herself.

Shunaji's Blue Melon EP is out 16 May.
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