Kojey Radical is in an enviable position right now. Coming off of the back of collaborations with Mahalia, Ghetts, and interviewing the legendary Spike Lee, it would be easy to view this as a personal creative peak. However, Radical is a constantly progressing artist, one who is continually looking forward into the future, he tells Oliver Kemp.
As we wander to our interview location - a hotel bar in East London - Radical and I find a common ground: my home city of Canterbury. Growing up in Hackney, he tells me how he visited recently and could not get his head around how small the place is, "Only three clubs? I just kept having to ask, 'so there are things called villages where a few people just live in the middle of nowhere?' That’s mad!" With Hackney and its striking juxtaposition of poverty and gentrification at the centre of his world, the 25-year-old artist finds the concept of villages and small-town life somewhat antiquated.
I recall a line from "Bambu", a track from Radical’s 2016 project 23Winters: "The sirens / a familiar melody / but doesn’t sound the same without the Nickelodeon theme tunes / I would drown out sounds / oh nostalgia / you wicked, wicked temptress you."
"I think there’s a certain skin you kind of grow up with, in the Ends," Radical says, "where for the most part everything around you is trying to desensitise you to the fact that the world is a bit mental. I wrote that line [in 'Bambu'] because Hoxton has always been seen as this trendy area, but I don’t remember that. My recollection of Hoxton was getting robbed, or seeing people getting robbed. I saw a girl get shot in the neck down my road. Shit like that, you sit there and go, 'oh but there’s a cafe down the road selling avocados, so everything’s alright.'"
Radical laughs and continues, "You just drown out the noise, so it feels like everything is just bliss, but actually when people really talk the realities of where they're from, it’s almost so harsh that you want to ban it. It’s like what’s happening with drill at the moment. People aren't making it up. It's not to say what they're doing is right or anything like that, but this is their reality, something that’s very prominent in the areas that money's being poured into but not to the youth, not the people that need it. I think in that respect, I love Hoxton for allowing me to grow up with that edge, that street smart, that awareness. But also, at least the gentrification seems to be moving in the direction of creativity. So then that provided opportunities, and I just had to seize that, piece by piece. Make it happen."
It's striking to hear him speak about this idea that gentrification could also be harnessed more positively, to encouraged the younger generation to get involved in the creative arts.
"I feel like looking at where young people, especially in areas that are slightly more deprived, find their escape is important. It's not always entertainment, it's not always sport, but it's just finding their escape, finding their means to be able to leave their situation. And not being afraid to nurture it, because kids are erratic. You could be doing eight months of great youth work on a particular kid and feel like he's making real strides and changes, and one situation could happen in his real life that means he has to go back to it for 24 hours; the ramifications of those 24 hours could be whatever. A lot of men would give up on him. The government would give up on him. The police would give up on him. Despite that, he's been doing consistent work. Then he now feels like that work is for nothing. The cycle continues, so it's really just not saying, 'here's some money, go have some fun,' but saying how do we nurture a generation? Because unfortunately for the old people making these laws or voting in the direction that suits them - you're going to die soon. And when you die, you're going to leave behind a stupid set of politics and rules and frames of mind for generations that actually needed to know what went wrong through you. 'Cause this stuff has happened before.”
Radical is clearly an artist locked into cultural trends and political issues, so much so that many feature articles of late have labelled him as a 'socially conscious rapper'. This is a label he doesn’t particularly appreciate.
"I'm socially conscious, and I rap. I'm not a socially conscious rapper, you get me? Those two can exist separately and compliment each other. I can use my rap to inform people about socially conscious issues, but at the same time it's not the be all and end all to my music," Radical pauses. "As much as we are all socially conscious, we don't always give a fuck. And that could be about the topic that's most near and dear to our hearts, but sometimes we only really care when we feel like we can get attention for it. And I'm not really trying to be that, I'm not trying to be like, 'oh this is happening in the world, let's go cloud-chase by latching onto it.' Nah. Nah. My 24/7 isn't politics. Life is politics and life is political but I do go through things. You feel certain things. And I realise a lot of problems are deeper than categories, do you know what I mean? The wider conversation is a little bit more important."
There is an honesty in Radical's approach to these issues. He appreciates and understands that the label as a politically or socially conscious artist could pigeonhole him, an artist who thus far has proven to be particularly mercurial, both from the position of music style and the medium. He craves freedom in his artistry, the kind of freedom certain journalistic labels might threaten. He also understands that some things may just be beyond his control. "There was a launderette where homeless people used to sleep in on my road, and now that's a cafe," Radical says, "What can I do? I don't want to be one of those old geezers walking around going 'in my day we used to have this.' Today is today and tomorrow's tomorrow."
He is also keen to make it clear that he's still in a process of learning himself, an exercise in flux that means he couldn't have all the answers right now, even if he wanted to.
"I’m learning! And I think that's why I hope people stick with me and don't expect too much of me too soon, but then at the same time understand that if I'm learning something then people are learning with me. I'll be transparent in that sense… I didn’t know this yesterday, but I know it today. There might be something that I wrote three years ago that tomorrow I could completely disagree with. Until I go through those experiences and live those things, some of these words don't even mean anything to me!"
Despite this, recent songs and collaborations have struck a chord with listeners. His recent collaboration with the grime legend Ghetts, "Black Rose", is a lyrical and sensitive track about colourism, a powerful message that has found many black women messaging Radical through social media to tell him how much hearing this topic on a record has inspired them. Radical is just as inspired, though. "I tell them they're inspiring me because at the end of the day I'm a 25 year old black man from Hackney. There's a lot I know because of what I grew up around, the women that I grew up around and what they taught me. But at the same time, I don't have all the answers, and we're all raised in similar ways on that playground, so we know what is instilled in us. We know what we’ve digest from a young age… normalised. A lot of it is unlearning. And actually, when I write a song or write a hook like 'Black Rose', I'm thinking of something specific; I'm thinking about my niece. But actually, that subject means more for so many people, because of what they're going through in their life that I might not know about, so when they speak to me I'm just saying, 'thank you'. That's a version of reality that I didn’t know existed.
"I had to think of it this way; my youngest niece, just about turning two. She understands melodies. Not necessarily lyrics yet but she understands melodies. She knows the melody to '97', she knows the melody to '700 Pennies' and ‘Water', so if I can instil that melody in her from a few years old, by the time she gets to eight, nine, 10, it's going to ring in her head, she's going to go back and listen to Ghetts' words and understand something else. And again, it's just about elements - what elements can you bring to a record, rather than how you can steal the show."
Radical once again skirts a fully defined meaning for the song, keen for music to be a more personal canvas for listeners. "There’s metaphors, there's reasons why we've done certain things. We understand the meaning but at the same time you cannot dictate that. Otherwise it's not art anymore. You can't dictate art, you can't tell someone what a piece of artwork is, you can create it and then, actually, a big part of what makes art is how people interpret it."
These are the words of an individual committed to art and the artistic process. At university, Radical didn't specialise in music, instead studying fashion illustration. He attributes this left-field study path to the reason he's ended up where he is now. With such a creative thought process from an early age, his artistic approach is unpredictable, a factor that has been ever present.
"A bit of that is attention span," he laughs, "being erratic and having a lot of creative energy. As young as I can remember, I've had a creation on my hands, scribbling ideas in any way that I can, going through educational processes. I've always felt like the process of education or the way the system is laid out doesn’t actually reflect the age in which you’re going through them. From 14-15 up to 21, you might not actually know what you want to do - it's about actually getting all of those experiences along the way, so me going from this to that to that, thinking that at a later point in my life I want to do these things. Me being involved with film and art, fashion and illustration... it's the same as if you ask any young kid 'what are you into?' He’s going to list off the things he’s into. I just do stuff with the things that I’m into.
"I feel like we reinvent ourselves everyday, even as we pick clothes out of a wardrobe. What do I want to be today? Everyday is a new opportunity to realise the type of person that you’re going to be."
Radical finished near the top of class at university, yet he can't help but think of it as a more of stepping stone than anything else. "I mean, ask anyone 15 years later if they’ve ever gone back to their diploma. I got a first at university, finished top six in my class. I'm sure the only person who's seen that piece of paper is my Mum. No one else has seen it.”
I ask if his work ethic for university came from an ethic at school. "I didn't work hard, I worked smart. I would never say that I wasn't hard working, and I wouldn't want to make out as if I was lazy and fluked it, but at the same time, I knew if I wasn’t interested in something I couldn’t fake it. I look at it like this: yeah it's important now, but how important are GCSEs really? Yeah A Levels are important now, but how important are they really? 'You need to have a degree'. Get to that check point, boom, cool. But I know that if I didn't choose to go and do music while studying an art subject, I would have failed 100% because I would have lost motivation; I wouldn't have been challenged. At the time I had no knowledge of music or how to create it - so that was the challenge, 'oh okay you have an idea… go and execute it'. If you bring something to the table that’s not been done before, and you do it well, they can't deny you. Whatever that textbook says, find room in it. There's certain things that you can't obviously… if you pick maths, peak bruv, numbers are numbers. But if you've got a bit of creative wriggle room, get it done."
Radical's creativity is so clearly indicated across his music. In a short space of time, his music has sounded like buttery soul, saw-toothed hip-hop and even heady ambient spoken-word pieces. With such a varied musical palette, I ask how Kojey Radical would describe the music of Kojey Radical. "I genuinely listen to everything, so it means I take inspiration from everywhere. And actually, when I hear music, instead of thinking, 'I do this or I can only do this', I think about 'here's a new piece of music, how can I approach this?'... when anybody asks, 'what kind of sound is Kojey,' I'd rather the person is able to reply, 'what kind of sound do you like?' I've got something for everything. That’s why I like the shows, everybody’s there. It's lit!"
By all indication, he really did listen to everything. "Loads of people, but it all depends on what capacity. Sonically, a big inspiration was André 3000. If we're talking about forefathers to a style that then moved onto influence a generation which then influenced me then I obviously have to give credit to André 3000. Artistically, I was heavily inspired by people that were considered street art that are now considered in a fine art aspect. Keith Haring and Basquiat, even Warhol to some degree. Those people interested me. Transitioning through sounds and what I enjoyed listening to, it was as erratic as Jamie T, Nujabes, a bit of Hoobastank. I was on bare music!" He laughs. "And then I'd go and listen to Bob Marley and the Wailers or Joe Jackson's 'Fools in Love', or real old-school ska shit. Music's music! Soundsystem, old African music. Anything! I had a Tazmanian Devil Walkman, and all I listened to on it was new jack swing. That was it! Just new jack swing on an old Walkman.”
People really seem to be sitting up and taking note of Radical's eclectic and vibrant music. Alongside collaborations with Ghetts and Birmingham-based songwriter Mahalia, he's been included on the soundtrack for the FIFA 19 videogame. Is this a sign of success for Radical? "Do you know what though, it was. A videogame was definite 100% bucket list. I thought I would get on UFC before I got on FIFA, simply because I'm a massive UFC fan and I tweet about UFC regularly, I watch all of the fights. And I hear my boys on that game, like Avelino. I was gassed man! Livid, but I was gassed!" He laughs "I can’t play FIFA though. But I feel like for all my boys, for all of the people that support me, you can't lose to that song."
Another recent brush with stardom was Radical interviewing Spike Lee for Vice. I ask how it felt to be in the presence of cinematic legend. "Nerve wracking, but also super chill. I love the film, [BlacKkKlansman] and that made it way easier. He's come in, and everyone's got into their timid boots, until he starts talking and you realise he's just a person, just another human being, just with a lot more experience of certain things, he has stories to tell. You’re witnessing a man who's telling his stories right now in the way he can, and his medium is film. To get that insight…"
That insight from an artist in their respective field is imperative to Radical. When I ask if there are any dream collaborations in his future, he remains guarded but makes it clear his hunger to learn. "I don't force music, so there's not a song I want to create with any particular person, but I do chase wisdom. There's people I know that if I was in the studio with the wisdom I'd get from them is crazy. So I want to be in there with Estelle, Jill Scott, André 3000, Damon Albarn, Kamasi Washington, Jamie T, Pharrell. People that can teach me as I create."
With all of the hype and singles success, thoughts inevitably turn towards a debut record. Both In God’s Body and 23Winters were concept-heavy pieces, so it seems natural to wonder if the record has already formed as a loose concept in his head. "I need something to be stimulated by. I'll have like very loose middle point. Like In God's Body - inside God's body. With the album, I definitely want to make it way more of a concentrated effort. There'll be a lot to interpret, but it'll be easier to because the themes will be clearer. What it's about or anything like that… I don’t think life has presented it to me yet. I feel like subconsciously I put all of my messages down in my music over time and look back and understand what I'm going through at a particular time. But as a whole subject? Nah, life hasn't given it to me yet."
As an independent artist, Radical expresses his desire to be signed before he drops a record. "Treat your album… treat it real special. The reason why I don't want to be independent when I drop my first official debut album, is not because I don't think I can do it, I just want to have more space to just make music, and have the rest be worried about by the people that need to worry about it. And the thing is you go into these meetings and everybody assumes you’re all starry-eyed, saying, 'oh sign me please!' I will call anybody out on their fuckery. So if a label is up to some fuckery, best believe you’re getting it! But at the same time, it's not being anti-label, it's just being good business."
It's difficult to not get excited by the prospect of a debut record from the young 25-year-old musician. Confidence exudes from not only the music but the man making it. Self-assured but not arrogant, he says we shouldn't expect a record for a while, but expect something gold when it does eventually drop. "Put it this way. Everybody that wants a Kojey album right now doesn't mind waiting.
"I'm talking no skippables. You skip a song on my album, the album will stop playing. Immediately, or the rest of it will just turn to dead silence. I'll put a micro chip in them! Apple, if they try and skip it, block them!"