From issue two: we spoke to the artist about Grey Area, her thrilling third album
“Sometimes the UK has this thing where it makes you feel as though you have to apologise for being great, but with the US, it's like the-world-is-your-oyster type shit, you can do whatever you want,” says musician and actress Simbiatu Abisola Abiola Ajikawo, aka Little Simz. “But I don't let that mentality stifle what I'm doing, just because I live in the UK and I’m from here. I’ve got big ambitions.”
Speaking to this confident young artist is a breath of fresh air; she comes across as frank, smart and unfailingly polite. At only 25 years old, the rapper and singer recently released Grey Area, her third album in four years, all of which have been via her own label, Age 101.
This is impressive enough, but during that time she’s also been busy curating sold-out festivals at Camden’s Roundhouse, touring with Anderson .Paak, Gorillaz and Lauryn Hill, has kept one foot in the acting world and added a whole new string to her bow with photography, having shot the sleeve images for each of Grey Area’s singles, including ‘Selfish’, for which she photographed her childhood friend, actress Letitia Wright. “I think I’ve always had an eye for photography, and enjoyed different art forms,” she reflects. “I want to be respected and not just because I’m Little Simz. I want other photographers to see my work and think it’s sick. I’ve been fortunate enough to have people around me encouraging me to do it because I get in my head a lot.”
Surrounding herself with the right people is something that this polymath has a knack for, which could help to explain how, despite the success she’s enjoyed, Little Simz remains a grounded, hardworking north London girl. “Growing up in Islington is wicked, man,” she says. “There’s a very strong sense of community, everyone knows each other, and when they see me, they just see Simbi.” And so it was to another childhood friend¬, now famed producer Inflo, to whom she turned to work on this latest album, which is her most personal to date. “Flo's known me since I was nine, he knows my family, we both went to St Mary's Youth Club,” she says. “He’s seen my growth and my journey, is just as versatile and diverse as I am, and when you get chemistry like that, it's one in a million. It’s like Missy Elliot to Timbaland, Dr Dre to Eminem.”
Unlike her last album, Stillness in Wonderland, which was more of a conceptual piece, Grey Area is more about emotional rawness and honesty. Some of the songs were written in taxis and on flights, as they came to her, exploring her grief over the murder of her friend, model Harry Uzoka, the ramifications for her community following the incarceration of another friend, and a particularly painful break-up. “At the time of making it, I wasn’t thinking about who's going to hear it, I was just spilling. It was only when the album was done that I realised that everyone is going to know my business. It puts me in a vulnerable space, but it actually makes me stronger,” she says. “It was challenging to tap into places that were right on the bone, but also very freeing. The studio was a personal space where I just bared my soul. Sometimes I would leave so upset and crying, but it wasn’t all serious, it was also mad fun.”
“I don't feel the need to do anything to please anyone or to fit a mould. I’m very comfortable in my own skin”
As each song explores different emotions, she remains as technically flawless as ever. Full of bravado, Simz compares herself to Picasso on the rousing single ‘Offence’, and gets philosophical on ‘Wounds’ – a collaboration with Chronixx – while on ‘Flowers’, she ruminates about depression. On ‘Selfish’, featuring the soulful Cleo Sol, her inimitable swagger is back: ‘I'm a woman who can teach you a little something about class, diamonds will forever be a girl’s best friend.’
Little Simz is frequently – and lazily – lumped together with UK grime artists, but her music is a delicious dish full of flavours. Citing Lauryn Hill, Nas, Fela Kuti and Bob Marley among her influences, her sound is experimental, taking in jazz, funk and soul to form her unique brand of hip hop. This misunderstanding of her stand-out sound used to annoy her, but not anymore. “I would get really angry, but then I decided not to place my energy there. It’s cool and it doesn't affect me because I know what I’m doing and I know my sound.”
Being sure of herself means that she’s always had the confidence to release music independently, and she doesn’t feel pressure to look a certain way, something that often hinders young women artists. “I don't feel the need to do anything to please anyone or to fit a mould. I’m very comfortable in my own skin,” she explains. “I've always worn what I want to wear and always moved how I want to move. I think it’s because I've had such great examples of strong women around me. My mum and my sisters have taught me to always be myself.”
Born to Nigerian parents and the youngest of four siblings, the home of this superlative talent was always filled with positivity. “Everyone in the family has a really good ear and I was put onto great music from very early on,” she says. “My family definitely pushed me to dream big and encouraged me to write music, so I’ve always had a good foundation of support.” Looking back she laments that Islington’s St Mary’s Youth Club, where she first found her voice and future collaborators, has now closed due to crippling council cuts. “It saddens me man, I don't know what I would be doing if I hadn’t had that place. It was where kids could go to be creative and channel what they were feeling into something positive. People think kids don't get stressed, but kids get stressed. Then you wonder why there’s knife crime.”
Today the artist works her stress away on stage. “I feel free, I feel fearless and at home,” she explains. “I’m in my element. I don't think about it too much, I let the music take me wherever, let my body do what it's supposed to do, and the words just come out.” Given that even as a child she imagined playing to huge audiences, even that doesn’t faze her now. “I don't feel pressure, it's a lot harder to make an arena filled with 20,000 people feel intimate, but you just have to make sure that everyone is engaged.”
Her knack for always standing up for herself, for example calling out the people who refer to her as a ‘female MC’ (“What does my gender have to do with it?”), means she is able to stay true to the vision that she has for herself. “For as long as I can remember, I’ve said what’s on my mind. I don't think I’m a rude person but I’m quite sure of myself. I know how to say no to things, and I think that's a super important quality to have as an artist, because people are forever trying to make you into what they want you to be,” she says. “In the same beat, I am open to trying new things and being experimental, but there are some things that I will not budge on.”
It’s rumoured that the artist is set to appear on TV crime series Top Boy, and she has tour dates coming up, so there’s no sign of her slowing down. With Grey Area, she’s found a voice that’s relatable. “I think my sound has opened up a bit, it feels like it can appeal to so many different types of people and not just one particular demographic, which is cool,” she says. “I can make something for everyone.”
Discover and buy issue two of Nataal here.