Interview: Afrikan Boy (June 2017)

Tomorrow, the 2017 edition of Southbank Meltdown festival curated by M.I.A. will get under way with Scottish hip-hop trio Young Fathers. While, on Saturday night, it will be the turn of a London born-and-bred music icon, Afrikan Boy.

Choosing the Woolwich MC to enrich the festival line-up, was a no-brainer for M.I.A. She followed Afrikan Boy’s career since its first steps, and has always been one of his most enthusiastic supporters, she signed him to her label as soon as she could. The two have been working together for more than 5 years now and to read his name as host and MC for the first free late night party, it’s quite exciting per se. Then, if you add the fact that Afrikan Boy is ready to release his second album and hit the road with a Summer tour, you have the most tantalising show of the weekend.

A few days ago, we had a chat with Afrikan Boy. We retraced his career and working relationship with M.I.A., asked about his perspective on the London music scene and delved into his music taste and listenings.

We started with his next gig at Southbank and how and when he met M.I.A.

When I started putting my music on the internet, one of the main platforms was Myspace. One Day, I uploaded “One Day I Went to Lidl” and people started listening to it and they liked it. A few weeks later, M.I.A. contacted me on Myspace and asked if I wanted to be on her next album.

To be honest, back then, I didn’t know about M.I.A. music. I was listening to grime, not even to US hip-hop at that time. So, in the beginning, I thought that she was different, her music was different. But I also thought that it would have been quite interesting to work with her and everything went fine from the first minute. That’s how our collaboration started. I met M.I.A. sometime later, and we started performing together too”.

Being a part of Meltdown is another step in their collaboration…

For me, it means so much to be part of it, firstly, because of the venue and location. Southbank Centre is not a place where I usually play and it’s quite important too. In addition, it’s a London show, and for me, it’s always important to play at home, not far from South London, where I come from.

It’s also a unique event, because half or even more than half of the artists who are going to perform during the festival, don’t usually play there: it’s not their usual stage. So, it will be an interesting mix of audience. Because of the venue and the line-up, there’ll be really different people attending.

So yes, if you consider all these facts, it’s pretty exciting. It is such an amazing opportunity for me to share my art with people and an environment that are open-minded and willing to relate to new sounds and since the line-up is composed of great names, that will definitely help”.

Since Afrikan Boy described Meltdown festival as a unique music experience, to understand the new sound and where music is going; we asked his thoughts about how music has changed since he started.

One of the main things that have changed since 10 or 12 years ago was the tool of the internet. I consider myself an internet generation artist. People found out about me because of the internet, so I grew up with the medium. But now, if I was an emerging artist, it would be much easier for me to spread my name and let people know about me. The industry is growing and becoming more universal. Everybody now is able to pick up a camera and say ‘Hey…I’m a photographer or a video maker’. It’s all becoming more accessible, while 10/12 years ago, it was more selective. You still needed money to shoot a proper video and unless you knew someone close to you who had a camera, it was hard to shoot a video. Nowadays, nearly everyone has cameras and is able to do something with them”.

Another thing I’d say is that when I started I hardly got in touch with any new African music. It was hard to listen to it on the radio and I only heard it when I was at parties with my mum. So my influences in creating my African vision within London were mainly based on the things my parents were playing. It was all related to my parents’ heritage. While now, ten years on, you can see, listen to, and buy African music everywhere. Which is not a totally positive thing, because there are some aspects that are over commercialised, but still it’s out there. There’re many successful artists who are from the Continent itself and they’re doing high-profile collaborations with US artists and tours around the world”.

Another factor that mirrors the change in musical perception and consumption is related to lyrics and subjects that musicians can refer to…

Before if you made references or jokes using images that were typically Nigerian or West African, only West African people could understand and relate to them. While today, it’s easier to understand the reference. I make an example, Stormzy, in his track ‘Big For Your Boot’ speaks about ‘stealing the meat from the stew pot’. Which is something that children in Nigeria always do when their parents cook the stew. They peek and sneak into the kitchen, reaching the pot when the mother is away and they steal the juiciest meat in it. He could sing about that because today people can look at the meaning of the lyrics, can understand their sense. I love that because it has become normal now. While, when I was doing it, only a niche audience could catch the meaning, not many people could understand that. In addition, this generation is different, they are comfortable with their Britishness, but also with their Afro and Caribbean roots”.

This change is embodied by the way musicians are communicating with the younger generation. Music has become, once again, an effective loudspeaker for social messages and politicians quickly realised it.

Artists still have a lot of influences on the youth and their culture. Politicians are still recognising that musicians like JME and Stormzy for example, are taken seriously by young people and they can reach the demographic that politicians can’t reach. They do it every day, they are the gatekeepers of that audience. For sure, this is not the first time that this is happening, but this is another important moment, and certain people of influence are in a pretty good position to move the young vote more than maybe 4 years ago. Then, it’s down to each artist to understand what to say and when to say it and it’s also down to each artist to understand when to pull out”.

Going back to Afrikan Boy’s music, the ABCD (his debut album) is three years old, so we asked him how he feels today about it and what’s going to happen next…

It’s a classic man! [laughing] Seriously, I’ve a 3-year-old son and he loves that album. His mum is sick of it and asks about the new album. But really, my son loves it. I’m joking, but I think it’s a really good album. I don’t think I would make another one like the ABCD, because I think that it’s my perfect first album. It was as I always wanted my debut to be. It’s great because it captured me: I included many stories about myself and my life and how I got my name for example. I wanted to explain a lot of things on that album and I’d like my son in 20 years’ time God forbid, if I wasn’t in his life anymore, I like him to listen to the ABCD and know that there’s a part of me in it, that he would understand who his father was. At least on one level, because the next album will be different from that one. It’s a move on and a continuation of that vision.

For sure, I know that there’re also many faults in that album. For example, I know that there’re not enough African instruments in it. I’m talking about traditional instruments and African elements in the music. It sounds quite Western, which was cool at the time because it was recorded in Europe, except for one or two tracks that were recorded in Nigeria. While the second album will be more focused on those African elements. I want more world music vibes and particular sounds. I want something that can be more unexpected.

The new album is going to be ready for September. The single is ready and you can already pre-order the album on and I’m playing new stuff during my gigs. Actually, I started playing new stuff since the tour for the ABCD, but it was just a test. So I’m still testing some songs and adding more of them to my set lists”.

Since his Nigerian sounds are going to become more and more important in Afrikan Boy’s next album, we wondered if he could introduce us to the Nigerian music scene and describe his relationship with it.

There’s so much going on in Nigeria today: there’re many artists who deserve to be discovered by the Western audience. The scene is quite tough if you don’t know it and it’s even tougher if you know it. It’s not easy out there. I want to bring my contribution to it and bring Nigerian music here to London. That’s also one of my selling points: something that makes me different. Because I want to develop collaborations with Nigerian artists and in that way, I can show that there’s an audience for my music in Nigeria too. Even if the radio play almost exclusively of Niger-pop and Afrobeat, and there’s not too much room for hip-hop and soul, I’d love to make a contribution to the music scene in my country; bringing something different there. In the same way, I brought my roots and Nigerian culture with me here to London and I love to bring them with me wherever I go to play, so I can spread them around”.

While, when it comes to current music listenings, the sound goes far and beyond his roots:

I’m listening to some Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash…mmh, I need to check my Spotify…but yes I’m listening to many different things that I wouldn’t necessarily listen to usually. Bob Dylan, for example, wasn’t really in my playlist three years ago. But now I feel that I’m growing a bit. I also listen to Diabel Chissoko, the kora player who plays beautiful music. Then ok, I’m still listening to Whizkid and this guy called J Hus. He’s one of the hottest names in the UK scene right now and has just released his new album. He’s like a younger version of Afrikan Boy: people come at me and say ‘hey have you listened to this guy? he sounds and moves like you’. He’s super cool and he’s really doing interesting stuff because he mixes British, Jamaican and African accents and the young people love him. There’s this new wave now that is called Afrobashment or afrosomething…whatever…but it’s just this new sound that works in clubs, works at African parties, works at Caribbean parties and works at English parties. People just love it! Then I’m listening to Kojey Radikal and Kate Tempest who’s a spoken word artist”.

Our chat, which started minutes before with Afrikan Boy’s Saturday show at Meltdown festival, comes to an end by asking what will happen after that event…

After Meltdown, I will finish my album and get to the point where I’m happy about it. Then, we’re looking at the festival season. We have different festivals throughout the summer like Latitude and Sines in Portugal. Anyway, the main thing is the album. I need to get the music up to a point where I feel that I’m ready and then, after that, I’ll start looking to tour”.

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