It feels apt that, before poet-turned-rapper Kojey Radical takes to the stage for his sold-out show at east London’s cavernous Village Underground, some big hip-hop songs herald his arrival – Kendrick Lamar and Drake, for example, get a whirl from the DJ hyping the crowd. But it’s oddly more telling when, after the Hoxton-based artist leaves the stage, the first song to play is Rage Against the Machine’s Killing in the Name. What makes Kojey Radical so striking is his extraordinary versatility, which sees him flitting between deft, heavyweight hip-hop, searing metal, even smooth, soulful sounds. He is bookended accordingly.
Kojey (real name Kwadwo Adu Genfi Amponsah) makes earnest, conscious rap with a vitality that recalls everyone from Saul Williams, Ghostpoet, Kendrick, Loyle Carner and his dubbier, more industrial contemporary Gaika to, well, Zack de la Rocha. His musical catalogue is as likely to see people headbanging (he’s playing with an excellent, roaring live band tonight) or swaying their lighters and phones in the air as he sings with distinctly rich, gruff intonations.
This is Kojey’s last London show for the foreseeable future, and there’s a raw energy that exudes from the performer like happy electricity, be it in the grinning asides he makes (“a young black boy done made it you know!”), the frequent hugs with his backing band (“my family”), or the way he clicks his heels in the air midway through the quasi-disco shuffle of Love Intersection. It’s evident that this performance is something of a moment for Kojey. And it should be, because all the signs point to a performer on the cusp of breaking through to something bigger.
Engaging a crowd in such a charismatic manner while talking heavy topics like race and politics is no mean feat. It’s a testament to Kojey’s thrilling stage presence that he can draw his audience in, imploring them for more energy as, during lyrically potent After Winter, he challengingly spits the N-word at the largely white crowd, angular visuals of dancing black bodies filling the screen behind him.
He’s attentive too, not shying away from what gigs can be like for the women in the audience: “queens, stay strong for me”. It’s not all worthy, though – Kojey takes off his shirt at one point, faux-bashfully requests “no photos”, and then launches into the sparse and glitchy song of the same name. Later, he wryly thanks his mother for giving everyone his “chocolatey, sexy goodness”. He also, surreally, calls out to the Observer, saying that wherever the reviewer is, they’d better give the show five stars.
But five stars denotes perfection, and this isn’t quite there – though the guest spot from singer Collard on Icarus is phenomenal – all gorgeous, melismatic falsetto. Earlier, guest rapper Ghetts is barely audible when Kojey arrives onstage for Mood. In fact, the sound is a little off throughout, and technical difficulties also – endearingly – manifest when the mesmerising visuals behind him briefly revert to someone’s Mac screensaver of a mountainscape.
Still, this all adds to what feels like an intensely personal performance, Kojey inviting the audience to experience a journey with him. As he stands on the speaker, surveying the rapturous crowd during an exuberant encore, it becomes clear: yes, Kojey Radical is a rapper, a poet, a singer – but most of all, he’s actually a bit of rock star.