Although separated by generations, there is a shared sense of black empowerment and rebellion coursing through the music of Rodney P and Kojey Radical. At 50, Rodney P has been instrumental in the evolution of UK rap. Songs released as part of London Posse in the 80s and 90s, such as How’s Life in London, are among the earliest examples of British rappers using their own accents. Kojey Radical, 27, is among a generation of young British artists including Dave and Stormzy who have pushed black music in the UK into mass popularity. Blurring the boundaries of rap with everything from spoken word to funk, his work is an intense documentation of black life in Britain and beyond.
The thing that struck me most about the George Floyd video was the lack of humanity. What ran through your head when you saw it?
Kojey Radical: I can’t lie, it did feel like a big punch that I wasn’t expecting, to the point where you question whether you’re next. But you know it’s not the case, because you’re still existing. You reach a balance: OK, it’s calm. Then yesterday somebody else in Atlanta got shot by the police and you brace yourself for another two weeks. I always question what this does to black people in terms of post-traumatic stress.
Rodney P: I’ve spent my whole life seeing and hearing these stories. I’m raising my kids and I have to let them see and hear the same stories. I want them to be aware, but I find it just too painful. I saw the first two minutes of the video [of George Floyd’s death] before I had to stop it because I knew the outcome. But I do feel empowered by what I’m seeing right now. Because no one is going to say, “You know what, we’ve been unfair to them, let’s make life better for them”, unless we stand up and demand it.
What were your experiences with racism growing up?
RP: I grew up with teddy boys and skinheads. I know what it’s like to be chased down Kings Road being called “you little black nigger”. I can tell you the first time, in 1979 or 1980. There used to be a yearly football match in the UK: England v Scotland. The fans would gather in Trafalgar Square and they would fight. When I was nine or 10, I went into the West End on the Saturday of that game. I’m making my way to the Forbidden Planet comic-book store and this short, stocky Scotland fan said: “You little black bastard.” The shock has always stuck with me. That was the first but far from the last time.
KR: Growing up, the experience of being dark skinned in England, especially African, wasn’t the easiest. There are a lot of identity issues that come from wanting to fit in, being scared of the sound of your own name or denouncing your culture and picking up another one because, to white people, that one is cooler; it was cooler to be Jamaican than African. Or not liking the texture of your hair because it’s the one that everyone calls Velcro or carpet. I found that the prejudice I can remember and internalised as a teenager came from other black people. I can understand now that’s probably a reaction towards them facing some discrimination and then saying: “I’m going to turn into the aggressor so I feel safer in a community that already doesn’t accept me.” I’ve been guilty of it myself, and it’s confusing.
How do you feel about the statues coming down in Bristol and elsewhere?
RP: I think it’s actually a good idea to retrieve that [Colston] statue from the river and put it in a museum as is, with all the graffiti. If those are your English heroes, tell the true story about them. And part of the story about the Colston statue is that people said: we don’t want that around here. Supposedly he was so benevolent, and he built schools, hospitals and churches. But nobody is talking about where the money came from, the fact that those schools and hospital weren’t open to black people. The backs he made his money off couldn’t access that stuff.
KR: You’re not going to fool me by taking them down or leaving them up. I don’t care, I’ve walked past them my whole life. I know that, for them to even get a statue, it wasn’t for no humanitarian things. That man had a statue because he put Ps [money] down on Bristol, so they say: give that man a statue.
What is the role of black art in these moments?
KR: It’s time to pick that pen up, simple as that. This is the time; think Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On.
RP: I think history shows us that there’s been lots of rebellions where music has been at the forefront of social and political movements. I strongly believe it’s the time for artists to get back on their square and become the griots and the village we hold our history in; tell our stories, and actually have something to say.
You have both mentioned children. How important is it for them to learn the history of what black people have been through in the UK?
RP: It’s extremely important that our young people have a clear understanding of what life has been like under the British empire, and here in the UK. But we can’t be stuck in hatred; that doesn’t bring us anything of any real value. Nobody is going to give us a bright future, we have to create that for ourselves.
KR: I don’t want my son to grow up and think he has to fight all the time; I want him to focus on the advancements, on how he can bring other black people through, how he can help raise the economy, whatever he wants to do. I don’t want him to consistently fear and think of himself as a soldier.
RP: Or that he’s starting two steps behind. We have to recognise the power of that unified strength, and a big part of that is us as elders letting our children know the future holds a lot of beautiful outcomes for them if they’re prepared to go out and seek them.
What does the term “black British” mean to you?
RP: I’ve never felt particularly British. My family comes from Jamaica, my mum owns a house in Gambia. For me, I’m an African. My family was taken to Jamaica. I’m not going to pretend that that was always my mindset, but that’s definitely my mindset now, the mindset I’m going to hand that down to my son, the one I got from my mum. That’s who I am, I’m an African via Jamaica.
KR: Same, I’ve never really signed up for it. I know culturally, even mannerisms, the way I speak, my accent, I can identify all those things as British. I have no qualms in saying that. But if someone asked me where I’m from, I say Ghana. If they say Britain is this beacon of diversity and culture for everyone, you shouldn’t have to denounce who you are and where you’re from to be a part of it.
• Rodney P’s new single, Call Me… (feat Ocean Wisdom), is released 30 July on Tru Thoughts Records