Kojey Radical: ‘I can’t think of a day when my mum’s not been there’

The ambitious London rapper’s long-gestating debut album sees him mixing grime, P-Funk and R&B in upbeat fashion, with his mum taking a starring role

Tricky beast that it is, the music industry has a horrible habit of presenting its most promising talent with an impossible dichotomy. Release your music too soon, and you might fumble your first impression; take too long, and you risk getting lost in the crowd, sentenced for ever to “underrated” status as your faster-acting peers ascend.

Fortunately for him and us, Kojey Radical has never been too bothered about following anybody else’s path. While the London rapper is a dexterous amalgamator of genres, he knew that he needed time to incubate his best ideas, warming up across a near decade of well-received projects before committing to a debut album, Reason to Smile, a cohesive yet varied offering that makes no bones about its own ambition.

Sign up to our Inside Saturday newsletter for an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the making of the magazine’s biggest features, as well as a curated list of our weekly highlights.

“You don’t want to put your best foot forward and fall, y’know?” he says, wafting away a cloud of smoke on our early morning Zoom. “I just wanted to stand behind something that represents me and shows off the quality of work that I can make.”

As a musician, poet, visual artist and aspiring actor, Kojey Radical is part of a generation of artists who intentionally resist being boxed in. Born Kwadwo Adu Genfi Amponsah in east London in 1993, he started out as a fashion illustration student, but made his first mark in the music business with 2015’s Open Hand, a stark (yet hopeful) call for racial revolution. Amid a steady stream of releases and collaborations with future-thinking peers such as alternative R&B star Mahalia, grime MC Ghetts and jazz group Sons of Kemet, he built a dedicated fanbase, drawn to his blend of personal and political insight. Then, in early 2020, the global you-know-what hit, and he was thrown into turmoil – “just trying to work through the fact that life had stopped at a time where my career was probably at the biggest that it had ever been”.

Kojey Radical.

The pandemic didn’t keep Amponsah down for long. Taking to Instagram live streams as a daily practice, he invited fans into his creative process, experimenting with tracks that producer friends would send in. When he received the beat that would become the Reason to Smile track Silk, he began freestyling its slippery, playful ode to self-confidence, liking how the swagger felt. This felt right, but wouldn’t it be even better with an appearance from freewheeling saxophonist Masego? “I cut the live [freestyle] off and texted it to him; he sent me the saxophone parts the next day, and I just remember going: ‘Well, this is pretty damn good.’ I texted my team, just saying: ‘Yo, I think it’s album time.’”

The finished results are both lyrically and sonically expansive. Stories of family, soul-seeking and good old‑fashioned lovemaking are set to bouncy grime, smooth R&B and skittering P-Funk, drawing on the same kind of exuberant 1970s flourish that has recently influenced the music of Silk Sonic, Little Simz and Joel Culpepper (whose 2021 debut shares a producer, Swindle, with Reason to Smile).

While Amponsah’s lyrics do sometimes touch on feelings of understandable cynicism (“Should I drop the album on Black Pound Day / Or will they still support it just cos it sounds great?” goes one particularly on-the-nose line on Fubu), his is clearly music to feel uplifted by, exploring the nuances of joy, hardship and masculinity.

“I just look towards genres that have the most freedom, you know?” he says. “Growing up, the ‘male rapper’ archetype was kind of etched in stone, whereas I would see neo-soul, jazz or indie artists just getting to experiment and be themselves. Things are changing in hip-hop; we see people like Kid Cudi or Tyler, the Creator doing multiple things and being embraced, and it’s inspiring for a younger generation. There are artists now who were literally born in 2000; my own son was born in 2020.” He shakes his head, marvelling at the thought. “I was thinking just the other day that TLC’s No Scrubs is nearly 25 years old, and by the time he gets to a conscious age to even hear it, it’s probably going to be 35. It’s horrible. Horrible!”

Conscious of the passage of time, Amponsah is working hard to preserve his own history. Aware of hip-hop’s historic penchant for colourism, he makes sure to centre dark-skinned Black women in his visuals wherever possible, picturing both his own mum and the mother of his son on the album’s cover. His mum also narrates the album, recalling memories of her journey from Ghana and the life she has built in the UK. Album closer Gangsta is dedicated to her; Amponsah was initially trying to write about his tumultuous relationship with his father but changed tack when the words didn’t come.

“I just figured to myself, why would I focus on a negative when the positive has been a constant in my life?” he says. “I can’t think of a day when my mum’s not been there, so why wouldn’t I go that way rather than wallowing in self-pity?”

For such a wordsmith, you could never accuse Kojey Radical of being all talk. As part of a deal with Dr Martens, he has been putting funds into youth clubs, allowing emerging artists to learn the ropes of the music industry in a way that feels more holistic than simply “a quick workshop here and there … I don’t like false allyship. You don’t need to shout about it; you just need to represent and get it done.”

In helping to secure a future for others, Amponsah can be confident about where his is heading. His fashion mind is constantly whirring (“I think the album would be a three-piece suit, double-breasted, in sky blue or dazzling yellow”), but he’s also pondering how he made it to this point.

“This album is literally about the journey; the moments where you feel completely yourself and high-energy; the moments where you feel down and question yourself. It’s like reading [Paulo Coelho’s] The Alchemist – once you find a bit that connects to you, it becomes the best book you’ve ever read.” He grins, half-laughing at the audacity of his ambition. “I like to think that Reason to Smile is that.”

Reason to Smile is released on 4 March.


Jenessa Williams

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Kojey Radical review – raw energy and rare charisma
The young British rapper maintains a thrilling stage presence while tackling weighty topics in a bravura performance

Tara Joshi

29, Oct, 2017 @9:00 AM

Article image
Kojey Radical review – flexing his musicality big time
The former dancer, poet and illustrator is now fully focused on securing his place as London’s most unique rapper

Kitty Empire

28, Sep, 2019 @1:00 PM

Article image
Channel Tres: ‘House music is for everybody, but it’s special when it’s your people’
Growing up in Compton in a musical extended family, it was the skate style of Pharrell and the electronica he heard at university that encouraged this understated pioneer to put his ‘hood energy’ into house

Christine Ochefu

14, Feb, 2023 @11:00 AM

Article image
Kojey Radical review – on the brink of rap greatness
The east London rapper seizes his Covid-delayed moment, touring his forthcoming debut album – and much that went before – with swagger and subtlety

Kitty Empire

29, Jan, 2022 @2:00 PM

Article image
Kojey Radical: Reason to Smile review – an era-defining Black British work
Hip-hop, neo-soul, jazz and rich storytelling work as one on the east London rapper’s long-awaited debut album

Kadish Morris

13, Mar, 2022 @3:00 PM

Article image
Vince Staples: ‘I’m talking about is real life. Not entertainment’
The Californian rapper has returned to his old LA stomping ground for new album Ramona Park Broke My Heart. It’s typically dextrous and incisive, but he asks that you check your voyeurism before listening

Michael Segalov

19, Apr, 2022 @7:00 AM

Article image
Power player: how 50 Cent went from rapper to unlikely TV kingpin
Once one of hip-hop’s biggest names, Curtis Jackson has bounced back from bankruptcy to create an expanded universe of glossy crime dramas. Just what is his secret?

Andrew Lawrence

15, Feb, 2022 @8:00 AM

Article image
Kae Tempest: ‘I was living with this boiling hot secret in my heart’
Speaking for the first time about coming out as non-binary, the hip-hop poet and playwright recalls the pain of adolescence, and how lyricism, rapping and music provided a lifeline

Michael Segalov

12, Mar, 2022 @9:30 AM

Article image
Rodney P meets Kojey Radical: 'I don't want my son to always have to fight'
In our series of cross-generational conversations between black artists, the two rappers discuss racism, identity, police shootings – and how to create a better future

Aniefiok Ekpoudom

25, Jun, 2020 @5:00 AM

Article image
‘Monumental for Black British culture’: the exhibition celebrating two decades of grime
A new show at the Museum of London tells the history of a scene that shaped British music, streetwear and slang – and launched the careers of Ghetts, Skepta and JME

Joseph JP Patterson

14, Jun, 2022 @7:00 AM