One to watch: Kojey Radical

With his focus on themes of race, class and justice, the young British poet is bringing credibility to socially conscious rap music

As grime continues to dominate dancefloors in 2017, it’s not the only inner-city sound to push black British music in bold new directions. Elsewhere, another wave of young experimentalists are swapping swirling moshpits for soul searching, and giving socially conscious rap a shock to the system.

Among them is Kojey Radical, gravel-voiced spoken-word poet and mixed-media artist who is so snappily dressed he could make Kanye West break a sweat. His three EPs so far explore issues of identity, race, class and social unrest while sounding somewhere between Roots Manuva’s rasping theatricality and the sculptural minimalism of FKA twigs. Last year’s notable track Gallons, for example, confronts “how I feel every time I see my brothers get stopped and searched, or when I hear about another person of colour amount to nothing more than a commemorative hashtag”. His music videos, often shot around Hoxton where he grew up and still lives with his mother, are a way for him to comment on London’s engulfing gentrification.

The pairing of “socially conscious” with “UK rap” was at one point considered more worthy than cutting-edge. However, the 24-year-old’s releases feel genuinely radical. He subscribes to the Kendrick Lamar school of thought, which is “making everything we need to speak about sound good. My music comes from the same place.”

Kojey Radical (whose real name is Kwadwo Adu Genfi Amponsah) has the charisma of a hip-hop mogul, but unlike his peers he never aspired to be a rapper. “Until you find who you are there’s no point,” he says, “because you’re just going to rap like your favourite rapper.”

His first published piece was a poem he wrote aged nine (“about these monsters who wanted to be in the hall of fame”) but it wasn’t until much later, as a student – after a college visit from the performance poet Suli Breaks – that he started considering spoken word seriously. “I needed young black examples of people doing it for me to think it was possible,” he says.

By his final year at the London College of Fashion he had transferred from illustration to music and handed in his first EP as his end-of-year project. “Some of my tutors told me I would fail – but I got a first”. These days he doesn’t feel restricted to one musical genre, as long as the music does the job of underlining his lyrics. “I don’t have to worry about having all my beats at a certain BPM,” he says. “If people hear a ballad from me one day, I don’t want them to be surprised if I then drop a trap song or a reggae song.”

His no-holds-barred approach to lyrics was inspired by the similarly ambidextrous New York City poet Saul Williams. “He said, ‘Write with the urgency and honesty of someone [with] a gun to your head’.” Kojey Radical doesn’t want to censor himself because he doesn’t want to leave room for regret.

“When you want to fit in you start to compromise, thinking, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t talk about this level of politics, or maybe I shouldn’t talk about race like this’. People are scared. But I don’t want to get to the end of this and feel like I could’ve said more. You have a responsibility to the people who care about what you create.”

Kojey Radical: After Winter

He says this is why “highlighting the truth, highlighting dialogue that allows people to have more open conversations is where I find the balance in everything.”

For his third EP, In Gods Body, Kojey Radical is turning the lens on himself. Following his previous release, 23 Winters – which presented a dystopian vision of London and explored the generational differences with his Ghanaian father – it imagines a feminised utopia where Chewing Gum creator Michaela Coel plays the voice of God. If that sounds a little surreal, the EP is also Kojey Radical’s way of reassessing his views on manhood and sexuality.

“I learned all of those things in a hyper-masculine sense,” he says, “that boys are meant to be strong, we don’t cry, we’re providers. These are social constructs that don’t articulate what life is. There were so many things I had to unlearn.”

Kojey Radical says he feels like an outsider “a lot of the time, because my approach hasn’t been taken before”, and yet he speaks with the gentle confidence of someone who senses that everyone’s ears will eventually bend to him. He has already been called a voice of a generation but he says he’s not seeking fame, just change.

“I’m waiting for a day when the idea of speaking out and being opinionated is the norm,” he says. “That’s when being a voice of a generation means something, otherwise I’m just a voice in a generation.”

Kojey Radical plays the Boy Better Know takeover at the O2, 27 August; the EP In Gods Body is out 1 September


Kate Hutchinson

The GuardianTramp

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