Little Simz: 'My friend going to prison tore my community apart'

It may by inspired by burnout and trauma, but the London rapper’s compelling third album Grey Area is full of defiant energy. As she says, ‘I don’t care who I offend’

Four years ago, Little Simz released her first album, A Curious Tale of Trials + Persons. In the opening track, Persons, she mused on the pressures of being a breakout female rapper. “They told her women cannot call themselves kings / They told her fame is not made for everyone,” she snarled. “They told her stop while you’re ahead, Simbi/The industry will break you, Simbi.” But it wasn’t until last year that it almost did.

“For the last four years I’ve spent so much time touring,” says the MC when we meet, a stone’s throw from Islington, London, where she grew up. “It was taking its toll on my physical and mental health, and I was burnt out. When you’re living in hotels and not eating and monitoring your health properly, you don’t realise, because every day feels like a weekend … it’s not normal to live like that. After years on end it becomes a bit tedious. At least it did for me. Loneliness struck.”

Although she’s only 25, Simz is about to put out her third album, Grey Area, the follow-up to Stillness in Wonderland, in 2016. It is her most accomplished work to date, both introspective and politically aware. Over euphoric strings, jazz flutes and punk guitar riffs, Simz passes a magnifying glass over herself, leaving no scar unexamined by her dextrous wordplay.

This process, she says, required her to take a leap of faith. While Simz had written Stillness in Wonderland on tour, she knew that for the first time in her career she “needed to be in one place” to write Grey Area. “I was missing out on the lives of the people close to me. If I didn’t do that tour I wouldn’t have had the urge to go and write this album. You know, my nephew just had his first football game, and I wanted to be more present.”

Little Simz performing at Bergenfest in Norway in 2018.
Little Simz performing at Bergenfest in Norway in 2018. Photograph: PYMCA/UIG via Getty Images

The producer and childhood friend Inflo helped Simz reevaluate her way of working. As soon as she finished a tour with Gorillaz, she flew straight to Los Angeles and the pair hit the studio. “The first few days we just talked for days on end. He was trying to get me to open up, to pick things to draw from.”

Simz ended up voicing her emotions with striking ferocity. One of the biggest jaw-drop moments comes in Sherbert Sunset, a title that “only he would understand”. Over a funky guitar riff, she chronicles the callous actions of an ex-boyfriend who left her before starting a family with another woman. “What a waste of chemistry, energy and empathy / Wonder when you planned to tell me about her pregnancy?/You have no integrity, emotion or respect for me.” She winces slightly at hearing her lyrics quoted back at her. “So many people are going to hear that, it’s kind of scary,” she says. “It was a straight up ‘you’re dropped’ kind of thing, and I moved on. I’m not trying to trash talk [him], it’s not a revenge song, but I hadn’t sat in my emotions and really understood how I felt.”

She may be a Kendrick Lamar-approved star, rumoured to take a role in the Drake-produced Netflix series Top Boy – something she remains tight-lipped about – but before all this, she was Simbi Ajikawo, a kid from north London who was always late for school because she was stopping off at Greggs. She was “the girl who rapped” because she could: “That’s how everyone knew me.” From the age of nine, she started doing freestyles at her local youth club, and she credits these early performances with giving her the confidence to pursue a career in music. Last year, an enquiry into London’s youth services found that 81 youth clubs and youth council projects had closed since 2011, including the one she attended. “The building still exists, but the youth club is no longer there,” she says. “There are so many kids who are just as talented and just as hungry, but they don’t have anywhere to go out and do it. So where do we then find these kids?”

In the song 101 FM, Simz considers the effect on her community of a friend being sent to prison. As of this year, more than half of the inmates held in prisons for young people in England and Wales are from a black or minority ethnic background, the highest proportion on record. “It’s just fact,” she shrugs. “When Ken went away there was something missing. Growing up, we were like a family, and that was something that tore my area apart and left this gap. But the law doesn’t care that someone going to prison is lowkey tearing apart our community. Nobody got in touch.”

She wrote Wounds the day she found out her friend, the actor and model Harry Uzoka, had been murdered. “I remember waking up, Googling, trying to find out as many details as I could and going to the studio in bits,” she says. “I sat in the dark in tears and I didn’t go on socials to see everyone posting ‘RIP’ – and because I didn’t do that, I was able to write Wounds.”

During her lowest moments, Simz was told she should consider therapy. “But I didn’t feel like I wanted to sit on someone else’s sofa and dish out my issues to a stranger so they could charge me by the minute,” she says. Instead, making Grey Area has been Simz’s version of therapy (one of the tracks is called Therapy). “I’m speaking from a perspective of, like, if I were to go to therapy, this is what I’d be saying.” She maintains that the real test will be in her ability to play these songs live. “Sometimes, if you’re not over things and you go to play a gig, it feels like opening up a wound that hasn’t healed.”

As powerful as its darker moments are, Grey Area is, in its essence, a celebration, full of defiant energy. On Offence, she recruits a chorus of young girls to chant its empowering refrain: “I’ll say it with my chest and I don’t care who I offend.” “They’re strong young girls of colour and I’m representing their story,” she says. “It’s their time. There are so many talented women of colour doing amazing things, not just in music, and I wanted to celebrate that. There’s still a way to go and a lot of women who aren’t being heard, but the times are changing.”

Elsewhere on the album, she recruits another childhood friend, the Black Panther star Letitia Wright. “I’ve always known Tish would go on to do great things,” she says, proudly. “Her success is a win for me, and for so many other women that look like me.” Simz photographed Wright for the artwork of her single Selfish, a powerful and intriguing image in which Wright looks calm and defiant while mysterious hands gently pull her in different directions. It signifies a more arty approach, something that Simz seems to increasingly be dabbling in. There are several Picasso references on the album. “I just think he’s a very talented artist,” she says with a grin. “And so am I.”

Grey Area by Little Simz is out on Age 101.

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Shannon Mahanty

The GuardianTramp

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