When Little Simz invited her mum on stage to help collect her Brit award for best new artist this week, it quickly became the evening’s standout moment. “Look at what you’ve done, Mum!” she told her, kicking off a powerful acceptance speech that turned her journey from council estate to awards ceremony podium into an inspirational allegory. The 27-year-old said she was “living proof that if you work hard at something, no matter where you come from, your background, your race, you can be something extraordinary”.
Yet fans of the rapper were confused by the prize for “new artist”. Having released her debut mixtape in 2010, Simz now has four critically lauded albums under her belt, including last year’s Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, a thought-provoking and utterly unique record that earned many five-star reviews and was widely considered a new high-water mark for British rap. It reached No 4 in the UK albums chart, the accomplishment that earned her Brit nomination – artists must have had a top 40 album or two top 20 singles to qualify. Before that, she had been endorsed by huge stars including Kendrick Lamar and Stormzy. In other words, the north Londoner, born Simbiatu Ajikawo, is far from a fledgling talent.
It wasn’t solely her powerful speech, nor her mum, that made this year’s Brits Simz’s night. Her spectacular performance also provided the musical peak, outshining Ed Sheeran and Adele. She performed two recent singles: the imperious Introvert, in which she was held aloft by swathes of dancers, and the gleefully groovy Woman, a celebration of Black womanhood. In between was a spoken-word interlude from Emma Corrin, AKA The Crown’s Diana, Princess of Wales, who also appears on the album.
Other artists were keen to congratulate Simz when picking up their own awards. Dave, who took home the best hip-hop/rap/grime prize, said he was “so proud” of the musician, while Adele wished her “a massive congratulations”. Adele’s crowd-pleasing balladry and Simz’s uncompromising hip-hop may seem worlds apart, but they have something crucial in common. Both have drawn on the talents of the producer Inflo, leader of the mysterious musical collective Sault and the winner, unsurprisingly, of the Brit award for producer of the year.
Simz grew up with her Nigerian mother, a foster carer, in Islington, north London, and attended school in nearby Highbury. It was at Mary’s Youth Club that her talents for music and dance were nurtured, and where she first met Inflo. The youth centre has been described by Simz as “the place where it all began for me … a second home”.
Aston Wood, who runs the youth club, says Mary’s provides a “safe space for young people to hang out and have fun”, particularly those without the money to afford other leisure activities. It also helps students fulfil their ambitions by connecting them with otherwise inaccessible opportunities and by introducing them to “other adults that could inspire them”.
After her Brits win, Simz is one of them. “It’s really helpful for us to be able to speak about Simbi and how hard she worked when she was at the youth club and the years after,” says Wood. “Our young people can relate to her. We can say she did it and you can too.”
At Mary’s Simz also met the actor Letitia Wright, the star of Marvel’s Black Panther who also appeared in Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror. The pair have remained close friends and collaborators: in 2019, Simz photographed Wright for the artwork for her single Selfish. Wright says she has been a fan of her friend’s music “since I was a teenager. Her growth, dedication to the craft and impact through her talent is beautiful to witness.”
Simz, too, initially found success as an actor. At 16 she starred on the BBC children’s fantasy series Spirit Warriors; three years later she appeared in Youngers, an E4 comedy-drama about a group of aspiring musicians. Acting is still an important element of her career: in 2019 she played the carer Shelley in the Drake-assisted Netflix reboot of the organised-crime drama Top Boy. She will reprise her role when the show returns in March.
Ronan Bennett, Top Boy’s creator and writer, cites Simz’s “stillness, poise and integrity” as key to her success in the role – qualities familiar to fans of her thoughtful, idiosyncratic music. The series, a naturalistic depiction of life on a Hackney estate, has been lauded for its subtle, realistic performances. It is also known for its ensemble cast, featuring the rappers Kano and Dave. Bennett describes Simz as “quietly confident and good with directors and her fellow cast. She doesn’t have to try to project or impose herself in a scene. She’s there, and you can’t miss her.”
While Simz is clearly multi-talented, music is her primary form of self-expression. In 2015 she released her debut album, A Curious Tale of Trials + Persons. Sonically ambitious and lyrically dense, it would set the tone for Simz’s eccentric, genre-bending future output. Other artists quickly began to take notice: in 2016 she was picked as tour support by Lauryn Hill. The following year Kendrick Lamar called her “the illest doing it right now”. In 2019 Stormzy – who had collaborated with her years before and guested during her live shows – said she was a “legend”.
Despite her embrace by the rap scene at large, Little Simz’s individuality has nonetheless resisted categorisation. She prefers to recount the intricacy of her inner monologue than embrace the humour and sexualisation of rap’s biggest female stars. And although affiliated with grime, her work ventures beyond the genre’s austere sound, taking reggae, blues, video game soundtracks, synth-rock and jazzy R&B. But like many of her UK rap peers, Simz has resisted signing to a label, releasing her music through her own Age 101 records.
This staunch independence and singularity – coupled with the fact that British female rappers have long struggled to find commercial success on home turf – may be why Simz’s rise has been so protracted. But there is an upside: the long haul has allowed her to hone her craft and cement her identity, making her perfectly primed for mainstream success.