Little Simz: ‘Every story told in Top Boy, I’ve witnessed a version’

The rapper on being cast in the new series of the London drama, and meeting its biggest fan, Drake

• Read an interview with Top Boy writer Ronan Bennett

Simbiatu Abisola Abiola Ajikawo – better known as rapper Little Simz – was born in north London in 1994. She started acting aged nine, appearing in the BBC series Spirit Warriors and E4’s Youngers, before turning to music. Her third album, Grey Area, released in March, was described by Pitchfork as “a wickedly assured, highly entertaining, coming-of-age marvel”. In Top Boy, she plays Shelley, “a driven, independent single mum… who wants to break out and do better in life”.

How did you end up in the show?
The link came from Kano [the rapper who plays Sully in all three series of Top Boy]. They were gearing up for this season and I guess Kano put in a good word for me. I had three auditions. The first time I walked out thinking, Ah, I don’t think it’s mine, but then I got a recall.

Were you a fan of the first two series?
A huge fan. I was at school when it first came out and that’s what everyone was talking about – the fact that we finally had a TV show that represented us.

You grew up not far from Hackney, where the series is set. Did it ring true?
Yeah for sure. Every story that’s being told in this series, I’ve witnessed [a version of it] first-hand. Even the character I’m playing, I know this person in real life. It’s very close to home.

Was it surreal shooting a TV drama in the area where you grew up?
t was. It gave me another outlook on this area, because growing up here we felt like this place was worth nothing. It was essentially a shithole, there’s no opportunity here and nothing to do. And now we’re filming this Netflix series here. The contrast was surreal. But it felt great. As we were filming, people were walking past, going, “Top Boy’s back!” The community was super-excited and happy that we’re doing this and still remaining true, basing it in the same areas, keeping that realness.

Hackney has changed a lot over the past decade due to gentrification, and knife crime is on the rise. How do you feel about the area now?
There’s been some development, but there’s still a very long way to go and the same problems are there. Just making it clear, Top Boy definitely does not glamorise or glorify what’s happening, it’s just a real representation of our world today. This show is going to open up eyes and hopefully help ignite change.

Simz in the new series of Top Boy.
Simz in the new series of Top Boy. Photograph: Chris Harris/Netflix

The south London rapper Dave has a key role in the new series, alongside yourself and Kano. Was it a conscious decision to cast musicians in the show?
I just think Kano and Dave are really talented actors. I don’t really know if casting them was a conscious decision, but it doesn’t feel like it to me: they do a great job.

There are also a lot of first-time actors in the cast…
That’s what’s so great about Top Boy, it doesn’t require you to have gone to acting school for five years, you can just have the gift – and they’ve given lots of young people an opportunity to be a part of it.

If your acting career took off, could you imagine giving up music?
No, I think I can do both for sure – as long as I can be really great at both things, and people don’t end up saying: “She only got the part because she’s Simz.”

Did you bump into Drake?
I only saw him once, at the read-through. It was cool that he actually made the effort to come down and spend time with the cast and immerse himself in it, but at the same time he wasn’t coming in to change everything up. He was like: “There’s a reason why I fell in love with this show, so you guys just continue doing that, and I’ll do whatever I can to help spread this.” It’s wicked that he’s involved.


Killian Fox

The GuardianTramp

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