Lady Leshurr is about to become queen of the grime scene. Leonie Cooper heads to carnival with the fast, furious and downright brilliant Brummie artist
“F**k me, she’s a f**king badass!” yells out a massively excitable teenage fan of Lady Leshurr after high-fiving the Birmingham-born grime-star-in- the-making. We’re behind the Red Bull stage at the Caribbean Carnival of Manchester and the 27-year-old (real name Melesha O’Garro) is taking turns between tap-tapping on her iPhone with perfectly manicured talons, taking selfies with starstruck kids and smiling broadly at everyone. This afternoon Alexandra Park is playing host to battling sound systems blaring out everything from jungle and drum & bass to dub and dancehall. Mixing the old with the new, Lady Leshurr’s set fits in perfectly. There’s a rowdy cover of Sister Nancy’s 1982 reggae classic ‘Bam Bam’ – as sampled on Kanye West’s ‘Famous’ – as well as her own ‘Queen’s Speech 4’, a hilarious viral hit from 2015 that’s sitting at an impressive 31.5 million YouTube hits and counting; and current single ‘Where Are You Now?’, a punchy, grime-pop banger that recalls the unfettered party vibes of Dizzee Rascal’s ‘Bonkers’.
“Who likes to mosh pit?” asks Leshurr to cheers and flailing limbs, as her backing dancers, both with the word ‘Queen’ emblazoned on their crop tops, hype up the young audience even further. Before we know it, there’s a circle pit worthy of the one Skepta started this summer on Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage.
This Lady knows how to work a crowd, for sure, but just how did we get here? After well over a decade of hard graft, that’s how. Before Leshurr’s carnival conquest, we find the only quiet place on site – inside a transit van parked next to some tennis courts – to hear about the evolution of one of Britain’s brightest talents, who’s currently working on her official debut album ‘Queen Of The Scene’, set for release next year.
It all began for Leshurr at the tender age of six, when she first started writing rhymes, rapping over old reggae numbers for her mum’s voicemail. “We used to have talent shows at our house every weekend and I would just rap my little bars,” remembers Leshurr in her thick Brummie brogue. She grew up in a house with one brother and two sisters – with a total of 11 brothers and three sisters across Birmingham. Her siblings were making music from a young age too, but Leshurr was the only one to stick with it, attending the youth club opposite her house to hone her skills, not just in front of the mic but behind it too, learning to produce and mix as well as sing and dance. At 14 she released her first mixtape under the name Lady L, the self-produced and self-promoted ‘Needle In A Haystack’, which she left on buses and handed out in the street. “I was literally doing anything to get people’s attention,” she explains. It worked, and before she knew it she was asked by Birmingham’s iconic Tempest Records – which closed in 2012 – if she wanted to sell her CDs in store. She was so excited that she was happy for them to be given away for free.
Yet despite her obvious talent and drive, growing up in a strict household meant that Leshurr’s father did his best to push his daughter into a more stable career. “He thought, ‘What’s the point because you’re not going to make it.’ He used to tell me, ‘You’ll never make it out of Birmingham – nobody ever makes it out of Birmingham.’” In order to appease him, the 5ft nothing Leshurr started work as a security guard, largely because she was told she was too tiny for the job. “But music was always on my mind, so I stopped working,” she continues. “I didn’t tell my father. I left the house and kept saying I was going to work, but I wasn’t – I was going to the studio.”
Back then she was making hip-hop, the kind of music she fell in love with after seeing the video for Eminem’s ‘My Name Is’ on cable channel The Box with her mum at the age of 12. “That was the day that everything changed for me,” she remembers, grinning. “Literally, I knew I wanted to become a rapper. I wanted to be exactly like him. I was studying him. I got all of his mixtapes, I got all his music and I got pictures of him all over my wall. I was absolutely obsessed. I was a Stan.”
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In recent years however, Leshurr’s own sound has become more affiliated with grime than with hip-hop. It was a shift that came about because of Leshurr’s own brand of humour, which leaps out of her recent releases; all witty asides, fast and furious put-downs and vivid visuals. So for those who continue to believe grime is just a London thing, think again. From Bugzy Malone in Manchester to Leshurr in Birmingham, grime is more of a countrywide movement than many have given it credit for. “It’s a UK thing,” confirms Leshurr. “I think there was a time where London kind of gave up hope on grime, but we were still banging it up in Birmingham and Nottingham and Leeds and Manchester. It’s not that we revived grime, but I think we kept it going.”
Despite this, Leshurr sees herself as somewhat set apart from the rest of the grime community, even though there’s a guest spot from Wiley on ‘Where Are You Now?’.
“I don’t have anybody y’know – it’s really sad but I don’t have a circle, I don’t have any industry friends, I don’t have anyone, literally,” she says. It’s a situation she’s keen to change, but one she puts down to her move to London a few years back. “I thought it was just because I’m from Birmingham and I felt like at the time Londoners were like, ‘We can’t let anybody from outside of London try to take over our thing.’” Now settled in Stratford, east London, she’s doing her best to make it work, and succeeding – playing sold-out shows in New York, slaying Glastonbury earlier this summer, meanwhile catching the ear of iconic producers like Timbaland.
Now nine mixtapes in, she’s keeping the details of her debut album on the down-low. What she will reveal is that she’s 70 per cent done and currently sorting out guest vocals, even chasing a contribution from Sister Nancy herself. The album title is ‘Queen Of The Scene’ and with the word also emblazoned on her merch, what does being a ‘queen’ mean to Leshurr? “Being a queen to me doesn’t mean I think I’m the best, but when I was trying to find myself and trying to get to know myself I wasn’t confident. But when I started to get more confident I realised I needed to start pushing up my chest a bit. I deserve to be treated like a queen.” That confidence can be seen and heard on all five of her Queen’s Speech tracks, the first of which appeared on YouTube in February 2015. Name-dropping everything from Nando’s and cheesy Wotsits to Rachel Dolezal and Leshurr’s own casual aim to win a Grammy, the fast-talking, wise-cracking series showcases Leshurr’s humour but also stands out due to her refusal to swear or rap about violence.
“I don’t feel the need to swear. I grew up on one of the most foul-mouthed rappers in the world, but it’s all about mentality and upbringing,” she says. “My mum brought me up really good and I knew my rights from wrongs.” Leshurr is adamant that musicians should set a good example to young people. “Parents say that they let their kids listen to me, and that makes me feel good. I’ve set out to be a role model.”
For Lady Leshurr, giving back to the community is paramount. In 2014 she took a year out from making music to help others with making theirs instead. Setting up Lady Leshurr’s Rap College, she travelled the country speaking to wannabe MCs, artists and poets. “Adults can look after themselves, but the youths of today aren’t getting the right guidance that they should be getting from their parents. It’s like they’re just allowed to roam the streets. I’m hearing so many kids talking about sex, at the age where I would be playing football or at the studio,” she says. “It really gets me upset because I don’t know what the world is going to be in the next five years. We need youth clubs to get kids off the street and doing something productive. If we had facilities they would turn to than, rather than violence and drugs.”
It’s not just giving back to the wider community that’s important to Leshurr; it’s about something closer to home. When we ask what her favourite track is, she’s quick to answer ‘Queen’s Speech 4’, the song that gave her a global platform and her first taste of mainstream attention. But it’s not the resulting phone call from Timbaland, shout-out from Erykah Badu or props from Akon she’s referencing, but that she was able to use the money to help her mother. “It cured my mum’s life. I got my mum a mortgage because of that [track]. That’s all I ever wanted.”
Success for Leshurr isn’t about getting her face on billboards and tracks on the radio. “I went into music to get my mum out of her struggle. I promised her when I was 12 and it took over a decade, but it’s all paid off.” Leshurr’s got where she is by refusing to compromise and retaining full creative control. “I’m very sensitive and emotional when people try to interfere with my music or vision,” she states, explaining how she made the beats for all of the Queen’s Speech project – by beat-boxing into her phone, then taking the files into the studio to work on. “I know exactly how I want the song to be. I think that’s why it became so successful, ’cause it’s all come from me. It’s all organic.”
Expect this grit and determination to be at the very forefront of her debut album, which promises to be every bit as exhilarating as Leshurr herself. “I wanted to bring back fun to the industry. But it’s not all I wanna say – not everyone wants to laugh all the time; some people want to connect and feel pain when they’re hearing songs. That’s what the album is going to prove, that I can do everything.” We don’t doubt it for a second.