Little Simz: “People expect Black people to have all the answers”

Lockdown is no obstacle for the British rapper, who’s spent the time perfecting the quarantine-produced ‘Drop 6’ EP and prepping her new radio show 101FM

In a pandemic, there are roughly two types of stay-at-homers. There are the ones who lean into the nothingness, racking up eight different Netflix shows a day in last week’s tracksuit bottoms and accepting that this just isn’t their year. And then there are ones for whom stopping feels akin to surrender. They make a book, a radio show, and one of the finest EPs of the year. Unsurprisingly, Little Simz is the latter.

She might have had, she says, “the best year of her life” in 2019, but it’s fair to say that 2020 has poked a pretty sizable stick in her wheel’s momentum. This time last year, the London rapper was riding high from the success of ‘Grey Area’, her Mercury-nominated third studio album that seemed to put pay to the idea that sleeping on her work could be anything of an option – an NME Award for Best British Album in February capped off the run.

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Credit: Getty

On the day we speak, Simz tells us that she should have been out filming season four of Top Boy, the Drake-backed cult Netflix reboot in which she appears as driven young mother Shelley. As somebody prone to over-filling her diary, she’s been grateful for the break she didn’t know she needed. But even with limited resources, her restless energy has brought her back to music – see 101FM, her newly launched four-episode podcast of playlist recommendations, and last month’s ‘Drop 6’ EP, which is the latest in a line of spontaneous projects, the ‘Drop’ series of EPs, that dates right back to 2014.

“Mate! I am more than happy,” she beams over video call, dialling in from the sofa of her Islington home. “I did not expect to be doing big magazine features off the back of this EP. I’m really pleased that it’s picked up all this great reaction. I’m definitely a perfectionist and I want everything that I do to be of a standard. Whether or not people like it or take to it is a whole other thing, but if I feel good about what I’ve accomplished, I think that’s all that matters. By the way, is the sound of my washing machine annoying? No? Cool.”

“I’m a very private person, but I’m very open in my music”

Having set to work on the EP in early April, Simz wasn’t immune to the emotional ups and downs we’ve all been experiencing in lockdown. Writing to her fans on Instagram, she laid her early frustrations bare – feeling like she didn’t have anything to offer, upset that she couldn’t visit her mum (who stole the show during her daughter’s NME Awards acceptance speech, receiving applause for proudly brandishing the gong) 10 minutes away.

A low-key dispute with a neighbour about noise also disrupted her natural workflow, forcing her to record in the evenings. “That didn’t matter though, because I was already giving up on the EP anyway,” she wrote on the ’Gram. “After serious procrastination, I decided to stop being a lil bitch and cry baby and knuckle down on the EP.” What inspired her to get back on track?

“I was just on Instagram one day, watching Ghetts do one of his live sessions from his garden,” she says. “Just seeing the energy of his performance was getting me gassed. As I was watching that live, I got sent the beat for ‘might bang, might not’ – like literally, the message popped up at the top of the screen from my producer Kal Banx. I opened it, heard it and knew it was exactly what I needed. I was so hyped, wrote to it instantly, recorded it, but even then I was unsure. Sometimes that happens where you hype yourself up so much and when you actually put the idea down, it isn’t what you had in your head. I was so unsure about it, but I was just trying to remember the initial feeling I had… like, ‘It might bang; it might not’, y’know?”

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Little Simz on the cover of NME

A triumph in the face of her own self-doubt, the EP’s opener definitely falls into the ‘does bang’ category. Laying down an infectious sense of confidence over a skittering beat, it embraces its rough-and-ready delivery with a knowing intuition – “this is for the now”. While she references the struggles of lockdown directly on the excellent ‘you should call mum’ (“crabs in the barrel like, everybody’s in this / Times we livin’ in don’t seem real / But it was never a fairy tale to begin with”), Simz deftly avoids dipping into cheesy ‘sign of the times’ indulgence, making something that will have legs outside of the current moment.

“It’s not to say that I can’t create something of a certain standard in my house,” she says, “because I can and I’ve proven it, but the reality is that, in this situation, I don’t have the luxury of bringing in a string quartet and a band of session musicians. There is a limitation there, but I think it’s cool that I got to go back into that headspace of being 18 at my mum’s, with just my speakers and my pen and my beats. It’s cool to tap into that sometimes, just to know that I come from this, and even when the world stops, I can still produce something that I can feel proud of at the end of the day.”

She adds: “That doesn’t mean I’ve got to go and give off this whole demeanour like no one can chat to me now, but I’m allowed to be confident and bold in my music. I’m allowed to speak and say how I feel.”

What about that pissed-off neighbour? Is he cool with you now?

“I haven’t heard from him, to be honest, so that probably says a lot!”

Maybe you should slide a finished copy under his door – something of a peace offering?

“Ha! I should innit!”

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Although the ‘Drop’ series was never designed to be taken as anything other than spontaneous expression, there is no denying that the success of her 2019 breakthrough album has brought about a sizable increase in both audience and expectation.

First shared on SoundCloud in 2014, ‘Drop 1’ is dense and mystical, Simz reflecting on unfinished uni assignments and industry frustrations with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it lyrical speed. Five years on, the 26-year-old hasn’t lost any of her wit or candour, but her vocal is much more direct, reflective of her ability to cater for a growing audience.

“A lot of people didn’t get why I called it ‘Drop 6’, or weren’t aware of the five others that I’d done,” she says. “There’s always going to be the day ones, and then day fives that jumped on at ‘Grey Area’ and now expect everything I do from that point on to sound like that. It’s fine, and I still love them, but it just means that I have to try and cater to both parties.”

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With her fanbase now including a substantial number of day fives, Simz seems both surprised by the crossover appeal of ‘Grey Area’, and confident that her invitation to the mainstream was always in the post.

“I think it was just that it was 10 songs that were concise and very in-your-face,” she says, pondering the specific reasons for the record’s appeal. “I really hope that doesn’t sound like I’m tooting my own horn, but sonically, I wasn’t hearing anything like it. And it’s mad, because if you listen to the stuff that I was making when I was 16, 17, it sounds exactly like ‘Grey Area’. I’ve always wanted to make a record like that; I’ve always been experimental doing live stuff and doing rocky and edgy stuff.

“Intention is a big part of everything”

She touches on an important note about genre. As a Black female rapper, she’s been playlisted heavily on BBC 6 Music and featured on Kasabian guitarist Serge Pizzorno’s debut solo album ‘The SLP’ last year. It’s led her to cross over to predominantly white indie audiences in a way that not all UK rappers have. It’s perhaps a promising indication of the music industry’s ability to diversify, finally moving beyond boundaries of genre that are often shrouded in racial stereotypes.

“I think streaming has a lot to do with it, but I feel like artists are also clocking that you don’t have to just stay in one particular type of music,” she says. “You can be flexible and mix a rap vocal with an indie sound, or whatever it is. It hasn’t got to be so stuck in one thing. It’s exactly the same when I do shows and look out to the audience like, ‘So this is what you like, eh’? That’s not me being judgemental, but damn, it’s so cool that people are being a bit more open about giving other things a try.

“Even in rap, not every rapper can be conscious – I don’t want to listen to that all day. If you go to the cinema, you can’t just look on the board and see that all the films are comedies – you need a romance, you need a horror. You need options.”

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Little Simz with her mum at the NME Awards 2020, where she picked up Best British Album for ‘Grey Area’. Credit: Dean Chalkley

Fans will get to know Simz’s own tastes a lot better through her other lockdown project, 101FM. Sharing a name with her nostalgia-inducing single, the four-episode radio show will see her best picks of under-the-radar music across a multitude of genres.

“I’ve been trying to keep my spirits up, so I’ve just been listening to feel good shit to be honest,” she says. “There’s an artist called Baby Keem who I think is cool; I also like bbymutha who is an artist from the [American] South. She is so hard; I just believe her, you know? I listen to and like a lot of rap music, and whatever it is you’re saying doesn’t matter, I just need to believe it.”

“It’s important to be honest about not knowing shit”

Simz will also be joined on an episode by her DJ OTG, an artist who’s just released his debut ‘EP’ ‘Ferry’ on her record label, Age 101. “The type of music he makes probably won’t be picked up on Radio 1, so it’s cool that I can have this platform to share people like him who make this cool weird shit that there’s most definitely an audience for. To be honest, that’s one of the low-key greatest things about being independent – I get to do what I want, purely just out of love without this big money element. I’m not making any money off 101FM, but I don’t need to do that – I just want to.”

Supporting her peers and community is vital to everything Simz does. She shows NME a beautiful coffee table book she has recently made for her friends, chronicling their experiences of lockdown alongside her passion project of photography. “Lots of people have asked if I’m going to release it, but this is just for them – the EP is for everyone else.”

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Credit: Alamy

Throughout our chat, Simz is thoughtful about the aspects of herself that she is willing to share. The heightened conversation around Black Lives Matter isn’t lost on her, but instead of posting a lengthy Twitter statement, she shared a link to ‘Pressure’, a song from ‘Grey Area’ that does all the talking for her: “Take a walk in my shoes / or any other young Black person in this age / All we ever know is pain / All we ever know is rage”.

“I’m definitely being very mindful of how much I consume from socials at the moment,” she says. “It’s hella noisy, and there are so many opinions flying around where everyone thinks they’re right. Intention is a big part of everything, and I feel like some people just do things because they don’t want the finger to get pointed at them. With that comes this guilt element; I don’t think guilt is necessarily the right emotion to be led with when it comes to inciting any long-lasting change. That’s my personal opinion, anyway.”

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Little Simz (and mum) making their way onstage at the NME Awards 2020. Credit: Joseph Bishop

What about the music industry? An industry-wide blackout highlighted the overdue nature of anti-racism action at labels and stations, but there have still been some promising signs in recent years that Black-British artists might be getting their props – see: Stormzy at Glastonbury and grime crossing over to the US. Does Little Simz think this improvement is matched behind the scenes?

“There’s a lot more that can be done, but I think it’s a wider conversation to be had, to be honest,” she reasons. “It’s probably one that us Black artists also need to have amongst ourselves, about how we can support each other internally. There’s this thing that happens with Black women particularly where there can only ever be one of us doing well at a time – it’s bullshit, but of course they’re going to keep pushing that narrative until we say, ‘Nah, we’re all going to exist here and you just have to accept that’.

“People expect Black people to have all the answers, and there’s still so much that even me myself, I don’t know. I’m still trying to educate myself and learn. Conversations are important, and people being honest about not knowing shit. You haven’t got to act like you have all the answers.”

“People are going to fuck with the new series of Top Boy

Simz does have some answers, though, about how she’d like her personal future to look. Filming for Top Boy might be on a coronavirus-induced break, but she’s hopeful that new episodes will still be out by the end of the year.

“I’ve read a few of the scripts and it feels really good – I think people are going to fuck with it,” she smiles. “It’s Top Boy innit! The acting is going to be A1; I have no doubt that it’s going to do exactly what it needs to do. I think it’s been really good for me. Going from a place where everything I do is on me to acting on a Netflix show – you ain’t got control like that. It’s taught me a real element of letting go, and understanding that you haven’t got to control everything that you’re a part of. Sometimes you can just do the piece and step back and let it do its thing. That’s a huge part of my growth.”

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There’s also the small matter of another album – because why would Simz slow down now?

“Mate, it’s already on!” she laughs. “I was in the studio in America and then obviously all this shit happened so I had to come home and just sit on what I’d done so far to work on the EP. It’s definitely not a ‘Grey Area Two’ – it’s much more about family. As much as I am a very private person, I’m very open in my music. It’s not easy, especially when I know I’m going to be asked about it afterwards. My relationships are changing – some are growing stronger; some are wearing off.

“There are so many everyday challenges that we all face. Some are just about being a woman – I just want to talk about having ovulation pains and trying not to leave the house. I’m 26 now; I wrote ‘Grey Area’ when I was 23, so that’s three years where a lot has gone by. A lot! What can I say – I just wanna go, y’know?”

Her neighbour best invest in some new soundproofing, then…

Little Simz’s 101FM will launch on her website on June 19, with shows broadcast on Worldwide FM at 11pm each Friday.