A humble soul who transformed onstage: a tribute to my wonderful friend Ebow Graham of Foreign Beggars

Writer Alicia Kirby remembers the influential artist, a natty dresser with a self-deprecating sense of humour, who has died at the age of 40

Ebow called me last Saturday. He often did this with his closest friends, despite his busy global touring schedule as MC Metropolis in the acclaimed UK hip-hop group Foreign Beggars. He did it just to check in, to see if you were OK, to catch up. He talked about how he’d turned into a mean tarot card reader and how excited he was for people to hear his first solo record under his producer moniker Elliott Yorke.

Less than a week later, at the age of 40, Ebow passed away unexpectedly. We were friends for 18 years.

As a rapper in Foreign Beggars, Ebow’s poetic lyricism and unique baritone voice influenced some of the most esteemed hip-hop and bass music producers of the past two decades. I became friends with Ebow and fellow Foreign Beggars founding member Pavan Mukhi (aka Orifice Vulgatron) in my late teens. We shared a large and tight-knit friendship group in London, spending our messy youths bound together by our collective love for music.

Foreign Beggars were one of the first UK underground hip-hop acts to blend hip-hop with electronic music. Even at the beginning, when we would go and watch all their performances at Cargo, Fabric and smaller, now-long-gone venues, we knew that there was something palpably special about the infectious and upbeat energy that they exuded onstage.

The experimental group came onto the scene in 2002, and over time they branched out to pioneer a musical style that fearlessly blended rap with grime, dubstep and drum ‘n’ bass, collaborated with luminaries of the latter genres, such as Skrillex and Noisia. It was a sound that paved the way for UK hip-hop and vocal-led bass music as it is today, directly influencing many artists such as Loyle Carner and the poet and musician Kate Tempest, with whom Foreign Beggars collaborated.

Although Foreign Beggars split up in May, having released their final album, ‘Matriarchy’, last year, Ebow enjoyed 17 years of the group’s close friendship. Together with core group members James Miller aka DJ NoNames and producer Dag Nabbit, he travelled the world non-stop, touring with the likes of The Prodigy.

Ebow was born in London to Ghanian parents, one of two boys and nine half-siblings. Aged seven, a year after his parents divorced, he moved to Ghana to live with his grandmother. His mother, the late Efua Dorkenoo, OBE, stayed in the UK to campaign against FGM (female genital mutilation). “Ebow had an incredible sense of purpose,” says his brother Kobina, who was responsible for first igniting Ebow’s love for hip-hop. “He was all about his music in the same way that his mother was about empowering girls.”

Ebow’s relationship with his mother was reciprocal: she always encouraged his musical talents and he took huge pride in her work. He was influenced by the strong women his mother introduced him to, including Tracy Chapman and playwright and poet-rapper Sarah Jones.

Ebow Graham onstage at Lovebox festival in 2013. Credit: Getty

Ebow loved clothes. He was a natty and pitch-perfect dresser. He always looked unapproachably cool, but upon meeting him people were disarmed by his friendliness. A shepherd of new talent, he generously lent his time, expertise and mentorship to young artists such as Jessie Rose and the late Baytrilla. And although he was a serious, considered and cerebral guy, Ebow often giggled – it was an endearing, joyful and infectious sound that would erupt from his large frame. He would also quite readily giggle at himself.

One of Ebow’s closest friends, the actor Ed Skrein, who collaborated on Foreign Beggars’ breakout 2003 debut album ‘Asylum speakers’, says: “Ebow was a truth seeker – searching for self-progression, peace and balance on a physical, emotional and spiritual plane.” It was this search for truth that, later in his life, led him down an increasingly spiritual path. He was trying to make sense of his place in the universe, and to establish how he could align that with his music.

The debut solo album that he talked to me about last Saturday will now see a posthumous release. It will feature beats and flourishes that he deftly pulled out of thin air, like magic, with him singing over the top (he was looking forward to surprising fans accustomed to hearing him rap).

This week Pavan, with whom he’d made so much wonderful music as Foreign Beggars, messaged me a voice note that Ebow had sent him about the project: “Let’s try and create a piece of visual magic that is going to have people believing in magic. I want people to regain their sense of wonder. The whole purpose of this project is that I just want to bring light to the industry. I want it to be mystical. I want it to be magical. I want the overall feel to be really positive. What I’m trying to do is create really light, positive, spiritual messages over really dark wavy beats. Bob Marley-esque, almost. Really pure. It just has to be positive.”

A week after Ebow’s passing, the music that he produced under his Elliott Yorke moniker – a tribute to his mother’s maiden name – was live-streamed on NTS Radio by Francesca Macri (aka “Chesca” aka DJ System Olympia), the mother of their 10-year old son, Cassius. More than 150 of his closest friends from around the world gathered on a WhatsApp tribute group to comment with delight, awe and sadness at the masterful hour of lo-fi cosmic boogie that Chesca cut with samples of voice notes from Ebow and Cassius. We were alone, but together.

Ebow was a kind and humble soul who transformed onstage into a force larger than life and his legacy of gentle greatness now lives on through Cassius. And it is for Cassius that I write this tribute, because Ebow would have wanted you to know just how much he always loved you. How he was in awe of, and inspired by, the new shade of joyful love that your arrival bore. As he wrote on the track ‘Vultures’: “I feel the love for my son and it beams.”

Readers can listen to the ‘System Olympia: Elliot Yorke’ tribute show, referenced in this article, through NTS Radio. Foreign Beggars have set up a JustGiving page to support Ebow Graham’s family and to contribute to his son Cassius’ future