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The intersection of football and UK rap is a storied, shared love affair in which British musicians have referenced everything from the Tory party being as right-wing as Portuguese winger Nani:
“Yeah we fucking party, middle fingers up like f*** the Tory party / They’re about as far right wing as Nani, so we start riots like we just lost the derby” – CASisDEAD, “All Hallows”
the prowess of Mohamed Salah’s finishing:
Know better, Anything (shh shh) / Excellent finish, Mo Salah” – OFB, “Know Better”
and Zinedine Zidane’s infamous headbutting incident during the 2006 World Cup final:
“All I know is O, when I spot man’s goal it’s nothing but headlock / treat these packs like Zidane in the World Cup final, they get sent off” – Headie One, “Back 2 Back”
Add in former Everton player Yannick Bolasie and retired Man City striker Bradley Wright-Phillips facing off in a rap battle in Lord of the Mics, and Chelsea centre-back Thiago Silva having an entire song dedicated to him, and football and British rap have never been more entwined.
Grime legends such as Skepta and Kano, and younger musicians like Dave and AJ Tracey, first popularised football references in their lyrics, and it has only continued; you’d be hard-pressed to find an MC who hasn’t included a ball-related rhyme in one of their bars.
Seventeen-year-old MC Zakhar found his passion in rapping and freestyling, going viral on TikTok for his frenzied rap battles that incorporate clever wordplay and careful lyricism.
“What I’d get inspiration from football is the wordplay. Like right-back, flack, whoever. Up-front, whoever, for example,” explains Zakhar. “Cause when you're freestyling, you just randomly think of crazy things in your head and you try to make it sound pleasing to the listener.”
Making allusions to footballers and football terms injects a fresh coat of intensity to the lyrics. Football is a competitive sport and using known references can only up the ante.
Take Stormzy, for example, using West Ham manager David Moyes – most notable for his infamous reign as the successor to Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United – as a vehicle for ammunition with his track “Know Me From”: “Look I don’t rate them boys, bare wasteman, bare pagan boys / I come to your team and I f*** shit up, I’m David Moyes”.
And consider Skepta’s mention of Thierry Henry leaving Arsenal for Barcelona as a way to measure loyalty – or, in this case, disloyalty – in “English Breakfast”: “My man are United like Giggs, I will never leave my Young Gunners like Thierry”.
Zakhar was raised as an Arsenal fan since childhood and lives right next to Emirates Stadium. “I can hear almost everything, every whistle,” he says, smiling. “Sometimes I’ll know what's happening in the game, even if I’m not watching it, because you can just hear everything.”
Similar to how burgeoning American rappers aspire to become NBA superstars, it’s been a common story for musicians to have first dabbled with the idea of being a professional footballer before ultimately deciding to pursue music instead.
Kano is the most famous and obvious example: the British rapper and Top Boy actor turned out for the likes of Chelsea and West Ham and showed steady promise as an athlete before ultimately committing to music.
This continues to be true with the newer crop of grime artists and rappers, who may have grown up aspiring to become professional Premier League footballers as children but then realising that making music was what they were fated to do instead.
“Everyone wants to be a professional footballer,” says the North London-based Zakhar. “You grew up watching Ronaldo and Messi and you wanted to be that, and I was lucky enough to be good at football. But it went from being a childhood dream for me, to not really enjoying it anymore.”
The young rapper was close to becoming a professional footballer and had a stint at Brentford for about a year and a half before the demanding schedule was too much to take, both mentally and physically. Zakhar discovered that he enjoyed writing music and doing freestyles on Instagram more than he enjoyed training.
“The more I was doing it, I was losing my mind,” says the 17-year-old. “Once I came back from school, I was going to the gym. By the time I finished gym, I was tired. I didn’t have time to go outside and see my friends. But for some people, that’s what they want. They want to put in the hours to something, a 100 percent to something.”
“There’s several different parts to music I love, whereas with football, it was like playing the lottery,” says South London-based musician Tiggs Da Author, who incorporates elements of hip-hop, R&B, grime and Tanzanian jazz into his eclectic musical soundscape. “Making it as a footballer could happen, it could not happen. You just don't know. But with music, I felt like I had more control.”
Having grown up in Tanzania before moving to South London and spending the majority of his childhood there, Tiggs Da Author – real name Adam Muhabwa – was enamoured with football. Introduced to football by his father, Muhabwa grew up a fanatic Manchester United supporter who had dreams of going professional.
“The two biggest things in my life have always been football and music, but football came first. “It started in primary school,” he recounts. “I’d bought a black Manchester United school bag and a Manchester United pencil case. So straight away from an early age I was like, I'm a United fan and into football.
“We used to play street football in Tanzania where me and my friends used to make our own footballs from black plastic bags and ropes. So by the time I moved to London, I was already pretty much infatuated with football. I remember thinking, I just really want to be a footballer. But I mean, of course that's the dream. Cause everyone wants to be a footballer.”
Being a passionate football fan allowed Muhabwa to make connections and new friendships when he moved from Tanzania to London, despite not knowing English when he first arrived.
“When I moved to London, I didn't really know how to speak English,” he says. “So it was hard to have conversations with people and make new friends. But football was the middle ground for me, because it's like a way that people can commute.
After all, being a football supporter is a universal language, regardless of what team you support. “Once the kids at school figured out that I was good at football, we instantly became friends,” continues Muhabwa. “And then as you're playing football, you're learning how to speak English.”
It was only natural that Muhabwa wanted to turn this love for football into a career. But by his late teens, he was growing disillusioned by the demanding schedule required of a footballer, as well as the expensive costs of having to constantly buy equipment – shin guards, boots – and having to rely on friends to get lifts back and forth from training in Kent.
A chance studio session with Kano himself only confirmed for Muhabwa that music was what he wanted to do. After bumping into UK rapper Sway, Muhabwa was invited to the studio and laid down a hook over a beat. Two weeks later, Sway invited Muhabwa to shoot the music video for the final product, which ended up being the UK version of “Still D.R.E.” by Dr Dre.
“It just caught me completely off guard, but I was so happy,” says Muhabwa. “After we released it, and when we were doing live performances together, it was such a moment for me, performing on stage with Sway and Kano. It was crazy.
“These were the people I was listening to growing up. It’s like if somebody said, ‘Hey, you’re going to be playing with Wayne Rooney today.’ You know what I mean? It’s going to excite you like nothing else.”
Head to GOAL to read stories from VICE writers on: football, art and mental health matters for men, the Hollywood takeover of Wrexham, Arsenal’s retro merch boom and football fans and their tattoos.
Head to VICE for pieces by GOAL journalists on: the game’s unseen trafficking problem, the rise of the digital football fan, why grime artists are using footballing namechecks so often these days and how Côte d'Ivoire’s World Cup heroes brought a pause to civil war.