It’s 2AM on a Friday, and I’m about to experience Karnage live for the first time. No, not the terrible Freshers’ Week pub crawl – one of grime’s rising new talents. The lights dim in this sweaty, east London basement and the host yells just two words: “IT’S KARNAGE!” Within seconds, 21-year-old Karnage Kills is blazing his way through an electrifying rework of a Stormzy freestyle as the crowd – mostly young, beautiful queer kids – scream in unison: “TELL MY MAN SHUT UP!”
Karnage weaves through the venue, switching between different beats and flows before ending with “Hoe Diaries,” his homage to Tink’s “ ABC Fantasies:“ “Be a ho, be a ho, be a ho bitch / be that ho that be chasing that real big dick!” As he lingers on this last line, he grins and flicks his long, black braids, then ducks backstage.
This cheeky, nonchalant attitude is characteristic of Karnage, a gay grime artist whose presence on the scene feels – and this is no exaggeration – revolutionary. Musically, he spits verbal one-two punches, delivering one slick punchline after another. But visually, he’s unapologetically femme – think impossibly short denim shorts, waist-length weaves and a signature slip of lipgloss. His presence in grime – a genre he describes as “hyper-masculine” – is anomalous to say the least, and it’s led to an unjustifiable lack of recognition from men in the industry.
But he’s unperturbed. “I was raised to speak my mind and tell the truth so, as an adult, I don’t care about saying certain things,” he says over the phone. We’ve met occasionally in the past, but this hour-long chat is the most in-depth talk we’ve had so far; refreshingly, there’s no media training, plenty of filthy jokes and anecdotes laced with honesty and his trademark wit. “There’s nothing anyone could throw back in my face, you know? I know who I am, and I look after myself.”
He wears his femininity like a badge of honour, but never more so than on brand-new single “Timberlands”. “I just remember always wanting a pair when I was at school,” he says, laughing, “so it just rolled off my tongue.” But the reference feels subversive; Timberlands obviously carry both hip-hop history and masculine connotations, so it feels radical for Karnage to fuck his sugar daddy (played by Aiden Shaw) in a two-piece PVC outfit and Timbs while his waist-length braids swing.
Karnage knows that his femme appearance can cause confusion. “People call me ‘she’ – they genuinely think I’m a woman. Don’t get me wrong, I know that’s what I put out there, but it can get annoying. It’s not so bad when I’m out on the queer scene, but I’ve been escorted out of male toilets by security in ‘straight’ clubs before. Then, there are those photo ID scanners – you know the ones that show your picture? I was out for my mum’s birthday, and young me pops up. So this security guards looks at me with my long, curly wig, looks down and then looks back up. We all just found it hysterical.”
His rightfully unapologetic feminine style can also stir up homophobia, especially in comments sections. Recently, he released blistering track, “Level Up,” on grime channel P110. Within minutes, “WTF is this batty boy doing?” reactions appeared. “It doesn’t bother me – if anything, it just makes me realise my profile is growing,” he says. “But the truth is that, if I was straight, I would be further along than I am now; I know that being gay and femme is going to get in the way of me being successful quickly, but my flow and bars are being taken seriously. I’m being compared to a lot of straight rappers, and I know I’m often on par with, or even better than them.”
Recently, his sound has shifted to prove this. Late last year, he dropped the fiery “You Ain’t Bad”, a relentless freestyle designed to flex his lyrical skills – “They told me I don’t fit the criteria / Just ‘cause of my outer exterior / just look at the way I ride the beat compared to them man, I’m clearly superior.” These lyrics read as a mission statement, as well as a swift ‘fuck you’ to anyone doubting his skills. “Hoe Diaries,” on the other hand, is three minutes of absolute filth accompanied by an endearing, iPhone-lensed video shot near the aptly-named Cock Lane, in London. Despite the explicit lyrics, the track garnered acclaim, with fans sometimes singing the infectious chorus at him as he walked to the shops. “Even straight people were like, ‘I’m not down with this gay shit, but this a banger, though!’”
It’s crucial to highlight that hip-hop is often singled out for its homophobia, usually with racially-charged language. Country, rock and pop stars have apologised for, or denied using, homophobic language while some record execs may not know what to do with queer artists. “That’s why I think the industry needs more people like me – to address people’s perceptions of what it means to be gay, and what it means to be male as well. Not everyone has a fade and wears baggy clothes!”
Karnage wasn’t always so radical. Born in Middlesex and raised in Seven Sisters, north London, he lived vicariously through his mother’s music taste. “I listen to what she listened to, and that could be anything from bashment – Mavado, Gyptian, Vybz Kartel – to Céline Dion. Now, my taste is more like Fantasia and Jhené Aiko.” He discovered his own musical skills when a Year 7 music teacher asked him to name his talent. “I couldn’t think of one, and that really got to me! So we tried a few things, and singing was one. My teacher was like, ‘Oh my god, you can really sing!’ So I started performing in assemblies, that kind of thing.”
His focus shifted a few years later when his voice broke and he started rapping. “Up until that point, I had been getting into a lot of fights,” he recalls. “I really felt pressure to be what other people wanted me to be. Part of me did just think, ‘Shit, if I don’t do something then I’m going to end up stuck, like everyone else.” So he used his newly-discovered rap skills, quickly amassing a back catalogue of tracks with the help of his producer, TK: “We met on Gumtree – can you believe that??”
Within months, he’d gone from putting together a catalogue of material with TK to being spotted by Hakeem Kazeem, co-organiser of London club night Batty Mama, to being booked and busy almost every weekend. “I was living with my nan at the time, so she would get used to seeing me leave in these crazy outfits,” he chuckles. Although she’s supportive, he says his grandma doesn’t listen to his music. In his own words, he writes about everything from people that did him wrong to sucking dick. “Well, when I was growing up I really repressed myself,” he explains, “So now I just do whatever I want!”
It’s working. Karnage occupies a unique niche in the grime scene; on the one hand, he has a presence on huge channels like P110 and earns regular respect from straight fans, but on the other, he’s renowned as a fixture of London’s queer nightlife scene. It’s reductive to describe him as a ‘queer rapper’ – the whole tag is bullshit, as it sets aside artists whose skills aren’t dictated by their sexuality. But his ability to switch between hyper-sexual and ‘traditional’ rapid-fire bars is unique. Sweaty, queer kids, who might feel out of place at a grime show, fill his audiences whereas his online presence is tracked by grime heads who also may be listening to a gay, femme artist for the first time.
All of this hard work is paying off. He recently performed on a Birmingham Pride line-up with Ms Banks (“she grabbed my hand and shouted my name!”), and partied with Nadia Rose on her birthday (“by invite, bitch! I didn’t even crash it!”) He praises the women for showing him love, “because, let’s be real, who wants to shout out the gay rapper? It doesn’t go down well with grime-heads, you know? It’s ultimately not what grime culture wants, but I’m here – and I’m not going anywhere.”
You can find Jake on Twitter.