“My full name is Oluwafunmilayo,” says Funmi Ohiosumah down the phone. “That’s my Yoruba name, and it means ‘the Lord has given me joy.’ I don’t care how corny it sounds. I like to think that’s what I’ve been doing since I started music – I get on stage and bring that joy.”
You probably know Funmi better as Flohio, the Nigerian-British rap powerhouse who has risen to the fore of her own lane over the past six years, touted by tastemakers as well as a steadily growing global fanbase. We’re talking about happiness, love and family as a central theme to her work – hence the mention of her full name.
It’s perhaps not the most obvious association for casual listeners: Her aesthetics tend to be ice cold, and her biggest songs to date are high energy, raw rap bars over propulsive, industrial beats. But bringing that vibe to her performances and allowing people the catharsis is in itself a way of spreading joy. And now, on her debut album, Out Of Heart, out 7th of October, it’s an intention that takes centre stage.
If you’ve not yet heard of Flohio, here’s a bit of info to get you started: Her sound is pretty eclectic because her tastes are. She grew up on a diet of Channel U, the Nigerian artists her promoter sister was putting on shows for in London and, of course, US hip hop. “I’m a musical nerd!” she laughs, noting that keen listeners will recognise a number of Easter eggs woven into the new record.
This nerdiness comes through in the breadth of her own oeuvre. Her tracks can go from sparse to heavy to almost poppy, with her bouncy Southeast drawl pinning it all together. She’s not shy on collabs either, having teamed up with artists like The Streets, Mahalia and Wavy The Creator among others. As an artist, she’s inventive, interesting, hard to flatten down into just a few turns of phrase. She’s a rapper, yes, but she’s also an artist – with a distinct flow and style.
Flohio and I have already met a few times before this. For interviews, mainly, but we’ve also occasionally bumped into each other at gigs around the city. The first time we crossed paths was four or five years ago. She’s always been warm and friendly, open to chatting, but maybe a little shy and restrained, exuding a jittery energy beneath the surface.
Now aged 29, Flohio seems calmer and more self-assured these days. There’s a newfound confidence. “With this [work] comes a dual personality,” she says, “I’m shy, but when you’re playing in front of thousands of people who have paid for tickets and flown you over borders to be there, it’s like: Man, I’m really in it now! So it was about confronting that confidence, and doing things over and over. This is what I’m here to do, so I’ve just got to get it done. That’s how I beat the shyness – repeating myself over and over.”
When we meet, back in August, the sun is still blazing upon us and Flohio is all easy smiles, sipping on a bright orange Mirinda as she shows me around her Bermondsey studio. She’s dressed in a yellow hoodie, clear beads glimmering on her braids and a frenzy of ice cream-shaped charms decorating her Crocs. We have a long and thoughtful conversation about being beloved by critics versus appealing to the general public, the ego of artistry, trusting her pace – but unfortunately Mercury retrograde comes for me a month early and the entire recording deletes itself.
And so, a few weeks later, Flohio and I find ourselves on the phone, trying to retrace the steps of our lost conversation. Born in Lagos, Nigeria, Flohio and her family moved to the UK when she was nine. In her teens, one of her mates fashioned a DIY studio in his bedroom wardrobe (“he took all the clothes out and stuck a mic in”) and they all hyped each other up, taking turns rapping. They did this whenever they could, until a year or two later, when they discovered that their local youth club in Bermondsey had some actual state-of-the-art recording equipment. “We were like kids in a candy store,” Flohio recalls.
This group of friends – most of them now in their 20s – called themselves the Tru Luv collective. They’d do everything: writing, recording, producing their own tracks, filming music vids, the whole package. “Now it feels like maybe everyone can do that with their phones,” Flohio says, “But back then we were lucky to have the resources to be able to do it.”
Flohio went on like this until around 2015, when she met Thomas Gorton – one half of production duo God Colony, along with James Rand. The pair had started making beats and were looking to invite more vocalists in the mix. Artist Lou Hayter, who was working with Rand at the time, mentioned that she had been doing some mentoring work with a few young people, one of whom was a very good rapper. God Colony watched some of Tru Luv’s videos, and immediately sat up at Flohio.
“Flo just really stood out,” Gorton says now, over the phone, “She was like the star of the show. And so Lou introduced us. She came down to this small studio we were working in in Homerton – all three of us sort of nervous of each other – and we had this beat for our song ‘Steady’. It wasn’t the kind of beat she had rapped over before, and I think it’s telling of her approach. She’s really not scared of jumping on different styles, she sees it as something interesting rather than wanting to stay in one lane all the time.”
From there, things started to blow up. She started out MCing for God Colony sets, but quickly decided she wanted to do her own thing – sometimes with God Colony on production, sometimes with other beatmakers. By 2018, a couple of EPs deep, she was in a whirlwind of hype, playing packed out shows and gracing magazine covers. Suddenly, people were paying attention: She appeared on the Dazed 100, was co-signed by Naomi Campbell in Vogue, The Fader dubbed her “one of UK rap’s most intriguing talents” while Crack plastered a photo of her across their pages with the caption: “Who’s this girl?”
A lot of artists would have maximised on that wave and put out a full-length immediately. I ask her why she avoided this – was the decision informed by a desire for longevity, or did she need to figure some stuff out first? “I simply believed I wasn’t ready at that time,” she says. “You can get lost in the hype so quick. I wasn’t thinking about ‘longevity’… I was happier dropping my EPs and mixtapes. I had literally just stepped into this and wanted to learn so much more.”
“I knew I wanted to do music,” she adds. “But I didn’t know the vision yet. I had the team around me, but I didn’t have all the resources I needed. I would have just rushed it back then, and I wouldn’t have been happy.”
During our chat, Flohio talks a lot about vision and clarity, and taking moments in rather than getting lost in them. “I’ve had to learn to bask in the moment, to pause on certain things and take it all in, not rush. I’m trying to trust in myself, and with that comes clarity. I’m trying to hear myself clearly, not other people’s opinions or the voices in my head – being able to differentiate what’s being sold to you in this industry versus what it is I really want.”
This sense of intentionality is something Gorton notes about working with her, too. “I definitely regard her as having produced the album with us,” he says, referring to Out Of Heart. Previously, he and Rand might just have invited Flohio to the studio to hop on beats they’d already made, “whereas this time she was very particular about sound design; she had a very clear idea about how she wanted things to sound. The vision was hers and we went with it.” Flohio also mentions sending playlists to God Colony, along with her other friend and album producer, Speech, to get closer to the sound she was aiming for.
Flohio didn’t want to work with just anyone for her first album. She wanted to have people around her that are like family, people she shares a connection with. “Having people who will keep you grounded is very important,” she says, her tone frank. “We can get angry around each other, say how we feel – it is what it is as long as we can communicate. We’re like-minded people. I feel comfortable around them and we share the same passion. We’re pushing boundaries without forcing it – it feels organic.”
Flohio adds that this sense of community among her team extends beyond music. They share food, catch up and spend time together as friends and family. For her, having this sense of grounding is crucial so that she can separate Flohio and Funmi. “You have to be able to separate the being from the artist, you know?” she explains. “And then it helps me in being truthful in the art. If you’re writing as an artist, you can reflect and look in.”
You can tell that Flohio is more comfortable than she’s ever been on Out Of Heart. You can hear it in the melodic soundscapes and rich colours swirling in the mix, while Flohio’s singing finds a home among her rapping. It’s a record of softness meeting hardness. There are lyrics and sonics that convey nostalgia for a youth spent playing video games while her dad’s music was playing in the background – little snippets of game console sounds in the mix, and brushes of live instrumentation (she says that for her forthcoming live shows she wants to add a live band to channel the Nigerian hall parties of her youth).
Not all the people who young Funmi was hanging out with are still alive today, which makes this atmosphere of yearning and nostalgia on the album particularly potent. Out Of Heart ruminates on feeling alive and feeling love, even when not everyone is physically here anymore (on the colourful, bubbling rap track “SPF” she raps: “Still Rest in Peace to Priscilla / Trying hard to not get triggered”).
“There are important figures in my story that have been in my journey from day one, and some of them are not here right now,” she says now. She speaks in vague terms, without mentioning specifics or detailed context, but it’s clear that she has certain people in mind. “It pains me and my heart when I’m doing something – I’m about to go on stage, or I’ve just come off stage, or I’m about to release something – and I just know they would be there… but they’re not.”
She pauses, silence down the end of the line for a moment. “Having them there in my music, being able to call on them when I’m listening to the song, when I’m performing it – it makes me feel like they’re in the room–” she laughs self-consciously, before continuing: “I don’t want them to die.”
We talk about grief as an extension of love, and how we might use art to keep our people alive with us. “Look at Da Vinci, all these artists, look at the old tales we tell kids – we speak about them like they’re alive today. There’s something about art and how it steals time, how it plays with time. We keep people alive in our stories,” she says. “People come up to me and ask, ‘Who’s Priscilla?’ and it’s like reliving those moments again. I write them for me, and I forget other people will be wondering about it.”
Is it important for her to have boundaries, then, when it comes to what she feels comfortable including in her lyrics? “I never think of the boundaries,” she says. “I just say what’s on my mind and be truthful to myself, because I think listeners would pick up on [if it wasn’t truthful]. Some people say it’s just music, and people just want to dance and have fun, no one cares – but I beg to differ. When I listen to a song, I listen to the lyrics. I wanna know what’s going on in someone’s mind when they write certain lines. So if someone asks me about a lyric that feels personal, I like it because it’s like – ‘you’re listening!’”.
As our call comes to a close, we come back to that initial conversation about joy and love. I say I think it’s strange how we have been taught to think of love through a lens of scarcity and caution, rather than embracing it as one of the few, beautiful things that exists to us in abundance in such brief lives.
Flohio agrees. “The older I get, I just say to my friends, ‘I love you’, ‘I love you, bro’, ‘I love you, sis,’” she says. “It’s not just in a romantic relationship – it’s just appreciation for everyone, end of. We shouldn’t overthink that at all. If there’s one message that I’m gonna leave on this earth, as well as my music, it’s just love basically. You can never have enough love.”
@tara_dwmd / @thisisemalea