The buzzer echoed through an east London flat. Inside sat 24-year-old Kojey Radical, known for his unique hybrid of spoken word and rap. His new project In God's Body would be arriving the following Friday, but on this Wednesday afternoon, battered by wind and rain, he was going to play it in full during a listening session at the Boiler Room offices. "Come on upstairs," he said, extending a greeting as he opened the door. "Don't worry about your shoes."
Despite the imminent release of his new record, Kojey looked relaxed. The apartment was quiet, with high ceilings and laminate floor, the only sounds coming from a UFC game trundling faintly in the background on a flat-screen TV, via a PlayStation 4. Rain had scuppered the day's original plan for lunch, and a wander around the east London neighbourhoods where he was raised, and still lived. So he instead continued where he had left off, playing on his console before the buzzer had interrupted him, tapping at its pad like a keyboard and waiting out the afternoon lull until the evening came and he would be required to work.
Kojey is the son of Ghanaian immigrants, raised in and around Shoreditch and Hoxton before either were white-washed and gentrified. Aged 9, he wrote his first poem, a tale about monsters, and then, some years after, while studying at college, and sitting in on a visit from spoken word artist Suli Breaks, he made the decision to take spoken word seriously, performing some of his early pieces the next day in the canteen. Though his first EP Dear Daisy carried a style that initially leant more toward open-mic nights, inspired by Breaks, his second EP, 23 Winters – an intense exploration on love, self-worth and the African immigrants' experience in the UK – moved him beyond the realms of poetry and toward exquisitely produced, high end musical art.
To begin to understand Kojey Radical, you must first live with his music. On songs like "Kwame Nkrumah" from 23 Winters, and "Icarus" from In God's Body, his gravelly-baritone voice crawls over delicately layered and dense productions, songs that rattle through speakers as if they had been constructed for the opera or other large stage productions. They are journeys, illuminated further by their abstract music videos. "After Winter", for instance, features black actors and actresses blanketed in black face paint, all staring on silently except for Kojey, who smokes a cigarette and screams his lyrics like "All I want is 40 acres a mule and my respect" into the lens.
He tells the truth, his truth – "a man of the people, not above but equal," as he once said. It's a truth filled with the angst, frustration and joys of a young man, who first had to navigate the challenging terrain of his Hackney hometown, and then pass the tests of maintaining sanity while attempting to carve out a career in London, one of the world's most expensive cities. He tells these stories in a way so intimate that it can often seem like a private, personal conversation between him and the listener. He speaks so vividly, that at times, during his shows and on social media, he is labelled a "King."
But does that King status ever get uncomfortable? "Nah," he said, a little to my surprise. "You want it. I'd be lying to anybody if I said, 'I don't want to be claimed or respected or I don't want to be revered in any way.' But I can't make that the goal, I can't make that the thing that I'm relying on to feel confident or to feel comfortable. For me that 'King' mantle is a sign of respect, it's not a sense of duty that I feel like I have to take on, because the idea of being a King comes with a lot of ego. There's not one King, do you know what I'm saying? I call everyone King, I call every guy I see 'King,' I call every woman I see 'Queen.' It's a sense of seeing yourself, a sense of appreciation."
However though others may see Kojey as a king, a kind of higher entity, In God's Body, he said, is more Kwadwo [his first given name] than Kojey, more human than artist. Essentially: more of him. Although cocky in places, it's also intelligent and witty, introspective and humbling, vulnerable, spiritual, but not fragmented. Rather, it reflects the complexities and paradoxes that so often shape this human experience. On "Icarus", the project's penultimate song, he looks within, telling the listener, "Born and raised in Hackney / Never seen the ocean / Never learned a language / Never saw my talent till they showed me / Never knew my worth until they owned me." Earlier on "Mood", which features Ghetts, he is confessional again, yelling, "I pray for patience / Look for peace up in the darkness / So I / I put my light up in the air / I wonder if they love me at my darkest."
"It was a considered thing," he said, of making the album focus more on his inner workings than the politics and elections he had spoken about in the past. "I was fed up with the idea that people just saw me as a political voice to call upon whenever they needed a quote or a presence… I can't control what people say, I can't control what people do, I can give people tools to think about more but other than that, it's not my burden but it's my responsibility. I might not know enough, I might actually be taking the opportunity to teach myself because I might not know enough. I'm young. I speak like I've got an old soul, but I'm young. I don't know everything so how much can I teach if I'm still learning?"
The name, In God's Body, he said, came from the Ghanaian Gye Name symbol, to "embrace God," to "feel God inside of you." The theme rose from a long string of conversations, often with women, about spirituality and the nature of the divine, dwelling on the idea of creation and birth, eventually settling on the idea that our time here, on this planet, was perhaps a metaphor "for living a life inside of God's Body."
"For me to understand spirituality," he said, "I needed to come to my own sense of resolution so ultimately I could just feel a sense of peace. That's all that we kind of long for in the end, a sense of peace." As we approached the end of our conversation, I asked him if he'd reached that sense of inner peace. "Nah," he said. "I'm still learning, I'm still growing, I'm still making mistakes." I asked about his methods for maintaining that growth, and how he centred himself. "I watch reaction videos on YouTube. I play UFC, I go to live shows and embrace music, I talk to people, I eat nice food, I smoke, I live. I find it so difficult to place so much on escapism. I like to be present and I like to just appreciate what's going on, and I think moments of clarity come when they're supposed to. When you find those moments of peace it gives you the opportunity to kind of speak to yourself, recollect on what you did so far and move forward."
When he arrived at the Boiler Room offices later that evening, everything was in transition. Staff shuffled through the doors into the wet summer evening, and coming inside, from the street, was a queue jammed with people, young, fresh-faced adolescents who had arrived for the listening session. The lobby, a long but narrow space with grey carpet, a few desks and a pool table, quickly filled out. They stared at Kojey with admiration and awe, whenever he swept past, usually laughing and clutching a bottle of Hennessy in his hand. But he was no martyr, only a God, if we all were, only a King, if the rest of us were royalty too. As he bounced around the room, occasionally sipping from his bottle, he seemed grateful for their support but not beholden to their expectations. That night, it seemed, Kojey Radical was himself.
Kojey Radical plays headline UK shows this week, kicking off with a sold-out gig at London's Village Underground on Wednesday. 'In God's Body' is out now.
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