'From Ghetto Gyal to Superstar’ – Alicai Harley Has Risen

Our first Share Location of 2021 takes us to Thornton Heath aka "Jamaica 2.0" to chat ASMR and working with Tony Matterhorn.
February 11, 2021, 9:00am
Alicai Harley press shot

Although she initially burst onto the scene in 2017 with hit single “Gold”, 24-year-old Alicaì Harley has been a superstar in the making for much longer. Before she was supporting the likes of Kojo Funds and Shakka on tour, she was filming videos on her road and building a name in her local Thornton Heath through open mic nights and school performances. 

Having made music since the age of 14, fusing South London surroundings with her Jamaican heritage, Alicaì counts the likes of ‘Dancehall Queen’ Carlene Smith as her influences, alongside Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj (she’s a self-confessed Barb). Her debut EP, The Red Room Intro: Yard Gyal Inna Britain, was released on the 29th of January and presents dancehall-infused pop with star-studded features from Tony Matterhorn and Stefflon Don, as well as fellow Londoners Nadia Rose and Kojo Funds.

Three years on from the making of this project, Alicaì shows us why she’s the Caribbean breeze we need right now.

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VICE: Congrats on releasing your debut EP! How are you feeling?
Alicaì Harley
: Thank you so much! It’s my first body of work so I was a little anxious about executing it properly, for listeners to really understand me and my sound. A debut project is a statement of intent and I want to tell my story through my influences but also use the music to keep people perky and upbeat.

Alicai Harley – The Red Room Intro: Yard Gyal Inna Britain cover.jpg

Artwork for Alicaì Harley's debut EP 'The Red Room Intro: Yard Gyal Inna Britain'

Speaking of influences, could you explain the title and the nostalgic cover art that references Mary Hoffman’s children’s book Amazing Grace?
The title could be broken into two parts that are quite elemental to the album: The Red Room refers to a studio where I wrote most of the EP, it had a red light which was so symbolic for so many reasons – my mum’s favourite colour is red; red is energy, passion and vibrance. The Yard Girl Inna Britain bit is pretty self-explanatory once you listen to my music, I think. You can take the girl out of Jamaica, but you can’t take Jamaica out of the girl!

As for the cover art, I knew almost off the bat that this is what I wanted. I got so much positive feedback when I posted it, it was so inspiring to see how important it was to so many people. That book stood for so much. It was one of the only books with somebody that looked like me, and it was so direct in showing the obstacles faced by this little girl. She couldn’t play Peter Pan because she was both Black and a girl – I wasn’t so used to seeing it so directly. Growing up, I carried it with me, even when people tried to box me in at the beginning of my career. The character’s grit and determination that inspired me as a child has taught me to ignore people’s limited expectations and their backhanded compliments. I can do what I want, I’m Veronica’s daughter – the sky's the limit for me! Period. And that’s in Jesus’ name!

You have some amazing features on there and really seem to tap into both sides of your musical identity, being a Londoner and being Jamaican. How did you manage to get dancehall legend Tony Matterhorn on there?!
Big Up Tony! The Tony Matterhorn story is so funny. He really took me under his wing as an industry veteran. We first met after doing a show at Maida Vale with Shauni B and stayed in touch. I was literally in this random home studio creating “Do That” and instantly visualised Tony for the chorus. When I called he literally asked me for a voice note and the postcode was there in like an hour and a half. Just like that. I remember he turned around to me when he saw the home set-up and told me when he created “Dutty Wine” he was in a similar set-up in a house, and it directly inspired some lyrics. Listening to such an iconic artist let me know he was doing things this way was really inspiring.

All the features were really organic. Nadia Rose and I are really good mates, she was my older when we were growing up and she really looked out for me – took me to the studio with her, encouraged me to go to my first mic night! I’ve got nothing but love for her, so it was only natural she would feature. It was very much a full-circle moment having her on there.

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What are some of your favourite bits of being Jamaican?
This is so hard! The food, the music and the people. If I had to narrow it down: the people. The love is so strong and people are so transparent with you. Our motto is ‘out of many one people’ and we really have a culture of love, acceptance and familiarity. 

The second is the music, for such a small island Jamaica has left a massive worldwide impact in its musical legacy. There’s even Japanese dancehall! Growing up, two of my favourite artists (after Beyoncé) were Lady Saw and Buju Banton. Lady Saw is a Gospel Minister and does ‘Gospel Dancehall’ now, which shows fundamental music is to us Jamaicans. And as for the food, it’s a must. There’s a place called Port Royal in Jamaica and it's the first place I go to when I land in Kingston. It’s by the sea so the prawns, the lobster, everything is so fresh and tasty!

You seem to be really in touch with your faith and it seems to be a major source of confidence for you.
I’m in a really good place with my faith right now, I grew so much throughout the hurdles of 2020 and feel as though I’ve come to some clarity, to help really understand that my voice and my talent are, for me, God-given gifts. My faith has helped me through depression and anxiety, and brought me so much comfort. In that vein, I can’t allow anybody to control that gift – being my music and my voice – but God. I had felt myself shift and hold myself to closer standards that align with my principles and personality. I take everything to God, I’m naturally an anxious person so being able to simply pray on it has helped so much.

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There are so many opinions and ideas about when you walk in faith. All I can do is keep it real!

ALICAI HARLEY press shot.JPG

Alicaì Harley

You’re from Thornton Heath in South London, home to the likes of Stormzy, Nadia Rose and Konan to name a few. How have your ends shaped you?
There’s definitely something in the water over here! It’s inspiring to see local heroes make it big, but the one thing my ends has given me is the confidence to be myself throughout my life. I was always the rowdy girl and I’ve moulded that energy into being an artist. It’s funny ‘cos Thornton Heath is basically Jamaica 2.0. It’s just home and I never had to change! I remember going to Morley’s in Crown Point in my uniform to link everybody, like the local boy’s school. My mum used to hate me staying out late in my uniform! When Nadia blew, I knew it was possible.

Girls’ schools are honestly character-building! What was it like?
Honestly, big up Westwood Girls' College for Languages and Arts! They were so supportive of my singing. Nadia Rose and I went to the same school, but at different times. I don’t give my school enough credit – they supported me, and I remember when there were drama or music performances they would let me wear colourful hair (which was against uniform policy) – only for the performance! So funny. I remember a girl called Rochelle rolled up my skirt for me in year seven and things were never the same again.

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Where did you have your first kiss?
It was literally on the road next to mine, with the guy who would become my first boyfriend, James. This is going to sound so wild but I stole the road sign because it was so sentimental! Like I literally picked up the road sign of the road we had kissed on – Speke Road – and took it home. We used to have ‘dates’ where he would sit outside my window on his bike and I would literally dash pears and grapes to him, and we would just talk through the window because I wasn’t allowed out at that age. I really kept that sign in my room for years until I decided to put it back, but on the very day I went to put it back, they put up a new one. Crazy, right?

Kind of unrelated but I had a look on your YouTube channel and you did an ASMR video? Please tell me more, I’m so intrigued!
I am ASMR. ASMR is me. Honestly, I’ve been so immersed in the ASMR world with all my ASMR friends. I remember when I first told people about it, before it became popular, everybody thought I was a creep! I’m genuinely torn between being a music artist and being an ASMR artist. I barely watch the food ones, the positive affirmations are my favourite, as are the water sounds, the lid ones. I found a lady who was doing Bible scripture ASMR. There is literally everything for everybody. I wanna do a bubble tea one, possibly as an ASMR interlude on an album? Watch this space...

Where are you looking forward to performing most once this pandemic is over?
The O2 arena, where I’ll one day have a string of sold-out shows one day!

Final one, what do you want people to feel after listening to your EP?
To put it simply: joy. I want my music to lift people’s spirits and inspire them. I want them to understand that if I could do it, starting out with nothing but my friends and family supporting me – I made my teenage friends my videographers when we were starting out, I moulded everything around me to make the life I want – they can too. I want people to hear, feel and empathise with my journey, from ghetto gyal to superstar. I’m so many things, and I think my debut EP shows that.

@rahellothere

The Red Room Intro: Yard Gyal Inna Britain is out now via Parlophone Records.