Little Simz is a good person to hang out with. She doesn't want to dominate every moment of silence with some pointless comment, she thinks about what she's saying. Even when she's raging with anger, she is calm and considered.
She's doing quite well these last couple of years, but frankly not well enough, considering she is teetering on the edge of being the most groundbreaking MC the UK has ever produced. Across a run of mixtapes and her debut album, she's crafted heavy narrative rap that owes plenty to grime, US hip-hop and experimental poetry, and yet doesn't sound like any of those things.
In one of East London’s various pulled pork generation meat restaurants, we sat down just to talk about whatever: her last album, the pressures of being independent, the legacy of Malcolm X and how Britain needs to change the way it tells history.
Noisey: Hi Little Simz. So, your highly anticipated debut album got some bloody good reviews didn’t it?
Little Simz: Yeah.
I guess, one of the things I thought we could talk about is that it was completely you - no guest features - right?
Yeah, aside from the production and one feature, it is 90% me.
Why was that important?
I had too much to say. It’s a story that could only be told by me, especially for my debut. I didn’t want to just use people for their names just to help push my record. I’d much rather stand my ground and just do it on my own. I’m going to have plenty more records, I’m going to have plenty more features. It just didn’t necessarily need to be on my first one.
What is it about being independent that you love?
I get to do what I want. There’s no one to answer to. I don’t have the pressures of worrying myself if these people that claim they know about music either like it or get it. I just have to worry about if I like it or my friends like it. It takes my mind off other bullshit.
If the devil came up and told you: “You can have freedom but you’ll sell less records” or “You can have the constraints but you might sell a lot more” – would you prefer to sell less and have your freedom?
100%. For the time I’ve been doing this, I’ve given so much music away for free – I don’t care about sales. You should make money for what you do but I’m not like, “This needs to have chart success!” I’m not that artist right now. I don’t know what my future holds but right now that’s not in my thinking. If my music can help inspire someone or change someone’s view on something, I’m all for that. Because there’s not enough of that in the UK. You can have your gas tunes, but if I can come in and give you something musical, heartfelt and intelligent, then there’s some balance, you know?
Are there British artists you feel like you can relate to in terms of music they’ve made?
I always struggle with these questions. People that I’ve looked at their careers and it’s inspiring to watch what they’re doing… Definitely Kano, definitely Dizzee, just because of what they stood for and how they came out. That whole “I don’t give a fuck” attitude. I don’t like it when people care too much about shit, because I don’t care about shit. I like it when I see a sort of effortlessness.
Dizzee’s later stuff came out on his own label and Kano as well…
Yeah, they held it down. 100%.
Did you grow up in London?
Islington, I went to school in Highbury.
Did you like growing up round there?
Yeah, definitely. I love my area. I never wanna move. I’m just so comfortable. Every time I travel I’m so excited to come back to ends.
If you were gonna introduce one lesson to teach to kids at school, what would it be?
I would teach more about history. The real history. Not just Henry VIII and all them things. History about black people and other ethnic minorities. I don’t think there’s enough of that. Sometimes it frustrates me when I see ‘black history month’. It’s like we get one month, like it’s a mockery thing. I’d also teach kids how to own shit. How to be the employer as opposed to the employee. How to put money on a mortgage – I wouldn’t send you on no bullshit work experience to train you how to work for other people. I ain’t gonna set you up to fail.
It always strikes me that what you learn about is America and slavery and stuff, which is always really important. But you don’t really learn about the British side of that.
So many things interlink and kids are not aware of that. That’s what creates things like bullying, because ignorance is bliss and they don’t know the extent of you calling someone something. How are they going to know it’s offensive or racist if they don’t know their history? That bothers me. Kids are gonna grow up to have that mentality and think that’s alright. If I was choosing the lessons, I’d want kids to be more educated and knowledgeable. More aware.
I guess if you’re a kid now you don’t know that it was only 30 years ago that black people in Britain were massively targeted.
And that’s what bothers me. And you have like 30 days of a ‘black history month’ to explain it to them, but really you’re not explaining it to them... You’re lowkey mocking the situation.
How do you mean?
When I was in school, I never took those months seriously, I thought it was a joke. What my mum and my family used to teach me at home, and what I learned at school, were two different sides of a coin. At home it was just the realness. I knew I had to work hard, harder than anyone else. I knew my rights, and, as a young black woman, my family were always pushing me.
When I went to school, they were putting up these posters, these Martin Luther King quotes: "I had a dream." It’s true what Louis Farrakhan said: all we remember of MLK is that he was a dreamer. Kids don’t know the other stuff. This is a topic me and my friends get mad deep about. We talk about MLK, Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan, and Marcus Garvey. All these inspirational people, and I don’t ever remember hearing about them in school. Or Elijah Muhammed, and how he had an effect on Malcolm X. I don’t ever remember being taught that. I know it’s a lot to digest as a kid in school but there’s ways you can feed it to kids. I don’t think the way forward is to just say, “Oh yeah, this is your month guys.”
Do you think Martin Luther King is deemed safe enough to teach whereas Marcus Garvey is a bit…?
Well the one that speaks to me the most is Malcolm X. I’ve watched bare Malcolm X interviews: how he articulates himself, what he believes in, and what he stands for. They all have good intentions, but there’s something about Malcolm X that was like… It resonates with me. It’s in my heart.
Why do you think that is?
The fight. The battles he had to go through. Not like MLK didn’t or Marcus Garvey didn’t, but Malcolm X was a tough one. He came from selling drugs and being on drugs. The way he flipped everything to be what he is; it was the most inspiring story for me.
History repeats itself. I’m happy we have films. Say, for example, the NWA film. They highlight shit like this and it’s like GOOD! Because people need to know this shit’s been happening. Especially in music as well.
Do you feel like you personally have experienced discrimination?
In many instances. But I feel like everyone has. Especially in this industry, because I’m female. Everything’s always “for a girl”, as in “she’s good for a girl”. I’m a “female rapper”. Why does it always have to do with my gender? Why can’t I just do what I want to do freely without feeling like people are trying to put me in a box all the time? Do you know how annoying that is? When you feel like you’re doing something greater than life, but you’re always just a female rapper? Regardless of the fact I want to be an entrepreneur or a humanitarian and do all this cool stuff for the world, I’m just a female rapper.
I also feel like your music isn’t about being female. If you’re talking loads about sex and feminism then fine, but that’s not really what you’re talking about.
On the first song on the album, “Persons”, I say “Women can be kings”. It’s basically a big fuck you, but is also me saying there’s no gender when it comes to my music. I’m a king. I’m very aware that I’m female and I have all the lady parts, but why can I not be as dominant as the men? I believe a lot in equality, so why must I take a backseat because the guy’s doing bits?
Sometimes, I feel like people think I’m being mad anal about this shit. I’m not, I’m just super passionate. It’s annoying when I’ve been fighting for something I’ve believed in for so long and the moment I’m happy with where I am, people are so quick to pull you down. I’m not that person who will openly come up to you and say, "I’ve been through this in life." I’d much rather just write about it. But clearly you haven’t been listening enough to the music to know me. It’s cool, but sometimes it just pisses me off.
I think it’s really true of girls when they get to a point where you’re-
Yeah. And when girls say, "Hey, it needs to be like this", it becomes this thing. Boys can just have free reign and for girls do it, it becomes, "Why are you being so anal about it?"
So many people told me that what I was doing was not going to work. Can you imagine that? As if you’re painting a painting that you’ve been crafting for time and everyone’s telling you that you’ll never get it in a gallery. And as an artist you’re mad passionate about this painting, you’re fighting for it, and it comes to the end of it and your painting ends up in a gallery. How are you gonna feel then? How are you gonna respond to the people that have been saying that to you?
I just care about the younger generation and the people that I can inspire and help. Some girl came up to me at my show and was like: "When I watch you on stage, I have a friend in you and you don’t even know." And that stuck with me for time. For that whole night I was just thinking about it. Sometimes I’m not even aware of the people that are listening to me and taking me in and really growing with me. It’s just sick to see.
Do you feel specifically like there have been people who’ve said it won’t work and now you’ve proven them wrong? What do they say?
Just like: "Why don’t you just get a deal, man?" Cause I don’t want a fucking deal. If I wanted a deal I would have been in a label situation by now. But I’m doing me and it’s working. So this is telling me something.
It’s always a risk in the end.
Of course. I’ve done bare shows and there was a point where I was doing so many shows for no money, nothing. Me and my sister would trek hours in the rain to go to this show, that show, bare shows, and now when I’m doing shows I realise that was all practice. Now when I’m performing to these big crowds, if I did not have that practice I would bug out. I would not know what to do with myself, how to handle myself. I wouldn’t know how to carry myself for an hour because I’m already very introverted. To be that open for a whole hour and project my voice and do all these things, I had to do that when I was 13, 14, 15 to get to this point.
[Little Simz' publicist: Sorry, we have to leave in 5 minutes, we’ve got Radio 1 at 5.]
Ah, fuck Radio 1, haha... I'm joking.
Yeah, bun them.
In a nutshell, I’m doing me, I’m chilling, I’m having fun with it. I don’t feel under pressure, I don’t feel like I have to sell hella albums to make a point. I made my point. I released my album under my label. I’m good, whatever happens from hereon now. As long as people hear the music, enjoy it and it makes them feel some type of way, good or bad, happy or sad, I’ve done my job.
Do you feel a bit scared, now you’ve proven everyone wrong and done this, what your next job’s gonna be? Do you have a goal in mind?
It’s only recently that I haven’t been thinking about the future. I talk about this in my film – I’m putting out a film by the way. When you have expectations and they don’t go your way, you feel let down, you feel disappointed. So I’m like fuck that. My mindset is ‘everything is now’. This album is out now. Tomorrow I might want to work on a project that becomes an EP or another album. I’ll decide when we get there. I’m just working on now. I’m not worried about the future. I’m going off how I feel, and what feels right in the moment. I'm letting it be natural and organic.
That’s a good place to be.
You can follow Sam Wolfson on Twitter.
Little Simz plays America this month:
11-Mar – Oakland, CA - The New Parish
12-Mar – Los Angeles, CA - The Lyric Theatre
15-20 Mar – Austin, TX - SXSW
21-Mar – Atlanta, GA - Vinyl @ Center Stage
22-Mar – Boston, MA - Middle East
23-Mar – Brooklyn, NY - Rough Trade NYC