Kojo Funds prefers not to do business on an empty stomach. It’s an early weekday afternoon in north London when I discover this, as the UK afro-swing artist strolls into his studio moments after I do, apologising for his lateness. The studio contains all the expected state-of-the-art equipment, but tacks on the added bonuses of a decked-out bar and the unmistakable lingering smell of weed. But what he is just in time for is his Nando’s order – “Chicken wings, chips, garlic bread and water” – which I suggest he gets started on, as we settle into talking.
By now, you’ll have heard Kojo’s name if you’ve been keeping up with how an explosion of various styles from the black diaspora have filtered through UK music. Joining an army of artists such as J Hus, Afro B and Donae’o, Kojo infuses west African and Caribbean sounds with distinctively British pop, rap and grime. His single “Dun Talkin” introduced him to listeners in 2016, where he crooned about street beef over a languid dancehall beat beforoe handing the mic over to north London rapper Abra Cadabra for a feature verse. Momentum picked up from there. First, with Kojo’s feature on Yxng Bane’s silver-certified “Fine Wine,” (fun fact: Link Up TV’s most-viewed video) then his winking “I can smell you from miles away” line that rolled over Mabel’s hit “Finder’s Keepers.”
Despite his familiarity with chart success in just two years – according to his management that’s more than 1.8 million singles, twice as many music streams and a sold-out, headlining show in London – I realise Kojo’s somewhat apprehensive about revealing too much of himself. “I know what I’m here to do,” he says to me at one point, when I ask how he feels about being propelled into the spotlight. “I’m not here for the fame and hype.” But judging by his track record so far, it’s only a matter of time before fame becomes part of the package.
Really, his ability to straddle genres so naturally makes sense when you know more about Kojo's background. His mother’s Ghanaian – “from the Fante tribe,” he clarifies – and his largely absent father is Dominican so, as he puts it: “I’ve got the best of both worlds.” Add to that the fact he was raised in the parts of east London where African and Caribbean communities have laid down roots, and you start to understand why that whole ‘genre-mashing in afro bashment’ thing is like second nature to Kojo. Once we’ve cleared our plates, he delves into his journey so far, why he worried he’d end up in jail by this time and what’s in store for the future.
Noisey: Hi Kojo, we’d just started to talk about your family. Growing up, did you ever feel conflicted about which of your cultures you had to ‘represent’ more?
Kojo Funds: Nah man, not at all. Custom House [an east London dockland district] is full of Africans and Caribbeans, and we all know where we’re from. We rep it at parties – you’ll know the African set from the style of dancing they might do when their tune comes on, but that’s it really. Nobody’s dissing the other or anything like that. No way.
What was it like being a teen in Custom House?
[Pauses] Stressful. You’re a teenager; you’re a kid basically. You don’t really know what’s going on in the world, just trying to have fun. But our fun… it was fun, but then it wasn’t. We didn’t really have anything. We had to try and find a way. I’d see other kids having shit, and I’d be like, ‘Nah I wanna look cool as well.’ But there were just certain things my mum couldn’t get so man had to, you know….
Seek other means.
Yeah. Because I didn’t have a dad there – I mean he was there, but he wasn’t there. He didn’t help my mum raise me so I looked up to the older guys. I saw them with flashy stuff. Especially my [now] manager as well, he was one of them; we’re friends from before. Them man we’re getting it in [laughs]. Me and my lot thought, ‘What? Nah!’ So we adapted to that life early.
What are your thoughts on the rise in London’s violent crime, and to claims that UK drill and road rap play a part?
It’s a bit mad because it’s more so the younger generation. But, also you don’t know what they’re going through. Some are probably coming from broken homes. I don’t think the government’s tapping into the community. You can’t blame music, it’s universal; it’s everywhere. It reflects what’s happening, especially drill, anything rap. We’re talking the same.
Did you ever feel like there was no way out, when you were doing things you knew you shouldn’t?
I swear to you, I said to myself, even to my boys: 'this is all we’re going to ever be doing.' I’m either going to jail, or… I didn’t think I had a way out.
So how did you transition into music?
I’m not gonna lie – I haven’t told anyone else this story, besides my mum. But one time I must’ve been in my room, and shit was going on, on the ends. And I’m looking in the mirror thinking, ‘Fam. I’m really gonna end up in jail. Man’s gonna do something stupid. I need a way out.’ I sat down, and I prayed, listen – I prayed like for real. I said, ‘Yo, protect man. If I do a madness, protect me all the way, forgive me for my sins.’
I swear to you, like a month or two later, I’m in a car park with the mandem. They would do this thing of playing a beat, and freestyling over it. I’d never get involved like that, just observe. This time I did, and they said, ‘Nah bro! You’re cold. You’re hard. One of them had a studio. He said, ‘Koj, come down’ and I was like, ‘Nah, fuck that.’ The next day, he phoned saying, ‘I need you to come to the studio. You’re hard. I’ve got a beat waiting for you.’ I wasn’t doing anything that day anyway, so went in, listened to the beat, wrote, laid down bars, and played it. Sounded sick. That was the first time I recorded, ever. They were all like, ‘Nah, this is cold!’ so I finished it that night. Fucking banger. I called all my boys; they came to meet me and played it in the car. That was my first tune, “Want From Me.”
When you wanted to decline the studio invite, what prevented you from trying?
I’m seeing all these famous rappers. What am I doing recording? That’s not gonna get me where they are. They’re too far! Man’s waaay over here, making music for what? Nah, fuck that.
In the UK there are artists with a distinct sound, and some who may have seen the success you and other key players have had, and emulated that. Is the scene oversaturated with musicians sounding the same?
I hear this a lot, still. If you’re trying to be a unique artist, you have to stand out. You need to come different, and show your talent.
One of yours is the art of collaborating across genres – what’s important to you when working with artists?
Having fun, that’s the main thing. And it has to sound right. I’m not gonna collab with someone just for collabin’ sake.
Where do you find inspiration and how often are you in the studio?
A lot comes from listening to old-school stuff; I feel like music is recycled. And when in my zone I’m thinking, and let out past life experiences. Also money [laughs]. If I’m not heading to a show, I’m at the studio 24/7. It keeps me focused, instead of overthinking.
Thinking back to two years ago in comparison to now: what – if anything – has changed most for you good and bad?
The good is that a lot more people are adapting to the music; those you wouldn’t expect. And the bad… friends change, y’know what I mean? I’ve got my good friends from young, the real ones. But there’s other people you know who’ve changed ‘cah well… it’s all new to everyone, innit.
It sounds like Kano’s “Strangers.” He thought his friend was a little jealous of his fame, but wondered if he’d done something to offend him. Do you feel like people expect you to act ‘brand new’ because of your newfound success?
Yeah man. Do you know what is though? Most of it isn’t even from mandem. It’s the females. I’ve got lots of female friends innit, and I guess because I’m not about like how I used to be, I got a few who seem to think, ‘rah, he’s gone Hollywood.’ Someone actually said this to me, and I thought, ‘well you clearly don’t know me’. It hurt man, still. But the mandem, they understand.
Have you experienced something similar with family members, who maybe didn’t check for you before and now want to?
Yeah. My dad.
How do you feel?
[Pauses] Boy. A few people will tell me, that’s your dad innit. But he weren’t there; so don’t come when shit’s popping. Man’s been through that struggle so…don’t come now.
If you could achieve anything that would make you think, ‘Mum, I’ve made it.’ What would that be?
Being known as a worldwide musical act. Hitting the number 1s, and you know, just helping out. When I’m able to help out the size of an entire community, then I’ll be like, ‘Mum, man’s really made it.’
Who's your bullshit checker?
Somebody who can pull you up when you’re on the wrong path.
Well I had a temper, but I control it a lot better now. The only people who could tell me to chill are my manager who’s my friend but also like my older bro. My tour manager who’s another friend. Another manager who’s another friend. And my mum. There’s times when I could’ve let people down and they’ve all put me in check.
Speaking of check – what exactly do you say in Check ? Is it ‘weed check’, or ‘weak check?’
It’s ‘weak check.’ ‘She’s making me weak, check.’ She’s making me weak. Technically I could be talking about the weed or the girl, that’s why I added ‘grinder, check. Rizzla check.’ [Laughs].
Kojo Funds plays a load of festivals this summer, including Wireless in London, Bestival on the Isle of Wight and Reading.
You can find Alison on Twitter.