A Classic Pub Date with Rapper Barney Artist
Before his debut album comes out next week, he sipped on a Guinness as we talked first fights, first festivals, and black Britishness.
Barney Artist has blown into an east London pub, whipped off his white, red, and black leather letterman jacket, ordered a pint of Guinness, mopped at sweat on his brow and made a joke about the weather. All within about 49 seconds of his arrival. The 26-year-old generates a flurry of activity in person that feels like the inverse of his mellow, boombap- and jazz-adjacent rap. As a self-professed extrovert, he’s a natural fit for a genre where bombast and machismo have reigned for decades. Yet, when you listen to his music it just feels so… laid-back.
Barney himself though? He comes with fistfuls more raw energy than that. He’s jokingly pulling at his collar, coming over for a hug while I’m standing beside the bar. After mock-blaming me for a day too hot for his on-point outfit we head upstairs to an even quieter part of this almost entirely empty pub. In fairness, it’s 2PM on a Wednesday. Barney could probably use a bit of peace and quiet, though. His debut album Home Is Where the Art Is is due out on Friday, September 21. As his first major release since 2016’s Painting Sounds EP—and following his Bespoke EP debut in 2014—it’s his main opportunity to stake out his place in the world of UK rap.
You may have spotted Barney's requisite COLORS session last year, where he performed his 2016 single "I'm Going to Tell You" while sporting a Dizzee Rascal tee. The smooth track features vocals from Jordan Rakei, one of several Londoners in his network of musical friends. He jokes about being the least famous of the lot, referring at points to Jordan, Loyle Carner, Tom Misch, producer Alfa Mist and fellow Brit of Ugandan origin George the Poet. As individuals, they all make music that tends to sit outside of top 40 radio trends, but that connects with their fans and listeners anyway.
If you’ve only been paying attention to the charts or radio A-lists, you might think the UK rap world only encompasses the (mostly male) artists of west African and Caribbean descent who’ve been smooshing the varied sounds of the diaspora into the hugely successful sub-genres of afroswing, afrobeats, afrobashment, and afropop. Barney, on the other hand, is infusing Home Is with matters of the heart over clattering live drums, soft keys playing chords that sound like sunshine set to music and a flow that bobs along like that ball you lost to a river or lake on a hot day.
Noisey: You know, now that we’re sitting down, I feel bad to have left you drinking on your own.
Barney Artist: I mean… I’m… I'm a tiny bit disappointed.
This summer’s been too intense though. I can't do booze for laughs anymore.
I’ve been out a lot. Because of the football as well as the heatwave. Mad. I’ve been so drunk. I didn’t know I could get that drunk. I was like, ‘I’m 26 and I’m out, drinking constantly. This is my life.’
Where were you the day England crashed out of the World Cup, then?
Wow. That is painful. I was… why would you start there? [laughs] This is scathing. Well, like an idiot, I also fell for the “it’s coming home” thing. I was iiiin. I played a festival the week before, called Barn on the Farm, and did “Four Lions” for my encore. Shit, I can show you. [he gets his phone and pulls up a past Instagram video he shot from the stage, with the crowd behind him]. I was convinced it was coming home.
Long story short, the day of that Croatia game, I was with my friends, all England shirted up, excited. England scored the first goal. We’re near enough in tears, planning what we’re gonna do when England win the World Cup. And then… it just fell apart. [a pause] Why did you do this? Why did you ask me this??
I cried. The Denzel one-tear at first, then I cried like a baby.
You mentioned playing a festival. What was your first drunken festival experience, when you were younger?
I’m Ugandan, and we love to drink—we have Waragi gin, it’s like petrol—so drunkenness is always about. But festivals, we don’t really do. I never went to festivals until I started doing music. So to be fair, my first drunk festival experience was… Field Day this year. I was bladdered. Fucking drunk. My friend’s booking agent grabbed me, pulled me into the photography pit and Erykah Badu was literally right there, onstage. Like, there. I watched her set drunk out of my head, standing next to IAMDDB just like, ‘this is it.’ Losing my shit. What kind of drunk are you?
Ooh, depends on what I’m drinking.
See, that’s dangerous. You’ve got different kinds?
Regular glass-or-two of red wine Tshepo is just me but a bit more giggly and silly. That’s the classic. Like someone who’s just coming up on a tiny bit of ecstasy.
OK, I can see that.
Gin Tshepo’s a bit more intense. I’m a Scorpio, so things are good unless someone crosses me…
Right [laughs]. A bit more attitude. I knew an “unless” was coming.
But I don’t know how to fight, so I never take things too far.
The thing is, if you’re loud enough, you don’t need to know how to fight. If you’re convincing enough, then you’re good. My friend Jake is 5’5, shaped like a… like a dumpling [giggles]. After the England game, he decided he wanted to fight this 6’5 hench guy, all yelling and that. But it worked—the guy wasn’t on it.
What’s your typical role in a fight, then?
Let me tell you about my first fight. I grew up in east London: Forest Gate, in Newham. Being a boy in ends, as it were, you start figuring out what you wanna be like. I used to play basketball every Saturday, with this guy called Yao. Me and Yao were cool! We were cooool. This one time, one of us might’ve fouled the other and he was like, ‘yo, what the fuck?’ And we did that square-up, yelling thing, which usually works for me—the other guy would usually back out. But Yao was like, ‘let’s go; let’s fight” and I backed down a little bit.
Man like Yao starts walking out of the park, and then my boys are like, ‘Barney, you gonna have that? You gonna have that?’ and I’m all, ‘nah, I’m not.’ So I get a younger kid to catch up to Yao and tell him I wanna fight. Then I see Yao running towards me. I’m having the proper inner monologue—‘OK, what you’re gonna do is bang this guy,’ 300 music is playing. And he comes at me, I pull my fist back, swing and hit him—BANG. I’ve done it. But what I didn’t figure out is that, in fights, people can get up [laughs].
Yeah, that’s unfortunate.
So he got up. And I—let me demonstrate what I was going [Barney stands up and starts lifting up his arms and one leg, like a praying mantis]—started doing this. Like, karate. I was yelling at the guys around me to back me. But I got beaten up and lost the fight.
That’s funny because your music, with all its mellow boombap-ness, seems to put you in lover-not-fighter territory.
It’s mad, isn’t it? Yeah. I kind of feel like I’m a fraud sometimes with music [he chuckles]. Like, when people meet me, they hear my name is Barney—that doesn’t really help with the rapper image. And people who know me are like, ‘how is your music so chill and pain and oh deep?’ because when you meet me I’m like [he shakes his head back and forth and sort of barks like a seal trying to sing]. I’m trying to find that balance of the two.
What was your first show like?
Oh, I did the O2 Academy2 Islington—not the big room, but the smaller room. Like, 200-capacity. It went well, I sold tickets. And my mum told everyone I sold out the O2 Arena. ‘Yeah yeah, come, O2 Arena, yes.’ Same time my uncle came and was baffled, like ‘they’re paying to see you? Barney? You? They’re paying?’ Yes, uncle. ‘But why?’ That’s my family.
You’ve been doing stuff under your current artist name for about four or five years. But tell me about Barney in the grime days.
Oh, fucking hell, Jesus…
I heard that back in school you were, um, spitting bars–
How the hell did you know about that? Oh man. So I was really shit. Really bad. Like, embarrassingly bad. You know when it’s so bad that you wouldn’t be able to justify it? Well, my old tag name was [chuckles] Breezy. Spelled wrong, of course. But my friend Alfa stuck with me through that, so at least I know he’s a real friend. Someone else sent me my old demos from that time, and they’re still bad. If someone sent those demos to me, for a listen, I’d be like ‘maybe music isn’t for you.’
How do you find getting used to talking about yourself, in interviews and whatever?
I hate it. Haha, I mean, that sounds terrible. It’s more that I have impostor’s syndrome. So it’s weird having people talk to me about me. The good thing is that among my friends, I’m probably the least famous. So it’s alright.
By that you mean people like Tom, Loyle, and Jordan?
Yeah. I’m like a wingman. Someone might come up, “ahh, can we get a picture?” and I’m like, ‘sweet’ [he pats his hair down, as though prepping for the camera]. Then they hand me the camera to take the pic of them and my mate. It’s like that [laughs]. But talking about yourself is a weird thing. And I hate when people are narcissistic, or ‘look at me!’ dickheads, you know?
But if you don’t like talking about yourself, you must hate dates, right?
[snorts his Guinness while laughing] What a great thing to say on a date! Umm, no—cause I like talking to people. I went on a date recently, and the girl spoke about my music for half an hour, then about Tom’s music for 45 minutes. See, that’s weird. And I think she thought it went really well. Performing is weird. People think they know you, as well as the performer you. And that can be a bit awkward.
Weirdly, I’ve always thought I disliked small talk but in your situation, small talk could quickly lead into that awkwardness.
I mean, what even is small talk?
Like… oh wow, OK. This is wild. I can’t think of an example, but just of the feeling. Relatively inconsequential stuff, about the weather or whatever. ‘Where are you from, then?’ stuff.
Man, that’s a bit harsh. ‘Fuckin hate that question!’ haha. How do you answer it? I’m literally doing what you don’t like.
South African, technically, but I never lived there and grew up in six countries before coming to uni in England.
I would say I’m Ugandan, but I’ve never lived in Uganda.
How much do you feel British as well?
They need to make a new thing, a new box. Like, “Londoner.” Cause being black British is a thing, but then even being “London British” feels like a thing. I feel British, but I’m starting to see more of the flaws in it. It’s weird. I love living here, and don’t think I’d live anywhere else, but the older I get the more I’m like, ‘ah, OK—I don’t quite fit there, or things can feel weird here.’ If you go to an event, and you’re the only black person there, you can still feel a way. If I were white British, I don’t think I’d have that experience.
Which creative people do you stan for? Mariah’s mine.
Really?? What the hell! You’re buggin’.
Riddle me this: did Mariah not predict what Eminem would look like in 2018, with “Obsessed”?
With the hoodie and goatee. You’re right. But Mariah Carey’s fried.
We’re not doing this. Mariah Carey’s the realest motherfucker alive. She’s funny, a working mother, had the range, is a producer, wrote all her own stuff, has stacks of number 1s. Don’t do this.
You’re so biased, haha. This is mad. Who would mine be? Someone who you can’t say anything bad about to me. It’ll come to me. Have you met Mariah? Would you be able to cope?
I’d need to enter a state of nirvana, almost blacked out.
Have you ever been starstruck?
I may have, but can’t think of any of the moments. Recently, I met Eve while interviewing another musician who she’d come over to greet. And I thrust my hand out to introduce myself. She hadn’t asked.
Shout out to Eve! Did you ever watch her sitcom? [starts singing the theme song]. Actually, what’s your favorite sitcom? Not the cool answer either; the sitcom you’ve watched the most.
Scrubs was my shit, in school. The first three seasons especially. What about you?
Mine’s really basic: My Wife and Kids. I know every episode, inside and out.
I know, right? I should be cooler—Curb Your Enthusiasm, Seinfeld, or whatever. But My Wife and Kids? Evvvery episode. Every. Episode. It’s all on YouTube, in HD, by the way.
What’s your favourite album this year?
[He pauses, clicking his tongue]
You can’t say your own.
Ha, never. I really like Kadhja Bonet’s. And I feel like she’s underrated.
What was the last book you finished?
Oh, I finished reading… It’s the bait one. Umm… It was the best book I’ve read, black guy speaking to his son…
It’s not Ta-Nehisi Coates, is it? Between the World and Me .
Changed my life. I need to read Akala’s book. He’s a G. The black British experience is difficult to articulate well, and he articulates it really well. Shout out to man like Akala.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed because otherwise it would've been like 8,000 words long. You can pre-order Barney's debut album right here.
This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.