WORDS

Something’s been bubbling in the UK. There’s a movement of artists fusing dancehall and Afrobeats with road rap and grime, creating a fresh, diasporic sound. Whether you call it ‘Afro-trap’, ‘Afro-hop’ or ‘Afro-swing’ (the jury’s still out on the genre title), it’s undeniable that the music captures a certain energy, one championed by a new generation of artists that includes J Hus, Tion Wayne, MoStack, Kojo Funds, Big Tobz, Yxng Bane and – of course – Belly Squad.

Belly Squad are among the most exciting acts to watch this year. A trio made up of 18-year-old East Londoners Yung Max and Ty Jombla and 20-year-old Ross Jombla from South of the Thames, in their early stages they’ve generated an impressive buzz with remixes of Young Thug and Travis Scott’s Pick Up The Phone, Stormzy’s Not That Deep and their tongue-in-cheek track Banana. Thanks to Vine, a six second clip of Ty singing the catchy hook (‘Baby girl quit all the banter/ Come round and come take this banana’) went viral before the song was released as an official single.

“I kinda knew Banana was gonna bang from the reception that the Vine was getting,” Ty tells me. I’m with the group in the bar of an East London hotel with a view of Westfield’s shopping centre, a stone’s throw away from where the young artist grew up. “People just kept asking ‘what’s that song?’ Once it was out there I knew we were onto something.” The video for Banana’s remix, featuring MOBO Award winning artist Abra Cadabra alongside Young T, Bugsey, Timbo and the late Showkey, currently sits at over four million views on YouTube. “Stormzy tweeted lyrics from Banana and Chip was tweeting about us saying we’re wavy,” Yung Max adds with a humble smile. “The reception’s been mad.”

Belly Squad’s music has been catching fire, and they’re part of a soundtrack that’s thrived in clubs as well as in uni raves organised by African Caribbean societies and BarFest – a pilgrimage to some. BarFest was recently name dropped by Stormzy on Cold, and the student events see young ravers enjoy a mix of trap, bashment, grime, RnB, UK rap and Afrobeats. From Coventry to Leicester, these parties have acted as melting pots for this new wave. I ask Belly Squad if they could sum up their sound in one word. “Putting a name on it is just too hard,” Yung Max replies. “It’s just waves. It’s vibrant and it makes people move. We vibe and do what we like, there’s no formula to it”. Ross goes on to consider the influence of each member’s heritage. “Max is from the Caribbean, he’s half Jamaican and half-Dominican. Me and Ty are both West African. I’m Sierra Leonean and Liberian, [Ty] is from Sierra Leone and Guinea. All those elements come together.”

“My dad used to play drums in a reggae dub band and tour the world and my mum was a singer. That’s actually how they met funnily enough, through their music,” Yung Max adds. “We all grew up hearing different types of sounds at home and in our music we try to fuse all of it in one. Our sound is a combination of where we’re from, where we grew up and where our parents are from: Africa, the Caribbean and the ends.”

It’s also important to acknowledge the significance of noughties UK rap and grime in the DNA of Belly Squad’s sound. Ty refers to Channel U, now Channel AKA, one of the few platforms that broadcasted unsigned grime, hip-hop and RnB artists – a staple for young Black Brits growing up between 2003 and 2009. “I spent a lot of time watching Channel U and that was part of the reason I wanted to start making music in the first place,” he says. “I saw the guys on there and thought, ‘I could do that too.’”

“I grew up listening to Krept & Konan, Skepta, Chip and Giggs,” Ross goes on to add. “Those are the guys I’ve always looked up to. To me they were the foundation. Giggs definitely had a big impact on my sound. Ty and Max are from East London, where grime started and I’m from South, not too far from where Giggs is from.”

“Music’s been in all of our lives from early,” Max explains. “I even studied it in school but the mad thing was I didn’t enjoy it. It was all them old guys, Mozart and Beethoven. Man don’t even listen to them and I didn’t care so it wasn’t of interest to me. I always kind of knew what I wanted to do, but school didn’t teach me that. I said if I don’t go to uni then I’d want to become an artist, but I just didn’t know how to go about it. My older brother used to spit and I’d be in his room while he’d write bars. Obviously you always look up to your older brother and I thought it was sick, so ended up doing the same.”

With the trio’s infectious energy, it’s clear that the group’s ties ran deep long before the music – Ty and Ross are cousins and Yung Max and Ty went to school together. As I leave them, the tight knit crew reveal they had the vision for Belly Squad long before Afro-trap, -hop, or -swing was born. “We had the name way before we even started making music,” Max tells me. “There’s quite a few connotations to ‘Belly’ like being hungry for success. In the ends, the term ‘hit the belly’ means ‘making it big’. That’s just what we aim for”.

Photography: Harry Mitchell

The Banana Ep is out now via Up Records. Belly Squad appear at Sequences Festival, Bristol, 29 July

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