Little Simz: Terms and Conditions
“I’d never had that experience before, where I’ve felt like ‘yeah – this is one for us, this is one for me.’”
Little Simz is talking about the film Black Panther, of course, and her natural nonchalance is cut through with fizzy excitement. It’s been out a week and a half and she’s already seen it twice. Once at the star-studded European premiere at the Hammersmith and again in her low-key, local Vue in North London, with a group of close friends. For Simz, real name Simbi Ajikawo, the film is even closer to home than the swathes of the black diasporans now defecting to Wakanda. She narrowly missed out on a starring part as the younger sister of the titular character Shuri, hailed as the film’s standout role. It went instead to her friend, Letitia Wright who like Simz is British, baby-faced and impossibly down-to-earth.
And like Letitia, Simz is an experienced actress too. At 14-years-old, she landed a role on BBC children’s adventure series, Spirit Warriors, which followed a band of teenage Avenger types transported to a spirit world. Three years later, she was cast in Youngers, an E4 youth drama depicting a group of south-east London friends hoping to make it big in music. In both series, Simz was a best friend to the protagonist, but her move to music soon revealed her as a natural lead, her gift for performance lending itself well to her career as a rapper. For instance, Simz couldn’t be further from the character she spits as in Tainted, a standout track on her first album, where she effortlessly emulates the rap braggadocio so prevalent amongst her peers (“Just got here and I’m running this shit/ I could buy your life if I wanted to, bitch”). In real life, she’s all grace and all humility; ambivalent until given the opportunity to gush about something or someone else.
“Letitia got it, which is still a win for me,” she says, audibly beaming. “Because again, another young black woman from ends that’s just fucking made it work. That helps me, still.”
She’s right; Letitia’s gain was hers too. While filming took place for Black Panther, Simz ended up going on tour with the Gorillaz instead, an experience she describes as one of the highlights of her life. “I understand the majority of the people are coming for the Gorillaz – I’m not a fool, I know this. But to know that I’m able to be on a stage and tell my story to thousands is still a trip to me.”
Simz’s story is one characterised by silver linings. Today is her birthday, a day she’s so-far spent ‘chilling’ and doing early-morning press. Although she’s just turned 24, she’s racked up wins rivalling artists who have been in the game for her entire life-span. Following the release of four mixtapes (the last of which premiered on Jay Z’s Life + Times blog), seven EPs and two albums, she has been inundated with critical acclaim. She has supported one of her oft-cited inspirations Lauryn Hill on tour, embarked on a world tour herself and landed on Forbes’ prestigious 30 Under 30 list at just 21; becoming the first independent UK rapper to do so. Her ever-expanding list of co-signs is littered with the crème de la crème of the music world: Kendrick Lamar, Mos Def, J.Cole, Zane Lowe, Dizzee Rascal, Andre 3000 amongst others.
Despite all her achievements however, Little Simz has perhaps unwittingly become the patron saint of the criminally slept on. She is yet to receive a single major award despite several nods. When it was recently revealed that this year’s Wireless festival line-up only features only three women across the entire weekend, Little Simz was the name commentators urged organisers to swap with one of the several male acts. When the MOBO’s only awarded a single female artist last year (Stefflon Don, and in the category of ‘Best Female’), many cited Simz as an overlooked winner.
“If I’m in a position where I’m able to create more opportunities for women then I’m going to. If I can do it at this level, these major festivals are able to do it – it’s not a far reach”
“Of course it gets to me. Of course it annoys me,” she says. “It’s like, don’t put me up for the award! Or don’t make it seem like you’re about that when you’re not really about that. It’s psychological – you start doubting yourself, like ‘am I doing something?’ You take it personally. I’m trying to remove that element, though. It’s not personal; it’s just the way it is.”
Simz does not like to dwell, especially on the downside. It’s easy to see why she has no time to navel gaze – hers is truly a game of two halves. In the same year that saw her overlooked for awards in Britain, she was the only UK artist nominated for the XXL Freshman class (despite a huge year for male urban music acts) and the only British act featured on that year’s BET cypher. Smirking under a customary flat cap and from behind shades, she kicked off the cypher by paying homage to her city (“Posted in North side of that London/ Where fed is always a paigon, keep it quiet don’t trust them”). If Simz is slept on in the UK, the US is wide awake to her talents. And her story is hardly a new one; Britain’s inability to catch on leaves black British talent in its droves draining to the states.
“People are so fascinated with trend and whatever is trendy, whatever is cool, whatever everyone’s talking about [in the UK]” Simz argues. “As opposed to ‘no, this is dope, this is what I fuck with and I want people to hear it’. It just so happens Americans are that way inclined. And it’s annoying that it’s not until they do it that all of a sudden we want to – we got to stop all of that. It’s silly.”
It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but rap-juggernaut Drake’s affinity for grime and UK rap can’t be divorced from the meteoric rise of artists like Dave, Skepta, and Giggs in the mainstream. And while a continually confused UK press still lump Little Simz with grime artists, the current ‘British sound’ being championed isn’t one she fits into. It has been said time and time again that she sounds “nothing coming out of the UK right now” – marrying trippy, soulful psychedelia with her machine-gun flow. This is both a USP and penalty for the genre-defying artist, who has been shaped by the same ends as many of her musical peers (for Nike’s Nothing beats a Londoner advert, she shot her cameo at a barber’s shop near Sobell Leisure Centre on Hornsey Road, a stone’s throw from her childhood home).
Like many inner-city youth in the early noughties, Simz was writing bars and spitting them for eager audiences locally at age 11. But her craft was honed by attending and performing at St Mary’s Youth Club, a community centre that counts Leona Lewis and Alexandra Burke as alumni. She says she sees herself as much as a product of her area as she is a “product of arts funding”, as British actor Daniel Kaluuya referred to himself in his BAFTA acceptance speech. And she worries what cuts to those services means for an upcoming generation of access-starved, opportunity hungry artists.
“Like Daniel said, we’re all products of this,” Simz says. “When you take those things away, it’s disheartening. It’s like okay, now what? And then that’s what leads to people getting in trouble because they feel like there’s no other options, which to me is the saddest thing. That’s why I get involved in places like the Roundhouse, because I was going to Roundhouse when I was 16, 17. After college I would go there, save up my money, go get a membership, use the facilities and now years later I’m able to put on a festival in that very same place. All these things – I don’t think people realise how important they are for us.”
The festival she is organising at Camden Roundhouse, ‘Welcome To Wonderland: The Experience 2’ is giving a platform to “beautiful, talented women of colour”. Complete with three stages alongside food, drink, installations and an exhibition, its side attractions include broadcaster Reggie Yates in conversations with the actors Riz Ahmed and Will Poulter. And while it’s a mixed line-up in terms of the gender of artists, female acts such as Ari Lennox, Junglepussy, Cleo Sol and Lioness dominate. Its predecessor was a spectacle of nearly equal proportion – she curated a eclectic roster of performers for two stages including all female jazz group Nerija to Californian RnB singer/songwriter/producer Tiffany Gouché. Meanwhile, Mckay Felt, the illustrator responsible for her album artwork, created live art.
The timing of its sequel couldn’t be more pertinent. Where Wireless festival has been widely criticised for only featuring three female artists across three days of music, similarly, Green Man’s line-up features no women at all in its top 14 headline acts. In 2017, a BBC study of 14 major UK festivals for the last decade found out of 660 headline appearances, only 37 were all-female acts. But Simz insists industry inequality wasn’t on her mind when pulling the event together.
“It came about by me being fans of these women, of these people and feeling like damn, just as a fan, if I were to put together an ideal festival of who I’d want to see perform, who would it be? And those were the names that came to mind.
“These are artists and women that represent a time that we’re in now, and represent things I stand for and that I’m proud to be a part of,” she continues. “And I think it’s important to shed a light on that, especially with how the festival circuit is these days, with it being majority men. It’s not something I’ve necessarily done intentionally but I’m not going to sit and complain about the fact that festivals don’t have as much women. If I’m in a position where I’m able to create more opportunities then I’m going to do that. If I can do it at this level, these major festivals are able to do it – it’s not a far reach.”
Unintended or not, Little Simz’s female focus may come as a surprise to some, given her rejection of the label ‘female rapper’ earlier in her career. Her stance has softened since however (“The fact I’m a woman has nothing to do with my ability or my talent. But I don’t walk into interviews and make it a point now.”), as has an apparent aversion to labels of the ‘major’ type. It amuses her that she’s become an unintended figurehead for artist independence, as she she’s never been against signing, she just hasn’t yet been offered the “right deal”.
“I’m not trying to go against the grain to be this rebel, to be unorthodox, nah,” she says. “At the points I was being offered these deals, I would have had to compromise a lot which is not appealing to me. Now, I’m bless enough to be in a position where if I get into a situation like that everything’s on my terms. And I’m just so happy I held out. It’s not a race, it’s a marathon.”
Both her prior albums were released on her own imprint AGE 101 and she has amassed her increasing following on grassroots platforms such as SoundCloud and Bandcamp. With her third offering however, which she has just announced she has completed, her main priority is doing what works best for her most “honest” body of work to date.
On her 2015 album A Curious Tale Of Trials Persons, Simz’s multiple personas blurred the lines between her personal truths and the perspectives of ‘persons’. On her second, her coming of age was as much about reality as it was fantasy, woven into a whimsical, fictional, Alice in Wonderland backdrop. This album however, is about honesty. Last year Simz says she booked a ticket to LA and while out there, met up with her childhood friend, British producer Inflo, who has worked with The Kooks, Michael Kiwanuka and Tom Odell. The pair spent days in the studio together where they had conversations that were deep – at times uncomfortably so – for the majority of the time.
“People are so fascinated with whatever is trendy and whatever everyone’s talking about in the UK. As opposed to, ‘this is what I fuck with’. It’s silly”
“I realised what those conversations were doing were opening me up more to myself because I’m very introverted,” Simz explains. “I don’t really talk much. He said to me if you were a guitarist, I would be sitting down with you for four, five days going through guitar chords. Your voice is your instrument, so let’s tap into that as much as we can.
“I’ve been vulnerable. It’s not been easy to talk about the things I talked about on this album. It’s like, am I really trying to put my business out there like that? And I’ve just been like fuck it. This is my release, this is my therapy. I’ve been through a lot in the past 12 months and I’m just going to say it. That’s me pushing myself. Some people don’t want to get better. I’ve clocked – some people don’t like to be pushed. And I realised in order to get better I need to do these things. If I’m happy to stay at the same level and make another album like Stillness In Wonderland, I could have done that within a week. But that’s not growth to me, that’s not evolution. With that mindset, I was able to make some of the music I’m most proud of.”
Her voice is tinged with the excitement she usually reserves for the projects of others. She catches herself; “Sorry if I’m talking bare,” she laughs. “But we’ll see, you’ll hear it and you’ll have your own judgement.” As self-effacing as ever, Little Simz’s pride at her latest work can’t help but slip through, just this once. It is her birthday after all.
Photography: Jack Bridgland
Styling: PC Williams
Styling Assistants: Misty Dee Griffiths + Amie Wolfe
Make-Up: Chloe Botting using Bleach London