Pink Siifu is one step ahead
A topless Pink Siifu, real name Livingston Matthews, appears restless. “I miss my kids,” the 29-year-old admits while sorting through a never-ending pile of colourful clothes. “I miss them a lot.”
His messy London hotel room is appropriately adorned with a painting of a pink flower on the wall. Siifu is pacing around with excitement in anticipation of his show at the 02 Academy Islington later in the evening. This is his first international tour as a headliner and there’s a palpable sensethat everything is moving at lightning speed for the artist. He proudly tells me that he recently received a text from the late Virgil Abloh – who tragically died in the weeks following this interview – saying that his music had been a source of inspiration. And yet, despite all this noise, parenthood is his most pressing concern. “Every six months I feel like I need to find a way to evolve into a better version of myself,” Siifu continues, finally sitting still. “Having babies does that to you.
The Birmingham, Alabama-born rapper, singer and producer is at a point in life where everything is clicking into place – and the potential is infinite. Yet his thoughts still regularly take him down morbid roads. He admits to me that this often happens in conversations; the result of an upbringing constantly marred by death. Over 2016’s Break, Siifu half-sang, half-rapped a funked-out tirade about breathing “for the n****s who can’t breathe no more”. It’s a responsibility he takes very seriously.
Under Jacket: Jenn Lee
Tee: Jawara Alleyne
Trousers: Jawara Alleyne
Shoes: Jawara Alleyne
“My family reunions, and the places I would meet my cousins for the first time, were always funerals. [When you’re Black in America] you just get used to death,” he sighs. “I time all my album releases so they align with when a family member was either born or passed away. I channel their energy.” He shrugs and then a wry smile begins to form. “I’m independent and own all my masters so my babies will get the money if I die. I’m really a family-orientated n***a. James Brown said ownership was how you become a free Black man in America. I guess I listened.”
The artist – who grew up listening to OutKast, Sun Ra, Sly and the Family Stone and Lupe Fiasco while living between Birmingham and Cincinnati, Ohio – wears his influences openly. Siifu, which is the Cantonese title for a master or skilled teacher, is arguably one of the most unpredictable artists of his generation. He has consistently revolted against the idea of genre lines, with brilliant albums that could easily be listed in at least six different sections of your local record store.
Siifu can purr about sex from the back of his throat like Barry White, as he did on popsused2pushthatbarrywhite, or drop a woozy trap sermon called pray everyday, where praying is earmarked as something worth bragging about. On FK, he showed he was capable of sparking a punk revolution, letting the spirit of Sid McCray violently take over his body. The latter track is found on NEGRO, an album that sounds like Bad Brains if they made cloud rap. In Pink Siifu songs, transcendence and chaos usually sit side-by-side. Such is Siifu’s thirst for creating new music that he also has a packed catalogue of eclectic beat tapes released under the moniker iiye – a producer alter-ego that acts as a love letter to the split personalities present in the work of his hero, MF DOOM. Siifu tells me that the fluctuating nature of his music aligns with the Black experience in America.
Blazer: Songs for the Mute
Jewellery: Bazi Jewels
Shorts: Artist’s own
Slippers: North Face
“Life is unpredictable [here]. You need to be a chameleon. I’m trying to be the bridge between jazz, rap, funk, soul, R&B, psychedelic and punk. I’m right in the middle somewhere,” he clarifies. “I want my music to change people like hearing Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain on acid changed me. You felt everything at once. I love when you listen to a piece of music by Prince and can’t work out how he came up with the sound. You wanna fuck these n****s heads up.” When playing live, Siifu says it’s only considered a success when the audience “doesn’t know how to feel.”
Fly Anakin, Mavi, YUNGMORPHEUS, maassai, Ahwlee, AKAI SOLO, and Pink Siifu. At any given month, any combination of this group might drop a collaborative project together. Of this talented posse of artists and friends, who he agrees are leading a “renaissance” in “experimental jazz-rap”, Siifu enthuses: “Together we’re all trying to create this community and bring that Soulquarians or Dungeon Family energy back. I liked when you had everyone in the studio, from Badu to Common, D’Angelo and Dilla, all creating as one and feeding off one another.”
The album that Siifu is in London to tour, however, is pure anarchy. Released last year, NEGRO is a rush of blood to the head, with explosive, distorted sonics that soundtrack chants about police officers who are “pigs” and hooks about white people who steal from Black culture.
The piercing DEADMEAT is an apt indicator of the record’s tone, with ugly police sirens and twisted thuds of a bass guitar making you feel like you’ve entered a rap cypher in hell of which Mica Levi would approve. Created around the time Black Lives Matter protestors were marching for George Floyd, NEGRO bottles the anger of those turbulent summer months in 2020.
“I want my music to change people like hearing Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain on acid changed me”
“I don’t believe in the whole Good Cop/Bad Cop thing,” he says of the album’s clear anti-police sentiment. “Maybe there’s one good cop who doesn’t shoot Black folks, but I don’t fuck with cops because they’re a product of a broken system. With this music, I am trying to talk about why the whole system needs to change.” On dark highlight homicide/genocide/ill die, Siifu calls for Black people to be ready to die protecting each other from corrupt forces. “They try to kill my family/ I’ll die for my family!” he screams over and over.
The artist describes NEGRO as a “new age Nat Turner soundtrack” – a reference to the enslaved preacher who led a violent rebellion that wiped out 50-plus white locals in Southampton, Virginia, in the summer of 1831. Academics can’t decide whether Turner was a murderous villain or a hero who fought back. “The cops are shooting us in our neighbourhood, but we haven’t really seen a n**** shoot a cop in the face yet,” Siifu says when I ask if it feels like a revolution is approaching in the US. “Until we see it, we don’t know what will happen.” He pauses, before more diplomatically adding: “Honestly, maybe that vision isn’t the answer because the government has way more weapons than us. In Atlanta, n****s pulled up to the racist killer cop’s house and refused to leave. They set up camp. I fuck with that energy a lot more.”
Siifu channels a similarly unrelenting energy with his five-piece live band. NEGRO’s songs have inspired raucous head bashing, with videos from the European leg of the tour showing hall-upon-hall of white kids losing control of their bodies. But I’m curious as to whether Siifu believes white rap fans are there just to feed off the thrill of his rage, or if they are really identifying, and furthering, a message of racial equality?
“It’s a hard one, bro,” he admits, sounding slightly dejected. He’s now swapped the hotel room for the back of a taxi, heading out for a soundcheck. “Sadly, that’s just the entertainment world. We’re looked at more like a museum exhibit than actual people. I guess this is why it’s so important that Black folks come to my shows.” He takes a breath. “I’m happy white folks are buying tickets and enjoying themselves, but the NEGRO shit was really for my n****s; for them to let out their rage.”
This idea of being a teacher or a conduit – for emotions, but also new sounds – is what Pink Siifu is really all about. His biggest song, stay sane, samples an otherworldly hum from Sweetheart by Thai singer Sawalee Pakaphan – a song many might have not otherwise discovered – as the rapper struggles “to set my mind at ease, fuck a pill”.
“Producers like J Dilla and Madlib had you hunting down their samples,” he says. “I want to do that too. It’s important to show people musical lineage. I really fucks with the teaching. That’s the magic of rap music.”
Blazer: Songs for the Mute
Jewellery: Bazi Jewels
Shorts: Artist’s own
Slippers: North Face
Understandably, NEGRO was a difficult album to record, but Siifu says 2021’s follow-up GUMBO’! was a chance to go to a more soulful place and have some fun via a stickier trap aesthetic. “It’s late-night car music,” he explains of the latest project. “You play a song [like Big Ole with Bbymutha] when you’ve just left the club with your homies and you want to bump all that hard shit that they didn’t play inside. You all enjoy this gumbo of sounds together, right?”
This “gumbo of sounds” is exactly what makes Pink Siifu so unique; his ability to mix different textures together and cook up something genuinely new. The next attempt at creating a new sound, he reveals to me, will materialise through the release of a collaborative album with Ahwlee and their group B. Cool-Aid. It’s coming in 2022. “When OutKast were in their prime, you never knew what they were gonna drop next, you feel me? That’s what I want. I just want to break the code and fuck shit up. Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix were planning to make an album just before Jimi died. Well, my next music is whatever that sound was supposed to be.”
It’s a bold statement, but Pink Siifu is brazen enough to pull off. He is trying to break musical boundaries, skilfully combining genres that don’t typically align, but with a wider purpose to show how rap is intrinsically connected to all styles of music. “I’m showing the door and letting [people] through it. I’m a guide. A teacher. That’s my job as an artist.”
GUMBO’! is out now via Dynamite Hill