Words by:

Photography: Udoma Janssen
Makeup: Karla Q Leon

Unknown T is having a hell of a week.

It’s early August and the east London drill artist is in the thick of the promotional phase of his debut mixtape Rise Above Hate. Whether it’s starring in comedy sketches with fitness beast Armz Korleone or hosting listening parties on No Signal Radio, not to mention his long-overdue link up with internet persona Unknown P, he’s impossible to miss across social media. On the day of the interview, he’s busy filming YouTube reaction videos but breaks from the session to jump on Zoom. I mention that it’s clear he’s having a lot of fun with his return back to music over the last few months. He beams and coyly asks in his bassy, rumbling voice: “Have you noticed?”

Born Daniel Lena and raised in Homerton in the borough of Hackney, Unknown T crashed onto the UK rap scene in early 2018. An incendiary Mad About Bars freestyle served as introduction to his distinctive style, a blaze of UK slang over hard drill beats, before his debut smash Homerton B cemented him as one of the most exciting voices to come out of the capital, establishing his name, his area and his ability to bring drill to the clubs too – the addictive catchphrase “bend your back and just dig it” lit up every party for months. In seemingly no time at all, Lena had put drill music on the radar of the broadsheets, the fashion press and in the charts (Homerton B peaked at No. 48). Harnessing that momentum, collaborating with the likes of Crazy Cousinz, WSTRN and AJ Tracey by the summer of 2019.

© Udoma Janssen
Balaclava: MASS
Suit: Michael Browne
T-shirt: Martine Rose
Shoes: ASICS
Gloves: Nike

Then, in July 2019, his rise was derailed. Lena was charged with murder in relation to the death of student Steve Narvaez-Jara in January 2018. Lena spent nine months in jail on remand before being found innocent and released at the start of this year. Now, returning to his burgeoning career, Lena is relishing it more than ever: “I’m just happy to be doing what I love again, do you know what I mean?”

But it wasn’t a straightforward resuming of regular programming. Lena is completely aware that the experience has changed him as a person – he’s just trying to grow from it. “I’m trying man, I’m out my cocoon now,” he laughs. Like most rappers, Lena has his eye set on global domination – made all the more fervent after Rise Above Hate debuted at No. 14 in the charts. But before his takeover, he wants to affect meaningful change. “Rise Above Hate to me simply is a message for the youths to ignore the negativity going on in the world today,” he explains. “So when people listen to my music and come to the end of my project, [they] can erase that negative mentality. I want to enlighten people to do better.”

“A lot of people are used to holding things in, the internal damage is real. We need to understand that our voice is a method of healing. That’s what I’m trying to show by expressing myself”

© Udoma Janssen
Full look: Louis Vuitton

Listening to the 44-minute mixtape, you’re left with a sense of feeling renewed: a sensation akin to the release at the end of a rollercoaster. From the malevolent, humming urgency of Deh Deh, trap confessional Addicts featuring M Huncho or the infectious summer bop Main Squeeze featuring men of the moment Young T & Bugsey, the scope of the 16-track project is expansive in its sentiment and subject matter. “Even Sweet Symphony, I incorporated for the gyaldem, so I have that variety,” he emphasises with a laugh.

But what’s perhaps most obvious is Lena’s desire to move beyond the genre he’s associated with. When his breakthrough single Homerton B became the first-ever drill track to be BPI certified Silver, conversation naturally turned to the impact that this commercial success would have on drill – a then-still relatively underground genre. It’s a conversation that Lena isn’t too concerned about himself. “I’m not trying to be stuck within the drill conglomerate,” he asserts. Despite being a huge advocate, fan and peer of the scene, Lena explains that he wants to transcend the boundaries that genre places on an artist. “You see me, yeah? I’m a very forensic person. I’ve thought very carefully about how I can step out the box.” Revealingly, he cites drill star Headie One’s experimental and divisive collaboration with producer Fred Again as a “power move”.

One way he expands his vision on this mixtape is by exploring subjects that not many rappers broach. The teasingly short SS Interlude features him singing softly about his struggles with mental health, accompanied by singer and fellow Hackney local Kali Claire. It’s an intermission that you may be more likely to find on a Dave or Stormzy album than on a debut drill mixtape. Why did he feel it important to show that vulnerability within the body of work? “In our generation a lot of people are used to holding things in, the internal damage is real. We need to understand that our voice is a method of healing. That’s what I’m trying to show subliminally by expressing myself.”

© Udoma Janssen
Full Look: Louis Vuitton

Despite his choice to remain shielded from the world with his signature stylish shades, it’s obvious that he’s still meeting your eye as he talks thoughtfully and passionately on these sensitive topics. This stands in stark contrast to his early persona, which was shrouded in anonymity – often a pragmatic choice for drill artists wishing to keep their identities hidden for legal reasons, ever since Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick publicly named the style of music as a factor in the rise of knife crime in London in 2018. But for Lena, it was a chance to create an air of intrigue. “Another interesting fact: before I was ‘Unknown T’ I was making music but it wasn’t what you hear today. I thought carefully about how I would brand myself. From the name being ‘unknown’, the idea of me hiding in that persona, people are just thinking, ‘Who is this guy? Who is Unknown T?’ and it makes you want to know my story, you get me?”

“There’s a lot of pressure around rappers – and Black men especially – because they point the finger at us but forget that we’re only rapping the reality that we live”

Now, though, the cloud of obscurity has lifted. “I don’t need to hold back my character, let me just be myself. This is the first time I’ve actually gotten to open up for people to understand [the man] behind the T, not just the unknown character I’ve been displaying. I feel like the world can see it.” From the memes he shares to the pure vim for life he possesses, he sincerely hopes his experiences can enact positivity. As we begin to chat about his collaboration with online comedian Munya Chawawa’s character Unknown P, a spoof driller who dresses like Del Boy and trades Homerton for Norfolk – his smile broadens. “He’s such a good guy you know. It feels good innit, because I’ve essentially started his career. Look at what me doing music has created. Now he’s flourishing now in the acting ting!”

While it’s cathartic to witness Lena turn a traumatic experience into a newfound emotional freedom, the gravity of the situation shouldn’t be overlooked. Serving time in prison was not Lena’s first experience with the injustices within our legal and policing structures. “Being a young Black man growing up in the UK, we deal with many pressures and it’s not easy,” he admits. Even when you find success, you can become a target in a new way. On Fresh Home, a track he wrote during his time inside, he candidly reflects on the fact that his treatment within the judicial system was a result of his hypervisibility as a Black man in music with the lyric, “Prison governors tried give me category A/ Wait, but why?/ ‘Cause my face too bait.”

© Udoma Janssen
(Left) Full look: Louis Vuitton
(Right) Coat: Napa by Martine Rose
Shirt: Moschino c/o 194 Local
Jeans: Edwin
Shoes: Nike c/o 194 Local

Considering the societal scapegoating and government censoring of drill as a contributing factor to London’s gang violence issues, the track is a damning but convincing assessment. Touching on the subject during a recent Daily Duppy freestyle, it’s unsurprising that Lena is hugely critical of the government’s stance on drill. While he understands why the perception might be that it perpetuates violence, he’s frustrated at the failure to acknowledge the wider context. “There’s a lot of pressure around rappers – and Black men especially – because they point the finger at us but forget that we’re only rapping the reality that we live. We’re left in broken homes, estates are run down, centres for young people are gone. Think about the bigger picture.”

From the defunding of public youth services and a lack of investment in social housing to the burgeoning pressures of gentrification and the ever-widening wealth gap, the resources put into over-policing drill artists would be put to better use addressing the inequalities that lead to crime in the first place. The targeting of rappers like Digga D, Dutchavelli and Lavida Loca for taking part in the Black Lives Matter protests feels like a further extension of that agenda. When it comes to his own community, Lena represents his ends unabashedly. He proudly cites Hackney as the source of his artistry: “Hackney for me has been a real experience. I’ve been through the harsh reality… I think you can just hear it in a person’s voice.” But his upbringing is also his wellspring of inspiration. The striking cover of his mixtape is a monochromatic fisheye shot of him outside an abandoned estate with a graffiti-covered facade. Lena emphasises the significance of the building – an E9 social housing estate that the government was trying to knock down to make way for development. The estate has become something of a symbol for the systemic marginalisation of working class communities across the city. “I purposely went there and made it the cover of the mixtape, so that it could maybe make a change but also I also wanted to show the world my story. The system can’t just knock down my future.”

© Udoma Janssen
Full Look: Louis Vuitton

© Udoma Janssen
Coat: AA Spectrum
Top & bottom: Liam Hodges
Shoes: Nike

This is, in part, because Lena is so proud of his origin story. He reminisces on growing up with “that Channel AKA music”, flicking endlessly through Black British music video channels like Flava and Starz and seeing faces that looked like his. He goes on to list the likes of Ghetts, BBK, Kano and D Double E as the musical foundations of his youth. He also names Skepta as a huge creative inspiration: “[He] has always been an artist who’s had that street value but has presented his music and his artwork in such a smart way. That urban side of the hood, I really like showing that. It shows a real positive side to where we’re from.”

Lena hopes to be part of the next generation to up the exposure levels for Black British music worldwide. When asked who his dream collaborators are, his answer is immediate: the late Pop Smoke. “He’s someone I’ve been analysing and I never got the chance to meet him,” he sighs. “But right now, I’m trying to step out of my comfort zone.” Does he feel that this period of transformation has changed him as an artist? “If I’m honest, yeah. In a good way though, because if you think about it away from the music, my mind was so stressed and you could hear it in some songs – I didn’t know what was going to happen. I feel like I’ve strengthened my character and you can hear it in my dictation, my flow, my lyricism. The confidence is there now.”

@ Udoma Janssen
Balaclava: MASS
Suit: Michael Browne
T-shirt: Martine Rose

Rise Above Hate is out now via Universal Music. Become a Crack Magazine Supporter today to read Issue 114.