How Awate’s ‘Happiness’ Grew To Become A British Rap Masterpiece

Words + Photography: Jesse Bernard

Happiness wasn’t supposed to be here for Awate, in all manners of speaking. Over the past four years, the Camden-based rapper has fought his personal battles against the police, subsequently beating the police in four court cases following four arrests. As one can imagine, such an experience can leave your soul hollowed out and dejected from the world around you, particularly since Awate’s first arrest led to police brutality and the PTSD that still follows him today. The experience left him scarred but throughout, he kept his mind fixed on fulfilling a four-year dream.

His 2018-released album, Happiness, arrived in a timely fashion: six months after the Grenfell disaster, yet it soon became a timeless masterpiece of British rap. And who best to document the social ills of being a young, working-class immigrant in one of London’s most affluent boroughs than Awate? “High rent and low opportunities / Where the police are a plague on our communities / Leave us alone. Leave us alone / Why can’t you give my people a bone by feeding and clothing them?” he raps on “The Ghetto”, a stark but frank examination of Britain’s class inequality that has defined these shores for centuries.

Whether he was consciously aware of it or not, “The Ghetto” evokes Kano’s introspective “Over & Over”—particularly with that opening line. And where Kano opens with “Beef back and forth, chiefs backing tools / Thinking they’re street, black and cool / Lying acting fraud, married to the street and then sign that divorce,” they both present the two sides of the same coin when it comes to the story of what social cleansing has led to across London—and even though both songs were recorded a decade apart, it reveals that not a lot has changed.

Those class disparities were horrifically made visible to the naked eye during the Grenfell Tower disaster, where hundreds lost their lives and many are still awaiting permanent rehousing—more than a year later—in another one of London’s most affluent boroughs. It doesn’t come as a surprise that Awate’s roots also provide a canvas for him to lay down his words, as his writing on “Guillotines” suggests. “I was born where the dawn finds the sunshine / And raised in the blaze of violence and gun crime (London) / I’ve gone to bed in the dungeons / Cos I fight back when feds hit my head with their truncheons / But my blood is from East Africa, Eritrea / Trained since birth to be a devil slayer,” Awate spits, and as he does, you can hear him evoke the spirit of his freedom-fighting parents who inspired his early childhood in Eritrea, while born in Saudi Arabia.

With this early tale, Awate tells the world that there is room for first-gen immigrant refugee stories who are Black and British, but not necessarily both at the same time. The soundscape provided by producer Turkish Dcypha exudes a soul-led, jazzy tone set against a dreary backdrop. “My main goal was to not ruin these beats; each of one of these instrumentals was special. I wanted the audience to hear that the melody is in the beat, not in me singing the chorus,” said Awate, in an unreleased interview earlier this year, who later told me that it was 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’ that inspired him to start writing.

Although the album feels short in length, its single narrative approach keeps Awate’s storytelling focused, concise yet potently vivid. And despite all of his experiences, Awate doesn’t take himself too seriously on Happiness and he knows how to keep the mood light amidst the sociopolitical commentary. This collection of 12 tracks is both cathartic and vindication for the artist, and if you were to choose any one UK rap album that deeply reflects the story of a Black British immigrant refugee, Awate’s is the one that you’ll hear far more commonly these days.

Posted on November 20, 2018