Kojey Radical Is In His Finest Hour 🏆

“You think I give a fuck about a genre?” is the piercing line that rings in the opening track of Kojey Radical’s 2016 EP, 23Winters. It is this liberated sense of nonconformity that sets the East London artist far apart from his peers and echoes through every bar and cadence he unleashes. Celebrated for his free-flowing sound and approach to creativity, Kojey has never been driven by the logistics of standing out and defying genres. From his inception into the soundwaves back in 2014 with Dear Daisy: Opium, his focal attention rests on delivering provocative perspectives on his reality, his stark meditations on Black identity, impotent government structures, philosophy and spirituality cutting through the eerie soundscapes of each conceptualised project.

All eyes are now once again on the lyrically cinematic world of Kojey Radical as he filters through another season of lessons and experiences in his debut album, Reason To Smile. 23Winters was thematically held together by his father’s narration, and Reason To Smile borrows from the same sentimentalism, this time guided through by his mother who represents the grounding wisdom of a maternal figure in between energetic bouts of funky rhythms and the occasional braggadocious spiel. After releasing three spellbinding EPs to date, Kojey ponders on the idea that Reason To Smile might just be his closing act. In relation to his previous projects, Reason To Smile is the blazing sun that appears on the horizon after the unsettling aftermath of a storm as he journeys to uncover what true happiness looks like to him.

Revered as a jack of all trades—i.e. rapper, poet, creative director, and pretty much everything else in between—Kojey has now teamed up with Dr. Martens to work towards increasing diversity and opportunities for the younger generation of creatives in a new initiative called Tough As You. Through mentorship and financial support, the initiative is intended to help and uplift a wave of underrepresented artists, collectives and grassroots organisations on their journey to find solid ground within the music industry. We sat down with Mr. Radical to discuss this very necessary initiative, his very excellent debut album, and much more.

“Art is the escape.”

TRENCH: Before you made a name for yourself in music, you actively pursued different streams of creativity, from studying fashion and film to being a creative director for some truly artistic projects. Why was it important for you to push yourself and explore these creative avenues, and continue to implement them into your musical output?

Kojey Radical: I don’t know… It wasn’t a conscious thing. I wasn’t trying to do that on purpose in order to be different or anything like that. I came from a background in art, so my approach to it has always been rooted in trying to figure out what I wanted to create in the now and what I wanted to represent me within that moment. I think I always led with that in mind and you can always tell, because it’s a bit contrived when somebody’s trying to be different. It’s either what you do is different because it’s different and you’re different and it is what it is, or you’re trying to make it happen—and really, then, you’re just imitating. Chances are you’re just doing your best imitation of somebody you’ve seen be different and you’re tryna follow in their likkle footsteps or whatever, but it’s pointless. You can’t really do it like that.

How did living in East London help nurture this side of you?

I grew up in Hoxton Market so it’s literally a market. It’s always been an area that’s been quite vibrant and full of hustle—that’s the best way to describe it. You wake up in the morning and you have to go and get it done! Then, being so close to Brick Lane and Shoreditch, you have the art and culture elements that start to appear quite quickly. You absorb all of these little things that start to shape you. I grew up in the hood—even though I grew up in Hoxton or Shoreditch, or whatever—it’s only been gentrified now. When I was there it wasn’t like that, so even the trapping stuff, once the trappers got their bread, they wanted to be different and cut out.

You’re often referred to as a ‘renaissance man’ but, in your own words, how would you define that term? What does it mean to be a renaissance artist in this present day?

I don’t define it. People define it and I just say “thank you” and keep it moving. I don’t think about these things. I spend very little time thinking about what people are gonna think about what I’m doing. And as a byproduct of even doing it in the first place and putting it out there, you’re kind of running into public opinion—which is fine, but at the same time, it does not move me so the fact that it’s even something to scream about just shows how much of a lack of appreciation there is across the board for what it takes to actually be considered an artist. I think an artist now, especially within music, is just the person that sang the song, rather than thinking about what that actually means to be an artist and why that’s important and what effect you want to have in any way, shape or form. I don’t think about these things. I appreciate it, but when I’m going in to make something, that’s the last thing on my mind.

Your lyricism is one of the things you’re widely praised for as it always feels like listeners are a part of the world you create with your words. We’re not just spectating as you unpack your experiences. How do you ensure that you’re consistently presenting your ideas in a way that’s engaging but still allow enough space for the raw expression of your thoughts?

I think it’s keeping honesty at the forefront of intention. I remember there was something that Saul Williams said to me and it was basically like: “Write with the intensity and the truth of somebody holding a gun to your head and you not being sure if you’re gonna get tomorrow to tell your truth again.” That always stuck with me. It’s about speaking about your existence in the now, being as open and as honest as you can when you do those things, and then there’ll be a point where you’ll get to look back at all your works and self assess and figure things out. Sometimes people will reference songs of mine from ages ago and I’d be like, “I’m not gonna lie to you: I don’t even remember that tune.” But then I’ll listen back to it with them and we’re having the same experience—we’re both like, “Rah! He had a lot to say, innit?”’ I’m talking about myself in third person like he had a lot to say because sometimes, I can’t even remember being in that space but writing in that space has allowed me to record it and make that real.

Outside of making music, what is the process of refining your pen and pushing yourself to get better lyrically?

I think a lot of it is down to my peers, my friends. If I’m not experiencing something but they are, that’s equally as important to me to be able to articulate it in my music. I read every now and then, but I find listening to music and listening to real writers write in music—if you’ve got a favourite tune, hearing the pen of that person, to me, is the same as reading a book so I can sit down and listen to an Outkast album and feel like I’ve read two novels. By the time I’ve really broken up everything they’ve said, chopped it up and dissected it, I’m like: “Oh my days! This is crazy.” I don’t think it’s one straightforward way; I think it’s just whatever’s sparking the forefront of my interest at the time.

There’s always layers of philosophical thinking that unravel within each of your projects, from identity, to politics and documenting the Black experience as you see it. What set of ideas are you exploring on Reason To Smile? What kind of conversations are you hoping to trigger through this offering?

In the process of starting this album, I’d say there was a lot going on in my life that looked good. If anybody saw it from the outside, they’d go: “Wow! Things are going well for you, man.” But mentally and emotionally, I just couldn’t see it. I couldn’t be there with them seeing what they saw in me. I was just getting on with my day, in my opinion. I had to look for all the triggers, all the little moments that go into that—whether it’s picking a brave face and getting on with it, that sense of bravado, telling yourself that you’re not this and you’re not that, and then, I guess, seeing life for what it is, it’s a very humbling experience. That was my experience of writing this album.

You released three solid projects over the past few years, but why is now the right time for your debut album, and what does this represent about the current era of your artistry?

I think I’m at my most confident to be myself within the art and have people except me for what I’m going to make, whenever I’m going to make it. I’ve always evolved my sound—almost per project—and a little bit fearfully each time, almost a bit like people aren’t going to get it. So much so that it makes me second-guess my own work and maybe not lead into with the same confidence that I should have. Not calling things albums was almost like a safety blanket, like: “Well, I didn’t intend this to be my album so if people judge it or they don’t like it, it’s not the end of the world—it’s just my project.” There’s a lack of confidence in that. But I had to get out of that way of thinking. I had to step forward and stop wasting time. I was actually ready last year, but I think it was just a thing of waiting for the world to level out in a way that I could get the music out when people would be able to appreciate it, understand it, and hopefully like it.

How did the creative process of the album differentiate from that of the previous projects? What did ‘album mode’ look like for you?

Very different. I started it in my mum’s house in Hoxton, just before I bought my house and kind of got my shit sorted. I was in the same room I grew up in, and realised how much I outgrew it. I realised how unsettled I was there, figuring out that this room was almost like a metaphor for how much I’ve been putting shit off. I was putting off making an album; I was putting off really going there and saying, “Alright. Cool. This is it!” I remember I would sit on Instagram Live and make songs every day. I remember making one song, I think it was “Silk”, and I was like: “This might be it now. If I'm making songs to this quality just sat at home by myself, then it’s time to put this all together and make it mean something.” By the time we got into camp mode, I was ready. I was definitely still anxious—there was still a lot of anxiety—but I was way more ready to attack it this time and not be afraid.

You have a long list of amazing producers and artists featuring on the album. What were you hoping each of them would add to its narrative?

I had Swindle and KZ on executive production, just because those two know my sound. They’ve been working with me from the beginning and they were going to be able to ground me in that process. I do walk in to making projects with a lot of anxiety and being very fearful of what’s right and what’s wrong, and what’s going to work and what’s not going to work, and they just—especially Swindle: he always reminds me that “you’ve got to remember: you’re the common thread and there’s no one else in this country that can make ‘this’ genre sit next to ‘that’ genre as well as you do because you’re the common thread. You love music and you need to go in there and love what you do and do what you do.” In terms of collaborations, I’ve just been fortunate enough to have the love and respect of my peers enough to just get on the phone and tell them to drive four hours out of the city to a remote farm and sit down and watch Grand Design with me for a couple weeks [laughs]. Literally, we’d sit down and watch Grand Design, we’d have dinner, and we’d just talk. We spent ‘x’ amount of time in the studio and every time we did, it was very concentrated. As there was so much dialogue that lent to inspiration, by the time we got there, we were all ready to go.

What was the importance of having your mum’s voice guide us through the listening experience?

It’s crazy, because my mum’s voice being on the album was an idea that came after the fact. But it was interesting because I played the album to my boy, Zack—he’s not in music; he’s a music lover, but he’s not in music—and he was like to me, “You talk about your mum a lot,” and I realised every time I was talking about my mum on the album, I was talking about what she taught me. So, deep down, as much as I was trying to figure out all this stuff about myself and I was on my own journey and I’m a man, all these lessons came from my mum. It came from the head of the family, you know what I’m saying? So it became necessary to make sure that her voice was heard.

You’ve previously spoken about the expectations you have for the album and said it “needs to be as good as The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill—so good that people will question if you’ll ever make another one like it again.” Does that statement still stand?

Yeah, it’s done after this... I can never really be done though, right? Just when I thought I was done, they keep dragging me back here. I think, for me, that’s a statement of intention. I’m not aiming for “he was cool; he had a couple good tunes.” No. We’re dealing with the top or nothing—ya get me? And I had to step into the album-making process with that in mind so I’m not short-changing anybody, not trying to do stuff for likes and clicks, but more so how well does this music stand five years from now, ten years from now, twenty years from now. In the moment, I’m sure people didn’t immediately hear The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill and go, “I’m still going to be bumping this in fifteen years.” They just were. Fifteen years came and it just was. Those people grew up and they had kids and they turned around to them and were like, “You need to listen to this,” and they play them “Ex-Factor” and “Zion”. That effect is what I’m going for.

“I spend very little time thinking about what people are gonna think about what I’m doing.”

When it comes to your visuals, you always deliver elaborate, heavily cinematic pieces. What does that creative process look like and what are some visual references that you like to draw inspiration from?

We just look at a lot of stuff that includes long-winded journeys. Even when it came down to the palette of the album cover, we ended up looking at the Michael Jackson version of The Wiz and just tried to find these links and threads. The yellow brick road becoming the suit, that big skyline overlooking the city, it’s all a reminder of Hoxton Street. All of these characters that appear on the album cover are important to me. My son’s walking towards his mum, taking some of his first steps, and I’m floating in front of my mum and you can see the pride in her face… It’s like this full circle thing. There was a lot we were looking at and we tried to execute that in the visuals this time around.

Can you describe the synergy of your creativity? For example, does a concept for a video ever inspire the actual music-making process, and vice versa?

Oh 100 million percent. For example, for “War Outside”, I knew how that was going to look before we even finished the song—just because of how cinematic that whistle is, how satisfying that first drop is. Music is like synesthesia, in a sense, where it makes you see colours; it makes you see pictures and imagery so, in the process of making it, your mind is going and, sometimes, some shit that you see as the visual in your mind inspires a lyric. For example, the second verse—why weren’t he with you?—you imagine yourself in that character’s shoes, like: “Why wasn’t he with me? What was I doing? What was going on at the time?” There’s loads to unpack there.

You’re currently working on a film with Ade Femzo that explores music as a form of escapism. As an artist, how do you maintain a sense of solace and escapism through your own music, despite sharing huge parts of yourself to the world?

Art is the escape. So much of the world is complicated and stressful, so where do you go when you need a break? For me, I go to the art. The art is the first stop. Life is the scary part! Nothing brings me more enjoyment than just being able to create freely without the pressure. I think that’s why I was fortunate with this album… I only had to start thinking of the pressures of an album once it was done because when we were making it, we were so secluded that all we had to do was to make, feel, and listen. Listen to music that stood the test of time.

What were you listening to at this time?

We listened to a lot of J.U.S.T.I.C.E League productions, a lot of Pharrell and Jay-Z, a lot of Kano, Manga… I listened to bare Manga when I was making this album. I was going back to albums that gassed me. I was listening to The Lover Below a lot, Kings Of Leon’s Only By The Night, Jamie T’s Panic Prevention… I have vivid memories of hearing so many of these projects for the first time and falling in love with something about each of them. I think I was just trying to remind myself of that feeling, you know? Like, what does falling in love with music feel like? What does falling in love with a set of chords or one random ass sound that you know you’re the only person that could hear but you don’t care, you’re going to move your foot and move your hands everytime you hear it coming. It’s looking for those things in music, for me, that was part of building the playlist for it. Again, a lot of my peers, we’d be listening to them for ages and be like, “We need to get this person in the studio.” I remember there were a good few days where we just kept listening to Emmavie on loop. We just kept listening to her and we were like, “We should get her down.” And Emmavie came… Have you heard the album?

I have indeed.

So Emmavie sings the backing vocals on “Together”—her and Maverick Sabre. Then we turned around and made “Trick Me” five minutes after that. People that were on my playlist were there; Collard came, so many people came down, and it ended up being what it was.

If this were to be your last project, what’s the legacy you’d hope to leave us with?

You tell me! Did you enjoy it?

I did. For me, I loved how detailed the production is.

I think, at first, all I can hope for is the enjoyment. All the chart stuff, the award nominations and how well it does is secondary. I always just go off the five-year mark: do people still talk about it in five years’ time? For example, with 23Winters, people still talk about that project now… One of my favourite British comedians is a man called James Acaster, and he’s been knowing that I’m a fan. I said it in a random interview once and, one day, BBC Radio 6 were like: “We’re doing a festival and we want you to do a panel discussion.” I’m like, “Okay. Who’s leading the panel discussion?” and they’re like: “James Acaster. He wants to talk to you about 23Winters because, for the last 4/5 years, it’s been in his top albums of 2016 ever. He’s done a whole podcast and written articles about how 2016 was the best year of music and how 23Winters was still one of his top projects from that year.” Now we’re talking about legacy because I can now talk about that project in hindsight; I’ve got to get somewhere to come back and then really know what Reason To Smile did or didn’t do, you know?

Let’s talk about the Tough As You initiative that you’re working on with Dr. Martens. What exactly is it, and why was it important for you to get involved?

It was imperative. Part of the deal that I had with Dr. Martens was that some of my paycheck goes to directly helping and funding youth initiatives and youth clubs around Hackney. It’s where I grew up and, on top of that, now being able to be involved rather than it just being an invisible lump of money that arrives at some youth club, I get to talk to the kids, I get to sit down and do workshops with them, get to help them make films and songs. All of the things that I didn’t necessarily get a chance to do or experience when I was a kid, because the opportunity wasn’t always there for me. It’s an honour for people to even still give a fuck what I think. This generation is going to continue regardless; they’re always gonna have their favourites and their new heroes or whatever, but I’m just grateful to still have a shred of relevance in order to help.

You’ve been involved in community-driven projects before, but now you’re going into this with a lot more experience in life and in the industry. What do you think is the biggest issue for young creatives in the industry today, and what can be done to alleviate those issues?

This is where I sound like an old man: I think the speed and the accessibility that we can all reach each other with is amazing, but then, at the same time, there’s things that shine through as being like the popular sound or this is what works. Whether it’s good or not is irrelevant, and I think it’s almost like a fear of individuality; everybody wants to be like each other and people are unafraid to sound like a next man. When I was young, if someone so much as thought you were trying to cat their style, it was beef. Whereas now, you can turn the radio on and ten man sound just like each other and nobody cares. I think it’s that research and that level of wanting to pay attention to details enough to make yourself an individual—but they’d probably argue differently. Realistically, it’s probably like socio-economic status and knife crime, but we know that because we live it. That’s our lived experience but, outside of that, it would be the lack of individuality.

What sort of impact are you hoping this initiative will have on the next generation of creatives?

I want them to see a win. There are a lot of people that see themselves in my journey when it comes to wanting to try, be, or do something different and having to take a long road, so I want them to see that there is a win at the end of this tunnel—there is a light. I think any and every bit of success this album has represents that and I want to enjoy it with people as much as enjoying it myself.

Even though the focus is about the resources you could provide for these youth-led communities, what are you hoping to take away from this experience?

In the now, I’m happy I can be a voice and be considered important enough to make a difference in that way, however big or small. I won’t ever know the results of that until this next generation grows and becomes more of what they were going to be, and we see their level of success. It’s the same thing for someone like Wretch [32], for example: when Wretch was just getting his break, it was unheard of for a rapper to chart like how he did, but now you’re seeing man go top ten every other week so you’re only gonna see the effects of your influence when the next generation succeeds. We’re just waiting for them to shine.

Posted on March 09, 2022