There’s No Stopping Simbi

Words: Danielle Dash
Photography: Hyperfrank

As I walk into Kobalt’s plush meeting room in Central London, Little Simz is curled up on one end of a long, white couch. She stands up to greet me and it’s immediately apparent there is nothing ‘little’ about her. She’s tall and wields a commanding yet gentle presence. Her hair is piled up high on her head in an intricate knot of black and brown and blonde locs. My heart jumps when she compliments my hair because I like hers, too. I’m quickly put at ease by her generosity, and I mirror her as I sink down into the other end of the couch opposite.

Born Simbiatu Abisola Abiola Ajikawo, Little Simz is wearing a comfy puffer jacket and has her body folded over on itself with her feet pulled up underneath her. The North London star is tired. Having got off a plane from Berlin earlier to a day packed full of interviews, you can see it’s been a long process. While she sometimes finds interview questions can be repetitive, Simz understands the value of this part of the job. “I just have to remove my personal feelings on it and just remember it comes with the gig,” she says. “I see the effects of interviews; I see the effects of promo and press and how helpful it is, so you just have to remember that the outcome will be great. You just have to persevere.”

And persevere, she does. The Mercury Prize-nominated rapper has been releasing music for almost a decade; her first mixtape, Stratosphere, was released in 2010 but, somehow, considering all she’s achieved, Simz is taken aback when I bring up how long she’s been in the game. “Wow... A decade? Oh my days. That’s crazy! It doesn’t feel like it. It doesn’t feel like ten years at all, which is really… It makes me feel excited for the next ten.” As the interview continues, Simz unfurls and, sitting upright, eventually takes off her jacket. She tells me she doesn’t open up to people easily and she’s more comfortable chilling in the corner by herself.

Having recently seen her on stage, the reserved person before me and the person who stormed the stage with a full live band at her sold-out gig in Hackney seem at odds. But the stage is where she’s always felt safe. “It’s so weird because, in real life, I’m not a very extroverted person but as soon as I get on the stage? I feel more comfortable than being in a room of five people, you know what I mean? I’ve just always performed. From when I was nine, doing dance and musical theatre and obviously doing my own thing, I’ve just always been on stages. So now I’m super at home, but I still get nervous before.” Watching Simz on stage, it looks like she’s never heard of the concept of nerves. She moves with a fluidity and ease that is rooted in an unshakeable confidence.

Setting up her own label, AGE 101, and releasing her debut album A Curious Tale of Trials + Persons when she was just 21 years old, Simz is confident in a way that belies her 25 years. She speaks slowly and chooses her words carefully when she tells me why she hasn’t yet ceded control and signed to a major record label. “Let me do my work myself and let me try and get myself to a point of where I own my shit,” she affirms. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that; I’m not trying to be different or extra. I work really hard and I’m passionate about what I do. This is precious to me, and I don’t feel comfortable with the idea or the prospect of just giving it to someone else to do with as they please. I’d just like to do this bit by myself right now. And I’ll continue to the point where I feel a lot more comfortable and a lot more in charge because I can hire my own team and share the responsibility or the workload amongst people that have seen my journey and that understand where I’m going and I trust. You know?”

That level of ownership, autonomy and independence is important to Simz, not just in business but also artistically. Her latest album, the critically acclaimed GREY Area, saw her collaborate with long-time family friend, record producer Inflo, during the creation of which she had to trust the process as well as her producer. “I think music, to me, is such a personal and spiritual thing,” she tells me. “Who you’re working on it with really plays a part, I think, and again going back to what I was saying about the control thing, that has actually worked against me in some aspects because I’ve always been in control of my own shit. When it comes to letting someone in to help out on the music, it’s like growing pains sometimes: very uncomfortable. But again, it’s all about trust. Inflo is somebody that I trust; his ear—I trust his taste in music. He’s not gonna put his name on something that he doesn’t believe in.”

This approach allows Simz to share the responsibility of her music-making, allowing her to concentrate on her lyricism and musicianship instead of the arranging and mixing—all of which she’s used to doing by herself.

“I work really hard and I’m passionate about what I do. This is precious to me.”

Now that she’s learning how to delegate, Simz is free to explore other aspects of her musicianship. At her gig, I was giddy with excitement as she swung a guitar into her hands and played with reckless abandon, the crowd rapt by her skill. I ask her about why it means so much to be able to move in between instruments, and she tells me that she “wanted to make an album that had a live feel because I just really started getting into learning guitar, learning piano. Any time I get into the studio, I’m just naturally drawn to those instruments.” Simz is unencumbered by a fear of failure. It’s wild to me, because I’m scared all the time. But for Simz, the opportunity to try is more exciting than any fear of getting it wrong. “I’m not trying to be the world’s best guitarist,” she says. “It’s not that, but it’s something that I’m interested in and I’m gonna get on stage and I’m just gonna do it! I’ve hit the wrong note a few times, but what’s cool is that people are watching me try... I know I’m going to be blessed with another opportunity to get it right. I just know something great is looking out for me.”

Simz is purposefully ambiguous about who exactly she believes is looking out for her. “God plays a very, very big role in my life. I grew up Muslim but, at this point in my life, I’m not a religious person because I’ve read a lot and I’ve researched and I’ve tried different things, and this is what’s making sense for me right now. I have faith and I lean in the direction of that as opposed to religion, but never to discredit or take away what anybody else believes. When I see things happen in my life that I’ve prayed for or wished for, I know someone’s looking out for me. This is not just Simz doing this.” She’s adamant. “I’d be a fool to even think I’m capable of that.” No matter who it is that’s looking out for her, it’s clear she’s been equipped with all the skills she needs to master music. Her lyricism is unmatched in its flow, her cadence is magnetic as she ties each part of a song together under a beat that she rides atop of with words that grab you and don’t let go.

Simz is a voracious reader and, right now, she’s reading Renni Eddo-Lodge’s best-selling book, Why I’m No Longer Speaking To White People About Race. “I’ve always had a love for literature and if I didn’t do music, I probably would’ve studied that and maybe gone onto do a masters in literature. I just really take to words, and stories. Even in school, my favourite subject was English. I usually just keep myself to myself, but the minute I start writing, it’s a different kind of freeing experience that I can’t always get with having a conversation with someone.”

Little Simz first honed her music skills at her local youth club and having somewhere to go, where she could strengthen those skills, was invaluable to her development as a musician. In the past three years, the conservative government has slashed funding for youth services by 40% and 600 youth clubs have been forced to close down, resulting in a loss of nearly 140,000 youth places across Britain since 2010. Simz is unabashed about the effect having a youth club to attend had on her. “If I didn’t have my youth club, I don’t really know what I’d be doing,” she says. “It does sadden me. It makes me feel like there’s so many voices that have gone unheard because they haven’t had the safe space in order to hone in and channel whatever is they love and be in a productive, positive environment.”

She goes on to add that “there are clear examples of people that have gone to these places and have done well so I don’t see the logic in taking that away. I’m now trying to think of ways I can help because I’m in a position and I have a platform to do that. And maybe that’s a sign that we shouldn’t be looking to these other people to do this and that for us. I’ve managed to make this of myself, so I’m sure I can set something up or contribute in some sort of way.”

“I want women to feel empowered...”

As well as a musician, Little Simz is also an actress. Her career started long before she began rapping. She appeared in a children’s series, Spirit Warriors, and then later the E4 series Youngerz. Her turn as Shelley in the latest season of the wildly successful Top Boy series on Netflix, introduced her to a wider audience, but she is as thoughtful with her acting roles as she is with her music. “Taking on the right role is important because sometimes I get roles where I’m like, ‘Nah, I’m not down to represent this’—because it still is my name. I’m not just an actor.” Simz is clear about this. “For me, when Top Boy came out, I was in college or school and I just remember the effect it had on me. The effect it had on my friends and feeling like, ‘Where has this show gone?’ It was gone for six years, and when I heard it was coming back, I was just excited as a fan. Before I’d been cast for Shelley, before I knew I was gonna have anything to do with the project, I was just like, ‘Sick! What we’ve all been waiting for is coming back, and even better: it’s on Netflix.’” And then I got cast in it, and it’s great: I get to tell a story of a woman I’ve seen so many times. I have friends that have a similar journey as Shelley, you know? So not only is it important I do it justice because I know people like this in real life, but it’s a story of a young black woman with dreads. How often do you see that on TV?”

The representation of black women is important to Simz. She shares that she has a group chat on WhatsApp of close friends and family where she gets to be supportive and also be supported. That kind of reciprocal relationship of women upholding one another is invaluable to her and I ask her to talk about my favourite song on GREY Area, “Boss”, and she lets me know she hopes the women she admires will find strength in her music. “I want women to feel empowered,” she tells me. “I have one brother. I love him to pieces! He was an active male figure in my life; my dad wasn’t around. I have two sisters and my mum and I’ve seen how hard they work and how they never complain, and I just admire that strength so much.”

She speaks with more excitement when she’s talking about her family. “Sometimes I’ll have conversations with my sisters or my mum, and with my mum especially, sometimes she might feel like she didn’t do enough and I’m just like, ‘No, mum, you’ve done the most on your own. No one can ever take that away from you. I’m just so grateful for that, as your daughter and as a woman. I’m grateful for women like you.’ So, ‘Boss’ was just a love letter to women. I don’t think anyone should make you feel that you’re less worthy or you’re not strong or you’re not powerful or you’re not beautiful, you know what I’m saying?” And I do know what she’s saying because I leave Simz and I am buzzing with excitement, feeling more powerful and more beautiful than I did before I met her.


Posted on December 24, 2019