Kojey Radical doesn’t mind if you hate his music, but you can never tell him that he’s not genuine. His foray into art began in elementary school when his first poem—written about monsters—was published in a school anthology. He hasn’t stopped letting these demons out since. Initially inspired to start performing after Suli Breaks visited his school, he maintains that he has no creative influences for his poems. Throughout his life, he has been attracted to forms of open creative expression that allow him to explore himself and see what sticks, or in his case, what doesn’t stick.
Kojey was raised in Hoxton, a district of Hackney in London that, to his and other community members’ dismay, has been steadily gentrified like many other parts of London. This hasn’t hindered Kojey’s creativity, and if anything, has made him work harder to make sure his voice isn’t drowned out by the drone of wealthy developers and those who can afford their condos. From learning dance from his sister at the age of 10 to studying illustration at the London College of Fashion, and even creating his own small-scale clothing line, Kojey has remained fiercely independent.
His recent appearance on the NEW GEN album with his track “Fuck Your Feelings” is a noticeable stand out on a project overflowing with up-and-coming talented British artists like RAY BLK, 67, and Bonkaz. This track is another progression in his sound, refined from his earlier albums which developed out of the storybook style he had envisioned. After his debut, Dear Daisy, came 23Winters—his most recent full-length release—which finds him distancing himself from the make-believe and taking direct influence from his relationship with his father and the world around him.
Both of these bodies of work display promise and personality that Kojey has refined in order to tell his tale to the world. He was in no way afraid to speak his mind during our interview, but rarely did it feel like an answer catered to simple binaries. As philosophical as he is, Kojey remained light-hearted, as our phone conversation turned from topics of globalization and race, to Supreme, anime, and the development of Roadman Drake. —Chris Stoddard
You’ve mentioned before that you danced for nine years and went to the London College of Fashion. “Open Hand” and “Bambu” showcase some of your moves as well. What first got you into dancing?
Kojey Radical:My sister. My sister studied dance so I think when she graduated university I was about ten and she came back home and started her dance school and I think forcibly recruited me into the first generation of her dance school and I never stopped after I went. It gave a lot of kids something to do. Do you know what I mean? I think you can very quickly get caught up in a lot of negative stuff when you’re young and it gave a lot of kids in the area a purpose. I stuck with it until I realized art was probably a bit more of a focus for me.
So it wasn’t out of your own volition but you liked it enough to stick with it?
Kojey Radical:I think it’s important, especially when you’re young, to explore physicality in some way. Whether it’s a sport, a fighting sport like football or martial arts, just something that can feed you to become yourself a little more is important in a young person’s life.
When you wanted to start making music you went to different producers with a book and asked them to make music based off of it. What more can you tell me about the book and that process?
Kojey Radical:The book was what would become Dear Daisy. I had a lot of my illustration work in it and my poetry work and I remember taking it around to producers to show it to them before I even started making music. Jay Prince, I don’t know if you’ve heard of Jay Prince before, but he was the first one to take the plunge and say, “Oh yeah, I get this.” He ended up producing the “Garden Party” track for me.
Did you guys have any connection beforehand that made it easier for him to understand what you wanted out of the book?
Kojey Radical:To be fair, not really. We knew each other through mutual friends and this was still when we were in our early stages, before anyone had any kind of clout or anything. I was writing poems and I think he had been making music for a minute. We were at a show, I can’t remember if it was a show of the mutual friend’s or not, but we met up and I said, “I have an idea for some songs” and he told me to come through. Of course I didn’t have any music at the time so I couldn’t play him anything and tell him, “I make music like this so I sound like this,” so it was a lot of experimentation and working with each other from the ground up.
Do you remember any of the illustrations in the book that helped to inspire the music?
Kojey Radical:They were all literally drawings of scenes that would come to represent the Dear Daisy album. If you’ve seen the “Garden Party” video, all those scenes are basically lifted right from the book.
Wow, so you already had it all planned out in pretty heavy detail then?
Kojey Radical:Yeah, at the time I was still going to university. I was studying illustration but I had stopped going to class but I was still drawing. I think I was trying to soundtrack my own little world that I had created in my head.
Did your parents support you not going to class to focus on your artistic endeavors?
Kojey Radical:Oh they didn’t know. I graduated at the top of my class so they didn’t really need to know [laughs].
Yeah, I guess not. Are you one of the types of people who naturally excels in school?
Kojey Radical:Yes and no. I perform well in anything that I’m interested in. If I’m not, then it’s very hard for me to apply my focus. With the principles of what school was, I knew I could work around it. You need to see my sketchbook, you need to see this, that, and the other. But if I find time to do that in amongst everything else I need to explore for myself, then we both win. There was obviously resistance from my lecturers at first but they came around. I think they actually structured a course around what I did in my final term when I made Dear Daisy and “Garden Party.” I’ve actually gone back and given lectures since to kind of encourage another generation of students to not be afraid of what people have to say.
How crazy is it that you were skipping classes and now they ask you to come back and speak to students?
Kojey Radical:Oh it’s mad. I was cutting class, now I’m teaching it.
Branching off of your music, I wanted to talk about your delivery for a moment. The way you emphasize words reminds me of a preacher delivering a sermon. Did you grow up in a religious household?
Kojey Radical:My mom was, yeah. She tried to raise me in the church as best as she could. Though she also realized the theme where if I’m not interested in something I will just leave [laughs]. But yeah, I was an altar boy in the church so I would stand by the priest and help lead services for much of my young life up until I turned 17 or 18. My dad said something to me that really stuck with me though. “Not being in church on a Sunday doesn’t mean you’re a sinner”. I was thankful that he said that and I think then I realized that I didn’t really need to go anymore. I think at that point it was more about finding my spirituality than trying to find my place in the church.
I would say that you’ve found your place in music though which isn’t bad compensation. I first heard you on the NEW GEN tape with your track “Fuck Your Feelings.” Your music and the other artists on the tape have a different style than the grime rap that everyone is talking about. Do you feel like your music is misconstrued because grime is so big in rap right now?
Kojey Radical:Man, it’s been like that [laughs]. I don’t know how to describe it. When you’re in London, grime is definitely the dominant culture. There are a lot of people making music outside of that genre that don’t really get a lot of attention. Even when I started making music, I didn’t expect to get to a point where I had any notoriety because the music I was making was in the niche. It’s interesting now where there’s so many eyes on British music and the direction that it goes. Everyone’s more focused on the grime and drill sound in the UK. When people listen to my music though, I think they get a little more of themselves and it doesn’t really matter where I’m from. I think people find their own experiences in my music and use it to inspire themselves.
At least from my personal experience I can say that that’s true. Speaking on British media for a moment, the term “culture vulture” is getting thrown around a lot in the rap world right now, especially regarding Drake and his recent adoption of the grime and dancehall sounds. Do you think that this is a problem in hip hop right now?
Kojey Radical:Hmm. Yes and no. If you’re getting piggybacked and it’s Drake, you’re not going to really mind because it’s Drake and that’s going to skyrocket your career regardless. If you know that part of the music that you’re making is just going to be adopted and not be referenced back to you or your city, that’s going to make you feel worse about it all. The thing with Drake, he was kind of accepted in the UK because of the presence that he wanted to make here. He was very active in coming out to people’s shows, opening up pop up shops, linking up with other artists, and spending time in the hood. Drake did his part. I can’t lie, he worked hard to get the clearance. It’s still culture vulturing but Drake is a special case.
I feel like he’s been doing it for years. Drake went to Houston for ages and came back and started rapping slower then came to the UK and now he’s a roadman. It’s just Drake. I think though, that you have to appreciate that he’s putting the music on a world stage and introducing it to an American audience that is a little more stubborn, especially when it comes to hip hop. He’s opening them up so they may want to take more of a chance and take us in.
I’ve read some research on listening habits around the world and they’ve found that we’re more biased to listen to music from our own country. How do you think we can change that so people have more diverse listening habits?
Kojey Radical:It’s hard to explain. I think that if people like you, then they like you as simple as that is. Obviously your hometown is going to like you a little more because they’re more familiar with you but it is that Drake formula. Drake goes to another country and makes himself present. If you go to a foreign country and you make yourself present and show that you understand their customs and appreciate their customs, while also introducing them to yours then it’s a little bit of a more inclusive process rather than coming in and saying, “Oh my shit’s great, fuck your music and listen to me instead.”
When I go anywhere, if I’m in Ireland for example, I make sure I’m listening to who’s current out there. Not so I can just go there and pretend I know what’s going on but so I can understand the musical landscape of where I’m about to perform. If I go to LA, there’s a different kind of energy there, a different pace for music there that you don’t understand until you get there. Back home, everything’s presented to you in this packaged way where you think all of LA looks like Compton. But when you actually get there you adapt, and you introduce yourself. I find the best way to get over that hometown barrier is to just travel and get out there.
As we’ve discussed already, you have a unique sound but it’s varied enough that you’re hard to pin down and predict the style of your tracks. Do you ever surprise yourself with the music that you create?
Kojey Radical:Hmm. I don’t know, it’s tough because I listen to a lot of me [laughs]. Once I’ve made a song I say, “This is fucking great” and I’ll listen to it over and over again. That kind of challenges me to make more music that’s even better. Part of the reason why I don’t release much, I think my last solo release came out seven months ago, is not because I don’t have music. It’s because the process of making music and getting better and finding new and interesting ways to make sound and push your sound forward is a little bit more enjoyable. I think now we’ve built up a collection of sounds that are really exciting and I can’t wait to let people hear them.
Where have some of the influences come from for this new music? I know a lot of 23Winters, your last release, was inspired by your dad and your relationship with him.
Kojey Radical:It’s continuing that narrative a little bit more but more in a sense of, in that project if the listener feels like me in any way, then they’ve been nourished by all this information and news that they’ve got. In any kind of parent-son or daughter relationship, there’s a point where you’re out in the world by yourself and I think this next set of sounds is me out in the world by myself and understanding what my version of utopia is or where I go to escape or where I find myself next so it’s kind of a continuation of that spirit.
You talked about the impact that music can have on someone and you’ve mentioned before how you scrapped the project you were working on before 23Winters after you showed your dad “Kwame Nkrumah” off of it because you thought the other project had no cultural impact. Do you think that music’s impact on previously existing cultural ideals is one of its most important attributes?
Kojey Radical:I think music is part of the culture and no matter what you’re always going to hear an influence of that in anyone’s music, not only mine. It’s evident in the fact that the way we talk comes from music, some of our slang comes from music, and those kind of things start to take effect worldwide. There’s people I speak to that use British slang and they don’t know what it means but I know that they’ve adopted it from music if that makes sense.
You recently worked with SBTV to produce a mini-documentary on the movie Guerrilla, which focuses on the Black Panther movement in the UK. Have you explored this topic any more since then?
Kojey Radical:Yeah, I can’t escape it. I’ve been sent mountains and mountains of articles from anyone who feels like l I’m personally responsible for any criticisms that they may have for Guerrilla. For me, I took that whole opportunity to educate myself in general. When you’re in London, I don’t know how to describe it, everyone’s uncle is “woke” [laughs]. Everyone’s auntie is woke. They want to take you into the house and teach you stuff. For the most part, people teach you survival and how to passively ignore information about all this stuff that people had to die for. They battled for it to make my life easier.
So even getting involved in that process was very exciting because I got to speak with Darcus Howe, Farrukh Dhondy, Neil Kenlock, and John Ridley. I got to really explore why and what the whole intention was and what the time was like and how those experiences correlate to today’s. I think it’s definitely going to be something that I’d want to do. I definitely want to get more into documentary filmmaking as more of a solo, personal sort of passion project. I think that will happen in time.
You mention on “Footsteps” that you’re “Still trying to send your parents back to Ghana.” Have you ever been to Ghana?
Kojey Radical:Yeah, I went when I was 11 but I don’t remember much of it. I want to be able to take my parents back though. That’s like the dream. For them to come over here, and take this opportunity, that would be great for me to have enough to be able to bring them back.
You’ve managed to remain unsigned despite offers from multiple record labels. With artists like Chance the Rapper and Stormzy doing big numbers independently, do you see this becoming a trend in rap?
Kojey Radical:I’d say yes and no. It depends on the person. I always tell people that depending on your journey, a label might be the best bet for you. I know that in terms of the creative freedom I would need for my music, a label isn’t the best thing for me right now. And that’s not to say I’m just biding my time until I sign, I don’t think I will, but I feel like it’s one of those things where the artist does have a choice. They didn’t know it was a choice before, that they didn’t have to go and get signed. They didn’t know they could progress through the charts and talk through their own sense of will and having a connection with their fans and direct dialogue with people that support their music.
I think that, with time to come, labels will either fall to the wayside or adapt and they’ll start to implore more independent states of mind when it comes to looking after the new artists. I think we’ll just have to wait and see.
You’ve said before that you feel like you’re creatively a slave to the people who buy your music. Do you think there will come a time in your career when you will be able to more freely express yourself in your music?
Kojey Radical:I think if people ever stop listening to my music that’s their choice. I’m always going to do what I want. Like always. Forever. That’s always been my motive for life. Whether progressing through dance, going into art then turning art into music then turning music into etc., etc. I’m always going to do what I want to do and I think people can listen and join in on that journey or they can choose to be opposed to it because I’m “not the Kojey they fell in love with” or I’m not this person or that person. I think people are really fickle, this generation is fickle with appreciating creative work. You can put out a song one week, and the next week it’s old. It’s a weird state you can find yourself in as an artist, asking yourself what you need to do. You don’t need to do anything, you just need to be you. Keep being yourself and if people fuck with you then they fuck with you.
Alright, I’m gonna approach your creative side with this one. You’ve mentioned before you started listening to Nujabes after hearing his music on the anime show Samurai Champloo.
Kojey Radical:Yeah man, that’s my favorite anime.
You’ve already explored many artistic mediums, but if you were to make your own anime, what would it be about?
Kojey Radical:Oooo…It’d be in London. It’d be a diaspora story. There would be this element of taking a roadman from London and teaching him the disciplines of martial arts in my anime. And the enemy…would be the government! Yup. That is it. That is my pitch.
Would you score it yourself?
Kojey Radical:Yeah, I’d score it myself but I’d get help on it. I’d get a super team of people to help me score it, but you’d have to check the credits on the back of the album to be like, “Woah! They’re on it?”
In addition to your other skills, you also dabble in fashion a little bit as well. You’ve modeled for Oliver Spencers but you also hand painted a limited run of t-shirts under “Francis And The Artist.” Would you ever be interested in going more heavily into the fashion industry?
Kojey Radical:One day, One day. I think one thing that being involved in it more on the education aspect of it proved to me is that you do need to know before you step into it and I wouldn’t want to step into it with that music ego. Like, “Oh, I’ve given you years of pop culture and now I’m going to give you clothes.” I would want to make sure it’s done properly. But in order to do that, I would need to make sure it’s part and parcel with the rest of my career.
Even at the moment, the reason we haven’t released a lot of merch is that I’m very meticulous about the process of making stuff. We’ve been working on the next set of “Francis And The Artist” since the last set and it’s definitely been a process. But once it’s done I think people will appreciate it, the attention to detail and the level of quality of it.
So even if you were to start a clothing line, do you think you’d keep it fairly limited? Well regulated, hand-done work?
Kojey Radical:Yeah, I’m definitely more of the type of person to do limited runs. I don’t really want to get into mass market and mass fashion because there’s too many evils in that. It’s the reason why someone appreciates a piece of artwork. If you have one on your wall, it gives you a sense of pride, if you know what I’m saying. If you have this garment that’s one of X, then you’re going to take care of it a little more. You’re going to appreciate it a little more.
I think it’s those cultures that have helped streetwear brands fit in a little more in this world as high-end or high-fashion brands. It’s the reason why Supreme can collaborate with Louis Vuitton and they’re not seen as different. It’s because the level of want for the Louis bag is the same as the want for the box logo hoodie. It just depends on how you communicate with your audience and how you can create that want and that desire.
The videos of you performing live look like they’re the best way to experience your music. What’re your favorite parts of performing both poetry and music if you’re able to separate the two?
Kojey Radical:I can’t [laughs]. They’re one in the same for me. But music can definitely open me up to a bigger crowd. I remember when I was performing poetry, it was definitely a little more, I don’t want to say niche, but the crowds were more intimate and I think it trained me to be a better performer. It made me work in tune with the mind of the audience if that makes sense. The musical element frees you up a little bit more and you can just have more fun on stage really. Performance was probably part of the reason why I felt like music could be a career for me. I loved being on stage and feeling the crowd react to music that I’ve made in a very isolated state and how it now translates. Connecting to people has always been really important to me.