In Conversation: Kojey Radical – ‘Tunnel Vision’
“In Conversation” is born out of a love for documentary, a series intent on capturing artists at a juncture in their career. It’s an open conversation and a space to bridge the gap between artist and supporter. I hope you enjoy.
Kojey Radical – ocean-soaked jeans and a rugged leather jacket – sat quietly in an East London cafe, his spindly fingers buried in a grilled meat Panini and a piping latte. A measly mid-afternoon munch in an expensive part of town. “I do this too often,” he says with a sigh and a wry grin. “Leave the house without eating and then starve by midday.”
It’s one of the closing Sunday’s of 2015 and the city is in hibernation. Kojey and a writer barricade themselves in coffee shops and diners to elude bleakest winter but find no refuge from the looming presence of the New Year, an inevitable storm that floods their every exchange, triggering drawn-out deliberations as how to best sum up the past twelve months.
2015 was memorable for Kojey. He is a few months removed from road blocking the Tate Britain, where several hundred fans readily surrendered their Friday evening to witness the accompanying visuals for his spoken word piece, ‘Open Hand.’ There was a European tour with Young Fathers, where he mired in a ruddy state of anxiety-fuelled depression, and a historic headline show of his own held at the Old Blue in Shoreditch, not far from where he is now sat.
Things have progressed since their first encounter twelve months ago. They met in a crammed train station Starbucks’s and ogled over his early work. Kojey, soberingly attentive, professed on his longing to create and the sombre inevitability of one day having to sell out. Now, a year older, a year wiser he makes a living off his art. And so, on this lazy afternoon, where even the habitual buzz that soaks these touristy districts has been stubbed out, he has, for a few hours at least, the liberty to sit and reflect on what’s changed.
“I’d say the biggest lesson I’ve learnt over the course of the year is to stay focused, even through the hard moments, because naturally the perception is that you’re winning consistently. So even when you’re in your lowest moment you have to kind of pick yourself up and say ‘keep fighting, keep battling.’ My thing is I had to stop looking for validation and just do what I wanted to do, if it made me proud or made the people close to me proud. Other than that, I just sectioned myself off.”
Who were you seeking validation from before that point?
“I think it was an overall thing. Naturally there are people that support you, and there are people that support you because they feel others are supporting you. A lot of the time my validation was coming from the fact that I needed to prove to the people that would only support me if I had a fan base already.”
In our interview last year one of the questions I asked you was ‘How do you see yourself?’
“I said I was a hypocrite with common sense.”
That, and you also spoke about being boxed in as an artist…
“I would say this. An artist is supposed to paint a picture of the times that they’re in, whether that’s a picture of society or a personal picture. If you’re imagining New York at the time when Warhol or Basquiat were in the forefront, they were reflecting the time. Even if you’re looking at it from a personal experience, someone like Picasso had certain periods when he would only paint in certain styles. For me it’s the same thing. The music I’m making now is a completely different energy and mind frame because that’s how I feel in this present moment. I think it’s just being aware of yourself. Putting yourself into the music always helps your music grow. You’re constantly growing as a person; if you put your music into your life’s hands then it grows with you.”
Over the past year has the vision for yourself, music or art, changed?
“It’s become more tangible, and what I mean by that is that, beforehand, you’re constantly in this place of feeling like ‘this might happen.’ But the prospect of this being your complete reality doesn’t feel that tangible. It doesn’t feel like you can reach out and grab it. I think kind of switching off from that and living everyday just accepting the love, accepting the praise, accepting the opportunities, and using them as opportunities to learn from, put everything into perspective a little bit. Because it’s easy to get lost in the sauce. Easy.”
It comes down to the journey and the destination. You see so many artists, and just people in general, so focused on the end destination that they forget about being happy in the moment.
“Again, I always get it down to this validation thing. Just continue to make great things because that’s what you want to be remembered for. I think a lot of the time people want to be remembered for the accolades, notches and physical things they can use as points to validate their success, whereas a great song is enough sometimes. A great body of work, a great visual, a great concept, a great outlook on life where you can continue to make a lasting effect on people. That should be where most of the attention goes to.
People should be more focused on that as opposed to ‘so and so fucks with me so that now must mean that I’m special.’ Even stuff like lists and stuff. If I didn’t make a list I was like ‘why?’ Then I realised that it’s not about that. I’ve had people talk to me and tell me things that are so personal to them, that they had such a personal experience listening to my music; it’s those people that I want to keep communicating with.
The songs that I remember loving as a yute, all of ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’ [for example]. No matter what point or period in your life [that] you’re going through, that stuff is effective. Know what I mean? Where is that? That’s gone, that’s missing. Because now we have quotas. We need a song for the girls, we need a song for the mandem, we need a song for the radio, we need a song for the clubs. Just make music. Just make a body of work, stop caring about where something is going to get placed. How did you feel at the moment? Every one of my songs, that’s how I felt at the moment.”
How old are you now?
“22, about to be 23.”
25 is coming up.
“I’m trying not to live that, I’m trying to be out in a blaze of glory [laughs].”
It feels like you’ve undergone that shift in attitude where you realise that it’s not about endorsements. A lot of people don’t get to that stage until they’re 35, even 40. What triggered that?
“It’s probably the same thing that altered the direction of my EP. I went to go and visit my Dad. My Dad’s very old, [he’s] in his eighties now, and I was telling him all of the stuff about this year; it literally went in one ear and went out the other. He didn’t understand it. The importance of everything I stressed, down to something as simple as a retweet, didn’t matter to the generation above us because their sense of validation came from other things — it came from being respected. Actually being appreciated for who you are, wherever you go, land in any place and people have love for you. That’s their validation. I would tell my Dad about all of the stuff that I had done and he was like ‘cool’ kinda vibe. ‘Well done.’
But then I played my Dad a record and he said he was proud of me. You get what I’m saying? The two just started to add up and it was like all of this stuff was great and it makes my run sheet look amazing. [But] I constantly say that I’m doing this for family, I’m doing this for friends, I’m doing this for the people I now want to support for the rest of my life. If I can’t make a difference in their life that’s positive in a way, that they look at me and say ‘yeah I want him to prosper, not for the sake of finance, not for us to be all be up, but his presence is gonna make a difference to the world.’ It’s completely different at that point; the goal became so much bigger than me, so much to the point where I’m just a vessel for it.”
Towards the end of ‘Preacher Preacher,’ a song about your Mum, you sing ‘I just want the best for you, you just want the best for me,’ over and over. It struck me because you’re at that age now where things are starting to flip. As you’ve mentioned, you’re now starting to take care of your parents.
“And you want to. And it’s a difficult balance to find yourself in because sometimes you’re not even sure if you can take care of yourself. That natural want to care for someone that shows you so much care kind of takes over and that adds to the desperation, adds to the pressure. I’ve seen some people do some crazy things out of desperation. In the long run that doesn’t benefit you, them, or anyone. You know what I’m saying? I think that’s something that’s definitely overlooked. You kind of get caught up but at the end of the day if you’re in a dark room by yourself, are you happy?”
There have been a lot of highs for you over the past year but the show at the Old Blue seemed like a real moment.
“That Old Blue show was insane to me simply because I didn’t know it was like that. People started arriving from four and the doors didn’t open ’till 8.”
How does it feel to know that people were waiting for four hours just to hear you speak?
“I’m thankful. I’m so thankful. I’m thankful to the point where I’m not sure whether anything like that will ever happen again. I call it a moment of sight to the blind. When you’re in this, the prospect of so many things happening is completely unseeable. You’re kind of just plotting your way about and it’s just touch and go, and every now and then an opportunity arises that allows you to open your eyes for a split second and see the possibilities for where you could potentially go. Then in an instant you’re back to normal and you can’t see again. You see what I’m saying? The Old Blue was that. It was me opening my eyes to seeing that people actually really support me; then that day was done and my eyes were closed again.”
You woke up the next day like normal.
“I woke up the next day and was like ‘that happened?’ And that was it.”
You have an intense support-base, though. People that have millions of views and followers can’t draw that kind of crowd.
“No they don’t and they hate it [laughs].”
On stage that night you said, “Dying is something we were born to do, but half of you in this room would not die for something you were born to do.” Where did that come from?
“I would meet people along the way that had such passion, and such drive and creative ideas and potential, but didn’t have that spirit, that fight, that ‘I’m going to wake up tomorrow and this is now my everyday,’ because that’s basically what I did. I woke up and said I’m not going back to work. I’m living off my music, I’m living off my art. I’m gonna make art for a living, I’m going to write poetry for a living, I’m gonna make music for a living.
There’s this rush and this idea that signing or being signed is the pinnacle of your success or the thing that you’re going to reach to. For me the thing to reach to is being stable, being comfortable. Are you happy in a dark room or is the weight of your bank account stressing you out? You don’t know where your next show is coming from because you’ve left it in other people’s hands, you didn’t have to fight. Like, you didn’t want it. What are you prepared to do? How far are you willing to stretch this? To what extent are you trying to put yourself on the line?”
I think that’s the thing. People either make it to where they want to or they don’t, but it’s more intense for artists because everyone is watching you go through that process.
“That’s why I say I’m a vessel. People that know me on a personal level know that I’m very charismatic, I’m funny, I’m upbeat, I’m always jumping about, laughing and dancing. The music side and the perception side? I’m a vessel, this is a mission. I’m really out here trying to get shot by the CIA, I’m trying to go down in a blaze of glory. This isn’t anything anybody can validate anymore.”
I’m glad you brought that up. From seeing you out and around, you’re very laid-back. Do you ever then worry that people aren’t going to get the full picture of who you are because your music is so heavy?
“I feel that I can’t rush myself. I have your interest. I have your attention and I have the option to do with it what I want to because I’ve released very little. I’ve released one EP two years ago that the majority of the people that know me now have never listened to. This year I’ve released two singles; neither of them is on iTunes. Neither of them went through the architypes of what it takes to make a song bubble, make it a hot, make it a street single per se. The music was just phenomenal and it spoke for itself. Because you’re listening to the same songs over and over again you created a perception of me that I’m happy to let you live with for the moment, until I’m ready to kind of put myself out there as a personality.
We’ve been working on a documentary for a while now that will hopefully be feature-length, exploring everything. Even the days when I was touring and I was depressed and wanted to come back because I wasn’t sure if I wanted it anymore.”
This is the tour where you opened for Young Fathers’?
“Midway through the Young Fathers tour where I’ve basically been presented with the biggest opportunity that I’ve had so far and I’m not sure if I want to even do it.”
“You realise that the love and appreciation doesn’t just come, you have to earn it. I think it was at some points me being a little bit weak-minded and thinking that everyone’s just supposed to get it, everyone’s supposed to just love it, instead of me saying ‘I have to earn this.’
There was one particular day in Oxford where for no apparent reason they cut me off early. I remember just sitting in the dressing room thinking this would never happen to me back home where people get it and they understand. Then I thought ‘wait a minute, it’s not by force, people don’t have to listen to my music.’ It’s part of my reason why I don’t ever force it on anyone. I’m not trying to force anyone to connect with the music. That is a choice.”
Moving onto ‘Bambu,’ I remember reading an interview with The Rest, who directed the video, and they said they were bunking trains to get it done. It seemed like a real struggle to put that out.
“We hustled to make that video. That video almost became bigger than us because of the story. The ideas presented in it were kind of ahead of its time; the way it was shot, it was so crisp and clear but still felt slightly gorilla which was kind of the nice middle point.
It goes back to that whole idea of being born to do something but not being prepared to die to do it. We all have disability, we don’t have the means. We’re going to do it anyway. Whether that means we’re going to bunk trains, whether it means that we’re not eating or we’re saving up the money to go and buy black body paint or we’re hustling camera equipment or studio space. We got it done though.
That becomes more of a story than anything else because naturally you have a perception of what you would like your visuals to look like as a young artist and you feel like it’s not possible because of your means. But we didn’t have anything.”
From the outside it felt like that video opened doors for you.
“100 percent. It was one of those where we put it out at a time where it was all or nothing. We put so much time and energy into it, and the process of getting it out was so draining that by the time it came out I was like if something don’t come from this, then what is the point? To a certain degree I was battling with myself, this was still the days where validation was important to me. I was thinking to myself ‘what more do people want?’ The music is crazy, the lyrics are crazy, the subject matter and the story that it tells is crazy. The visuals are crazy; the concept behind the visuals is crazy. Why does nobody want it? That battle to get it out was so…”
You had one quote on there: ‘Fractions of honesty divide us into factions…’
“Those who will and those who really will…”
I felt like that was a leading point onto ‘Open Hand.’
“That’s what separates people. It’s politicians. Every year we go through a list of promises that get broken, and we’re happy to accept it the next time round. Who’s losing? They’re still the one percent, they’re still going to be baiding, and they’re still going to be eating off us, who’s losing? And why are we happy to lose?”
Did you vote?
“I didn’t vote because even the process of voting is dated. I still feel like we should live in a democracy. The approach to a democracy needs to be looked at and I don’t personally believe in this ‘it’s a process, it’s going to take time.’ Because time allows people to be become comfortable in the idea of routine and when you’re in a routine you don’t challenge it because you’ve made peace with it.”
You appear to get a bit pacified. The video for ‘Open Hand’ was different, in ‘Bambu’ you were surrounded by so many people but this one was mainly just you. Why did you decide to do that?
“Because even in the movement, in the way that I was performing it, there was a story to be told. It’s basically a story of how I feel now, where I start off broken and I rise into this set of bravado and confidence and every drop gets bigger. You know what I mean? It’s a literal metaphor in life. The second drop in the video: strobes, crunkers, the energy is high; you can see the gold and everything. It’s such a deep representation of blackness, even down to the grading [where] I purposely made my skin as chocolate as possible; the darkest possible state of melanin I could get in there. Just to be like, ‘that’s my clothes.’ You get what I’m saying? I’m wearing my skin.”
You always have that dance element in your videos.
“I used to be a dancer. I was dancing for about nine years.”
“Seriously, like dancing, championships and stuff. So physicality has always been important to me. The idea of using your body to tell a story has been important to me, and in a sense being a music artist means that I’m a performance artist. With ‘Bambu’ it was more contemporary dance and more valet movements; ‘Open Hand’ was based around this idea of crunk, and crunk comes from the streets, dance fuelled by a release of inner frustration.
Essentially the movement itself becomes a catharsis, by moving so aggressively and exerting all of your energy you get a feeling of release and that’s what I wanted with the music and that’s what I wanted with the visuals.”
The energy reminded me of Kanye’s performance of ‘All Day’ at The Brits.
“Yeah. Where everyone’s beasting on stage, it’s that release, it’s where the culture kind of goes back to. Power in numbers.”
Why the British flag on the drum?
“It’s a call to arms. That British flag on the drum is basically saying ‘we’re here.’ I’m calling everyone in Britain to stand up, let’s do better; and at the same time this visuals going to be seen worldwide. Let’s bang our drum, let’s wave our flag and boast the fact that we’re from here. Naturally as a culture we’re living in a new idea of what Britain is, in which it’s about the coming together of all of these races.
Us beating on the drum was us calling this idea of what the new Britain is, this new generation of thinking, this new idea of what artists are. Even if it’s not a revolution of the time, like marching in the street, this is a revolution of how we’re putting ourselves out. Know what I mean? In some way, in some form, this is a revolution. You can’t deny that, you can’t take that away from us.”
You’ve mentioned a new EP. When can we expect that?
Is it all finished?
“Not finished yet. I can squeeze in a little bit more honesty; it can be a little bit more truthful. This EP isn’t ‘I’m telling you my story from beginning to end.’ It’s emotions from my life placed in scenarios and the music becoming soundtracks. It goes back to this idea that a song can make you feel the same way you did at a certain moment.”
What themes are you exploring?
“I wanted to explore all kinds of stuff. For example I was in a very long-term relationship with a girl from a different religious background. Growing up in a melting pot means that you interact and you may even fall for different cultures, but the generations above us might not be ready to accept it. Then you’ve got to then consider why they’re not ready to accept it and the battles that they faced and then how that gets taught and trickles down.
We’re always at the cusp of our own demise because we’re not learning from our past mistakes. We’re repeating them and getting angry. As a race — as a human race — we’re defined as insane, because you’re doing the same thing expecting different results. War in aid of peace never works….I don’t know. It’s a mad ting.”
Before we do this all again at the end of 2016. Are you excited for what’s to come in the next few months?
“Yeah, I’m excited; I think I’m more ready. I feel like this year I tasted the possibilities of what I could potentially do and now I’m ready to kind of accept them and the pace that they come. I’m not trying to rush to any element of fame or notoriety, I was just want to be remembered for making great work and I’m ready to do that now.
I’m ready to lead with that mentality, I’m ready to put things out and trust in the fact that people are either going to get it or they’re not. To continue to live and experience and grow within my art because the industry will make you rush being young and you can’t do that.”
Kojey’s second EP ‘23 Winters’ is set for release later this year.
Find him on Twitter – @KojeyRadical
Interview by Aniefiok Ekpoudom