A chat with UK rap storyteller, Kojey Radical
Kwadwo Adu Genfi Amponsah has an analogy for everything. Whether he’s likening his career to a TV show, or comparing Cashmere Tears, his fourth mixtape, to a university graduation, the artist’s articulacy is admirable, and incredibly humorous too. “Dear Daisy was an experiment. Imagine it as a pilot. The pilot takes off, and the network wants to commission it. Great, we have a show now. Then comes season one, which would be 23 Winters. The reviews are crazy, everyone’s like ‘this is the best show ever’! So, then we announce season two In God’s Body… well received, but not as loved as season one. We have another season to claw it back before they cancel us. We make Cashmere Tears and BOOM we are back on the map. They want five seasons and a movie. I tell them, slow your role. We are gonna skip straight to the movie. This album, is the movie.”
Radical is in good spirits, entering the call off the back of driving lessons, which have become a regular fixture of his Monday mornings. He’s munching nonchalantly on a strawberry shortcake flavoured Müller Corner and kicking back on his sofa in a tie-dyed hoodie and baggy, multi-denim jeans. To top off this collected demeanour, he washes down the yoghurt with a pre-billed spliff, which hangs from his mouth as he proceeds to answer my first questions. “I can’t legally drive yet, but if you put me behind that wheel, I’m moving that car” the wordsmith says assertively. I almost believe him, until he tells me that he’s yet to pass his theory.
It’s now a month until the 27-year-old releases his debut LP Reasons to Smile – a project several years in the making. ‘War Outside’, the Lex Amor featuring first single, is a grotesquely funky slow jam that invites both poets to stretch their unique cadences over a snarling baseline and glossy melody. “Lex was one of those Spotify discoveries that becomes your everyday listen. Then I met her randomly at some rave; she was the coolest cucumber in the fridge. From then on I knew we’d work together”. A studio session near Oxford followed, and a battle-ready banger was made. “The streets chose that one” he laughs. It’s a track that has managed to transcend Britain’s borders and propel Radical to further stardom on the continent, where he hopes to tour this record.
On the album, Kojey says that it was important to give space to women, and women who he believes are “doing their ting in their field”. Kelis, Ego Ella May and Tiana Major9 all join Amor on the feature list; individually providing eloquence that could only be achieved by the freedom Radical allows them. “For me, a lot of the examples of strength that I had growing up came from the Black women who raised me.” ‘Gangsta’, the record’s second single addresses this theme distinctly, narrating the tales of tough-love and wisdom women like his mother instilled in him throughout his upbringing. Over jazz shimmering hip-hop production, courtesy of Ed Thomas, Jay Weathers, KZ and Swindle, Radical relays sonnets in ode to those who nurtured not only his sense of reasoning, but his sense of self.
Amponsah, amidst making this album and his prior projects, has found himself at the epicentre of a fruitful UK rap scene. A willingness to cross-pollinate and collaborate with artists, producers and DJs from a range of genres has made him somewhat of a mogul name among England’s illustrious list of beat makers. His raspy tones are as fitting over Shabaka Hutchings’ saxophone solos as they are on the left-field hip-hop of Stormzy collaborator Fraser T-Smith. “I love all of these people as a fan. A lot of the time, they open the floor and tailor their approach to me. We end up creating this new vibe that hasn’t been done before and everyone leaves excited. That’s the most important part of any session for me, it’s leaving it excited about what we just made”. Kojey sees the variety of sonic avenues he can work with as a testament to the diasporic blend London offers. “These bands, like Ezra Collective and Kokoroko, come from the same flats as those who make grime and drill. Just because my man has 140 playing in his house, and someone is listening to Fela Kuti in another, doesn’t mean they are any different when they step on road. It’s important to take that synergy and put it in the studio.”
Although this has contributed to his success, it’s taken Kojey nearly four mixtapes, a boat load of singles, and many high-profile features to master his craft, and even now, you feel he has much more to give. The rapper remembers finding spoken word at university, treating the art form as an escape from his various other creative outlets. Studying at the London College of Fashion, and receiving first class honours, would have anyone presuming that his path was laid out for him. However, subverting expectations has been a feature of his career, and his foray into lyricism was no different. “I saw poetry as a new way to express myself. When I was making Dear Daisy, I was a poet attempting music. It wasn’t until 23 Winters where I felt more comfortable with the idea of working with music and how it would represent me” he says, relighting the spliff. Now, Radical seems as confident on the belligerence of ‘After Winters’ as he does on the peaceable, afrobeat tones of ‘Eleven’. A motivation to corrupt the UK rap game with such disparity means that his mark will be felt on the scene in years to come. ‘‘I’ve been here for a minute, you know. What I have always been is influential. When you choose to go outside of the grain, and show people a different path, they are going to take that path”. As he so bluntly puts it on recent single ‘Payback’, featuring Knucks, “every other record got that Kojey sound”. “I’ve got styles. My shit’s going to take over, so… everything is going to sound like me” he chuckles, “If they take that one, I’ve got another one”.
An aspect of the lyricists’ game people will find hard to emulate, however, are his performances. Whether he’s grooving over Jools Holland’s stage, tearing up headline slots at We Out Here or jumping into mosh pits on his tours, there is a profound swagger to Radical’s live shows. Recently, he played London’s Lafayette as part of the ‘Revivelive’ tour – an initiative set up by the Music Venue Trust to support grassroots music venues. The 600-capacity gig was a reminder of what is to come for Kojey, who will take to the 5,000-capped Brixton Academy this April. Backed by a live band, the forthcoming tour will be his biggest yet, but he remains wary of the support independent venues have given him over the years. “We are doing these smaller shows because music can never die. People are always gonna want to experience music, and as long as smaller venues survive, artists will be able to get their breaks.” Over the years, he has played many times in Leeds too. Shows at Belgrave and Brudenell, where he supported Young Fathers, are noted as highlights. “I like Brudenell a lot, because it lends itself to live music. It’s got that energy, and you’re right there in-front of the crowd, you can literally grab my man and just” he staggers “just shake him.” Even before the bookings, Radical would come here to visit a life-long friend, Craig, who studied film at the university. As ever-opportunists, they would shoot music videos to his early poetry using the courses’ camera equipment, and then go to house parties or clubs like, the now closed, Church.
It’s these memories that are as important to Kojey as the success he will inevitably receive in years to come. To him, music’s conventional triumphs are not what he equates to his own, and although he is on the cusp of rap greatness, he is unfazed by what could be just around the corner. ‘‘I’m grateful for everything that comes my way. I think, outside of music, life is about creating moments; these stamps that you can look back on and feel proud of, you know?”. Reasons to Smile will undoubtedly propel Radical to dizzying new heights, but it’s this humbleness that will lead him to victory. When the album is out, he is looking forward to having the space to be creative again. “I’ve never had this long of a run up to releasing anything. It’s been long. I’ve had so much time to settle on the fact that it’s coming out. I’m just waiting for everyone to know what I already know.”