Little Simz behind the wheel

Little Simz, whose real name is Simbi Ajikawo, has just passed her driving test and proudly turns up for our interview in her new car. “People can’t come up to me when I’m in the car,” she tells me later as we’re rattling through the backstreets of Angel, heading back towards her home in Highbury, north London. “I signed up for this life and it’s not like I’m against it, but I like having my own space, doing my own thing.”

Only a week has passed since the UK rapper released her debut album A Curious Tale of Trials + Persons on her independent label Age 101. It's an achievement music industry officials had always told her was impossible--despite her 50,000 Soundcloud followers and praise from hip hop giants like Mos Def, Snoop Dogg and Kendrick Lamar. “Little Simz," said Lamar earlier this year: "she might be the illest doing it right now.”

“Is it alright if we do the interview in the car?” Simz asks as we’re walking back from the photo shoot, playing with the brand new car keys in her jacket pocket. Sinking into the driver’s seat, with her eyes fixed to her lap or to the clouds bulging between the high rises, she comes across as quietly aware, perhaps even a little nervous.

Was it always her intention to release the album herself? “It wasn’t my plan, to be honest. But after I met with labels, I saw that what they had envisioned for me went against everything that I had envisioned for myself. So I broke a new path to do my own thing,” she explains.

A Curious Tale of Trials + Persons is a subtly entwined work--an audio-novel, Simz calls it. Each song forms a chapter in a complex story. The opening lines of the first track, Persons, set out her purpose: “They told her women cannot call themselves kings / They told her fame is not made for everyone / Trials and persons will be explained / Women can be kings.” Alternating skilfully between her rap and singing vocals, firing off rapid gusts of free-flowing verse to a bristling, lopsided beat, Simz exposes the misogyny with which the industry attempted to mould her.

“There’s no reason why a woman can’t be superior, although we’ve made to feel submissive,” she insists. “When I was younger, I thought only men could drive! I believed it for the longest time because I had never seen a woman drive. As I got older, I started to see little things, like, ‘I didn’t know women could be boss.’ Why wasn’t light shed on this when I was younger? Why am I just finding this out now? Why did they only teach me to be the employee instead of the employer at school? Persons is that statement, and not just in terms of gender, but also in terms of race and class.”

It strikes me how easily Simz, with her powerful story of self-made success, could have ignored to that inkling of doubt in her stomach and lent herself to a more industry-friendly image. Her realisation of how profoundly political frameworks determine our perception instead spurred her to take matters into her own hands and create music on her own terms. “Hopefully my album can open someone else’s mind and light a little faith, encouragement or hope.”

Tucked up in her bedroom at her mum’s house, where she still lives as the youngest of four siblings, she stitches together songs the same way she lives her life: going with her gut. “I just go off how I feel in the moment,” she says. “I’m not a person who openly talks about shit I go through, I’d much rather write about it. People listening to it might be able to relate or not, but either way it will be good and it will be rhythmic and it will be something you can bop your head to and it’s truth. That’s what I love about writing.”

The cover art of Trials is a black and white drawing by an artist called Steve Suarez, which sees Simz in the guise of the album’s different characters; whether it’s with a crown on her head, wings on her back or as a hollow-eyed skeleton with a mic pressed tightly against her teeth. “Who’s that?” I ask and point to the person sitting slightly hunched in the middle, wearing jeans, a cardigan and a weary expression, like she’s lost in thought. “That, that’s just me,” Simz smiles and reverts into silence, looking down on the record in her hands.

This interview was originally published in issue 28 of Oh Comely.