Olushola Ajose is Afrikan Boy. I first got a taste of him on ‘Hussel’, one of my most beloved tracks on M.I.A’s ‘Kala’, where he features, he talks out in his reassuringly authentic sounding rolling rhyme about how “If you think it’s tough now // Come to Africa”. Word.
I knew I missed a flight to Brazil for a reason – to hang out with Shola on yet another Central London rooftop. He is the perfect study in cross cultural contexts; situationally and of course musically. And being under the wing of M(ummy).I.A. is also another fascinating aspect to this kid wonder who's crossing all kinds of boundaries. There’s no indication that the owner of the savvy, world-weary spit is barely out of his teens; his lyrics totally re-contextualise his African origins into an ever so international yet inherently London vernacular.
Self assured and confident in his ideas of the world and his place in it, this 20 year old's head is screwed firmly on facing forward, yet the weight of where he comes from is there too; and neither does he forget the weight of where he’s going – Afrikan Boy (“eh eh, you know I’m big in Mozambique” as M.I.A. says) is going global.
Where are your family from?
All my family is from Nigeria. My mum I think was the first generation to be born in London; but she grew up in Nigeria, then came back here. I was born here then went to primary school in Nigeria then came back here to finish my education.
Being Nigerian is basically what your music talks about. Why were you guys switching between the UK and Nigeria?
Well I don't know that's a question I find myself asking. For me, I think it was a thing about finding my own identity. Even when I started MCing in secondary school - obviously at the time it was just a hobby - I said to myself ok, I don't want to talk about what everyone else is talking about because that's just a waste of time; so, let me use my African heritage. First it was half comedy and half serious. I love to make people laugh, I'm always cracking jokes. It's just who I am. And for some reason, in primary school, it wasn't cool to be African. Everyone, specially in my age group -
How old are you now?
20. I miss saying I'm 19. It was really not cool to be African and we always used to get cussed. No one can really understand why it wasn't cool cause everyone used to really want to be Jamaican for some reason. Then when I moved to secondary school, I was like, fuck it, I'm just gonna be myself. And for some reason everyone got proud and were really excited about where they were from. It was during that time when I started MCing that Afrikan Boy came out.
When you go back to Nigeria do you perform and do stuff?
Yeah, I'm going back in August and I cannot wait.
How do they receive you there?
My music, technically, fits in the Nigerian music scene. And obviously in other ways, it technically doesn't fit either cause I grew up here. The hip-hop scene is really massive in Nigeria - their music scene is really rich and healthy right now, all their videos are so glossy, but they're all trying to be American. In all the clubs that I go to [in London], at least one Nigerian song will get dropped, that's how big it is right now. And my music right now, and I'm obviously influenced by Maya, and Santogold - or Santigold, it's crazy that everyone gets it. There's nobody who hears it and doesn't get it. Though it wouldn't quite be so relevant in Africa; it only applies properly here [in London]. It's a funny position I'm in, but I love it, cause I think to myself when I do a proper take on the industry, I'm hoping that there must be some crazy people like me out there. I'm looking for some people that are doing something really different. Coming from places like Africa, that's where the music is freshest.
In your songs are you portraying your interpretation of an immigrant from Africa? Or is this really your story?
Sometimes I'll play on stereotypes, but most of the time, everything I say I've either experienced it or I've experienced it through family. Even immigration, I remember when me and Maya started talking, I was telling her my knowledge of how people get into the country and stuff. And she was telling me the same thing about how her uncles and aunties did the same. Stuff like that is just everyday life. And people laugh about it, but I mean, I like to make people laugh, even if you just look at my track 'One Day I Went To Lidl', and everyone finds it hilarious - apart from me now - and I just made it because I went to Lidl and shoplifted and went to Asda. It played in Nigeria, I heard it on the biggest station over there recently, and I wasn't shocked, I was just like, oh that's cool... Loads of people know my songs over there. All the Nigerians here, and all the Africans - well not even just them, everybody, they all like love my stuff because they're like, wow, we haven't seen anyone represent this stuff like this.
What made you want to study psychology in University?
Every since I was in year 6, I've always had an interest in listening to other people's problems and wanting to understand them beyond their own level and so naturally what I found myself doing was starting to acquire knowledge of how humans think and how different personalities react to things. So I thought, you know what, when I get older I'm definitely gonna study psychology. I'd love to be a counsellor, or a psychiatrist.
You can see your lyrics that there is a story and meaning in your songs, you're not just talking shit, or simply just trying to make people laugh.
As I've been developing, I do tend to think on a different level. Sometimes I might write something and when I listen back I think to myself, "Wow, that's kinda deep!" I think that for me personally, the whole education thing, I've worked so hard for it anyway, it's also a statement for my Nigerian upbringing. Everyone knows that education is the most important thing for African parents for their kids to have. It's a strong statement for me to continue and finish my education cause EVERYONE has told me to drop out. Labels, even when I was on tour...Everyone was just telling me nahh, just drop out, let's do music but, everyone respects me now, because I could have very easily just dropped out and gotten signed. I mean it's not a waste of time, but I would have just thrown away everything that I'd worked for. I would like someone's kid to say, I wanna do music, and then their parents say that but you've also got to stay in school, cause look, Afrikan Boy...it's gonna be a personal achievement for me. It's cool cause when everyone talks to me they know I have substance. They don't look at me like I'm just another rapper. So I wanna do my degree and then do my masters and then I'm done. It's a thing of long term gratification.
Most people in your case probably would've dropped out and signed a deal long ago.
Yeahh I mean, all these people were saying to me, man you're flying out tomorrow, I don't know how you're doing this and still thinking about work. Sometimes I'll be on tour and I'll be revising and Maya will be like, "What you doing?" And I'm like, "I'm revising!" It's crazy but it's cool. Literally I'm at the end of second year, officially today I've finished my second year now and then I go back in May for my exams. After that I start my third year, dissertation and all that. And Maya told me that in 2010, when she starts touring again, I'll be done with all of this by then then so...
Is it true that you're doing something with Buraka Som Sistema?
I've already done something with them - they're my dudes! - I was talking to them on twitter last night actually, cause I did a full remix of their track Wegue ('Kalemba').
Have you released it yet?
It will get released very soon, I think there's gonna be two versions; there's gonna be a full London remix of it - they really loved my hook on it, so they're gonna keep it and put different verses on it. There's one verse that's already been done by Goldie Locks and there'll be two others verses for it. But we're working together on my album as well. BSS and Afrikan Boy! They said to me that this Wegue remix is gonna be like an introduction.
Who's the album gonna be with, like what record label?
I'm not too sure, it could be with Maya, on NEETS, it could be with a lot of people. There's been a lot of interest. I could've signed so many deals by now, but I'm happy that I haven't. I've just been doing me. Getting signed is a big thing, but it's not a big thing for me yet.
Well, it's doesn't seem to have been necessary for your process, or for you to keep on being able to make music. The Buraka Som Sistema news is really exciting!
Yeah! Maya introduced me to them - they were one of the first people she introduced me to, when she showed me the Sound of Kudoro video, which I never realised was them. She was introducing me to different music, and she was like, this is kudoro music from Angola; and I didn't really get it. But recently, when I saw the video, and I'd met BSS, I was like ohh shit! Cause she showed me that like long time ago, like in 2007, and it's funny how it just blew now.
People are ready for it now I suppose.
People are ready for something different, which is great cause it's really working for me. And specially like, Maya is at the forefront of it. As soon as Maya blew up, and then the Sound of Kudoro was always a banging track, and now BSS are always on world tours and stuff.
Do you want to be mainstream?
I'd rather have 20,000 core fans that will support me through life and death like Maya has. A lot of labels want me to go in a more mainstream direction, but I just want to dominate my genre. Like Maya only had mainstream success with Paper Planes, realistically. BUT, all her shows on tour sold out sold out sold out. And that's cause she dominates her genre and she's got her core fan base. Even Kanye said that he doesn't want loads of fans, just a core fanbase who will love you through out.
And who really get you and what you're on about.
And I do meet fans like that who really get me, and it's cool because it puts me at ease to just make music. So that's what I feel.