In 2019, Little Simz won an Ivor Novello and a Mercury Prize nod for her third album, Grey Area. To top it, she’s reached further into her soul than ever before for Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, her strongest statement yet. On February 8, 2022, Simz won the 2022 BRIT Award for Best New Artist. Music Week meets the artist, plus manager Robert Swerdlow, AWAL president Paul Hitchman and his team, to find out how an independent rapper from North London came to stand on the brink of a global breakthrough...
WORDS: Anna Fielding PHOTO: Jeremy Cole
Sometimes, to become a global star, you have to go back to your roots. Sometimes, in order to make music that will connect with millions of people, you need to look deep inside. This is where UK rapper Little Simz is now.
The buzz around her fourth album, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert (due via her own Age 101 label in partnership with AWAL on September 3), is building and the expectation is that it will make her a global star. Its maker is telling Music Week about how she made the record with some of her oldest friends and trying to explain that she doesn’t always like to talk about how she feels.
“There’s a lot going on in this album,” says the rapper, real name Simbiatu Ajikawo. “But I guess there’s also a lot going on in my mind. I’m not the most talkative person in real life. So sometimes that makes me a little hard to read or whatnot. But when I get to my art, when I start writing, it all just comes up.”
Sometimes I Might Be Introvert is a very honest album, covering all those things in her mind, from growing up in inner London, her thoughts on her absent father and her place in the world as a Black British woman. She also addresses, on the very first track, the apparent contradiction between her private life and public art. ‘I hate that these conversations are surfaced,’ she raps on Introvert. ‘Simz the artist or Simbi the person? To you I’m smiling but really I’m hurting’.
She, like most artists, is trying not to think too hard about how the album might be received.
“Honestly,” she says, “I will drive myself nuts if I try to think too deeply about the success of it, or what it’s going to be or what it’s going to define. I’ve kind of done my part, you know?”
The team around her, however, have already started running with the baton, working to get as many listeners as possible to hear an album they believe will be era-defining.
“From our perspective this is one of the most important records we’ve ever worked with,” says Paul Hitchman, president of AWAL.
Little Simz signed with AWAL in 2018. They distribute and promote her music, but she retains the rights – as do all of their artists – and releases through her own Age 101 imprint.
“She has made a truly extraordinary and outstanding record,” Hitchman says. “It’s a big artistic statement and we think it establishes Simz as one of the most important artists in the UK of her generation. We’re very proud to be part of that, and to be a partner for her. And we feel a responsibility to make sure that the record, and the story that she tells on it, are given as much push and support as possible, to reach as wide an audience as possible, because that’s what it deserves.”
“The new album is absolutely mind-blowing,” says Helen Barrass, AWAL’s senior marketing director. “Working on it will be a career highlight.”
For AWAL marketing director Stephanie Achigbu, the record is all about the strength of Simz’s storytelling.
“She knows she’s fucking brilliant and she’s not afraid to say it,” says Achigbu. “So the album empowers other people to believe that about themselves as well. And I really do believe it moves people in different ways… I’ve had people be reduced to tears because it’s that powerful.”
Little Simz’s manager Robert Swerdlow of Starwood Management puts it very simply. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime record,” he says.
Simbiatu Ajikawo was born and raised in North London. She’s an Arsenal fan. The first time she played Islington’s O2 Academy she was just 10 years old. Her youth club had put on a showcase and MC Simz, as she was then called, was one of the performers. From that point, her mind was set on music. Throughout her teens she recorded and uploaded music. She also acted, appearing in CBBC fantasy series Spirit Warriors and E4’s comedy drama Youngers. She still acts. She joined the cast of Top Boy in 2019, appearing alongside grime legend Kano and Ashley Walters of So Solid Crew. Her character, Shelley, will appear in the forthcoming series.
“And I have more to sink my teeth into this time,” she reveals. “It was a nice vibe on set, but I was only going in every other day because we were shooting with Covid restrictions.”
Little Simz enjoys acting, but music is her first love.
“When I’m in the studio I’m 100% me,” she says. “But on set, I’m in character. It allows me to be creative in a different way.”
Her debut album, A Curious Tale Of Trials + Persons, was released in 2015 when she was 21, followed the next year by Stillness In Wonderland. Both releases were low-key, but they marked the first outing of an artist who has become a vital force in British music.
“She became the first UK rapper to make the Forbes 30 Under 30 list, won Independent Album Of The Year at the 2016 AIM Awards, and was the first independent rapper to be a Vevo Lift artist,” says Barrass, recalling the early music industry interest in Little Simz.
In 2017, Simz collaborated and toured with Gorillaz and had a hat tip from Kendrick Lamar. Then in 2019, she released Grey Area (27,507 sales to date, according to the Official Charts Company). She wrote it whilst burnt out by touring, and dealing with the death of one friend and the imprisonment of another. It was a raw record, emotionally, much more than her previous releases. The critical reception was rapturous and it was nominated for the Mercury Prize and won Best Album at the Ivor Novello Awards. Its impact continues to help boost her profile, and her monthly Spotify listener count stands at an impressive 4,958,205. Her weekly streams on the platform have risen from around 700,00 before this campaign to more than 3 million.
Simz is still proud of her last album. She’s wearing a promotional Grey Area T-shirt as she speaks to Music Week via Zoom, although she does say, “I just have it on when I’m at home.”
Little Simz is very much at home with AWAL, and Helen Barrass has worked with her since the early days.
“From the start of our journey in 2015, it was very clear that Little Simz was a rising star with determination and a clear vision,” she says.
Now, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert is standing on the platform built by Grey Area. There are more people who want to hear it, but its maker has dug even deeper into her psyche to make it. The track I Love You, I Hate You, she says, “Touches on my relationship, or non-relationship, with my absent father.
“I haven’t really discussed that before in my music,” she continues. “So I was really putting myself out there. At first I kind of struggled with that song because I didn’t want to give my dad the stage like that. But then I realised that it’s not actually about him. It’s about me and how my life has been affected. I also don’t want to walk around with this anger, this negative feeling, towards someone I don’t even know. Writing the song was me freeing up that space. And whether or not he hears it, is like, you know… It’s whatever.”
Authenticity is the key to Little Simz. Indeed, Simz stands apart from her peers in the thriving UK scene and beyond for her emotional honesty and the fact that, as a Black British woman, she has a different story to tell.
“The themes she explores are so relevant to right now,” says AWAL’s Achigbu. “They are personally relevant to me as a young Black woman who also grew up in inner-city London, but I believe everyone will find something that speaks to them.”
Achigbu mentions her own parents, who are Nigerian like Simz’s mother, and “having to stand firm in my dreams” when she wanted to work in music, rather than taking a traditionally respectable route and becoming a doctor or a lawyer.
“And Simz touches on that in the album, and then on another track she touches on knife crime in London,” Achigbu says. “Then there’s racial injustice and the uncertainty of being in your 20s and then there’s empowerment as well. She covers it all.”
For the marketing campaign, the team have chosen to focus in on Simz’s roots. One of the first PR activations involved sending gift baskets, filled with self-care treats (“Because everyone is introverted sometimes,” says Achigbu) from independent Black-owned businesses. The twist was that these baskets only went to women Little Simz found inspirational, which included her mother and other members of her family.
She’s also being booked in for podcasts, alongside the more obvious TV and radio spots (BBC Radio 1, 1Xtra and 6 Music are longtime fans). The idea being that the podcast format will allow Simz to express herself more fully and honestly, in keeping with the mood of the album.
Recently, Little Simz appeared on The Receipts podcast. Hosts Tolani Shoneye, Audrey Indome and Milena Sanchez have tens of thousands of listeners and were recently described by The Guardian as “the new voices of British podcasting”. Little Simz is smack in their target demographic and also a fan. She dropped easily into the raucous studio atmosphere.
“I don’t have loads of female friends, to be honest,” she said, hesitating.
“But now there’s us!” countered the hosts, the laughter starting up again.
Taken in isolation, that comment could make Little Simz seem like a boys’ girl. But her most recent single Woman (feat. Cleo Sol) puts paid to that. With a powerful video featuring her cousin and school friends dancing, the track gives shout-outs to successful Black women the world over, country by country, with Simz repeating the refrain, ‘Woman to woman I just want to see you glow’. The video is about to break the three million views mark on YouTube.
Eve Fairley-Chickwe, senior A&R director at AWAL, says Woman is, “One of those records where you remember exactly where you were the first time you heard it,” adding that Little Simz has, “always been a visionary, she is her own A&R!”
Simz has also, inadvertently, become the sound of TikTok feminism. Her 2019 track Venom has been used as a sound 683,7000 times on the platform, mostly by women rapping along to lines such as, ‘Never givin’ credit where it’s due ’cause you don’t like pussy in power’, before turning to camera and delivering the punch of ‘venom’ with triumphant smiles.
In April this year, up to 20,000 videos were being created each week and news reached AWAL of people getting Venom tattoos, says Achigbu.
“It is definitely mad because I wasn’t even trying to promote it!” says Simz. “But when I was writing the lyric I knew it was either going to go crazy, or it was going to go straight over people’s heads.” The delayed reaction, she confides, is “very, very cool.”
When Simz finally created an account on the platform she gained 150,000 followers overnight. Her count now stands at 485,000, with a further 350,000 on Instagram, 78,500 on Twitter and 95,479 on Facebook. Across all of her social media output, realness is always paramount.
“We said we weren’t expecting her to do any dance routines or anything that really wasn’t her,” says Achigbu. “We want to give behind-the-scenes access, not have everything perfect, let her be herself. She’s also really good at communicating on Twitter.”
As the campaign for Sometimes I Might Be Introvert builds, Little Simz has consulted her fans about it along the way. The plan, explains Achigbu, is to make fans feel as though they are part of the process.
It’s a kind of meta-marketing that doesn’t position Little Simz as an unreachable star, rather as a creative sharing her work with equals. It’s clever, but it is also, once again, authentic. The picture Simz and her team at AWAL are painting is of a woman with a strong sense of community and of the place and the people that created her.
And the people that are helping facilitate her artistic journey are also a hugely important part of the Little Simz mix.
Firstly, there’s Robert Swerdlow of Starwood Management. Simz beams when she talks about him. The rapper had been navigating her career on her own, acting as her own manager throughout the whole campaign for Grey Area, and was looking for advice. She was introduced to Swerdlow by Michael Kiwanuka, who won the Mercury Prize last year.
“I was managing my career and trying to be an artist and a label and it was a lot,” she remembers. “So I had been looking for advice, but I just ended up saying, ‘Will you do it?’ And it is a blessing, for sure, to have someone who is so knowledgeable, but also open to learning and doing new things too.”
Swerdlow is even more complimentary. “Very rarely do you get an artist who can work in a global, smart and culturally relevant musical space and stand up 100% for independence,” he says. “And Simz never compromises on any creative level, from music, to marketing, identity, aesthetic and video making.”
Then there’s the relationship she has with producer Inflo. Real name Dean Josiah Cover, Inflo has worked with many artists, including Michael Kiwanuka, but his relationship with Simz is special.
“He’s one of a kind, he’s my boy,” she says. “We’ve known each other since we were little, we’re very tight, our families know each other, we went to the same youth club. He’s been sending me beats for seven or eight years.”
Inflo produced Grey Area and was Simz’s musical partner for Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, too. The two started working in Los Angeles, brainstorming and experimenting.
“We were just rocking up in the morning, picking up a green juice on the way,” she says.
But the looming threat of a pandemic-related travel freeze meant they cut short their stay. They picked things up again back in London.
“He’s very trusting of me in the studio,” she says. “We can push each other to explore and try different things. We’re never boxed into anything, just because I rap and what I do is rooted in hip-hop, we can still dive into different styles like jazz or funk or soul.”
Simz’s ability to flutter between genres and moods is key to her appeal, and she credits Inflo’s influence over it to the length of their friendship.
“It’s not like he knows me for just one thing,” she says.
In addition to Inflo, there’s also her creative director Jeremy Cole.
“I’ve worked with him for 10 years,” she says. “He was shooting my videos when I had no budget, just whipping out a camera.”
Then there’s Tilla, Little Simz’s right-hand man,“From when he was 12 and I was 15. He just helps me out with stuff day-to-day.”
Simz also has kind words for Neicee Oakley, her tour manager: “She’s the best, man, really just holds me down and makes sure whatever we do is of a level and to a certain standard.”
“I take great pleasure in managing her team as well,” says Swerdlow. “Simz has a very creative team around her who resonate at the same frequency as she does, like a really switched-on and in-sync football team.”
“I’m someone that wants to win with people, you know? I think it’s way more fun if we’re all in this shit together,” says Simz. “If you’ve got something going on, I’m pulling it up, I’m supporting it.”
For all her supportive and collaborative instincts, the word that comes up most frequently when people talk about Little Simz is independent.
“I think artists do their best work when they’re empowered,” says Paul Hitchman. “Our whole purpose at AWAL is to partner with independent artists and help them tell stories that really matter and that have an impact on culture. And Simz embodies all of that.
“Traditionally, there was the concept of the independent label and that had some meaning,” continues Hitchman, “but I think what’s come to the fore in the last couple of years is the fresher, newer concept of the independent artist. And I think Simz absolutely defines that. She’s creatively in control and, from a business perspective, she’s in charge. She owns her own rights, we’re there to support and partner with her, and we see it as a true partnership.”
In May of this year, Sony Music acquired AWAL along with Kobalt’s Neighbouring Rights business. But Swerdlow stresses that there was no concern on his part, or on Little Simz’s.
“We talked about it for 60 seconds, and then carried on,” he says. “Business as usual. I’ve been around too long to knee-jerk and get upset when changes happen.”
Little Simz says she has been approached by majors, but has always turned them down.
“It always sounds very appealing when you’re being wined and dined and promised things,” she says. “But I also have friends and peers who are on major labels and I talked to them. It’s not as if they say anything crazy or wild, but I wanted to get all the perspectives. So I don’t actually know what it is to be a signed artist. I mean, I might have it all backwards. I might be missing a trick, but I think I’ve found something that works for me. It’s a lot of hard work, but I’m definitely a stairs person and not on the escalator journey. It’s super-rewarding and I get to do what I want.”
She also stands slightly apart in the current UK rap scene, and happily so
“I think everyone is doing really well at the moment,” she says. “I feel like hip-hop, rap and drill are all really at the forefront at the minute. It seems like there’s good waves of new artists and talent coming through and actually getting the look-ins and the radio plays and everything. We’ve just got really good taste over here, and talent. Across the board, too, even with movies. Half the blockbuster films, it’s British actors leading. I just put it down to us being super-talented.”
So, where does Little Simz see herself in all of this?
“I don’t know, really, it’s a bit lone wolf vibes, innit?” she answers. “I just like doing my thing over here. I’m not super-concerned about following a particular trend or sound. I just do what I feel I would want to hear, or what is cool to me, and what gets me excited.”
“The musical ambition of the album is extraordinary,” says Hitchman. “All the different influences and genres, it goes from orchestras, choirs to the toughest of beats. And then the lyrics and the performance, and the story.”
When asked if she believes she’s made the defining album of 2021, Little Simz freezes with embarrassment and pulls at her T-shirt before collecting herself.
“There have been so many great albums this year already,” she says. “It’s just sick to even be a part of that conversation. People are anticipating it and they’re excited for it.”
And so, as release day edges closer, the buzz is growing. Among the music industry, the scores of Venom-dripping TikTokers and indeed everyone around Little Simz, who can sense that, with Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, she is moving one step closer to greatness.
“Sometimes people look at me and think, ‘Oh, well, she’s in her own lane’, but it’s not that I try to be different, I’m just doing me,” says Simz, ending by emphasisng the point that she only does what comes naturally. “This album is super-ambitious, but I’ve always been that way inclined...”