My mum and dad played a lot of gospel and blues and old school, like the Jackson Five and Kool and the Gang; so I was always kind of into music. In my early teens, I developed my own taste in rap music and hip hop, and started listening to artists like 50 Cent and Kanye West. I’d write down their lyrics and rap them back to myself.
But there would always be a kind of conflict, because I was raised in a Christian home, and had an identity in God, and the messages in a lot of hip hop and grunge music and rap would be very violent and misogynistic, and talk about ladies in a very derogatory way.
Trying to emulate the people I saw on TV, I didn’t really have peace in my heart, and I felt God spoke to me and said: “Why don’t you write some lyrics about what I do for you? Write some lyrics about your faith, and try to make music to inspire people to want to be the best they can be.” So I started performing some songs as a hobby at school, and people really liked it, and it just went from there.
When I’m creating music, there’s often times I’ll start with the lyrics, and they might not even need much music; and then there’s other times when the music will lead, and I’ll think about lyrics but I’ll go with the music.
I wouldn’t describe myself as a poet or a spoken-word artist. The lyrics and the music are interlinked.
At the moment, I’m drawing inspiration from the stories I’m reading and witnessing about youth violence — thinking about the value of human life. But, in previous times, I’m getting fired by my environment. I grew up on a council estate in east London; so the things I saw, people trying to find their purpose in life, would inspire me.
Sometimes, it’s just a bit of fun. I might be eating a KFC or something and get a cool idea to write something about chicken. Other times, it might be more serious. I’ve been heavily influenced by the passing of my father, eight months ago. That got me thinking about lessons he taught me, and provided me with inspiration musically.
I work with a producer, Jimmy James. He has a studio on a farm, and you can get away from the hustle and bustle of life, and focus. And I collaborate with a lot of singer-songwriters: people like Matt Redman and Martin Smith. And I’ve worked with Michelle Williams for this new album I’m working on.
I’ve won two MOBO awards and two Urban Music awards. I also won a Rare Rising Stars Award for being one of the top ten black students in England. They’re obviously quite mainstream awards; so a lot of press that wouldn’t necessarily come across Christian stuff are aware of what I do, and a few cool opportunities have come from that. I’ve managed to play events like the O2 Arena and Wembley Stadium, and been invited to schools to do some mentoring. I’m an ambassador for the Prince’s Trust charity, as well as Tearfund.
I went to university, and business and journalism seemed like a good course to do. I wouldn’t say I applied myself in the best way, because of my growing interest in performing music. But I managed to knuckle down in my final year, and I’m really thankful I did it, though I went into music full-time, because university meant a lot more than just getting a degree. It taught me how to live by myself and get on with people not like me, and I’m really grateful for my time there.
God’s provided in those seven years when music hasn’t always paid the bills. I worked at Primark in the ladies’-wear section, which was quite interesting. I’ve had a few different part-time jobs.
I wanted to make my environment, and the environment as a whole, a better place, and I decided to partner with Tearfund last year because I loved what they were doing. They presented me with the idea to do the Mean Bean Challenge. I love my food, and I thought: “Do you know what? This sounds really, really tough.” But then I heard stories about Matunda, in the Congo, who’s paid in leaves to feed to her family, and never gets a proper meal. I can afford to go without food for a week if it helps bring people out of poverty. Forty of my fans supported the cause, and we raised over £7500.
I had to survive on plain beans and plain rice for a week. You’re allowed to have porridge, but I can think of nothing worse; so I skipped breakfast, or had rice if I was really hungry. The worst point was probably Thursday morning, because you’ve done the bulk of the week but you’ve still got another day. (I may or may not have had a biscuit.)
Being a mentor is literally just hanging out with a young person, finding out about their life, giving them any words of wisdom you can. I just started doing that with young people already in my life — younger cousins at risk of going down the wrong path — and I realised I really liked conversing with people in my life, in my church, or in my family. So I started doing that in schools where I was doing some music stuff, working with young people who were at risk of getting suspended or expelled. Literally, all it takes is just hearing them out, and just letting them know God has a greater purpose for you, regardless of what you’ve been through, and keeping that relationship going.
I wrote [the book] Unpopular Culture because I saw a billboard saying something like “Money is the key to all happiness,” and realised that this message has been programmed into our heads from quite a young age. Unpopular Culture tells us to look out for other people, not just ourselves; to give to people in need; to really value good relationships. I don’t have a big brother; so the book is meant to be a big brother or big sister to any young person, and it just says, “Look, this is what I’ve found out in life. There’s another way if you want to try it.”
My first experience of God was what my mum told me. Then, when I was 15, listening to the leader in church talking about being lukewarm, like being half in and half out, not connecting with God at a level we can. That was when I decided to intentionally seek God and read my Bible and pray and build a relationship with him. The moment I started pursuing that, I started to become more satisfied.
Mum and Dad came over to England from Ghana in their mid-twenties in search of a better life, and had me and my brother here. I saw them work really, really hard to give me and my brother a great life, but they never neglected the home stuff. Massive extended family as well: not blood-related, but everyone else who came over with them became really good friends. Now, I live in Greenwich with my wife; so it’s very different, but we’re starting our own life with what we’ve been taught growing up; so it’s cool.
I like relaxing at home, chilling out, watching a series on NetFlix or watching some football. I’m very much an indoorsy person; so I put the heating on and sit on the sofa.
I like the sound of when someone’s frying plantain, my favourite food; and the authentic sound when you put on a vinyl.
Injustice makes me angry; probably racism — ignorance of racism; and privilege; privileged people not showing empathy to people who are less fortunate.
I’ve got a new album coming out this year. Also, with my dad passing away, it’s kind of given me a longing to want to go back again to Ghana and know more about where he grew up and the lineage.
We’re living in pretty turbulent times; so, if you haven’t got faith, it can get depressing. My hope is that whole thing of “on Friday and Saturday things don’t look too good, but on Sunday God will come through.”
I’ve been praying for my mum most, because she’s struggling since losing my dad. And praying for an end to youth violence is a big one as well, because of all the murders this year already.
If I was locked in church with Jesus, it’d be a bit of a life hack: he’d have all the answers. So, then, Michael Jackson. I’d love to ask him about his fuller life rather than just his music.
Isaac Borquaye was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.