directed by DriU & Tiago
styling by Natalie hartley
It’s the opening line to one of her songs, Boss, and a fitting introduction to the 26-year-old North London rapper and actor, whose real name is Simbiatu, or Simbi, Ajikawo. Ferocious and urgent, Boss is an anthemic declaration of strength and independence with deliriously rousing wordplay. “I don't need that stress, that stress” she roars, “I'm a boss in a fucking dress.”
“I'm so happy when I get to perform because that’s where the songs really come alive” explains Little Simz. “It feels good. Sometimes, I get so lost in it, to the point where I almost forget I'm performing, it's quite overwhelming.” On the day of Buro’s cover shoot, she’s much quieter than the musician striding across stages, but as she stares into the camera or raps along to tracks from her most recent album, the Mercury-award nominated Grey Area, she gives off that same sense of determination and drive.
Performing the album live is no easy feat. A reflection of her mid-twenties, Grey Area is one of the most searingly honest records of the year. In it, Simz confronts everything from her own mental health (Therapy), to an ex-boyfriend's infidelity (Sherbet Sunset), to the death of a close friend (Wounds) and much more. But it’s also a celebratory album that feels like a real coming-of-age moment. A dexterous story-teller, Simz balances personal stories with broader political commentary, whilst also combining a melting pot of sonic influences. Bolshy, urgent tracks on the album are perfectly balanced with softer, R&B infused moments.
Though she’s only 26, as an artist Little Simz is something of a veteran. After rapping in the school playground, she was 12 when she first performed, playing Islington Academy with her youth group, under her then moniker of ‘Lil Simz’. That formative performance confirmed to her that she wanted to be an artist, and she credits her mother with instilling her with the confidence to succeed. “She always told me to really do it, and not to be apologetic about it. She encouraged me to be bold and be out there, because you know, my family are right behind me. So I think I've had that foundation of support from an early age.”
Throughout her career Simz has been endorsed by Lauryn Hill and Kendrick Lamar (who, in an interview described her as “the illest doing it right now”), released three albums and several mixtapes, performed all over the world and released her most successful album to date. That said, in some ways 2019 feels like her breakout year. It’s taken her a long time to garner mainstream success, a fact that many have put down to the fact she is a young woman operating in what is still a male-dominated industry. Little Simz has always found the label “female rapper” reductive. “When I was younger I used to introduce myself as “'Simz, a female rapper from North London’, because that’s what I was always being told. Then I started to look at my peers and I thought, if these are the female rappers and these are the male, I don't get it, are you trying to say I'm far off from the guys, because I don't think these lot are any better than me?”
Despite the fact that Grey Area received unanimously positive reviews and a Mercury award nomination, it failed to reach the top 40, unlike recent albums by British rappers like Dave or AJ Tracey. “I don’t make chart music so I've never worried about being in the charts” counters Simz. “Of course It would have been nice, I wouldn't have been complaining, but I don't look at that and think 'okay so no one fucks with you', I’m progressing, and I hope when people look at me they think, 'yeah she's going to be here for 15 plus years'. A lot of the people that are doing it right now, I don’t see 15 years on them” she says with a sly grin.
Somehow, in between making an album and being constantly on tour, Simz has also found time to star in the new series of cult TV show, Top Boy. Six years after the final season, its return was highly anticipated. Backed by rap superstar Drake, and picked up by streaming giant, Netflix, on the week of release, Top Boy became the most-watched show in the UK, beating huge titles like Unbelievable and 13 Reasons Why. In the show, Simz plays Shelly, a single mother committed to making a better life for herself and her daughter.
Following two rival gangs, Top Boy doesn’t shy away from violence, but it also shines a light on the effect that government cuts and gentrification are having on inner city communities. “I witnessed a lot of those things first hand” explains Simz, who grew up in North London. “When I speak to my friends in America, they're like 'what, shit pops off like that in London?!' I'm like 'yeah, it's not all tea and crumpets around here! I hope it creates more pressure for change. The show has definitely got people talking, and obviously the more attention it gets, the harder it will be to silence that, hopefully it will force some kind of change. It’s going to take time, but I think we’re off to a good start.”
With the shows creator, Ronan Bennet having confirmed he’s in talks with Netflix about a new season, the chances are Simz will get to revisit her character, who she says she’d love to play again. But right now, her focus is back on her live show. After a summer spent touring Europe, she’s just kicked off her UK dates, which will end in December when she headlines Kentish Town’s O2 Forum. “I’m excited and I’m hungry,” she says. “There's no more 'when my time comes', my time is now.”
Hair and make up Nibras,