Simbi Ajikawo is sitting at the desk at Red Bull Studios fastidiously going through songs with a producer. She’s dressed down in all black and is talking through album tracks, from the topline sounds to how they will translate live, checking her phone, nodding along to suggestions, but ultimately making all the decisions affirmatively, herself.
The 22-year-old British Nigerian known as Little Simz has had an eventful few months. Last year, she made the Forbes 30 Under 30 list, supported Lauryn Hill on tour and publicly fell out with Radio 1 after putting them on blast on Twitter. She is, in real life, as you would expect; thrilling, uncompromising (“my most frequently used emoji is the eyeroll”) and thoughtful. Today she’s making use of the fact the BEAT shoot has been rained off by using the time to finesse the details of her upcoming live shows.
The British rapper came to prominence as a young actress in 2010 on the BBC’s Spirit Warriors, a show about schoolchildren being transported to parallel spirit worlds (which perhaps goes some way to explaining her fascination with phantasmagoria that you hear on her records). It also makes sense that she’d pick something so otherworldly; Simz doesn’t play by conventional rules. So while she made her name in acting, she really saw her star in ascendance as a rapper, with critically acclaimed releases (two albums, four mixtapes and seven EPs so far) and kinetic live shows.
Last year was spent on her latest album, Stillness in Wonderland, which saw her uprooted from her north london home and dropped in LA and beyond, writing it while on tour between parties, buses, flights and snatched sleep. As a result, it sounds like a state of suspended reality, as she takes us through her own dislocation and leans into feeling unsettled, finding the fascination in her own confusion. When the shoot finally happens, she takes us to the places that she feels rooted, and in true Simz style, each location has significance. From her family home in Highbury (“my sanctuary”) to Highbury Fields (“It’s my happy place, where I can just escape from the real world and take the time to realign”) where she went to school. Letting people into her stories is what she does best.
Beside her in the studio is a comic of her, released with the album, showing her development from the long braided artist of yesteryear to the artist she is now. It maps her transition into her self-constructed ‘wonderland’ which she describes as “a place of confusion”. It’s a conceptual take on life as a young woman bearing all and occupies the middle space between art and music. The illustrations, drawn by her manager, conjure up the same surrealness of Lewis Carroll’s world – but if it was in London, and if Alice was a rapper. Brooding and playful, Simz’s Wonderland is as dark as it is light, and her album takes us through mental derangement (on ‘LMPD’ featuring Chronixx) lack of belonging (‘Doorways’ and ‘Trust Issues’) and aggressive independence (Gunshot feat The Internet’s Syd Tha Kid), delving into the poetry and chaos of relationships and self exploration.
“It’s me trying to draw the line between what’s real and what’s not,” she says. “Wonderland for me is this industry, what I’m experiencing in my life, travelling and meeting different people. It’s me being exposed to a lot of people recognising me more, how I’m dealing with that and my friends and family. It’s all just a blur, so I’m trying to figure out my way through it.”
Despite her age, her work – often openly dealing with confusion and feeling lost – is at odds with the filtered Instagram generation projecting aspirational lifestyles via clean eating, inspirational memes and bordering maniacal positivity. Wrenching open her own internal darkness feels like a refreshing reaction to all that.
How am I going to go make music if I’m not experiencing it? I won’t have shit to talk about.
Growing up, she cites Fela Kuti and jazz as influencing her ear for production and big, euphoric toplines, and rappers like Biggie Smalls (“my favorite rapper”) making her see lyrics and storytelling in a new light. She’s smiling as she raps his lines to me. “He’s so visual! He’s like, ‘Who the fuck is this/Pagin’ me at 5.46 in the morning?’ and you can see it happening and you’re like, “Yeah, who is it?!” She tells me that coming from a Nigerian culture of oral narratives made her an early fan of “stories, films, books and music”. The last book that really spoke to her was A Piece Of Cake by Cupcake Brown when she was 15, a true story of rape, abuse, drug addiction, and Bloods and Crips gang violence. Not exactly Harry Potter, but sort of suggests that her interest in exploring hard edges came early.
In industry terms, it might look like Simz has been bubbling under the radar for some time – her 2015 hit ‘Dead Body’ was an early stand-out moment, and a look at her 50k follower strong Instagram shows euphoric crowds at her shows in Australia, shots from her bathroom and LA house parties with SZA and Kaytranada. “Oh that!” she laughs, when I ask about it, “Well, basically I had gone to LA for four days. The plan was, do the Lauryn show, chill for a day, then just bounce. But I ended up staying for month. We had a big nice house in West Hollywood that we rented and we just decided to throw a party, literally spur of the moment. Two days before I was due to leave, I went to Camp Flog Gnaw, which is Tyler, the Creator’s festival, and literally that day while I was at the festival I just went to everybody and said, “yeah, by the way, my last day is Saturday I’m having a party, come through if you want, vibes, whatever,” and then mad people just ended up showing up and it was lit.”
She does a quick checklist of her favourite party tracks that featured in the Spotify playlist and reels off ‘Bad and Boujee’, Young MA’s ‘Ouuu’, and ‘Fake Love’ by Drake as certified bangers that make “a party go off” and shrugs when I ask if throwing a party attended by some of the industry’s most acclaimed artists felt like she had made it. ‘Making it’ takes on a few lives with Simz, and measuring her own success isn’t as simple as looking at critical acclaim and Spotify streams (she has 400,000 monthly listeners, fyi).
For her, she hasn’t even quite made it yet, which explains her beef with Radio 1 heads who allegedly ‘blocked’ her album being played, the fallout launching a Twitter thread about how slow the station, and wider music industry, has been to support her. To her mum, a relatively traditional first generation immigrant who “stressed out” when Simz told her she was dropping out of Uni in her second year to pursue music (she was studying music tech but it didn’t speak to her creativity), her daughter’s moment of making it was when she saw a billboard in east London with her album cover emblazoned across it. We discuss how many immigrant mums who don’t understand music success straight away usually need a moment like that to finally convince them that their children they took the right path. She agrees and says she’s unconvinced of her own mum’s ratings of her, noting that “she mostly just calls me to tell me take my vitamins”. Though recently on her Twitter I note that her mum had recorded a Channel 4 news interview from the TV on her phone.
Spending time with Simz feels a bit like being invited into a room with someone alone with their thoughts, but she’s playful too.Talking about whether she ever looks back on her Spirit Warrior days, she mock-frowns when I ask her exactly where I can find old episodes online: “I’m not encouraging anyone to go get my skeletons out!” she yells. She’s only half joking really, because in reality she doesn’t shy away from her skeletons. Stillness in Wonderland is a shedding of hyper-glossy, catchy hooks of mainstream female rappers, and she’s asking us to be still with her as she processes the weirdness and wonder of the world around her.
I ask her, in a shifting political context, whether she has to make certains considerations touring as a black woman that she might not have had to make five or so years ago, and while she’s aware of racial issues in certain countries (“what I saw in South Africa really affected me”), she’s adamant that local politics wouldn’t put her off making her voice heard in seemingly hostile environments. It’s here that you get a sense of both her introverted and extroverted qualities, and marvel at how she’s able to flex both at an age when most people are just working out how to navigate life, let alone how to use their experiences creatively. She tells a quick anecdote about getting a snide comment about her name by a woman at the airport in Germany and rolls her eyes. “It happens, but I want to experience everything,” she says. “Even if it’s bad. It’s all part of my story man. How am I going to go make music if I’m not experiencing it? I won’t have shit to talk about”.