Stepping out onto the sidewalk in front of Los Angeles' Amoeba Music record store, a jet-lagged Little Simz extended her hand, “I’m Simbi.” As if I didn’t know, as if the entire team standing next to us wasn’t here just for her, as if I hadn’t watched every video, listened to every song, read every interview she’s done in her 15-year career. Of course, this wasn’t ignorance or insult, but her undying homeostatic hum of humility. Despite the kinetic trajectory of her career, it’s tough to imagine 24-year-old London MC Simbi Ajikawo ever feeling above an introduction.
Inside Amoeba, she dug through the bins at her own pace, cradling a growing stack of records consisting of Kendrick, SZA, J Dilla, and H.E.R., among others. At lunch, she paused for a moment when the waiter arrived, grasped the drink menu, scanned the table, and asked tentatively, “So is everyone drinking then?” with the only smile she seemed to know how to give: a real one that spared no inch of her face and spilled into affirming laughter. As she moved throughout the day, she melted to the side of the room, wandered off on her own, and knit herself into conversation with her crew — her charismatic manager Eddie Smith and her kind, soft-spoken friend and fellow artist Tilla.
Regardless of the situation, Simbi brought the kind of stillness with her that can only come from someone entirely grounded within themselves. It’s clear, from her demeanor, her career, her tracks, Little Simz thinks before she talks, never spews shit, and just like a good dancer, knows intuitively where she’s stepping at all times. “Don't get it confused 'cause I'm humble and I'm quiet,” she spits on “Backseat.”
“I've come to find that that's where my strength lies. I don't have to be the loudest person in the room. I don't have to tell you what I'm doing or who I just met. I don't have to do any of that stuff and it's fine because I know, and if you know then you know, it's cool,” Simz said. “Because I'm introverted, people think I don't peep shit. But more times, the reason why I'm like that is because I'm observant. I'm watching. I'm figuring you out. I've come to find that that's where my strength lies. Don't think that because I'm chill and I'm humble I'm not on my job or I'm not on point.”
As a fan, on the other hand, it’s difficult to talk about Little Simz without sounding like a proud mother bragging to her friends at a cocktail party. At just 24 years old, she’s got four mixtapes, seven EPs and two albums to her name. She’s a dancer and an actress. Kendrick Lamar went on record saying “she might be the illest doing it right now.” She’s also got co-signs from André 3000, Snoop Dogg, Mos Def, J.Cole, Yasiin Bey and A$AP Rocky, to name a few. She’s the first independent UK rapper to make the Forbes “30 Under 30” list. She’s got her own label-collective, Age 101, and she met us in L.A. just three days after the second iteration of her own London music festival Welcome to Wonderland. And, most impressively, alongside her tight circle of friends, collaborators and family, she’s running her own shit on her own terms.
You’d be hard-pressed to find any of those words on Simz’ lips. Not because she’s insecure — she’s a turbine of understated confidence. She’d prefer to just show you. “Don't say nothin' if you can't show it / Boy, are you a talker or a doer? / Victim or the shooter?,” she asks on “Shotgun.” With albums that track her navigation through being blinded, frustrated, intoxicated, and broken down by the music industry, she clings religiously to her intuition, remains creatively uncompromising and redefines what it means to have ownership over your art on an incomprehensible scale.
As a part of Project Unfollow — an art, music and fashion series celebrating the world’s most iconic Unfollowers presented by the first-ever BMW X2 — Little Simz and I kicked back on a daybed in a sun-flooded Hollywood hotel suite to talk about her career, music and what it means to be a black sheep.
VMP: You're 24, and you've had a longer career than most people 1.5 or 2 times your age. Do you remember the first time you ever rapped for an audience?
Little Simz: I must have been about 9 or 10 — I'ma say 10 — at a venue in North London called the O2 Academy Islington. I was wearing a red Ecko tracksuit with white Air Forces. I had my hair in bunches, all my family was there. I just performed one song called “Achieve, Achieve, Achieve.” I think that was the first time I had rapped live on a stage. Before that I had danced, so I was doing little dance talent shows here and there, but the first time I stepped out on a stage as my own person was when I was about 10.
What made you say “I want to start rapping now”? Do you remember seeing anything or listening to anything that made you go “oh shit, I wanna do that”?
I used to watch really early Missy Elliot videos and I was just infatuated with her whole visual aspect and how she was able to bring music to life even more with the visuals. I remember thinking, 'If I ever become a musician, I would want that visual aspect.' And I think even now with Wonderland, those all stem from early inspirations like Missy Elliot and Ludacris and those kinds of videos where the dancers were in there and it was crazy. Bringing that whole thing to life. She was definitely one of my early inspirations. Lauryn Hill, of course, but more so I was raised in a household where prominent music was always there. You could never escape it. Whether mom's playing something or my elder sisters, or my brother, whenever I got in his car there was something playing, I was just always around it. So I just took to it really easy. It didn't feel like it was something out of the norm. It felt so normal. I feel like going off to be a doctor would have been way more left than something creative, in my household, anyway. All my siblings are creative people, so it just felt normal.
I'm interested in your acting backgrounds with regards to your performing. I've seen you perform and you are just a natural performer. Do you ever view it as a kind of acting?
Nah, man. It doesn't feel like acting to me. It just feels like I'm channeling a different version of myself that I don't walk around with all the time. When I get on stage it feels like I'm able to really let go and often I hold back. One might call me shy or an introvert, but onstage it feels like I'm able to really let go. It feels almost therapeutic to be honest. It feels like a cleanse. After I come off stage I feel like that feeling after you've had a workout and you feel good. Especially if the audience are receptive and they've given you 100% energy and you've reciprocated that. It doesn't feel like acting at all. It feels like I've been able to be free. It always catches me off guard when I hear people saying my lyrics back, being really engaged and involved. I don't sit in my bedroom and write songs and think “this is for everyone to sing,” I just write it from a raw and honest place and it just so happens to connect which always blows me mind.
Yeah, how does it feels when you look out into the audience and someone knows every word?
It's crazy. And they say it with such passion, like they could have written it, which blows me away because it also makes me feel like I'm not alone. In those moments [when she's writing songs], it does feel like, 'Am I the only one dealing with this?' But when I go out and I play these songs and I hear people saying it back it's like, damn, I believe you was going through that as well or you've felt that. I could just see it. Not only can I see it, I can feel it. It's an energy and a vibe thing, and I pay attention to those things.
Do you remember looking out and seeing that for the first time?
I remember there was a show I done in London. This was the first time I peeped that they know who I am now. I've got a name in my city. I played a show for ID Magazine in a warehouse venue in East London and when I came on the stage I just remember that everyone had their phone up and there was just lights. And I was like, 'Oh, I didn't even know it was like that.' That's something you always imagine and wish and dream for, that your presence on stage, people want that. And then when it actually happened I was like, that's nice. I definitely remember that moment for sure.
You said your influences are artists like Missy Elliot, Ludacris. Did you feel like being in North London with all of these genres that are growing and buzzing there and you not necessarily fitting into one, not being fully grime or garage, did you ever feel out of place in your own city?
I definitely went through phases when there was different things popping up in town. For example, I don't know if you're familiar with a genre called funky house, but at the time, maybe like 2008 or 2009, funky house was really popular, and I found myself experimenting there because I thought that's what people wanted to hear. I experimented doing pop songs because that was popular and I thought that's what people wanted to hear. I found myself trying to fit in all these little boxes and it never ever felt right. I said to myself that it's not that I can't do these things, because I can, I've shown myself that I'm a versatile artist. But it's all off of feeling. I'm not going to go into the studio and make a pop song because I've matured enough to know that I can just go off of feeling as opposed to what people want to hear. And even on my record I've experimented a lot with sound and being diverse on that end because I believe I'm a versatile artist and I don't want to be afraid of trying new things. But I don't necessarily have to stay in a specific genre and just keep doing that, keep doing grime because that's what people expect of me or keep doing hip hop because that's what people expect of me. I can go and work with an indie rock band and spit one of the hardest verses you'll ever hear. I'm able to maneuver in different areas within music. It's fun for me as well. It's not fun to just do one in my opinion. But I also don't want to be a jack of all trades and master of none.
Is that tough for you to edit like that? A lot of your work is about trusting your intuition, but do you ever have doubts?
It's just knowing yourself and trusting yourself, but also not being afraid to try and fail is important. It's OK to try something and it not work as opposed to just not doing it because of a fear of the unknown. It's fine to be able to allow people to see that journey with you. I'm OK with that because it's all about evolution and growth and it's cool when you're able to see that within an artist.
There's a lot of maturity in what you're saying right now because when you're young and creative it can feel like every opportunity is something you can't mess up. Do you feel like that's a lesson you had to learn and shake off failure?
Definitely. A lot of the time I found myself being scared and to be honest I put that down to my family. There's so many instances where they've been like, 'Simbi, chill, who cares, it's fine, no one's expecting you to be perfect, no one's expecting you to have it all figured out.' It's cool. If it doesn't work, it doesn't work. Hearing that from people who truly love and care about you ... if my family are telling me this I'm not too concerned with the outside world or opinions.
I want to run through the tracklist for the Unfollow Project record. You picked the four tracks that are gonna be on it: “Poison Ivy ft. Tilla,” “Backseat,” “The Book” by OTG and “Know Yourself” by Tilla. So I wanna go one by one and talk about why you selected that track. Let's start with “Poison Ivy.”
It definitely takes me back to a place where I wasn't in the best situation or best relationship and that was almost a therapy for me. I worked on it with Tilla and, again, I've been working with Tilla for the longest, so having his energy and sharing his magic on the song just made it a touch more special for me. One thing I like about this song is the key signature. You don't really know how to move to it because it's 6/8. But more so, it represents a point in time and the situation I was going through and it just felt like the only way of me healing from this was to write about it and that's what I love most about the song. I was able to heal myself in writing. No one else was able to do that for me.
Generally, as a listener, it's about toxicity in relationships which I think is something everyone can relate to to some extent. What exactly was doing on in your life over the period of time that you wrote that?
I was in a relationship, I was in a situation with someone that wasn't healthy. It just wasn't right. But because I had essentially grown up with this person — we known each other since I was 11 — so it was deeper than a relationship. I'd lost a friend. It was like grieving in a sense. It's a lot to get into, to be honest. But, all in all, I'm happy I went through that at an early age. It taught me a lot about love and people and how people work and how people think and just understanding that not everyone can love the way I love. And I don't think that's for me to take personal. It's just what it is. Dealing with loss as well, and understanding that loss isn't personal. For example, I had lost my grandma and I remember feeling like this was all happening around the same time. The same way I lost my grandma my mom lost her mom, my sister lost her gran, my grandsister lost her sister. It's not personal. Everyone goes through these things. So it was a time of learning and understanding people and the cycle of life and how it works.
Moving on to “Backseat.” Obviously it’s about being a black sheep, doing your own thing and that driving you. That's something you own up to in all your interviews, something you’re proud of. But you also have this lyric: 'This is what you asked for, don't weep.' You have this unshakable confidence, but the whole album is about this grappling with the industry and its effects on you. Did you feel like you didn't have space?
Exactly that. And also, it's so easy to wish for something and then get it and still find things to complain about. But this is what you wanted, though. It was me saying that to myself. I just found that because I was so low at the time of writing this that everything was pissing me off. Everything was annoying and everything was much and people were much and I just didn't want to conversate with anyone. I remember being at a place where all I wanted to do was be around people and have conversations and learn and understand about what people are going through. That's all I wanted to do and I got to a place where I have that and I don't want it. So it was like, 'Are you confused or what?' Talking to myself.
That comes across in your music. You can tell you're paying attention. Side B. OTG is on your label, is that correct? Can you talk about the song “The Book?”
OTG — His name's Osiris — is my DJ and producer. I met him maybe three or four years ago. For the longest time he was just sending me beats. I had a beats email set up where producers could send me instrumentals, and he was always in my inbox but I never opened his emails. For some reason, I don't know. Sometimes it's just a lot. But he was so consistent with it that he forced me to listen without forcing me. He was just so visible in my inbox. One day I opened up his email and he had sent me a beat that I was blown away by. I went back and searched all the other emails that I had missed out on and seeing that this kid was fire. He's super talented. So I met with him and we just clicked. We started making music and I explained to him that I'm going on tour and I need a DJ, if he'd be open to it. A few years later we end up touring the world. It's cool how it all came about, it was all organic. I feel like that was one of the relationships in my life that were meant to be. And “The Book” is actually on his EP The Garden of Osiris. When we say “The Book” it has a religious reference in there. “The Book,” someone might mean the Bible or the Qur'an, in our world it's our pen, our thoughts. We're musicians so what we make, that's what we live by. We wrote it together which was nice. It's very rare that I write with people, but he's one of the people I would always write with.
Let's move on to Tilla’s “Know Yourself.” What made you pick that track?
Firstly, I feel like Tilla is someone that is beyond his years and a true artist. Sometimes he doesn't even know how good he is. You don't even see how talented you actually are, and I think there's magic and beauty in that. But sometimes — I'm saying it loud so he can hear — sometimes it holds him back and I want — especially when making music with me — for him to always feel like he can be as open as he wants and he can make mistakes because I think you're meant to do that and you're meant to grow. The potential that Tilla has ... even where he is now just blows my mind. What he's doing is rare, and I don't see or hear that. He freestyled that song, which means that it's just off the dome. He's not thinking too hard. It's all just within his self conscious, and when you're able to do that it already shows the level you're on. People don't just get on a mic and sing and it ends up being on Spotify. Someone people go months just to write a song like that. He's just able to do that, I think that's so incredible and advanced. What's even more beautiful about it is he still has a long way to go, so I'm even more excited to see how he develops and where he takes it from there. I know it's gonna be next-level shit. Plus he's just a good person. When you're around people that are good and are talented, regardless of age or gender or whatever the case, it drives you to be better. Tilla's definitely someone that pushes me. He don't know [that].
You're gushing over Tilla being this creative who has control over every element, and when I first started listening to you and learning about you that was something that was jarring to me. You're running your own shit to every end. I want to talk about your label. Had you ever considered signing to someone else or did you always want to have control over every element?
I definitely considered signing to someone else, of course, that's all I've dreamt of was to 'make it,' whatever that means. At the times I was having all these ambitions, all I'm ever seeing is people signing. I'm not being exposed to independent artists doing it and really doing it. It's hard to be one of the first, at least where I come from, to do that when there's no one before that's [doing that]. I remember a producer I was working with, he had this list of all the labels in America. Literally every single label you could think of. He emailed it to me and I remember I spent the whole day calling all these labels. I don't even know what my plan was at this point, I just wanted to see. I just thought, 'Fuck it, I'm just gonna take my chances here.' I remember getting through to Disturbing the Peace, which is Ludacris' label, and they had signed these artists called TK-N-Cash, these two rappers, and we was gonna work on some music. But it just goes to show the lengths I was willing to go to to be heard by a major. Which is crazy, because now I don't need that. Not to say that that will never fall in my path or I'm not talking to anyone but if I'm gonna go that route I can do it on my own terms. And I know I've got leverage at this point and I know I can damn near get what I want.
Is that what stopped you? You never felt like the situation was on your terms?
Yeah, it just wasn't. It was blatant, it was black and white. It wasn't on my terms.
Did you ever feel tempted?
Of course. Especially when life's hitting you in the face. It's there, clear-cut, dotted line, boom. This is you. It's very hard to [say no] and go the hard way. Who wants to do that? But to keep my creative control, my integrity, all these things, yeah, I'll do that, for sure.
With you running the show with booking your festival Welcome to Wonderland seems different than other festivals that want to get the biggest names. To me, it seems like you're just picking people you believe in.
Definitely. The acts that I selected are people that, you look in my phone, you'll see them. I'm genuinely fans of these people. It's cool to be able to have them play at my festival. And bridging the gap between over here and home, I think that's nice to bring X over here and come together, especially knowing that the majority of them are women, it's cool for people to make that link. So Rapsody and Jungle Pussy are now known.
Yeah, your festival is 75% women, which shouldn't be insane, but it is. I just read all the stats about European festivals and how there's just so few women, and American festivals have that same problem. But there was an initiative announced over there for festivals to have 50% women booked at their festival, and you said it shouldn't be hard because it was easy for you. Was that a conscious choice, to make it majority women?
I definitely didn't walk in wanting this to be 70 percent, 75 percent women, but I definitely walked in with a mentality where I need dope women to play this. And it just so happens that I'm fans of loads of them. Therefore, let's have all of them. There's no limitations to this shit. No one can tell me no, especially if I'm able to go directly to the artist and there's a mutual respect. They're happy to do it. Therefore it's never gonna be an issue. I just didn't understand how, if I can do it at the level I'm at, how can you, this festival that is servicing [many people], I don't understand how it's not possible for you to do the same.
You've been at this for so long, but did you ever feel like there was a lack of someone to look to, like a female MC when you were younger? Do you ever feel like younger women are looking to you, or these artists you're booking? Is that in your mind?
Yeah, of course, because I'm conscious of the fact that it has to be bigger than me. I'm not doing this for me. I'm trying to initiate something different, I'm trying to do something different. I'm trying to inspire if I can. It's all in the act of selflessness. That's something I've been taught by my mum. To think not only about yourself.
The special edition 10" on gold vinyl with a deluxe gatefold jacket features two tracks from Little Simz and two tracks that have influenced her. 7,000 will be sent to random members with their April shipments.
This interview is condensed from the podcast version.
Amileah Sutliff is a New York-based writer, the Head of Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please and an editor of the book The Best Record Stores in the United States.