Simbiati “Simbi” Ajikawo, 23, has spent years calling herself a king. This confident proclamation may throw some when juxtaposed beside her chill demeanor but a leap into Little Simz will prove it, enveloping the listener in a massive catalog of intimate, soulful hip-hop detailing every conflict and contradiction of a young Londoner hellbent on being the best at everything she does, on her own terms. Bearing cosigns from the likes of Kendrick Lamar and Yasiin Bey, she remains a best kept secret for those in the know, but mostly she’s criminally-underrated, considering her output and execution alone. But that’s the same old song, and it’s not fazing Simbi: her skills earned her a trip to work with the Gorillaz on their recent Humanz album: a massive mixtape for the end of the world.
Simbi recalls an instant spark of inspiration, shadowed by a permeating nervousness about meeting with Albarn and the crew. She worried about how she’d deliver over the beat they presented, nearly caving to self-doubt, pushed out of her comfort zone as the biggest opportunity of her life hung in the balance. They made “Garage Palace:” a bouncy, frantic bonus track soon to be released. Simbi’s spent the past few months as a special guest on the U.S. leg of the Humanz tour: she spends three minutes maximum on stage, effortlessly stunning the crowd with strenuous multisyllabic fare before disappearing again, leaving no room to process the greatness. After a break home in London to reconnect with family and get her mind right, she’ll join the Gorillaz as direct support on their European Humanz run through the end of 2017.
“It’s so easy to get wrapped up,” Simbi says. “Being online all day, worrying about what people have to say about you, trying to make sure you’re at every event, you know? I’m just in a place in my life where I’m not concerned with that stuff at all, and I’m just focused on what matters and what’s important to me. It’s coming to the end of the year now; I’m thinking [a lot] about moving in a new direction just in life, not even music-related. And it feels good, and I’m just focused on being present in that.”
This newfound focus comes from the same energy Simbi channels to maintain her rabid cult following: she understands the power of being seen. After every journey, she returns to London and reconnects with the energy of being Simbi the person over Simz the artist. She catches up on her programs, walks around her neighborhood and catches public transport like everyone else. She’s been vocal about feeling overlooked in her own city compared to elsewhere, but feels that disconnect dissolving; now, people stop her for pictures, and she spares the time to connect. “I always want people to feel like I’m accessible, like I’m right there with them,” Simbi says. “As much as I travel, when I’m come back, I’m not missing. It’s just really being amongst people and having conversations; it’s what I always wanna do.”
Approaching a year after its release, Stillness in Wonderland remains a seminal work in the Little Simz oeuvre: it’s pensive when it should be, menacing when it needs to be, and lean in all the right places. Donning features from the likes of SiR, Syd, and Chronixx, the journey through wonderland finds Simz unflinchingly certain of claiming her destiny, yet consistently checking herself to remain who she’s always been. Throughout, a character named Cheshire checks in via interludes to remind Simz to “follow the white rabbit:” a metaphor she remains keen on. “Follow your intuition, follow your gut,” Simbi says. “Feeling like whatever you feel is in your calling… don’t ignore the signs.” The album begins with Simz conjuring the ancestors and indicting our ideas of justice on “LMPD” and bookends with the somber “No More Wonderland,” Simz declaring her exit from the allure of this zone since her people need her. It’s unclear if the wonderland serves her right or lulls her too deeply within, but the sum of its parts find Simz interrogating trust issues, failed romance, cycles of depression and the ills of the industry.
The final point poses plenty of challenges for independent artists like Little Simz; as the bar constantly shifts in a stream generation, the traditional model’s gasping for air and it’s difficult to distinguish the real from the noise. Simz remains independent with her AGE 101 brand; though she’s not opposed to one day playing in the majors, compromising her freedom isn’t on the table right now.
“If there ever comes a time where it makes sense to do that, then I’m open to have the conversation, I’m not opposed to the issue,” Simbi says. “I enjoy runnin’ my shit how I wanna run it, and also… I just [love] being my own boss, I don’t think anyone can be mad at me for that, you know? Even my outlook on life, I’m blessed enough to be able to wake up in the morning, and if it doesn’t feel right, I hit snooze and I start again. Not everyone has the opportunity to live in that way, so I don’t take those things for granted. I live my life like that.”
Despite the current zeitgeist mobilizing for progressive diversity across artistic disciplines - leaving underrepresented and targeted identities skeptical of the line between genuine, fetish, and quota - the rap game ain’t caught up yet, on either side of the pond. “Female emcee” still rings a quizzical look in the boys club of music, while Black women keep outshining their counterparts. Meanwhile, these same Black women cannot exist more than one at a time without the public insinuating a beef, while a million men continue to rule the world. After countless award snubs and being excused or excluded from the dialogue, are the obvious factors - Simbi’s Blackness, womanness, and everything beyond - still the very things forcing the world to hide her crown? She knows full well, and she ain’t goin; as she says, “a powerful Black woman is a scary thing.” Frankly, she’s prepared for the world to “get over it now.”
“All these barriers, all these titles - she’s a female rapper - we need to let go of that because you’re just putting people in boxes because of your own insecurities,” Simbi says. “It’s so unfair, and I feel like I’m here to go against that and challenge it a bit; to let the next young girl know that you haven’t gotta be a female shit. You haven’t gotta be a female rapper, you haven’t gotta be a female anything: you could just be you and you could be great at what you do. And still be elegant, and still be beautiful, and still be all these things. Just because you’re business-savvy and you’re on your shit, that does not mean that you’re a bitch! Just because you’re sweet and you’re tender and you’re soft, that does not mean that you’re a dumbass and you don’t know shit! You can be multiple things at once and still be you and that’s fine!”
As Simbi prepares for her next journey, she finds herself having the same conversations, but she’s grown; she’s treating patience like the virtue it is, dissecting the pieces of her old self with pride, even in pain and dissatisfaction. When speaking of Wonderland being wedged between reality and a dream, she still goes in and out of that zone whenever she’s on the verge of another adventure, preparing herself for the swift lessons the world will find ways to repeat until she learns for good. She speaks of her past lives like a well-worn traveler, maturity far beyond her years as she spins her stories for an ever-growing audience: she recently netted a cypher spot in this year’s BET Hip-Hop Awards, and knowing the impulsive nature of her creativity, there’s no predicting when she’ll release another set of chapters the way a king holds court over her people. While she’s made her name by being impossible to ignore, she’s sure to never sacrifice quality to meet the oversaturation of today.
The bigger Little Simz gets, the less Simbi cares about the nagging comments and lingering dissenters of her movement. Holding true to her concept of a “real model” - a human being more concerned with being fallible than molding oneself into a perfect figure for others to aspire to - Simbi knows the public’s waiting to place her on the stake the way they dispose of folks who make their mistakes for everyone to see. She’s here to learn, to grow, to be no matter how the world names and dares to restrain her genius. With all the former, the latter becomes impossible.
“There’s so much happening in the world, [things] that are beyond me and you, that we should be focusing on,” Simbi says. “If your focus is me and having something negative to say about me, that just tells me a lot about you as a person anyway. And I don’t have to be here for it, and you live your life, I’ll live mine. I just wanna focus on things that matter most to me and things that care about. I’m a deep and passionate person; I understand that on a scale of how big this world is, I’m on the most miniscule level, and there are things beyond me that deserve more attention. To be honest, I just wanna contribute in whatever way I can to try to help whatever needs to be helped.”
Michael Penn II (aka CRASHprez) is a rapper and a former VMP staff writer. He's known for his Twitter fingers.