When she’s not performing, Little Simz likes to be the observer, not the observed.
Right now, however, she’s focused on the camera in front of her – reshaping her long body with ease on the roof of artist Morag Myerscough’s colourful Hoxton studio – and is clearly feeling that all the eyes in the space are on her.
She suddenly asks: ‘Can we have some music, please?’ directing the request at nobody in particular. At first it makes me wonder if the 27-year-old musician is shy. I realise, though, as she carries on, that it’s more of a hyper-awareness that she’s being eyeballed by a group of people that’s making her uncomfortable.
‘Because I’m a performer or whatever it is, in front of the camera or on stage, people always expect me to have this edge around me,’ she tells me later. ‘That’s all they know about me, when I actually don’t.’
I think about what I know about Little Simz. She was born Simbiatu Abisola Abiola Ajikawo to Nigerian parents. She was raised Muslim. She’s the youngest of three siblings and has released eight EPs and four mixtapes. This has all been on her own music label, Age 101. She’s described as a hip hop artist, but is fearless when it comes to adopting any genre she’s decided to master. She studied the work of Nina Simone, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday and Biggie Smalls while making her new album ‘Sometimes I Might Be Introvert’ (out in September), but her sound is always unique. ‘I’m very London in my delivery,’ she says. ‘Which is why I feel free to experiment so much, because I don’t have to show I’m from London. You can hear it.’ (You really can. She pronounces ‘lockdown’ ‘lockdaaaan’.)
When the shoot is over, Simz is taken downstairs to put on some comfortable clothes. When I see her again, while she’s having her locs re-styled, she’s wearing a faded orange T-shirt with the title of her third album, ‘Grey Area’, on the front, a pair of green Nike tracksuit bottoms and pastel green Crocs. She looks much happier, more free.
I ask her about introversion, wanting to know if she retreats into her own world, or if she just likes watching people. ‘I think it’s a cross between the two,’ she says gently. ‘I think I’m very independent and I’m reflective and introspective about things, but I definitely observe. I’m very aware of the surroundings around me.’
She wants to go and eat for our interview, so we climb into the gigantic black Range Rover I’d spied outside the studio, the driver of which I’d seen waiting patiently nearby. When we pull up to the Rum Kitchen in Shoreditch, Simz contemplates the offering of Jamaican-inspired small plates, and asks me a number of questions as she does. ‘Are you a meat eater?’ ‘Are you just gonna get fries?’ ‘You sure sure?’ Then: ‘Do you like plantain?’ I tell her that – controversially, as a Jamaican – I don’t. ‘No?’ she asks, her already huge eyes widening. She tells me that she was going to offer to share if I did.
There’s a generosity to Simz that surprises me. In fact, there’s a lot that surprises me about her. She has this way of looking at you and really seeing you that makes you feel like you’re the one in the hot seat. She laughs a lot, too. Not a big roar but an inward chuckle. She catches me dancing along to ‘So Good’ by Destiny’s Child playing out in Rum Kitchen and I feel like I’ve been caught doing something I shouldn’t as she lets out a slow cackle and asks: ‘You feeling it, yeah?’
Pressure and politics
It’s been a slow burn for Simz to get to the cult artist status she has now. She began her career handing out mixtapes in the school playground, while she did her first acting at St Mary’s Youth Club in Islington. She went on to appear on CBBC as a teenager, then on ‘Youngers’ on E4.
I ask her about the responsibilities she feels as a performer, as a woman and particularly as a Black woman. ‘Sometimes I feel the pressures of having to constantly have an opinion or to address things,’ she says. ‘It’s like, I don’t have an answer and I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about certain things.’ She explains how in this age, when everyone has access to the internet, the sharing of traumatic events, opinions and pain can be overwhelming. ‘So I usually remove myself. I definitely am very withdrawn.’ I understand where she’s coming from. In the wake of the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, it felt as though Black people were responsible for educating anyone non-Black about why Black lives should matter.
‘People sometimes expect me to be a role model, which I can understand, but I prefer the term real model. Because, firstly, I’m not playing a role,’ Simz says firmly. ‘I’m being myself. I don’t always get things right. And I want to make that very known.’ Her voice grows in size and strength as she brings her point home. ‘I feel like when you’re following someone’s career, the minute they do one thing [wrong], everyone’s quick to judge.’
When answering my questions, Simz rarely looks at me. She blinks out of the window, focusing on Shoreditch High Street. She looks down at the table, or, at points, seems to look off into a place none of us are privy to. When I ask if she has any interest in current affairs and politics, she tells me: ‘I actually don’t know what’s going on.’
‘You’re in your own world?’ I ask her. ‘Yeah, I’m very much in my own world,’ she agrees, nodding slowly. ‘Do you think that’s a protective thing?’ I ask. She nods again, immediately this time. ‘Yeah, yeah, for sure. I have no interest in what these people have to say,’ she says of politicians. ‘I don’t feel like they’re speaking to me.’
She pauses for a few seconds.
‘And I feel very intensely, init? I get very emotional and don’t stand for injustice or any of that stuff. So I just try to protect myself.’
From the heart
If you’ve followed her career, you’ll know that Little Simz is an incredibly private person, and not the type to put everything out on social media, let alone spill her heart out in an interview. But I bring up ‘I Love You, I Hate You’, a track on the new album I’d guessed was about her dad before I’d pressed play. I ask her about the line: ‘Never thought my parent would give me my first heartbreak’ and she looks down at her plate.
‘I didn’t even wanna write that song,’ she says, moving her food around. I feel guilty for asking about it. ‘I was finding every excuse under the sun to not write it.’
She leans back in her seat, looks out of the window and pauses for a few seconds. Clearly, when she’s vulnerable, it’s on her terms.
‘I didn’t wanna give him the stage. But it’s actually not about him at all. It’s about how I feel. So when I started writing, I was proper fighting it. And [producer] Inflo was like: “I’m not writing another beat until you write this one.”’ She laughs, coming into herself again. ‘But as I started writing I was like: Rah, this is probably going to be the most important song on the album.’ She tells me quietly that she’s thought about how certain songs on the album will be received by her sisters. ‘I’m not even saying anything bad; it’s just my truth.’
Her dad isn’t the only family member whose story is told on her upcoming album. The heartbreaking ‘Little Q Parts 1 and 2’ are about a younger cousin she was once estranged from. When they reconnected and he was telling her about his life in the years they hadn’t been in touch, she realised how important it was to tell his story. ‘As much as he’s my little cousin, to anyone else he’s just another number,’ she says. ‘Another boy that had just been stabbed.’
Knowing that the hour I was meant to have with Simz passed long ago, I ask her, as my final question, if she has any regrets. I expect an answer in line with the conversation we’ve had; one that is thoughtful, considered, bordering on the introspective, the self-analytical.
‘I should have taken French seriously [at school],’ she tells me, finally.
I think that’s Little Simz in a nutshell. You have to relinquish any ideas you hold of her. When you finally think that you’re in her world, you realise that you were only ever a visitor.
Little Simz plays All Points East on Aug 28. ‘Sometimes I Might Be Introvert’ is out Sep 3.