Releasing your first album can be an anxious time for an artist as it is your first official statement to the world. But for Lemzi, it was this and much more as he shares the conflict of having expectations of a “normal career” vs nurturing the creativity which grew inside him. We’re happy to have had a chance to sit down with him to talk about this album in-depth, as well as what it feels like to perform to a live audience.
For someone who doesn’t know who “Lemzi” is, who are you and what are you trying to achieve with your music?
[I’m] cool, calm and collected individual [and] I’d like to prove to myself that I can do incredible things through music; whether it’s raw self-expression or connecting to complete strangers. Then take this as far around the atlas as possible for as long as I enjoy it.
Congrats on the release of your debut album: Leki. How long had you been working on this?
Leki, like a lot of my previous releases, wasn’t planned. I started writing some of the songs for “Leki” in 2016, I think, but I was merely creating and playing around – seeing what would come out after Autumnal Aura and a few other singles like Hidden Gems (Feat. Tonia).
I actually struggled for a while to write. Then I remember going through a very deep repression in response to a lack of creativity, a lack of incentives, a feeling that a lot of external factors were going against me (politics, certain relationships) etc and coming out of it with Curious Kids When They Wanna Stare.
That was the start of thinking I was working towards something as that is the most loaded song on the album and a real insight as to how I was feeling about everything. Over the next few months, I worked with a few more producers and artists then thought, in around June 2018, that I was going to put the project together. I did think about a completely different album, with a different concept and title, but as the Leki songs developed, it all just made sense. The interview kind of tied everything together whilst the songs elucidated a small part of everything I believe in.
You’ve been releasing music for many years now, but what compelled you to start creating? (What encouraged you to illustrate your stories through rap?)
I’ve always had an affinity to verbal language (even though I’m not bilingual, but that’s another story). I used to be an avid reader but I found that through listening to an artist’s music I was able to hear and feel another level of depth I rarely got from books, at a younger age. Because of the obvious emotion, skill and energy I saw in most of my favourite early artists from Eminem & 50 Cent to Kano & Dizzee Rascal, I started seeing reflections of myself but also a challenge to be able to do what they do/did.
I wasn’t the most out-going person unless I was really comfortable with people. So writing lyrics almost became a good way of saying what I didn’t feel confident enough to usually vocalise or at least play with concepts like house parties or cussing school when it got a bit annoying.
But since then it has maintained its original reason of being therapeutic and self-expression, I’ve just developed more willingness to share my thoughts with people.
In the opening track on your album, you are in conversation with a woman, trying to convince her that you belong in this creative space. You talk a bit about the type of school you went to. How did you deal with the expectation of getting a “good job” versus being a creative?
So I went to a private school, did well in my GCSEs, did even better in my A-Levels and went on to study LLB Law with Criminology in a Russell group university. On paper that doesn’t spell “conventional rapper” to most people. But, despite doing well academically, the education system never resonated with me. I never felt compelled to continue the conventional route subsequent to uni, even though I tried. I worked in an accountancy firm briefly, worked in retail, worked as an e-commerce supervisor and also a legal assistant before I was finally made redundant. Throughout that time, I became depressed and a lot more emotionally unstable and my family could see this. So when I was made redundant, I decided to go for it with music, to a bit of reservation by close ones, but I haven’t looked back (properly) since.
I think it was important for me to state where I came from as well, I’m not ashamed of anything and I hope it would encourage people to understand this is about self-expression before fulfilling a certain role or persona that satisfies a status quo.
At the beginning of Track Four: “That’s the Code”, you talk about not compromising your principles. In relation to the music industry, what does this mean?
When I look at the music industry I don’t see a lot of balance or even real, genuine happiness from a lot of major or established artists. There are certain characters who I watch and feel their story or process resonates with me and what I want to achieve. These certain artists or industry professionals all accentuate the same thing, without necessarily overtly disclaiming it: be yourself and stick with the people that mess with you for YOU.
This doesn’t mean don’t try new styles or only collab with a small number of creatives necessarily. But it means uphold what you believe is dear and know your worth. You can’t please everyone.
You recently had a chance to share your music with a live audience at Rich Mix in East London, what was it like performing your new music to this audience?
This was the best show I’ve ever done. I’ve had some great performance moments prior to the Hidden Gems LIVE “Leki Perspective" event, such as in the V&A Museum, Jazz Café, Walthamstow Garden Party and more, but that night was special.
Between me, my girlfriend and sister we curated and promoted everything. My sister, who is actually the interviewer’s voice, was relentless in promoting me and the event to different brands and organisations. She inadvertently got me an interview with the Evening Standard too. My girlfriend arranged all of the Leki merchandise that pretty much sold out on the day and styled my outfits. Then I curated all the artists and my own set. Very thankful we had around 300 people in attendance and many of them I didn’t even know so it was a great opportunity for me and the other acts to showcase our best selves. The energy and atmosphere was just perfect, as it usually is at any Hidden Gems LIVE event (@hiddengemslive).
It was a lot of hard work that covered a few months including rehearsals and the Christmas break. A lot of stress with thinking no-one was going to come (we were in single digits of tickets sold until about 5 days before the event). But the result of the night was a beautiful sold out show that I was proud of. And thankful for everyone that came through, including Richmix who gave us the opportunity and even had plenty of staff around to enjoy the show!
You’ve also performed for Sofar Sounds here in London, how was it performing to an audience who didn’t know who you were?
I’ve performed at 4 Sofar Sounds events now and each one has been better than the last. The recorded one was in an incredible venue called Shoreditch Treehouse and it was great performing to some of The Vamps biggest fans. Luckily they seemed to really enjoy what me, IK (guitarist) & Alex De Lacey (keyboard) all did on the night. I always enjoy finding new audiences, especially slightly outside of the hip-hop/rap circles to test myself.
What do you think about the reception UK Hip Hop gets here in the UK?
It’s dead. When I think about what I categorise as “hip-hop”, the specific musical style, so artists like myself, Kojey Radical, Little Simz, Loyle Carner, 4i, Shocka etc. There has been a huge chasm in the UK industry that doesn’t cover, or really cherish, UK hip-hop & R&B. Most artists of this ilk seek international validation before they receive any at home; Jorja Smith & Ella Mai are salient examples of this. The talent is here but the understanding between artist and audience hasn’t been. Not to its potential extent yet. We’ll get there though.
Other sub-genres are doing very well though; Drill has had songs that have charted, Afroswing has been popular for a few years and Grime is seeing another resurgence with fresh faces. Hopefully UK Hip-Hop & R&B will add to the balance very soon.
What does 2019 hold for you?
Hopefully more success and more moments that work as foundation for the future. There’ll be videos, shows, more music but let’s see in what form from here till the end of the year.
And finally, what does success mean to you?
Happiness/freedom as consistently as possible.
Be sure to keep up with Lemzi and all his pursuits on his socials below.