How Rapper Little Simz Uses Guitar to Fight One-Dimensionality
Little Simz, one of the UK’s most fiercely independent rappers, may be more primed for She Spits than She Shreds, but the London native has been playing the guitar and using it to guide her songwriting since she was 17.
Born Simbi Ajikawo, the London native began writing song lyrics when she was just 10 years old as a means to communicate feelings and opinions she was afraid would be judged if she said them out loud. “I don’t know if I like the idea of being closed off all the time, so the easiest way for me to get out my thoughts and feelings was to write about it,” she says. “As I grew older, I started to feel more comfortable in trusting my own opinion, and how I feel about things, and my voice, and just being a bit more vocal with it.”
That confidence has filled a prolific catalogue. She’s put out 10 EPs and mixtapes, and two full-length albums, to-date. Her latest, Stillness in Wonderland, was released just before the close of 2016 and is her second major project from her AGE: 101 Music label, which she is committed to using as a platform for her music and other artistic endeavors, like a short film and comic that came out in conjunction with Wonderland. Her approach with the label is similar to what started her with music in the first place: finding the right expression for herself and unleashing it into the world with conviction. And it has earned her accolades from rappers like Yasiin Bey (fka Mos Def) and Kendrick Lamar.
Over the phone from London, Simz spoke to She Shreds about why, as a rapper, she picked up the guitar, the merits of staying out of the major label system, and what it’s like to meet your idol and not be disappointed.
She Shreds: Alice in Wonderland is the theme of your album, but “stillness” is in such contrast with the story. What does the name Stillness in Wonderland mean to you?
Little Simz: I consider myself a very still person. I wanted to see what happens when you take someone very strange and place them in a wonderland, and that’s basically what that album represents. Wonderland for me is many things. It’s the industry, it’s parts of my mind, it’s my little happy place, it’s a lot of things at once. You get to know the intricacies in the world I’m talking about [and] how it sounds, musically, [with] the live instruments played—there’s a lot going on. And I wanted it to sound quite visual, too.
What was your writing process?
I was writing last [time] I was on the road and recording while I was on tour. I had to sit down and piece everything together. And that’s when I started bringing in people to come play cello and trumpet, and keys, and all these different things just to give it a more personal and realistic touch. These are obviously things that could have been programmed in Audacity, it’s not hard, but I just felt it needed a little real touch because it’s very dreamy, and very ethereal, and very in-the-clouds kind of thing, and I just wanted it to have a real touch.
Does playing the guitar inform your songwriting at all?
I love writing on the guitar. I love being able to just play my favorite songs on the guitar, not even songs of my own, just songs that I like, you know? There’s just something about that instrument that’s so otherworldly but so down to earth, as well. There [are] little things that you can do on guitar that you just can’t do on any other instruments. It’s very unique in its own right, but that is what I think appeals to me. Even the way it looks when someone’s soloing. Just something about that finger movement, knowing that they’ve trained themselves to use their finger muscles. I could never imagine myself being on stage and holding a guitar and rapping, and playing, [but] I’ve done it. It’s given me the confidence to feel like there’s no limit because it’s not an easy instrument to learn, and I’m not saying I’m the best at it. It’s given me the confidence to know I can do more.
Can you tell me a bit about your guitar playing in general though, even though you didn’t do it on the album? When did you start playing guitar?
I may have been about 17. I started in college. The reason I picked it up was because everyone could play more than one instrument, and I remember one time being in a room and everyone was going around and asking everyone what they did and some people were like, “Oh, I play drums” or, “I play clarinet and the saxophone.” Everyone could just play more than one instrument. And when it came to me I was like, “Oh, I rap.” And I will never forget the look one girl gave me. [An] “Oh, is that it?” kind of thing. And just, that look, it just threw me, so I decided to learn the guitar. I didn’t want to be one-dimensional, I didn’t just want to be good at one thing. When you’re around people that are better than you—I just want to push myself to be better.
You’ve said before you want to lead by example, particularly with your own label. With all this attention, why stay independent?
To remain independent is such a big deal because for the longest time, I wanted to be signed. I thought that was the only way it was going to work. But as I’ve started to do more and started to see how this could turn around for me and how I’m progressing on my own, the more I withdrew from the whole getting signed idea. I decided to start something that represents me and what I like. And with my label, it’s not like I necessarily want to sign artists. I don’t know if I really like the idea of that. But I want to take on projects, and I want to work with people and collaborate. There are things I want to do a little differently, just to show that things don’t have to be done in such a traditional way. If I was an artist signed to a label, they’d never let me do that at the stage I’m at.
You’re releasing a four-book comic with this album. Where did the idea for that come from?
The comic book was an idea that was thought of by myself, and my manager [Eddie “Versetti” Smith], and [illustrator] McKay [Felt]. I stepped back from that side of things because I know [comics are] something that my manager’s really into. I didn’t want to be the person that felt like everything had to be about them. I’m okay with allowing people to do their own thing, and I’m here to support it, and I’ll push it, and all of that. So I kind of stepped back from this and allowed my manager to write it, I trusted him. He knew the story, he knew the concept [and] art is open for interpretation. However the album sounded to him, he took that as inspiration and came up with the sickest thing ever, in my opinion. I just wanted this album to feel very visual. With the artwork, it feels like you can envision yourself there [in Wonderland], or you can put the pieces together with how Wonderland would look, and that’s just going off the artwork alone, not even the music. Why not do a comic?
You’re doing a lot more collaborating musically, as well, on the new album. Your first [A Curious Tale of Trials + Person, AGE: 101 Music] had almost no guest features, but you’ve got a few on here, with newer artists like Syd from The Internet and classic grime artists like Ghetts. Why the change?
I think for my first record, I’m happy I kept it super minimal, because I didn’t want to make my album about everyone else that was on it. I just had too much to say, and I didn’t want to draw the attention away from that. I just felt… It’s my first album, I just want to have it all me. This album, because of the theme, I just felt like I need to collaborate with more people in order to really… It definitely wouldn’t sound the same if I didn’t have guest features on this album. And everyone I worked with is my friend too, you know? It’s always nice to work with your friends.
Is there anyone you want to work with or have gotten to work with that you admire?
I’ve always loved Lauryn Hill. I just opened up for her a couple of months ago. I played a few shows with her in the states.
Did you get to meet her?
I’m not going to lie. I was lowkey trying to avoid that, because I just didn’t want to see anything that was going to make me feel like, “Ugh, this is not what I expected,” but actually, it was one of the highlights of my life. She was so cool and so, just open. She had a great aura and energy about her. Before the show, I’d just go in by myself and watch her soundcheck alone, just in the corner, and analyze and take mental notes and see how she communicates. She’s just such a boss.
This feature originally appeared in the twelfth issue of She Shreds, published in November, 2016. Subscribe here and receive your copy of She Shreds’ 12th issue with your subscription.