The mixtape is the subtlest of artforms. Whether it’s a cassette hustled on a street corner or a free download from Bandcamp, it has always been the cornerstone of hip hop. And as mainstream rap has begun to fall increasingly under corporate control, it endures as a DIY promotional tool that allows aspiring artists complete creative freedom. The result is often music that demands nothing from the listener but a willingness to hear an artist speaking in their true voice.
London native Simbi Ajikawo – aka Little Simz – understands the power of the mixtape. Before having signed a record deal for her eagerly anticipated debut LP A Curious Tale Of Trials + Persons, she had produced five mixtapes and two EPs – all self-released through Bandcamp – each one a fearsome statement of intent. At just twenty-one years old, she boasts a talent that belies her youth; her impeccable fast flow representing a voice in rap that has the promise to transcend the UK scene and set her on a path to global recognition.
I catch up with her in the residential area of Berlin-Neukölln. When she enters the room her thick black eyeliner is smeared, probably from the nap she took right before I arrived. A soft voice undercuts the confidence of her presence. In a few hours she’ll be performing at Schwuz, a dark underground club filled with a crowd of Berlin hipsters on the hunt for the next big thing; and tonight they won’t leave disappointed.
Still enrolled in school, Simbi studies music technology, recording and mixing all her songs herself. “Everything I’ve done up until now has been independent work,” she says, emblematic of a new generation that’s confidently establishing themselves outside the power structures of big labels. Little Simz is the paragon of unsigned hype. “I’m pretty much a do-it-yourself artist, but my team is my foundation,” she says, attributing her accomplishments not only to her manager, but also her clique of friends from Islington – a creative collective of actors, dancers, models and musicians who call themselves Space Age.
The youngest of four siblings – more if you count the foster children cared for by her Nigerian mother – Simbi takes her rising platform more seriously than most. “I would like for kids to look at me as an example, especially young women, and be like, ‘This girl’s twenty, she comes from a similar background to me.’ I’m just trying to convey different types of messages, you know? Those types of messages are there – it’s just that people haven’t heard them enough.”
But while her message may be universal – “I ain’t gonna lie I been thinking ‘bout my dad lately / Tryna figure out if he knew I was killin it / Would he have been part of my life for the benefits” – her sound is distinctly British, the dark sonic quality of UK grime filling each song with complexity and depth. But in an era where categories feel increasingly meaningless, where does she see herself? “Music is a universal language, so regardless of genre, it boils down to just sound,” she says. “When it comes to that, I want to be as broad as possible.”
In an industry that slaps a label on every artist fresh out the gate, Simbi makes concepts like gender seem redundant. While the Minaj’s and Miley’s of this world flit back and forth between constructed images – twisting controversy this way and that – Little Simz proclaims her position without any self-doubt. In her song ‘Bars Simzson’ she forcefully spits: “I’m a young Steve Jobs / When I get to twenty-one / Imma be handing out jobs / And that ain’t even a lot compared to what I’m really about to do.”
Thanks to a can-do attitude, undisputed talent, and commendable position in a culture otherwise misrepresentative of womanhood, Simbi has been the recipient of serious kudos. She recently received two MOBO award nominations and the endorsement of personal role model Jay Z, who released her mixtape Black Canvas through his homepage Life + Times.
Born in 1994 – in the creative fires of hip hop’s prime – Simbi is young enough to provide the drive and zeal rap requires for an industry packed with competitive noise. “I want to build my score” she says, smiling. “That’s always been my goal from the beginning. It’s bigger than me. I want to contribute to the world and the culture with everything I could possibly give it. But I know that I’ve still got a long way to go.”