The Rise And Rise Of Little Simz

'I've been loyal to music. I've always believed it was going to happen for me'

Little Simz

by Ashley 'Dotty' Charles |
Updated on

If you haven’t heard of Little Simz until now, that’s partly by design. Born and raised in a Nigerian household North of the Thames, rapper and actor Simbi Ajikawo, 27, has spent most of her career resisting the mainstream. ‘People catch on when they catch on and that’s fine, whatever time in the journey you get locked on to Simz, you were just meant to get locked on in that specific time,’ she says over the phone during an interrupted studio session.

In a time when most artists are judged by numbers, Simz says she has long held herself to a different metric. ‘She was definitely very ambitious, very curious, very driven and always believed she was put here for a purpose,’ she says of her younger self. The 10-year tale of Little Simz is one of commitment and endurance. A decade defined by patience and perseverance.

‘I’m a loyal person in every sense of the word. I’ve been loyal to music, I’ve never given up on it, I’ve seen it through because I’ve always believed it was going to happen for me. And I’ve always known that it’s bigger than me. I know my story is going to help someone. I think that’s also given me drive and motivation.’

And it is a purpose she has been steadfast in keeping sight of since the release of her debut mixtape Stratosphere in 2010. It was an uncertain time for homegrown rap music back then, with the music industry in a post-CD-pre-streaming state of bedlam and major labels still flummoxed by anything that didn’t sound like a Tinie Tempah knock-off. But it was from this drum’n’bass-riddled abyss that Little Simz’s star emerged, with an authenticity and self-assurance she still carries in abundance.

A slew of projects followed her debut, including the critically acclaimed album A Curious Tale Of Trials + Persons in 2015 and the Ivor Novello award-winning Grey Area in 2019. Each release brought with it hordes of new supporters (including celebrity fans Kendrick Lamar and Andre 3000) and with that the obligatory queue of label executives vying to mould Little Simz into something conventionally marketable.

‘Anyone with that kind of talk, I’d sniff it out and know which way I’m walking,’ she says with aplomb. So it comes as no surprise that she has resisted the heavy-handed advances of the majors to go it alone as an independent artist under her own label, Age 101.

'I’m a loyal person in every sense of the word. I’ve been loyal to music, I’ve never given up on it'

Her self-reliance is unmistakable; she is steering her own sound, style and schedule with a tight-knit team of like-minded collaborators. It is this independence of thought and function that continues to typify Simz’s career. ‘I don’t feel like I need to do what everyone else is doing, it doesn’t interest me. I like to do things my way,’ she tells me. ‘I trust my taste and I trust myself. And I have a really great foundation of support from people who like that about me and who appreciate that.’

Her creative drive extends beyond music, whether that means taking on the role of Shelley in Netflix series Top Boy or self-directing the music video for her own single, Woman. She is no stranger to best-dressed lists either, with a fluid fashion sense that is as at home in Bottega Veneta and tailored Gucci as it is in loose-fit tracksuits. ‘I like to feel like myself – it gives me confidence,’ she tells me of her approach to getting dressed. ‘It’s just another form of me expressing myself.’

'My life is great, but I don’t think it’s that interesting where I need to show every facet of it'

She radiates with an ambition that sees her seamlessly moving between the three worlds of fashion, music and film. ‘I’d love an action role that requires a lot of physicality, where I’d need to be training six months beforehand,’ she says excitedly when asked about her dream acting part. But it’s her latest album, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, a clever acronym of her real name, that is proving to be her greatest triumph. ‘I’m starting to see the recognition and it’s great,’ she says of the mainstream acceptance that saw her latest album land at number three in the UK charts.

There is no doubt that the album is Little Simz’s commercial breakthrough.

A project that has taken her from cult curiosity to fan favourite. An album that manages to be at once both vividly cinematic and profoundly intimate, drawing back the curtain on a world the rapper has, until now, kept private. ‘I’m not someone who likes to overshare,’ she admits. ‘My life is great, but I don’t think it’s that interesting where I need to show every facet of it.’ It’s a trait that has afforded Little Simz a captivating mystique. ‘I just do what I do,’ she says,

‘it just so happens that it’s taken as she’s a bit left, or an outsider.’

Sometimes I Might Be Introvert ventures into vulnerable territory, reading like a series of diary entries as Simz navigates anxiety and frustration on her biggest ever stage. ‘It’s always been through my art,’ she concedes when I ask if music has taken the place of real-world coping mechanisms.

‘I think that’s the best way for me to really speak my truth with no filter and feel like I have the space to be as honest and as raw as possible, so yeah, any emotion, whether that’s anger, frustration or even joy. I always want to use my music to express myself in that way.’

It’s easy to assume that the introspective Simz is at home in her own skin, but what does she actually see when she looks in the mirror? ‘I see myself but in every sense of the word. I-see-myself.’ She tells me, ‘When I’m tired, I can look in the mirror and see I’m tired, you know what I’m saying? When I’m feeling in a good place, I can acknowledge that I’m in a good place. That’s one thing I’m really grateful for. I can see myself through it all.’

Leaving a lasting legacy seems to be her greatest motivation. ‘It’ll be nice to be remembered as someone who cared about people, someone who was focused, who didn’t take her eye off the ball. Someone who came from a council estate and made something incredible happen that was bigger than herself.’

Little Simz, the once esoteric outsider of British hip-hop, is now in full bloom.

A living, breathing testament to the old adage that the quietest people have the loudest minds.

Main image: Dress, price on request, Bradley Sharpe; earrings, £10,300, ring, £3,750, and bracelet, £7,750, all Cartier.

Fashion: Molly Haylor. Hair: Chantelle Fuller Make-up Nibras using Charlotte Tilbury. Nails: Michelle Class at LMC Worldwide using Sally Hansen. Production: Jessica Harrison. Fashion assistant: Remy Farrell. Photographer’s assistants: Charlotte Ellis, Rami Hassen and Destinie Paige

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