Just because an artist refuses to fit into the prescribed notions of what a British act sounds like, doesn’t mean our award systems should ignore her.
In 2014, we sat down with a 19 year old Little Simz and asked her where she hoped to be in a few years time. "A mega icon," she replied without missing a beat. "I'm trying to take it to heights that people would probably say is impossible to reach at my age."
Two years later, it's hard to deny that Little Simz is close to achieving this. In the time since her fourth mixtape Blank Canvas was premiered on Jay Z's Life + Times blog, she has garnered over 70k followers on Soundcloud, co-signs from Kendrick Lamar, Mos Def and J.Cole, and a place on Forbes' prestigious 30 Under 30 list. Her debut album, A Curious Tale of Trials + Persons, was like nothing we'd heard from anyone in the UK at the time. It was radical and technically rigorous in its delivery, fusing cold, shattered production with dark, real-talk storytelling – a stark departure from the more upbeat, dance-driven sounds produced by a generation of rappers brought up on UKG and grime. "What can you compare that to?" wrote Sam Wolfson for Noisey, when we named the album one of the best of 2015. "Certainly nothing that's come from the UK in recent memory."
Still, despite all this (and with the exception of last year's AIM), Little Simz is yet to receive a single major award. Not a MOBO, not a Brit Award, not a Mercury Prize, not a BBC Sound Of...Not even a cursory mention at one of our many other corporate masturbation ceremonies. Sure, she's been nominated for a MOBO three years in a row – in 2014 as "best newcomer" and "best hip hop" and in the following years as "best female act" and "best hip hop" – but she's never walked home with the prize, twice being pipped by Ella Eyre, an artist better known for her collabs with Rudimental and DJ Fresh than her own material. In the past, this lack of acknowledgement could be considered an oversight – in the same way Sam Smith winning four MOBOs was an oversight – but recently, the silence surrounding Little Simz name has become deafening.
Before the BBC Sound of 2017 longlist was released earlier this week, previous winner Jack Garrett expressed his hopes on Twitter that Little Simz would finally appear on it. Her reply was vague but to the point: "Unfortunately Jack, they'll never have me on this. It's whatever tbh lol." To the uninitiated, this might sound like just another frustrated artist pointlessly grumbling into the void, but if you take a closer look at her trajectory as an artist, she's right. Her talent is watertight – so what gives?
At times, it can feel like Simz is more appreciated on American soil. Her first foray into the public was thanks to Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar described her as the "illest doing it right now", and she's spent this winter touring with Lauryn Hill and Nas. It makes sense that she gets attention from US rap greats, because her rap style owes a lot to them. Her hard-hitting, narrative-focussed output is far more aligned with the likes of Lauryn Hill, Kendrick Lamar and Eminem – sometimes even Drake – than the grime artists she gets lumped in with. "Oh mind's on overload, hit straight to the face might overdose, this ain't the life I chose, what would you know?" she raps on "Dead Body", a fearless and poetic rumination on depression and homelessness. In the same way To Pimp a Butterfly makes you feel like your lungs are collapsing in on themselves with the weight of a broken world, Little Simz bars do the same thing. Her music is brutal and creative and candid, but apart from her accent, nothing about her sound screams "Britain". Maybe we just don't know what to do with her?
Still, just because an artist refuses to fit into the prescribed notions of what a British act sounds like, doesn't mean our award systems should ignore her. After all, last year's Mercury Prize went to Young Fathers, a Scottish trio who made a point of criss-crossing genres and flitting between styles. Similarly, in the past, the BBC Sound of Poll has bigged up everyone from confessional rapper Loyle Carner to grime newcomer AJ Tracey and Newham's afro-trap saviour J Hus – who are all trailblazers in their own right. It's not as if these lists and ceremonies don't recognise creativity when it smacks them in the face, they just don't seem to recognise Little Simz.
Of course, the difference between Little Simz and the artists I just mentioned is that she's a woman. While men are often celebrated for deviating from the norm and breaking barriers, it often feels like these award shows still recoil from women who do the same thing. Little Simz doesn't fit into any preconceived ideas about how female artists should present themselves; her bars are fired out like weaponry, she refuses to adhere to male-dictated beauty ideals, and she pays no attention whatsoever to gender stereotypes. Nowhere is this clearer than in her clattering track "Persons" where she spits, "Everybody should know that I'm king now, yeah still the person, that's for certain, I deserve it, shit is wavy, watch me surfing, you should know I'm not an earthling, alien in me from birth!" Little Simz isn't dismissed because she's a woman in rap – current support for Lady Leshurr, Stefflon Don and Nadia Rose is enough to bury that notion – but she's nothing like any other female artist out there. Perhaps that's what the industry finds so hard to swallow.
If history has taught us anything, it's that artists from the UK have never needed award systems to thrive or succeed, and Little Simz is no exception. Just take a look at Skepta, who is only now getting the credit he earned over ten years ago. Or Giggs, who has more chance of enrolling at Hogwarts than being asked to buss out "Whippin' Excursion" at the Brits, despite pioneering a whole genre. Or Wiley, who won his first MOBO award in 2013, even though he helped build the foundations of grime a decade prior. In fact, grime and UK rap have a long-established tradition of refusing to rely on recognition from an industry that so stubbornly ignores them. But as Sian Anderson wrote for The Fader, "It's not about whether they [rap and grime artists] should be longing for a relationship with an institution that's never supported them anyway, it's about whether they deserve recognition from said institution." When you listen to Little Simz, who has fine-tuned her prowess as a wordsmith and producer to such a faultless degree, you can't help but think it's about time her dues were paid in full.
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(Lead image via YouTube)