The Birmingham MC has slayed 2015 with her "Queen's Speech" series, but in her rise to fame she's had to knock down the music industry's many invisible barriers.
This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.
What comes into your head when you read the words "Queen's Speech"? An old lady in opulent cosplay rocking up to parliament in a horse drawn cart after every election to read, in a passionless monotone, a list of political promises that will all be eventually broken?
In less than 12 months, one Birmingham MC has turned those two words—with all their mundane, archaic, and pompous connotations—into two of the most exciting words in UK rap. Because every time we saw "Queen's Speech" in 2015, it meant Lady Leshurr had dropped a new episode of her flaming freestyle series. Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4 zipped and ripped from funny to offensive to straight-up inspiring; one minute concerned with your personal hygiene ("Brush your teeth!"), the next unloading her takes on the world around her: "I've got a dark skin friend that looks like Rachel Dolezal / And I've got a light skin friend that looks like Rachel Dolezal." Each freestyle came with a one take video on YouTube, racking up almost 15 million views across the four tracks.
All this shouldn't be a shock, but the truth is that while UK rap and grime have a bigger global audience than ever before—nearly every artist that's doing well these days is a man from London. In UK urban music, an artist with a non-London accent is still viewed by the mainstream like some sort of niche and acquired taste (see: Bugzy Malone). That's why Leshurr's story, of becoming a successful female rapper with a strong regional identity, has a lot to teach us.
Being a musician with a Brummy brogue coming through in 2009 was enough of a bitter pill for the wider world to swallow, but, in Leshurr's words: "Being black is another thing altogether. Especially a black female, so add that to being from outside of London, and I tick all the boxes! But I'm breaking those barriers."
The UK rap scene she was naturally drawn to was, and still is, one of the music industry's most male-dominated, despite the early groundwork put in by artists like Miss Dynamite, Shystie and more. "We don't get classed as just 'rappers', we get classed as 'female rappers' - like you're good for a girl." The message, she says, is that, "you shouldn't be doing this, you should be in the kitchen washing dishes."
Leshurr got her break in the Birmingham crime film 1 Day. The cult popularity of the film, which featured no professional actors and conveyed a hard-hitting story of street gang warfare, preceded her own fame. Wiley, Ghetts, Kano and more had all been tweeting positively about it on release, and when she started coming down to London for music—to do freestyles on Tim Westwood TV or SBTV—she stood out. "People recognised me, like 'Oh that's that girl from that film!'," laughs Leshurr. "I guess [the accent] is like a breath of fresh air sometimes. There's no other female rapper anyway that I know from Birmingham, so it's just good to be one of the main ones flying the flag."
It didn't come easy though. Back in 2013, in an interview with The Guardian, Leshurr protested that the industry around her "just doesn't know what to do with women." Record labels were approaching her because she had a buzz about her, but they were still telling her to change her image and her sound. She was even approached from across the pond by Atlantic Records, but only because they wanted her to record a diss track towards Nicki Minaj.
"I realised from then that the industry doesn't actually know what to do with females as far as marketing and getting them out there goes. It felt like their best strategy was to pit females against each other. The media tries to make some imaginary beef happen, and I just hate it. I'm all about female empowerment - I'm a representative in it so I'm never gonna put a female down. I'm never gonna be in beef over silliness."
Nine mixtapes and a year long break later, Leshurr exploded back onto our radar at the beginning of 2015 with those aforementioned "Queen's Speech" freestyles, in which she combines her trademark punchline-style rap with references to memes, frowsy feet, career ambitions, and laser quest. She tells me she stopped even listening to music when she disappeared, and upon re-entering the musical world felt it had lost its fun side. If she wanted to come back, she needed to come back with a bang, and set about planning her return as the Queen. "I structured how I wanted everything to be, what I wanted to call it, and it just took off. I think the reason why the buzz is so strong is because no-one's really doing what I'm doing at the moment."
In the last 18 months we've seen Skepta on the cover of Fader, Drake getting his BBK tattoo, Novelist working with Ratking, Stateside success for Krept & Konan, Kanye calling on the scene to play the Brits with him, and much more. But Leshurr isn't pressed about America's opinion of the UK crop. "I feel like we have what we have and we've built it; it's UK, British, it's ours," she explains. "If the Americans wanna look over and see what we're doing and respect it and shout about it then so be it, but I don't think we need a co-sign. We all know it's a great thing, that's why it's lasted so long."
That doesn't mean she doesn't think about breaking America: "Visuals are a big thing for me, having people engaged in what you're saying, what you're doing. And that's very rare in this day and age, as far as music videos go—I don't think people are really pushing it. I wanna change that. I want people to hear what I'm saying. As long as you've got a story I feel like having an accent and being British is a great thing in general, it sets you apart from all the other rappers in America."
With all the talk on the US, our chat turns back to Kanye's now notorious Brits performance, where he called up various names from UK grime and rap to rep the first live performance of "All Day." One question that has bugged me since then, was whether anyone cared that no female artists were invited up there, like Leshurr herself or Little Simz? Or whether the fact there aren't a ton of women in rap or grime to call up is an issue in itself?
"You know what I didn't really think that at the time, but yeah we don't get respected as much as we should. We get swept under the rug a lot, like 'Oh, it's just her', and we don't ever get mentioned with Skepta and people like that. We're still placed in the 'good for a girl' box and it's actually horrible, but that's one of the main things I wanna break next year. I wanna make sure we get named alongside all these established artists in the UK and America."
Leshurr was nominated for a MOBO award about two weeks ago and her genuine excitement and gratitude are palpable when she talks about the nomination: "I used to put things down on a piece of paper, things that I wanted to achieve, and this was one of my main ones last year when I was planning. I was like if I do all these "Queen's Speech" freestyles and make a big enough buzz, I'll get nominated for a MOBO, and it's happened. To be nominated is one thing but to win would just mean—I dunno man, I'd do the nae nae, the butterfly, everything would happen on that stage."
Next year, she will finally release her first studio album. She can't reveal anything feature wise right now, but describes it as a project in which she's incorporating all the stuff she dropped when she was younger, bringing back the acting and dancing elements she first broke through with. I'm told there will be alter-egos - one is a posh upper class woman and another is a broke South Londoner called Leon who "gets no girls" - but most importantly, her album is going to feel "FUN!"
In the last eighteen months, we've seen the effect that the success of a some big names can have in shifting the public taste perspective so it no longer seems unthinkable to see a grime freestyle in the top 20 (Stormzy), or a UK rap duo writing songs with Wiz Khalifa and Jeremih (Krept & Konan). And in the gap that's opened by those flagship successes, we're now seeing names like Novelist in grime and Bonkaz in rap seizing the opportunity to pick up the baton and drive their respective sounds forward.
But if there is anything still lacking, it's the presence of women at that level, despite evidence like the recent documentary Through the Lens of Hip-Hop: UK Women showing that plenty are aspiring. For too long now, British women in rap music have been viewed as an anomaly rather than an inevitability. But here, with the success of Little Simz and the forthcoming debut record from Lady Leshurr, there's hope that a similar space will be prized open and a whole new generation of British women of all ages will be inspired take up the mic and be given the rightful airtime to have a bigger impact on the UK rap narrative.
Until then, we can feast on everything Leshurr has planned next. From the forthcoming "Queen's Speech 5" to a film in early 2016, and a fashion line that includes the 'Queen' crop tops from her videos. But my last question felt like it had to be something a little less serious, after all, she's spent our entire conversation telling me that the current scene has lost its fun. So here's something both myself, and Tom Jones it seems, have wanted to ask her for a while now: how many times a day does the Queen brush her teeth? "Twice: morning and night. I've actually got this special toothpaste called Boca from this guy who gives toothpaste out to celebrities like Kirsten Dunst and Brad Pitt. The stuff inside the night toothpaste makes you sleep good, then the morning one makes you fresh and alert. It actually does work as well!"
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