DDW profiles Kojey Radical as he merges poetry, new media and fashion with U.K. hip-hop on Reason to Smile – the debut album shortlisted for the Mercury Prize 2022.
Kojey Radical is an East London boy on every level. The kind of effortless avantgardism and multi-hyphenate energy Radical exudes was once rampant in the local communities of Shoreditch and Hackey.
Dwindling over the years, Kojey Radical is here to reclaim the idea of an all-encompassing artistic experience with visual art curations, fashion collaborations and a debut album that marries R&B, Grime sensibilities and spoken word. Kojey Radical’s first full-length work Reason to Smile arrived eight years after the release of his first E.P. and boasted 52 minutes of carefully crafted songwriting and production. “This is hard food, not fast food,” the artist wrote on Twitter and Instagram. “And finally the album is served”.
Critical acclaim was instantaneous. The Guardian called Reason to Smile “an era-defining black British work,” while DIY Magazine wrote, “[it’s] not just an album, but a beaming victory lap”. Kojey Radical’s genre-bending artistry soared throughout, and four months later, the Mercury Award for Best Album had Hoxton-native on the shortlist.
“It’s something that I’ve manifested since I was a teen,” Kojey Radical told NME at the launch of the awards. “To be here feels good and lets you know that all that walking wasn’t in vain. Taking the long road was worth it.” A charismatic perfectionist, Radical’s approach to music has always been influenced by his elevated view of art. Whether a brushstroke or a documentary, Kojey Radical is aiming for quality. If that takes days, months or years, Radical is willing to take all the time in the world.
With this space for refinement, Reason to Smile is assured in its influences and a confident step for an artist at the peak of interdisciplinary collaboration. Radical definite approach to lyrics allows listeners to delve deep into syntax, meaning, and diction. “Because my writing process comes from poetry, I scrutinise my lyrics a little more,” Radical told Hypebeast in 2017.
“I’m sitting there going over that one lyric to make sure that it sits in my written discography. I want all my lyrics to be able to read like a book.” This narrative approach to the album as a concept makes Reason to Smile a uniquely cohesive journey, spiralling to diverging thoughts and experiences before landing ultimately at the sense of belonging, identity, and the role of the artist.
Reason to Smile – with its artwork, lyricism, hooks and production – is one segment of the Kojey Radical experience. Live performances, visual experiences, fashions and interviews have become central once more now that the album release has settled and awards seasons and tours commence.
On every social occasion, Radical is sublimely styled. Having studied fashion illustration at the London College of Fashion and worked across menswear design and styling, Radical routinely features in ‘Best Dressed’ lists and self-styled editorials. The wardrobe ranges from Prada and Dunhill to emerging designers, with Ncedo Matomela’s final year collection featuring in the ‘Cashmere Tears’ music video.
His Paul Smith SS23 relaxed evening suit was a highlight on the red carpet at the Mercury shortlist launch. The coordinated all-body pattern merged a sense of contemporary airbrush with elite British formalwear and continued the mint-tinged colour palette established with Radical’s Glastonbury puffer co-ord from Montcler.
The debut album and the subsequent artistic moments have proven to be a long road for Kojey Radical. The emergence of this cultural figure has been ongoing since Radical’s earliest memory. First drawn to sketching and painting, Radical expanded outwards and – on his terms – has continued developing ever since.
Born in pre-gentrification Hoxton to Ghanian parents, Kojey Radical was raised in a tight-knit neighbourhood once revered around the world as an incubator for artistic brilliance. His mother supported his artistry despite the unusual status of such a career path. In London, revolutionary pioneers of British culture lived and worked in Radical’s immediate environment.
Joshua Compston and Alexander McQueen were amongst the local artists, while outdoor markets provided an unrivalled community bond and a breeding ground for collaboration and organic networks. In 1993, when Kojey Radical was born, Joshua Compston organised the quintessential art house street party “A Fete Worse Than Death” in Hoxton Square. Kwadwo Adu Genfi Amponsah, as Kojey Radical was then known, spent the first year of life in an area where young British artists Angus Fairhurst and Damien Hirst paraded down the street dressed as clowns offering everyone spin paintings for a pound.
While art and culture were rife in Hoxton, so was hardship with nearby Tower Hamlets previously recording the highest rates of child poverty in London. Despite the luxury Shoreditch hotels that now populate the landscape, Hoxton in the 1990s and early-2000s offered a sense of home for communities ostracised by middle England.
Old Street’s London Apprentice was the epicentre of a queer culture during the AIDS crisis, while Hoxton’s burgeoning diaspora community allowed newly settled families to influence the London cultural scene. The now-closed Bass Clef was home to an internationally renowned Jazz and Blues scene, one captured forever in the 1998 photograph ‘A Great Day in Hoxton’.
This rich history can still be seen today in the spoken word events of Hoxton Hall, the prevalence of Afrobeats, and now, in the work of Kojey Radical. Speaking to GQ in 2018, Radical said that growing up in East London was “a special kind of battle training” preparing prepared him for life in a way that he can only really be grateful for.
Kojey Radical’s preference for collaboration was only natural considering the community spirit that surrounded him throughout his life. In 2013, he establish his collective, PUSHCRAYONS which he now creatively directs. Through PUSHCRAYONS, Radical commissioned video artworks, exhibitions and accompanying visuals for many of his releases, with longstanding friend @MOSPOPULARHUMAN directing the exquisite short film and music video for ‘WATER (IF ONLY YOU KNEW)’.
Radical’s organic partnerships only add to the authenticity of his public persona. It truly feels that when Radical is winning, you’re winning too. Anyone is welcome in his online “family” (as long as they’re respectful) and can join easily using a Discord server called ‘HOUSE OF RADICALS’.
In line with Radical’s artistic approach to social issues, any form of disrespect or discrimination in the ‘house’ will not be tolerated. Radical’s content is posted and curated alongside a space for members to “share the love, have fun and build the house”. Specified channels allow anyone to post their original tracks, art, poetry, and video, and – as expected from Radical – the server is aesthetically immaculate (right down to the ‘Kojey Crown’ emoji).
Family, whether imagined or traditional, fills the world of Kojey Radical and Reason to Smile. The opening moment of the album is the voice of his mother, heard speaking in her native Ghanian Twi. Later Radical comments that his mother’s voice always felt like home. In a time of global individualism, Radical chooses to stay rooted in the people that share his blood and name.
Moments of hip-hop rivalry and competitiveness come and go, but declarations like “my life good cause my son got his mum’s smile” stay long after the album finishes. There is a contradictory complexity to the entire work that manages to conjure feelings of comfort, disorientation, intimacy and opposition. R&B-tinged nostalgia still feels original, with Kojey’s sincere sentiments feeling large and braggadocious then suddenly searingly personal.
Kwame “KZ” Kwei-Armah Jr. is the collaborator and producer present for the most infectious hooks. The unfettered joy and gratitude of the eponymous opener ‘Reason to Smile’ flows throughout with the relaxed delight of ‘Fubu’ and ‘Anywhere’. Reason to Smile is the kind of album that begs for sunshine and the bespoke luxury of a top-down Porsche, then gym sessions, and quiet nights thinking in bed.
Radical’s all-encompassing artistry and natural social engagement set him apart from his peers. He is unapologetically authentic and states exactly what he means. “I’m going to write and do what I fucking feel like until I die,” Kojey continued in his interview with Hypebeast, “if that involves politics, if that involves humanitarianism, I don’t give a fuck.
I’m going to do what I want to do.” His “book”-like approach to lyrics give every word a sense of gravitas and meaning that could lead to endless bouts of analysis. Reason to Smile is truly an audio-visual-literary project that is continually live and expanding. Whether Reason to Smile lifts the Mercury Prize this September 8th is negligible, Kojey Radical has already won.