Interview “Being shortlisted came as such a surprise” - Kojey Radical talks ‘Reason To Smile’

Ahead of the 2022 Mercury Prize with FREE NOW, we spoke to the multi-hyphenate to reflect on his career-defining album.

From busking in Boxpark to setting up his own pop-up store in the very same East London spot and now covering BBC 1 Xtra slots, Kojey Radical is nearly impossible to miss. If you haven’t come across him already, you won’t be able to avoid his infectious sound for long. His debut record ‘Reason To Smile’ followed a slew of genre-bending EPs that formed fault lines in an established scene, pulling influence from nu-soul, R&B, pop and grime to create a seamless coup de grâce that he takes on tour at the end of this year.

Having recently been shortlisted for the 2022 Mercury Prize with FREE NOW alongside close friend Little Simz and the likes of Harry Styles and Sam Fender, we catch up with the multi-hyphenate to reflect on his career-defining album and the impact the Mercury Prize has had on him throughout his career.

Congrats on being shortlisted! You recently shared on Twitter about touring with Young Fathers back in the 2015 when they had won, before seeing Skepta win it in 2016. How does it feel to be in their shoes?

It feels great. I think I spent a long time not knowing how it felt, because it came as such a surprise. When it’s something you’ve wanted for a long time, it’s always in the back of your mind, but you never expect to to actually see it. It’s a ‘one day’ thing, and then one day comes and you’re like, ‘Whoa, was I ready for the day?’. I think it’s been lovely to be able to celebrate that shortlisting with everybody that’s been involved in the album who gave their heart and their soul to the record.

It’s magical that you have that shared joy. When did you first become familiar with the Mercury Prize?

I didn’t actually know anybody that had won it, because there’s only X amount of times where it makes a real splash in different cultures of music. I think a lot of people, especially within that hip hop, R&B and UK rap scene, wouldn’t necessarily know about the Mercury Prize until somebody like Skepta wins it or until somebody like Dizzee [Rascal] wins it. Being asked to tour with Young Fathers just after they won it was a life changing experience, because it didn’t change them.

They still had all the time for me, and they offered advice to me. Their vision has driven my approach to my career. Their whole sense was, everything’s pop music as long as it’s popular. So you don’t have to conform to what pop music is, or what that sound is in order to be a dominant sound in the country. You just have to be popular. And you don’t have to do anything other than be yourself to be popular. If the music’s good enough, then it’s going to reach different audiences. It’s going to connect with different people.

It’s been about four months since ‘Reason To Smile’ came out - have you been able to reflect on that the impact that it’s had so far?

I think for anybody that’s been following my journey, the anticipation behind what the album was going to sound like was quite high, and it came with a lot of pressure. So much pressure that maybe when it came out, I couldn’t necessarily see the effects of how it connected with people. For me, I get a large part of that from performing live. So being able to get out there and do the festival run, stand in front of crowds and see what they’re singing along to and what they vibe with completes the process for me. I think a lot of writers are waiting for that, that shift where music just becomes ‘new music out that’s good’ to ‘music that’s really connected and stayed with people’.

So you feel like this record allowed you to make that shift?

I think the shift was always there. I think [‘Reason To Smile’] allowed me to see it. Because the pandemic happened, making the album was a very isolated process, and it’s come out just as the world has opened up again. So just as we’re all starting to reconnect, see each other and feel music again, the music is now starting to be a part of that — that transition and that time.

“For anybody that’s been following my journey, the anticipation behind what the album was going to sound like was quite high.”

Were there any surprising reactions that you had, in terms of like certain people listening to it? Or places you wouldn’t expect it to be heard?

Yeah, the most surprising thing honestly, is the Mercury Prize [judges]. That’s the most shocking thing. For it to be heard, recognised and then put up for celebration is a shocking thing for me because I’m very much used to that not happening. I’m very used to being like ‘Oh, I hope that happens or that would be nice if that happens’ but not actually receiving it. So I think the most surprising was was genuinely that.

Your contemporary and friends Little Simz was nominated also.

[Without her album] I don’t think I would’ve went as hard. The album came out and I was like ‘Oh, this is what we’re doing? Okay, cool. Standard set - I see the bar and I’m gonna reach it.’ Do you know what I’m saying? So for me, on a personal one, I don’t think I could have made ‘Reason To Smile’ as good as I did if Simbi didn’t drop an album as good as she did. I’ve known Simz since she was 11. For our music to be celebrated at the same time is a big thing for me — I’d love to see her win.

Going back to the album a little more - on reflection, how did your mum feel about her prominent feature on the record?

I think if there was a word better than proud, I would use it. But I feel like that’s the best description I think for her. There’s an element of pride when any of her children do something positive, make waves and build cement blocks for their future, you know? And to a certain degree, mine probably came with the most risk. There was definitely the most risk in the path that I chose in comparison to my siblings. I get it because I’m a parent now. You just quietly want your children to win. Even if you don’t get it - even if you don’t really understand what it is that they’re into or what they’re trying to do - you just want them to win. She’s gassed man, she’s got her outfit prepared for the Mercury Prize already. She’s like got her hair done.

You start the record, with the phrase, ‘So what do we do next?’ Can you answer that question from the perspective of future Kojey?

It’s a question that’s plagued me my whole life. ‘What do we do next? What is this? What is next for any of us?’ And nine times out of 10 we don’t know. We have to embark on a journey, you just have to begin. Even if you don’t know where you’re going. Even if you don’t know what you’re doing. You just have to begin. And and that’s that’s been the driving force behind how I approached ‘Cashmere Tears’ and ‘Reason To Smile’ - I don’t know where we’re gonna end up, but we’re leaving.

That’s beautiful. So, last question, do you know what track you’re playing at the 2022 Mercury Prize with FREE NOW? Are you allowed to say?

I know, I know. It’s one of the singles. I think it’s one of those records that allows us to do something truly memorable and truly special, that totally encompasses the theme of the album - it’s a closing sentiment and It means a lot. They asked me what songs do I want to do and I said, ‘Pusha Man’ and the song that they picked. Then they came back and picked the same thing. It’s gonna be a good one.

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