Kojey Radical on life, music, and Michaela Coel's creative gift

Kojey is Radical | Soho House

Ahead of his Shoreditch House performance this month and incredible debut album, ‘Reason To Smile’, the Hoxton MC has hope for a brighter future

Tuesday 1 March 2022    Interview by Andy Morris    Photography by Danny Kasirye    Video by Family Creative    Styling by Toni-Blaze Ibekwe    Grooming by Rita Osei-Kusi

‘Polymath’. ‘Multi-hyphenate’. ‘Renaissance man’. Critics have been so quick to show Kwadwo Adu Genfi Amponsah’s versatility that they’ve overlooked the fact that the 29-year-old Londoner can go bar for bar with the best of them. He may have been many things in the past – artist, creative director, dancer, designer, illustrator, model, poet – but when it comes down to it, the MC who’s now known as Kojey Radical is a truly exceptional rapper.

After three acclaimed EPs, his debut album, Reason To Smile, finally arrives this week through Asylum and Atlantic Records. It’s an unqualified triumph. In many ways, Amponsah has been preparing for this moment his entire life: he started his own creative collective, PushCrayons, when he was at school in east London. And he still has the same team around him, including his sister as co-manager and a series of lifelong friends, both musical and otherwise, who act as unofficial sounding boards and stringent quality control.

Unlike his recent shoot at 180 House, today Amponsah is staying incognito. ‘Keep it mad simple,’ he says, by way of explanation regarding his Vetements tracksuit, Mastermind hoodie, and Kimeze shades. When we speak, he’s preparing for Milan Fashion Week, flying out to support Korean-American designer, Yoon Ahn – the brainchild behind streetwear brand, Ambush. Amponsah’s description of his front-row outfit? ‘Black-owned,’ he says with a smile, shouting out British-Nigerian menswear designer, Tokyo James. The look, for today at least, is simple: ‘Luxury. Black’.

Kojey is Radical | Soho House

Kojey is Radical | Soho House
Kojey is Radical | Soho House

Top: suit and shirt, both Alexander McQueen; boots, Kurt Geiger. Above: shirt and trousers, both Gravalot; shoes, Vagabond. 

The artist cites a lyric from the title track of his new album as particularly representative of his state of mind right now: ‘I felt ten pounds lighter when I let go of my fears’, and didn’t set out with a particular narrative in mind to shape the LP, but a sense of optimistic defiance is threaded through it. ‘Finding that reason to smile involves having to let go of the fear of finding it,’ he explains. Amponsah is keen to discuss the album itself as a body of work, something that matches the grandness of those he admires; artists such as André 3000, Prince, Kano, and Ghetts. ‘If you are going to fail, fail while you are trying. If you don’t try, then you’ve failed,’ he says.

Reason To Smile was recorded at Angelic Studio in Brackley, Northamptonshire, less than an hour’s drive from both Soho Farmhouse and Mollie’s. ‘Escaping the city in general just allows me to lock into the music,’ says Amponsah. ‘We’re not exposed to anything. We don’t have the radio, we don’t have TV, we only have what we choose to play. And then outside of that we’ve got fresh air. I think sometimes when you’re thinking about stuff so much, just taking a walk in a new environment can change everything.’

Kojey is Radical | Soho House

'Now everybody's just embracing culture, and that's the most important thing. Everybody just embraces where they're from and enjoys that'

The album was co-created with a team of producers, predominantly from London (KZ, Swindle, Jay Prince, iO, Cadenza, 169) with the occasional beat from further afield (Ric & Thadeus, best known for their work with Juice WRLD and Bad Bunny). Over lockdown, Amponsah also learnt rudimentary production techniques, but despite his best efforts he didn’t manage to learn the piano (he watched Dave’s performance at The Brits of ‘In The Fire’ with awe). He also looked to some classic records to set the standard, including a lot of George Clinton’s Parliament. ‘When you look back at that whole period of time, Clinton had a stronghold on what fashion was, what influence was. And it was Black music to its core, through and through. It was dope just to see the celebration of that within the music.’ 

Guests on the album include British favourites (Wretch 32), rising neo-soul stars (Shaé Universe), and American imports (shortly before recording her vocals, Kelis invited him to her farm in Southern California wine country). The album also features Amponsah’s mother, Janet, who recounts her experience raising a young poet on various tracks. The album ends with ‘Gangsta’, a song paying tribute to her courage. ‘Originally, I was going to write a song called “Father” about, I guess, the relationship that me and my dad had. But I was struggling to write. I think I was trying to pluck from experiences that didn’t really exist. And then I heard the chords for ‘Gangsta’ and the song wrote itself. My mum has always been a presence in my life – I didn’t have to think too hard about what I wanted to say about her.’

Kojey is Radical | Soho House

Shirt and trousers, both Erdem; vest, stylist's own

Kojey is Radical | Soho House

Raised in Hoxton in east London, Amponsah’s musical education came from his brother, Micky Kwartz, a local DJ. At times, however, the curriculum could be a bit one note. ‘I do remember a big Ruff Ryders saga: you would hear the “Anthem” and then it could be Ruff Ryders for the next three hours.’ But it was being a visual artist not a DMX-esque rapper that Amponsah originally gravitated towards (he didn’t respond well to school, bar an appearance by spoken word poet, Suli Breaks). He was interested in comic book artists who he admired. 

‘There was one in particular called LeSean Thomas, who was a big inspiration to me. I like seeing Black artists quite heavily involved in Japanese studio houses. Stuff like that was incredible for me. He did a lot of storyboarding for The Boondocks, which is probably one of the greatest animations we’ve had in the last decade.’ Amponsah’s own commitment and artistic flair (and his course tutor Daniela Hatfield) helped him achieve a First at London College of Fashion, before he jacked it all in and moved into music.

Kojey is Radical | Soho House

Suit and shirt, both Alexander McQueen

One of his most formative experiences came in 2015, when he supported outspoken Scottish hip-hop trio, Young Fathers, on tour. It was something of a baptism of fire. ‘What was the most memorable experience? Being broke. Having to travel on trains and find booking.com deals to have somewhere to stay. Getting parred off by engineers that just think you’re some random little kid for somebody. In my mind I was thinking, “I’m going on tour. I’m going to be the biggest thing ever.” But nah, small fish. Promoters not paying you. Stuff you got to learn the hard way.’ He appreciates the support for the headliners, however. ‘Young Fathers were incredible. They were the ones coming to my rescue most nights. I mean, they even cut some of their pay to make sure I got paid. They were sound as f**k.’

Another important figure in his backstory came when he enlisted Chewing Gum’s Michaela Coel on ‘Super Human’ for his second release. ‘We grew up in practically the same area,’ says Amponsah. ‘I think the biggest thing to admire about Michaela is that she’s just not afraid to sacrifice opportunity for the bigger picture. I think that’s one of the bravest things you can do. Especially as a Black woman in this industry, where you’re sure your experiences are going to be limited anyway. She creates for herself and believes in herself. You can’t teach that.’

It’s clear that now is the perfect time for Amponsah to release his full-length album to the world, not least because he experienced the mind-altering shift of becoming a father. ‘I think it has given it a little bit more purpose. I do think sometimes when my son looks back at my work, what’s he going to think? Is it going to inspire him?’ Early exposure to his father’s music seems to be going well. ‘Every time I put on “Payback”, he starts dancing. Really fun to see.’

Kojey is Radical | Soho House

Shirt and trousers, both Danshan; jumper, stylist's own

Kojey is Radical | Soho House

Amponsah is not one to be easily categorised. When certain labels are rejected – ‘Black British’ is one he has previously said he is not comfortable with – others are embraced. He’s enjoying seeing how African culture has become increasingly sought after in Western pop culture. ‘African from birth, I think,’ he says. ‘There’s always a period of time where I guess there’s a dominant power. I remember when I was in school, people wanted to be Caribbean. Now everybody’s just embracing culture, and that’s the most important thing. Everyone just embraces where they’re from and enjoys that.’  

Asked about what allies can do, Amponsah is pragmatic. ‘Now, we are exposed to the fact that all of us, every single person on this planet, has a touch of manmade ignorance. What can you do?  Intention is the bottom line: if a person means well, and has the capacity to want to learn and be an ally. I grew up around everybody. The estate is the estate. It’s all the same thing: Asian kids, Black kids, white kids, Chinese kids. It doesn’t matter, everyone was the same level of working class.’

Kojey is Radical | Soho House

Jacket, Noémie Wilson; shirt and trousers, both Danshan; ring, Willa Hilfreich

Kojey is Radical | Soho House

As his career has progressed, certain misconceptions have been made about Amponsah himself. ‘I think people assume I’m a lot more serious in real life. I love to laugh and joke, and chill. I’m just on bants really. But I want my music to come with a message. People might never get a chance to know my personality, but my music will keep existing, even after I’ve gone. I still want it to make a difference.’ He remembers rejecting the idea of becoming a ‘mysterious don’ on social media to generate intrigue about his music. ‘Long story short, it was dry. I felt like I was faking it. It was boring. I know who I am and I want to be able to show who I am. I felt like I was faking being mysterious for an aesthetic, and that is not who I am.’

Amponsah is, in so many ways, more open than most. When asked about Soho House, he says the ‘accessibility’ is one of the elements that attracted him. He’s a committed fan of many aspects, though. ‘I remember that there’s always a bit of you, especially when you’re coming up, you’ll meet people who will just say, “We’re going to Shoreditch House.” And you don’t have a membership so you’re like, “Oh no.”’ He delivers his conclusion with relish. ‘But then you get one. And you think, “I’m cool now.”’ He beams. ‘I enjoy being cool now'.

Reason To Smile by Kojey Radical is out on 4 March (Asylum and Atlantic Records). He plays at Shoreditch House on 24 March. 


Read more

Soho Rising: Lola Young, the 21-year-old singer catching the ears of the industry
Meet Ambika Nayak, Mumbai’s rising soul star
Soho Rising: Joy Crookes, the BRIT nominee making waves

Interested in becoming a member?