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Rap isn’t about weed and lipstick

Posted By:  on  February 23, 2019

Rap isn’t about weed and lipstick

Funmi Ohiosumah is doubled over laughing, looking at a shot of the red leather high-heeled boots it was suggested she wear for a recent photoshoot. “Oh my days!” blurts the south London-based, Lagos-born MC in her neat black tracksuit and trainers. “I wish I took a picture of the dress, too. It was not me. I said to the stylist: ‘Have you seen my Instagram?! Girl, I am not wearing those!’”

Ohiosumah christened herself
Flohio as a teenager, searching for both the perfect MSN handle and a name for her musical project. A decade later, that project is fully in the ascendant. With nods in the BBC’s Sound Of … poll and NME 100 following a string of hard-hitting releases – from 2016’s head-knocking SE16 to last year’s powerhouse Wild Yout EP – as well as props from famous fan Naomi Campbell in the pages of Vogue , 2018 was the most hectic of her 26 years so far. In the run up to her Wireless festival set in July, things are only going to get more intense, but she’s ready to take it on with a dark-edged approach that’s seen her heralded as a “gothic rap queen”.

Heavy, bleak electronics form the foundations of her brutalist sound, which is confrontational in a way that female MCs rarely dare to be. Last year’s Wealth highlights her doomy bars, as she spits: “Put my life on the line ’cos I told myself I’ma do this shit ’til I’m dead,” over glitchy beats provided by Berlin’s Modeselektor.

“Rap isn’t meant to be too happy; there’s meant to be grit in there,” she explains. “It’s not about weed and lipstick. You’ve got to have that punk in there. It’s got to be radical. You’re here to make a statement.”
That is something she does flawlessly on her unofficial theme song, Bands, a fast sprint through her commitment to keeping things real that takes in everything from smashing glass ceilings to the victims of Grenfell .

It’s a statement she might never have got to make, however, were it not for the support provided by her local youth centre in Bermondsey, which she discovered after packing in after-school football sessions at Peckham’s Damilola Taylor Centre. “I was an active kid,” she says of her need to keep herself busy. “I didn’t have a PlayStation. My fun was outside the house.”
Around 80 youth centres have closed in London since 2011, with £39m taken from council youth services over the same period, but, luckily, Flo’s local centre was thriving. There was a climbing wall, an art room, trampolines and, most importantly for her, a recording studio.

At 12 she became obsessed with the rapper Eve’s U, Me & She, listening to it on repeat. When she saw the studio, everything clicked into place. “This is what I wanna do!” she remembers thinking, but it took time for the shy tomboy to build up the courage to get stuck in.
“I wouldn’t just get on the mic and start freestyling,” she says. “For the first two years I was just watching the other kids until I knew what I was doing.” With encouragement from youth workers who saw her potential, Flo finally started rapping. “It was baby rhymes,” she says when talking about her early work, a rare flash of her old shyness creeping into our conversation. “Stuff about spaceships and aliens. I was just imitating Lil Wayne .” It’s unlikely we’ll ever get to hear Flo’s formative flows. “Those tapes are hidden away!” she laughs. Years later, she can’t stress the importance of the youth centre enough.

“I know what it did for me, so it’s nice to see it open still.” How does think she would have felt if she didn’t have it in her life? “I literally asked myself this question two days ago! I know everybody tries to say it’s not where you are, it’s how hard you work, but, no, if I never went to that youth club … ” She shakes her head. “I go around different areas and I see there’s one little park and not much going on. What’s there for the youth?”

It was through another scheme – the now maligned Kids Company – that Flo landed a mentor who helped her score a job almost as impressive as that of a professional MC: working as a part-time graphic designer at Ninja Tune, the independent record label that’s home to Young Fathers and Peggy Gou.

“I signed up to so much stuff,” she says, picking up my Dictaphone mock-seriously and directly addressing the young people of the UK: “If you’re 25 and under, there’s so much opportunity for you. So don’t just be on your phones. Use what’s around you. Use the internet to find out how active you can be in your community and get involved. The resources are there.”

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