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gal-dem in conversation with Allan Kingdom

27 May 2016

Allan Kingdom may not yet be a household name in the world of hip-hop, but you’ll undoubtedly have heard his distinctive voice. He provided the melodic and playful hook on Kanye’s ‘All Day’; has worked with Chronixx, D.R.A.M and Plain Pat; and recently released his second mixtape, Northern Lights, named as an ode to the colourful display visible from his birthplace of Winnipeg.

The Minnesota-based rapper now goes by several monikers which include Peanut Butter Prince, King Kyariga and The Northern Gentleman. We meet on the sunny afternoon after his high-octane gig at Birthdays in Dalston – the second date of his European tour. Lost for words when asked how to describe his experience of the show the night before, he settles on recounting it as a “warm welcome” to London.

At 22, Allan has already secured four mixtapes, two albums and an EP under his belt and his reign is only just getting started. From his early beginnings, Allan recalls playing the saxophone and piano. However, these proved to be a difficult commitment to keep up, when constantly moving around, so he found his voice and computer were the easiest instrument and tools to carry around with him.

Screen Shot 2016-05-27 at 13.13.23Although he was born in Canada, Allan’s parents are of South African and Tanzanian origin. We bond over being first-generation Western-born kids of African descent. “I think because you’re always seeing someone adapt and adjust, you naturally learn how to do the same thing. It gives you a certain sense of mobility and confidence because everyone around you has the same culture but in your household it’s different, you learn how to just be different. It’s a positive thing if you use it for your strength – I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Growing up, Allan’s mother played a range of music, from R&B, to dance music from the Congo by the likes of artists such as Saida Koroli, South African Choirs, and a whole heap of gospel music. His own early inspirations include Pharrell, Outkast, Lupe Fiasco and Kudi’s early material. “You can always learn why or what or how this worked, music is an ever-growing experience. There’s always so much to learn.”

Despite toeing the line of first-generation Canadian-born and African roots balancing act, Allan never had what many in the arts may know as “The Conversation” about how music was going to be his main hustle. He just did it. “Of course, there was a resistance about it. For most foreigners, music can be seen as a ‘way out’ – the only way out in some cases. They leave whatever situation back home in search of better education and job opportunity.” So, for this reason, he knew there was no conversation to be had – he’d either have to show them, or not do it at all.

Screen Shot 2016-05-27 at 14.04.24I ask him what it’s like being a hip-hop act from a flyover city. “It’s cold. Literally and metaphorically.” The music world is a small world so word spreads quickly but, if you’re not in a predominant market, there’s no reason for the industry to support you. “If it doesn’t benefit them to support you directly, then they won’t. Being from a city like that you really see that. At the same time it’s a great tool to see who really is with you and who isn’t.”

We wrap up by talking about the Brits performance last year and that pivotal moment in UK history for grime and hip-hop to take centre stage and control. It was the tipping point and ‘All Day’ certainly signified what had been happening in grime subculture for the past ten years. Everything had been bubbling below visible surface level and exploded in the form of Kanye and Allan Kingdom performing ‘All Day’ with Boy Better Know, Stormzy, Krept and Konan, Novelist, any many more key grime players in black tracksuits, holding giant flamethrowers on stage at the Brit Awards. He tells me the experience was very fast. It happened the right way, but it wasn’t pre-planned.

“It’s interesting how much of a space artists fill. It’s raw. It’s one of the only things that isn’t an organised institution with one goal of coercing you into one thing but it’s just as powerful.” Grime and hip-hop music have historically had strong tension with the police, venues and mainstream festival line-ups. It’s taken a long time to get to the point where grime is just about being recognised as a legitimate genre and representation of young, black, working-class inner-city subculture. “One of the only thing that police are threatened by. Because how do you box in a person or an idea that spreads?”

Preparation for the performance came together very quickly. “The BBK guys came with a click of a button. Just to be a part of something greater. They walked into the stadium past security. I almost wish there was a video of all of these guys getting ready. Getting on the train together, and rushing the stadium. There was no alert that they were coming. The Brit Awards were happening – think about the level of security that was surrounding the venue – nobody opened the door for them. So that’s the level and type of energy we’re talking about before the show even started. It’s like, yo, if nobody looks to us anyway. Now this is our time to show the world what we’ve been doing and how we feel. And I think everyone felt that. It was a very special moment we all shared.” 

“For me, hearing what kids and people out here said about that performance made it even more special to me. To hear the radio, and the news talking about it [exhales] – I wasn’t even thinking about it in that concept. It was empowering for young black people, for black people in general. I feel honoured to be a part of it.”

Allan is really excited to work on new music. He recently returned from Jamaica, where he was filming the video for ‘Fables’ which features reggae artist Chronixx.

Download Allan Kingdom’s latest mixtape, Northern Lights directly from his website here.