In conversation with the poet Joshua Idehen

Sep 03, 2020
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I first heard Joshua Idehen on a UK electronic dub song by 
LV. I was amazed by the clarity of his voice and the sharp revelatory lyrics. As any new musical discovery, I started to search more discover Idehen as not only a great musician, but a poet, workshop facilitator, and founder of renowned poetry/music magazine Poejazzi.

Joshua Idehen is an artist by definition. He migrates between different genres and musical tempos, keeping his identity and creating a unique atmosphere. From poetry to technology, from frontman to collaborator, Joshua is always on the move. His work has been featured in Qmag, Artsdesk, Fact, Mojo, Clash, Mixmag, DJ Mag, and DIY Mag. Joshua’s CV includes nominations for the Mercury Prize with The Comet Is Coming and Sons of Kemet, and to the Grammy’s with Portugal. The Man.

Our conversation followed the artistical backbone of Joshua, exploring the energies of the projects he is involved in.

| Is jazz music your cup of tea?

The truth is that it is so easy to write to jazz. I think I'm less conscious of myself as a poet when I write to jazz music. Maybe because it is part of the tradition. This sound is freer, chilled out, a lot more space, less hectic.

And maybe because jazz-rap isn't this bigger thing too, and I am not constantly listening to other tunes and comparing myself to other voices. You don't hear me saying to myself Yeah, but you are not Kendrick Lamar, bro! I am just thinking, this is just jazz and I can do my thing.

| I am intrigued by the poem and its video Began in fabric. Is it about the club life, the club itself, or the neighborhood? 

I worked in a bar for ten years. After this, I always observed bars from a different perspective. I have never really been actually part of club life. I took ecstasy for the first time this year and I ended up confessing complete and total adulation for my partner in a way that I've never done. And bless her, she was so calm about it, Yes Josh, it's the drugs. When I came out of it there was a Wow moment - there's been a whole section of clubbing that I never understood.

I was always an outsider before as I don't drink, I just love dancing and that was my attraction. In its own way, it's been a part of my structure, it was my way to view the world.

Nightlife to me means traveling in that special light through the entity of the city. The first song I did about this topic was Northern Line with LV in 2011. In terms of the concept of ‘Began in Fabric’, that was a commission. With Benin City we did a special performance, we turned our second album into a theater performance. The point was doing it as a celebration of Smithfield Market that Fabric is a part of.

Each time I finished clubbing, I went to see if the market has opened up. Fabric was always filled with lots of guys and the metaphor for that is a meat market. Carcasses are going home, spilling out of Fabric like from a coffin, so this is the main influence behind the Last Night album. I had the chance to research Fabric and its history and to really get deep into that concept. It was very cool that we got full access and we filmed a lot of things.
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| What were the highlights of your Benin City project? 

The first one is Shanaz Dorsett joining the band and making us feel more powerful. We all know each other strengths and this is very important in a musical project.

The second highlight is writing the song Faithless, and I remember the process very clearly. It was the first time I properly wrote a song with someone. So, we had a slow tempo, and my bandmate Tom was very positive about it. He said it could work. He asked what influenced me and I played him this Kwaito song. We then made the tempo faster and kept bringing instruments. Tom added the bass to it. It became big and it became our first hit.

I think writing Last Night was great, All Smoke No Fire was just gushing out for me. My favorite tracks are Double or Nothing and Final Form. I clearly remember working with producer Mark Pell of Micachu and the Shapes. We worked with him on our first and second album, and often we would give him the beat and he would improvise over it, maybe change the tempo, throw some of his synths on, and it would come out sounding bigger and fatter so you could feel the full potential of the song. He radically changed the early version of Final Form.

 

Benin City

In terms of gigs, 2013 and 2016 where amazing milestones. The latter was such a blessing because we hit a lot of high points - we got four out of five points in Q Magazine, I got nominated to the Mercury Awards, and it was a year filled with a lot of love and support from people who I looked up to, artists such as Ghostpoet and Portugal.The Man, with whom we ended up touring in 2018. We got to go to and perform at South By Southwest. We performed some sold out shows with the British Council, we went to Spain, and I performed at Kentish Town Forum. A lot of mad things have happened. I released an album on a big label, that I was a very big fan of, Moshi Moshi, who have put out records by Metronomy, Hot Chip, Anna Meredith, and Slow Club. It has been a real joy being part of Benin City.

 

| Your latest single with Benin City has a powerful message. Where does it come from?

Our single Hostfiles was inspired by a lot of things, Black Lives Matter, Windrush, and my own story as a black immigrant, how my family was handed by the police when they first came here, and Grenfell as well. Also, Theresa May, who as secretary-general, once said she wanted to create a hostile environment for immigrants. My lyrics have begun from that Brexit attitude. I was given the space to push this idea to the band and our producer, James Greenwood, really captured the sound and the ferocity of the track. We thought of releasing it as a B-Side because it didn't fit with the soundscapes of what we were doing with the album. But when George Floyd happened and all of that kicked out, we really felt we put out our voices with this song. All of the track's proceeds have gone to the Black Lives Matter UK, These Walls Must Fall, and BFTA collective.
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What are your fondest memories performing?

To be honest, my fondest memories performing were in 2013 and 2018, when the Benin City album came out. We recorded the first Benin City album, Fires in the Park, with Tom Leaper and Theo Buckingham, and we were proud of it. We knew it was really good, and we were doing a whole bunch of gigs. And then we did the song Faithless, which starts with a synth pulse. The moment the drums kick in halfway through the first verse, everyone just went wow! And then once the chorus hit, people lost their shit, and that was the first time that ever happened to me. I had never been into this situation of performing a tune and everything becoming such a real visceral reaction. We came off the stage like What the fuck happenedWhat have we done? After that, we've put Faithless at the end of our setlist, and that has always happened. It’s like the audience knew they had to lose their minds on that last song.

And then, in 2018, we signed to Moshi Moshi Records, and Steven, the label owner, had this crazy idea to put Faithless at the beginning of the set. No, it doesn't make sense, we thought. But we did it, and it had the same effect. Made people react like crazy, and it was brilliant, as it transferred that energy to the rest of the songs. The audience started dancing from the first song and kept on doing it even though the other songs were different. We ended having probably our best year in 2018. If I knew it would have been the last year like that, I would have probably have cherished the moment a lot more.

Performing online doesn't match up. You can't get the same energy. Performing in front of people is why I do 50% of the work I do. It sucks that we don't have the space to do our work and art.
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| How do you cope with social media?

That seems like a big question. I know social media is not an educational instrument. I think the internet is one and provides the opportunity for that, but I have a love-hate relationship with platforms. I believe this is a reaffirming space if you open it in a certain way. I was already agnostic when I went to Tumblr, and then I started following and engaging in more anti-religious accounts, and they made me more militantly atheist. Social media is designed to recommend you down the path you are already on and make you feel like the center of the universe.

Plus, we don't own these platforms; it sometimes feels like we signed a deal with the devil, and it is all gonna come back to bite us. I agree that there are parts of social media that are good. I feel its ability to connect and communicate is great, but capitalism is evil, and now social media is full of nazis and extreme views. That is shit.

There is a lot of good that's happened, especially in the western worlds, trans activism has blossomed, black twitter. But all in all, I think we should burn it up and start again with something more community based.

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Musically and artistically, you are everywhere. How do you find the energy for all your endeavors?

I am artistically an outsider. I don't really feel like I belong in any genre. So, I appreciate and consume a lot of music and styles, and art. For a long time that was a core part of my identity as a person, whether I was a nerd, geek or artist, whatever. I always find new inspiration in all these very disparate types of art. When they come to me, if I want to create - for example - an R&B song, but I was already playing in a jazz band, that means that I have to start an R&B band (ed. note – he laughs).

As a spoken word artist, my art form allows me to go from jazz to electronic to acoustic.

If I was an R&B singer that would be my genre, but for me it is about versatility. I've done a rock song; I've done indie and house music. In terms of time management I like being busy. I am terrified if I stop working people will no longer call me for working on tunes with them. I am constantly pitching for work and searching for stuff. In the same time I am doing what I want, things are going well for me now, but it is growing to be overwhelming. At the beginning it was a state of play. I had to be doing a lot of work and I guess I got used to be always somewhere, doing something.

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| One of your collaborations I found it aspiring is the one with Shabaka Hutchings, for both The Comet is Coming and Sons of Kemet. How did you start working together?

Shabaka came to the Poetry Cafe where a lot of my collaborations have started. He came down and did a poem. He was the only tall black guy in there. So, as I had an affinity for any tall black guy entering, we talked. I did an abstract piece, and then found out he played the saxophone. And I was like: You play sax, and I could do the poetry! 

We jammed together, and it sounded great. He went on to do Sons of Kemet, The Comet is Coming, and I booked him a few times for my shows, especially the Comet. One time we met randomly at the South Bank, and he gave me a live recording of Sons of Kemet. It blew me away. I texted him: Yo! This is huge! Amazing, this is big, exactly what I think jazz should be. Step by step, we collaborated with both of these projects of his.

We kind of jammed for the Comet Is Coming track, as they did a live performance that was meant to be more organic. They did a demo but wanted me to work with them on it. That ended up on the first EP. Most of the time, after that, he sent me a beat, and I would write on it. They kind of chop and change what I send them and put it out.

Shabaka and Joshua (photo: Worldwide Fm)
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| Your lyrics on Your Queen Is A Reptile are extraordinary! And the video is doing justice to every verse you tell. What is the back story?

I wrote the song after Shabaka sent me a couple of beats and asked if I want to write a song to them. And then, they told me they liked what I've written and that my message gave the album a new set of flavors and asked me to write the liner notes to the album.

We sat down, and he told me what he thought the album was about. I transcribed what he said into poetry. I disputed to his assets, and it came down to those liner notes. That was fed into the album, and it was a beautiful organic process. 

In terms of the recording brief, it was pretty basic. Shabaka said: The album is called Your Queen Is A Reptile, just write whatever. He is a very political person. He has a vast knowledgeable political mind and is quite versed in that. The first two albums already had that energy, so I knew that it wasn't the case of doing something like: 

Two plus two is four / I am a good rapper / And my name is Josh / I might not have money / But my attitude is posh. 

I had to come to the game with my political image and improve the energy of the song.

Big shout out to the director of Your Queen Is A Reptile video, John! He had a real concept around it, and I was grumpy as fuck. At the time, I was going through depression. I did not want to do it. He pressed on but gave me the space to ease my nerves. It came out amazing, so props to him.

I didn't know how powerful that video would come out to be. When I was filming it, I was very nervous even though the director was explaining to me what he was envisioning. My first reaction, when it was finished, was: Oh my God! This is so good. So it is my biggest pride moment in 2018 when we went to the Mercury Prize show, where ‘My Queen Is A Reptile’ 

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| You are contributing to the music universe of The Comet is Coming before Sons of Kemet. How do you balance the energies between the two projects? 

For The Comet Is Coming, except for one track that isn't even out yet, our collaboration is a lot freer, a lot less regimented. Sons of Kemet has a lot of rhythms, a big groove, and whenever I am doing something with them, I am quite aware of myself as a poet. I can sense I flow on the tracks. The Comet Is Coming is like soundscapes, the saxophone is doing his own thing, it has been a lot more exciting in a sense. We are feeding off each other, and we are having a conversation. They have provided me with a different kind of space. They allow me to be one with the rhythm and engage.

I do not have to tailor it with Sons of Kemet, but with the Comet it is about awareness. I hear myself a lot more, and they have that massive bass sound that I love. I adore synths in general, and they take me back to my dad's video store in the eighties. My dad loved the eighties films, he had a lot of retro wave records with synth music soundtracks, and I can hear those arpeggios since my childhood. They are in my system, especially that bass sound.

 So, yes, the energies are very different in Shabaka's projects. The Comet is Coming have a very political, but apocalyptic energy to them. I feel the doomsday coming when I listen to some of their songs. And not in a bad way. It is a positive psychedelic apocalypse. I imagine it like a jazz version of when Busta Rhymes used to say There are only five years left/ Only one year left, just like a countdown. With the song Final Days of the Apocalypse, they had that energy, so that was what I connected and came up with.

 

| It seems you have a strong connection with Portugal. The Man. How did your relationship begin?

Portugal. The Man are awesome. They had connected with us before they had their first viral single, and they got our backs since the early days, taking us touring. They also let me feature on their Grammy-nominated album, which is great, having that part of my CV. 

Let's put it this way, they were performing in London, and I had a mentee who I was advising, and he loved them. So, I was like: Can we come down to your show? And then, because they had no support band, I asked them if we can do it with Benin City, and, again, they were cool. 

My god, we are supporting Portugal The Man on their sold-out tour. Big, big things! 

That said a lot. Living in an industry where everything is going through managers and a level of back and forth, you can be close to someone and think of them as mates, but they would never lend you access to that space. I sometimes feel like Yo! I thought we said we'd have each other's backs. I am glad it's working for you.

So, to have people like Portugal. The Man, who never knew you, apart from meeting on so

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