Aniefiok Ekpoudom

On books, lyricism, language, telling stories, putting people first, class, UK rap and the Black British experience.

(All images submitted by Aniefiok Ekpoudom)

I last saw Aniefiok Ekpoudom in the summer of 2018. We caught up and chatted about some potential press opportunities over an in-and-out lunch at Nando’s on Kensington High Street. It was brief, but I left feeling like he was on the cusp of something. In the time that’s passed since, he’s become one of the most important young music writers in the country, meshing together a unique, flowing writing style with an innate desire to tell stories. He earns the trusts of his subjects quickly — “a lot of people don’t realise how important researching around an interview is” — and explores and unpicks their thoughts, feelings, emotions in way few others can; he sees the human first. His work, always honest and pure in gaze, has helped capture the spirit of Black British music — British rap in particular — and set him on his way to start scaling new heights in the coming years. As his FaceTime window opens up on Friday night, I find Aniefiok in typically relaxed mood, calm in manner, beard game extremely strong.

“I was thinking, how am I gonna document culture without leaving my house?”, asks Aniefiok as we discuss the challenges that lockdown has thrown up over the last six months. “New music and a lot of rap especially blows in the club or at carnival and places like that, so where do you go now for music to take off? It was definitely a big shift for me, trying to adjust to that. I spent a lot of time listening to No Signal, which felt like a night out when you were locked in but also a great place to access music. It was interesting to see how music they’d play would impact on the people listening as well. I remember the ‘Dior’ Remix and that ended up turning into a thing in itself because they played it during the breaks of the NS10v10 clashes. To be honest, that aside, I wasn’t really taking much new stuff in though, I found myself going back to the music I used to listen to and albums I’d forgotten about. Podcasts, too. I think we really felt the value of them … there’s something that podcasts can do that music can’t do, especially in terms of tapping into immediate emotions and feelings. You get a sense of community from them as well, so being able to have that without being able to physically be in one place was important for me.”

It’s this theme of community that was central to Aniefiok getting through a difficult lockdown period. Born in Lewisham to Nigerian parents, but raised predominantly in Orpington on the fringes of South London alongside twin brother Ukeme, it was how lockdown affected the people and communities around him — friends, neighbours, church — that put things in perspective. “There’s a great community of Nigerian families and West African families where I live in Orpington”, he explains, “and I guess usually we’d be in and out of each other’s houses and you’d be seeing people at church, popping round to friend’s houses and whatever, so to see that suddenly shut off was quite hard. Not just for me, but especially for my mum. I remember I just started walking to my friend’s house and he’d be in the window and I’d just chat to him from outside … there wasn’t really much else I could do. That in itself really highlighted the importance of community.”

“I was born in Lewisham and lived there for about nine years but I always say that I’m from Orpington”, he continues, “and there’s definitely a massive contrast between the two. Obviously there’s a lot more greenery and the pace of life is a lot slower than Lewisham, but I also first felt aware of my race when I got to Orpington because everyone was white apart from two kids at my primary school. Teachers were even highlighting race to me as a nine year old, which is kinda crazy when you think about it. I’ve got a twin brother and I remember our teacher saying to us on our first day, “don’t you bring your Lewisham rubbish to our school”. Thinking about it, it’s mad to think she felt that she could say that to us as nine year olds.”

“Teachers were even highlighting race to me as a nine year old, which is kinda crazy when you think about it. I’ve got a twin brother and I remember our teacher saying to us on our first day, ‘don’t you bring your Lewisham rubbish to our school’.”

“We just got on with it”, he says, as I ask how he remembers dealing with it. “At that age, there was no real problem with the kids themselves because at that point, you don’t really recognise race properly. I also learned that racism was very much learnt behaviour, something people pass down, fathers to sons, mothers to daughters. In terms of school, it was fine though to be honest. I always say I don’t miss school but I had a great time in general. Some of those racial experiences are a bit crazy looking back though and it taught me a lot about how people see race in this country. There’s a big mix, not necessarily racially, but certainly class wise in Orpington so to be able to experience how all those different perspectives on race co-exist is interesting … you know, how where you come from and what you experience shapes how you see the world.”

During his childhood, music was certainly omnipresent too. “It was always a big thing”, Aniefiok explains, “in a West African house, a) there’s always a lot of music playing and b) there’s always house parties, hall parties and church of course. It became normal for me to just to these places and just sit and listen to Highlife by massive speakers, which was always good fun. My dad had a really eclectic taste in music too, so he’d have songs from Nigeria that were personal to him, but he was also into things like Soca, Reggae, Michael Jackson … and he had a massive CD collection. It ended up with him buying me and my brother CDs. I’m not really sure how he knew what was of our age, but it started with Usher when I was like, 9 or 10, and soon progressed to Eminem and maybe Snoop Dogg. That’s where I first found my music taste I’d say, but then also in school … actually I don’t really know what I was listening to but I remember in year 8, I discovered Tinie Tempah. But I mean grime Tinie Tempah, like ‘Chapter 1: Verse 1-22’ and all those mixtapes … that definitely started my love for grime and UK rap music. I always get defensive when people say ‘ah Tinie only made ‘Wifey’ and that’s it’ because I’m always like ‘you don’t know he had these three or four mixtapes before’. I’m kind of an obsessive person anyway, so when I find something that I’m interested in, I really take to it and that set me on my way. I started using Bluetooth to share tunes with friends, I was finding new music on YouTube and forums albeit fleetingly, listening to Logan Sama on Monday nights … and then I think Giggs came around. Randomly, around that time, I found a Mos Def and Talib Kweli song called ‘Thieves In The Night’ and that’s when my interest in rap really took off if I’m honest. I still think that’s probably one of the best rap songs of all time … I remember thinking, ‘wow, what is this?’ … they were literally telling stories and even though I was only 15, it really impacted on me. Just hearing how poetic they were, Mos Def especially … you know when you’re a kid and you just hear a song and it’s like, ‘this music speaks to me!’. It was one of those moments.”

Inspired, Aniefiok started to read everything he could about rap music in the US – “I became such a book nerd” — and began expanding his knowledge on 90s golden era rap albums and the foundations of hip-hop. Already an avid reader — his mum bought him books by the likes of Benjamin Zephaniah and Nigerian author, Chinua Echebe — he listened to countless hours of music, read books, essays, interviews and almost anything else he could get his hands on. But rather than fall in love with a specific sound or certain type of beat, Aniefiok was fixated on the lyricism and the stories that rappers were telling. “I just couldn’t get over how descriptive this music was”, he recalls thoughtfully, “like Nas – ‘Illmatic’, the first three albums by Mobb Deep, Wu-Tang … I found it really interesting how they’d all come out of this one area in New York as well.”

He soon realised that within the lyricism, sometimes between the lines but often front and centre, rap music held up a mirror to society too. It was complex and nuanced, an important vehicle for rappers to speak up about their lives and experiences, and the way they were treated and viewed by the communities they lived in. “I feel like I speak a lot about music, but my interest has always been in what they’re trying to say and what their lyrics mean. I’d never find myself asking about composition or sonics, I’d always be asking about what artists were going through, how they were feeling, what certain lyrics were reflective of. I always remember there was this Nas line off ‘Illmatic’ … I think it’s from ‘The World Is Yours’ … where he says ‘I’m amped up, they locked the champ up, even my brain’s in handcuffs’. That line tells you what was going on in New York at that specific time … Mike Tyson was champion of the world, he’s locked up in prison and so on. I just feel there are so many stories like that encased in their lyrics.”

“I’d never find myself asking about composition or sonics, I’d always be asking about what artists were going through, how they were feeling, what certain lyrics were reflective of.”

After excelling at English at school, Aniefiok headed to the University of East Anglia in Norwich to study Law. “I didn’t enjoy my course but had a great time”, he recalls, “and I kind of only stayed because it was the last year before the fees trebled.” Throughout his three years in Norwich, he’d go onto meet ‘loads of different people’, all of whom opened his eyes to the realities of the class system in the UK; never before had it felt so important or so obvious. “In Orpington everyone was kind of thrown in together, it was a big mix of people, where as at university it was so apparent … people insisted on talking about it”, he explains. “I had no idea how important the class system was in this country until then. There was also the whole North-South divide thing going on, which felt even bigger because I’d never really been up north before. Just meeting people from all over the UK was interesting. I mean I lived with someone from York who is still one of my good friends today, and I’d never met anyone from York before. It was a really good experience in that sense.”

Determined to make the most of his time, he joined both the university’s creative writing and skydiving (!) societies, with the former proving its worth almost immediately. Attending once a week, he started to hone in on a writing style and, inspired by his long-held love of rap, soon felt confident enough to start self-publishing album reviews via a DIY blog. It’d lead to his first big breakthrough during the summer of his second year, too. “I’d discovered Twitter in my first year but in second year, I made this account where I’d just tweet rap lyrics and quotes”, he says, “and to be honest I should have kept it up, I probably would have made a bit of money out of it today! Anyway, I was on that account and I started writing about music, especially UK music. I was really into US rap stuff and reading about it for hours, but no one was really doing the same for the artists over here, no one was talking about the music culturally. I started writing blog posts and reviews … some would probably be now classed as think pieces to be honest. I think the first one I wrote was about Giggs and his struggle to perform, where he was constantly getting blocked by the police. I was trying to analyse the relationship between Giggs and the state basically.”

“I remember being on Twitter one afternoon and I saw that Link Up TV had tweeted about looking for new writers to contribute to their blog”, he continues. “They’d asked anyone interested to email with examples of work, so I just forwarded my stuff over. The editor at the time, Adenike Derrick, gave me a shot and that was it. My first interview was with George The Poet, which was for an e-mail style magazine that Link Up were doing and aside from that, I’d just be blogging while I could at university. Sometimes, when I was back in London, I’d go along to interviews with Rashid (Link Up TV founder) and prepare the questions for him to interview people like J Spades or Jammer or whatever. They were my first experiences of actually speaking to artists I really enjoyed listening to and getting my head around how everything worked.” How did it feel speaking to artists for the first time, I wondered. “I was kind of okay with it I think”, he says, breaking into a smile. “George The Poet was fine, but I think the first time where I became aware that maybe I had something was with Smiler, who was like my third interview I think. I’d gone along to my first press day to interview him and I was only about 20. I remember I started to ask him questions about certain lyrics in his tracks and I remember the reaction in the room … everyone was like ‘you’ve done your research, rah’. From that moment, it clicked in my head that this is how it was gonna work. Like, if you want to have an interesting conversation with someone, show them that you’re interested in what they’ve presented and what they have to say.”

“..if you want to have an interesting conversation with someone, show them that you’re interested in what they’ve presented and what they have to say.”

It was a realisation that’d spark Aniefiok’s curiosity once again. Just as he’d tasked himself with reading everything he could about rap music in the US, now he wanted to find out who the best music writers were; how did they interview people, what were they writing about, who were they speaking to? “I’d research as much as I could and go and study those people and their work”, he explains. “I left university in 2013 and still wasn’t really sure if a career in music could really mean something, but I remember having a meeting with my careers counsellor just after my final exams. She asked me what I wanted to do once I graduated and obviously I had this law degree and I actually found competition law quite interesting, so we talked a bit about that, but then she asked what else I enjoyed. I told her about blogging for Link Up TV and spoke about how much I loved music and musicians. We got to the end of the interview and she said, ‘well, the only time you smiled at all during that was when you talked about music, so you should probably focus your energy there’. It gave me the push I needed to try get into the industry.”

After returning home to Orpington, he started to write long-form stories — akin to pieces he’d read in The Fader and The New York Times — and began familiarising himself with the websites and titles that were covering the music he was interested in. It would be PR that’d grant Aniefiok his first industry break however, landing a six-month internship at Sian Anderson’s Sigh-Tracked agency — “PR was interesting, you had to proper learn the art but I was a bit too introverted for it I think” — before joining SBTV alongside a strong team of writers headed up by then editor, Ash Houghton. “Thinking back, I’d actually spent a year at a marketing agency the year before all this happened”, he recalls, “and when that was coming to an end, I decided to travel for a bit. I headed out to Hong Kong and Japan for a few months because a friend of mine at the same agency had recommended I do it and then headed to the US for a little while straight afterwards. It was there that I made the decision to really go for it and try and break into music, so the minute I got back I started to speak to the people I could reach in London, the artists who were making the right noises. So in 2015, I interviewed Kojey Radical, Nego True, George The Poet for a second time … as well as some MCs … I was doing it consistently in my spare time basically. I also did a random stint at The MOBO Awards’ 20th Anniversary show too and then I remember Ash just sent me a DM on Twitter one day saying he had a job at SBTV if I wanted it. I ended up staying for a year and a half and that was the place I really found myself as a writer. We just had so much freedom to create and I felt confident bringing my ideas to the table. Big up Ash because, well we had similar tastes … he was really into reading and interviews so he put me onto people like Howard Stern and others who were skilled in the art of asking questions. I picked up a lot of what I know now during my time there.”

Aniefiok would also help pioneer a new series during his time at SBTV. With Ash’s backing, the pair launched a long-form, in conversation series (‘A Day With’) that would see Aniefiok shadow a chosen artist for a day, alongside a photographer. It’d result in some of the richest and most insightful content of the SBTV website era and became a calling card for Aniefiok himself — he’d finally found his voice. “The first artist we spent a day with was Angel in West London”, he recalls. “We went to his mum’s house and then he took us around his local area which was cool. All his brothers were with him too and WSTRN were with him at points, but I think it was before they were WSTRN if you know what I mean. The second one was with Giggs the day before he released ‘The Landlord’ in 2015, which was thanks to Jamal and his connections … he just had the access you know. We spent a day driving around East London with Giggs, chatting as we went … I mean it’s insane when I think about it now. The third one was with Jaykae in Birmingham, which is where I got the idea to start covering music and musicians outside of the London bubble and looking at how their experiences might have been different. It was such a rewarding time back then because I was able to find out what I wanted to cover and which direction I wanted to go in.”

What makes a good story, I wondered. “I think it’s just honesty”, explains Aniefiok, “and I’ve always been drawn to those characters that have an element of authenticity about them. Giggs and Jaykae are very good examples of that because their music is so open and honest. For me, interviews will always start with a song as well and they’ll definitely bleed into the writing. Like, there’ll be a song or even just a line in a song that I hear that’ll make me think ‘oh wow, this is vulnerable and honest and I like what you’re trying to say here’. Some artists are just amazing characters anyway but that’s usually the start or the entry point for me. If it’s going well, there’ll usually be a moment where the barrier breaks as a musician and you can kinda get into who they are as a person. Sometimes it can happen off the bat, where as some times you really have to work for it and even then, some artists might not be in the right place or frame of mind to talk about certain things. And you have to respect that.”

After leaving SBTV in late 2016 following the website’s closure, Aniefiok decided to go freelance — “it was on a whim really” — with the belief that he’d find his way. He began freelancing for Noisey and The Fader shortly afterwards, but there was no road map, nothing was set in stone. “Looking back, I had a lot of faith”, he says shyly, “I mean I was always into self help books and stuff like that but I had nothing concrete at all. With Noisey, I decided that I really wanted to document culture, especially British rap culture and with that, black music more generally. One of the first pieces I did for them was with Bugzy Malone, which picked up where I left off with the Jaykae piece for SBTV. I was able to spend a day in Manchester with Bugzy, we went back to his old estate and had a really interesting conversation. From that piece, I started to move in that direction quite intentionally because I was always interested in seeing how my upbringing and experiences at school compared to my friends, so through speaking to these artists, I could extend that to look at how Birmingham differed to London and how Manchester differed to Birmingham and how different London is from the rest of the UK. I guess I just really wanted to cover culture and be able to look back on my work in 10, 20 years time, flick through it and think ‘yeah, you had an accurate read of what was going on in the country at the time’. That in itself helped me hone my craft as a writer as well, to the point where in 2017 I started to enjoy writing more than I enjoyed music. That was a big moment for me.”

“I guess I just really wanted to cover culture and be able to look back on my work in 10, 20 years time, flick through it and think ‘yeah, you had an accurate read of what was going on in the country at the time’.”

“I felt like a lot of black artists in this country weren’t getting covered with the nuance that their music deserved either”, Aniefiok continues. “The music is so rich and the stories within the music are so rich … they’re saying so much about the country we live in, the conditions people are coming from. I felt like the coverage wasn’t really reflecting that, you know. In the US, hip hop was celebrated for it but UK rap and grime over here … nobody really spoke about it in that sense. I felt like it was really important to try and cover it in that depth and with care, and really show people who the humans were beneath the music.”

His passion — “essentially I always want to document British culture through the lens of UK rap and grime” — matched by his gift for writing vivid long-form prose soon piqued the interest of the newspapers and world-renowned titles like Vogue. “A lot of my relationships are built on trust”, explains Aniefiok. “Like, at The Guardian for example, I feel like I’ve built a good level of trust with Ben (Beaumont-Thomas) and Laura (Snapes) over time and they trust me to deliver on certain stories. When I was first establishing myself there, there’d be a lot of back-and-forth on my pitches and ideas, and also I was aware I’d be telling stories but in a way that would make sense to their tone and general style. It’s always interesting writing for national newspapers because the readership is so broad … you really have to qualify what you’re saying. It was a challenge at first, but I feel like it’s really sharpened my skills as a writer and I’m grateful for that.”

A slew of standout pieces with The Guardian over the last 18 months — including July’s Film & Music cover piece on Headie One — have quickly cemented his reputation as one of the best young story-tellers in the country. But Aniefiok’s work isn’t limited to interviews and profiles. In 2019, he was asked to contributed to Derek Owusu’s ‘SAFE’ — an anthology comprised of 20 essays written by 20 Black British men about the Black British male experience. “I wrote my essay about Orpington”, he notes, “and it was the first time I’d been able to write with that much freedom. I called it ‘The Sticks’ and it was about growing up in the suburbs and dealing with racism and stuff like that … I just wanted to give my perspective on life and my experiences, what I’d seen and been exposed to. I’m not particularly good at politics or working politics into my writing, I don’t think it’s my strength, but it’s crazy to think that people consider race to be politics. Anyway, I caught the bug and continued to write my own essays and I guess and it made me think about writing my own book.”

“I’m not particularly good at politics or working politics into my writing, I don’t think it’s my strength, but it’s crazy to think that people consider race to be politics.

Although still in the process of writing, Aniefiok signed a deal to write his first book earlier this year. “I had it set in my head that I was gonna write books from that 2017 stage I think”, he explains, “and because of the way I naturally write anyway, I’ve not found the writing side of it too bad. I actually remember speaking to Sian Anderson once and she said reading my writing was like reading a script, which is something that’s always stood out to me. My writing is probably more in keeping with that style than it is journalism in a traditional sense, so I’m enjoying the freedom and also having so many words to really craft a narrative and a story in a way that you wouldn’t have the time or the space to usually. I feel like I’m not fully into the nitty gritty of the writing stage yet, so I’m looking forward to doing that over the next few months.” The book itself — a narrative non-fiction to be titled ‘Where We Come From’ — aims to explore the impact that British rap has had on different communities across the UK. “As I’ve said a few times, I’m really interested in looking at people’s experiences in different parts of the country”, says Aniefiok, “but it’s crazy that now, after thinking about it for so long, I get to write my own book about it all.”

“I actually remember speaking to Sian Anderson once and she said reading my writing was like reading a script.”

Further essays have followed recently too, including his first piece for Vogue regarding the music industry’s reaction to the murder of George Floyd, and he’s also been commissioned to write an essay for Merky Books — the publishing house established by Stormzy in 2019. “Calum Jacobs, who runs a great magazine called CARICOM which looks at the black experience in football, is putting together his first book”, Aniefiok notes, “which will be comprised of a series of essays about black footballers in the British game. I’ve not written mine yet but I’m looking forward to that. I love football, it’s a major passion, so I’m happy to be able contribute. I mean, for me, sports writing is some of the best out there and has always been a big inspiration, so I’m really excited to write in that space.”

Our conversation then returns to George Floyd. “I stopped watching the videos of black men and women getting killed on camera a long time ago”, says Aniefiok. “As soon as it happened, I was aware of it, but the videos were painful to watch and I didn’t want to subject myself to that. I get that the videos help spread awareness too but in those times, I was thinking of the families … like, your son or your brother or your dad’s last moments are just being broadcast all over the Internet. I remember the George Floyd murder actually happened in the same week as Amy Cooper too … I think that was her name … calling the police on a black man from a park in New York. It just showed the two injunctions … one incident was overtly racist and the other served as proof of what can happen if racism is tolerated and allowed to spread. I went to protest but just thinking about the fact we had to go to protest during lockdown … that feeling of having to show what our lives were worth in the middle of a global pandemic … it was crazy. The conversation around it extended a lot longer than usual which was interesting to see though and I think we saw people, especially white people, actually come around to the idea of trying to understand what black people had been through, which was good. In Britain, we’ve got a society where everybody is hush hush about things that actually matter, we don’t really talk about too much, but I feel like the shockwaves of that incident have made people talk and given people the space to share their stories. It made me realise that everybody is going through the same stuff, you know.”

“I went to protest but just thinking about the fact we had to go to protest during lockdown … that feeling of having to show what our lives were worth in the middle of a global pandemic … it was crazy.”

“I knew it was a subject I couldn’t ignore but equally I knew I didn’t have to write everything in response”, he continues. “We all have certain strengths so when Hattie Collins asked me to write the piece for Vogue, and big up her for that, I had that in mind. There are loads of writers who are really good at commentating on race and how it links to politics and society, so I was conscious of not just adding my voice out of ego or anything like that. What I did want to do was portray things a bit differently. A lot of the time, you’ll open a magazine and there’s always a black person talking specifically about race. As a black person, you don’t wake up thinking ‘yeah I’m black’, sometimes you might just wake up and think about football or music, do you know what I mean? I wanted to show that we’re just normal people with different experiences and as much as race is a very big and important thing to talk about, especially at the moment, there are different shades to the Black British experience. As well as the Vogue piece, I also wrote about No Signal for The Guardian which was more of a celebration, because they’re a great example of how the Black community has come together during lockdown. I wrote a piece on Tion Wayne for Noisey too, which delved into his specific experiences growing up in Edmonton. I guess I find it really frustrating when publications only want to speak to a black person about race, because we can talk about so much more.”

Given the impact Aniefiok’s work has already made, not only within music but also wider cultural spheres, there is no doubt that he’s destined for even greater things — but just how much more is there to come? “I feel like I’ve only done about five percent of what I want to do”, he says assuredly. “There’s so much more work to be done and I’m impatient which doesn’t help, but I really want to continue documenting Black British culture … that’ll always be very personal to me. I’d like to go into fiction at some point too and eventually broaden out, maybe into football, and screenplays are definitely something I’d like to explore moving forward.”

“I’ve also been learning a lot about how, socially, nothing is a mistake”, he continues. “It’s like when I did this Headie One piece for The Guardian. Headie’s from Broadwater Farm so you start researching the area and how that place was put together. He’s Ghanaian too, so you start seeing the mix of Ghanaians of Jamaicans in Broadwater Farm and how that, combined with everything else from a conditioning standpoint, steers the choices that people make in their lives. The time people spend in a certain place and where they might come from often has a huge impact on the decisions they’ll make, so that’s something I’ve been trying to incorporate into my work. You hear in it in the music again too. I remember in that piece I quoted one lyric from one of his early freestyles where he’s like, ‘do what comes to mind, fuck karma’ and it’s no accident that he’s said that. It’s the product of so many different things, social layers and conditions … you’ve got to think about everything that would make a young kid feel and react in that way. That extra level of detail and understanding is something I really want to start channeling in my pieces.”

You can read more of Aniefiok’s work via his website:

https://aniefiokekpoudom.com/

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