[Interviewed by Hannah West]
South London rapper Deacon is an up-and-coming performer on the British hip-hop scene who has already generated incredible hype with his first single, ‘No Evil’ – a hugely political piece inspired by the shape that today’s world takes, and by recent events that he has witnessed around him. Deacon certainly keeps his writing up to speed with the world, and his candid voice will undoubtedly influence many.
Deacon started out as a rapper writing his own songs and, since 2011 he has been a part of the Akala-founded organisation, The Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company: a theatre production company that introduces Shakespeare in a new and accessible way by comparing his works with hip-hop and identifying how these are similar. Having worked on his sound and style, he is ready and determined to take on the music industry.
Tonight, Deacon is here at the O2 ABC in Glasgow on the third night of supporting Akala on his Visions tour, and he’s taking every moment in his stride; maintaining the ease and laidback attitude of someone who has been doing this for decades. Prior to his performance, I met with him in the venue to talk about what inspires his writing, who his major influences have been, and how he gets into the right headspace to write.
Your new single, ‘No Evil’, has just been released – what was your inspiration for the track and its political nature?
With the majority of my music I’m inspired by what I currently feel. I just got to the point where I was tired of seeing black men being killed on the streets by police, the people who are supposed to protect them. And I know that it doesn’t happen all over the world, but an issue for a part of the community is an issue for the whole community. It’s just really terrifying, we’re growing up with this whole narrative that we’ve come so far, and we certainly have come far, I do believe that, but it’s way too early to take our foot off the gas, and sometimes there are painful reminders of that. That’s the thing with ‘No Evil’: it has sparked conversations with people very close to me, my family, where they’ve been like, “is that really what you feel?” but it starts the dialogue, and we can have those conversations and visit it, and it is uncomfortable, but it’s a necessary thing.
What problems did you see in the world around you that you wanted to fix that inspired your music style?
I’m not doing anything heroic here but, as Nina Simone said, as an artist you need to reflect the times, and I truly believe that. And that doesn’t always mean doom and gloom, or that I have to talk specifically about the Trump administration or Theresa May or Putin or any of that, but it is important to address – and that’s how I’m inspired, I just have to talk about things that I see, and this is one of those things that need solving… I don’t know that ‘solving’ is the right word, but it needs addressing.
Tell me a bit about your background, how did you get started with music, rap and poetry?
I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember; I used to put poems on my Dad’s fridge, and I’ve always enjoyed the English language, I’ve always enjoyed the command of it. It’s an interesting language because you can say something in so many different ways, and be very metaphorical with it before you actually get to the point, and in a lot of parts of the world that’s missed, but in other parts it’s even more extravagant and even more beautiful, but one thing I like about the English language is that it can do that. I used to really try and expand on a single metaphor, and then that just became poetry, which became rap when I put rhythm to it, which got me to where I am today I guess.
Who inspired you when you were growing up, musical or otherwise?
I’ve been blessed to have loads of influences – luckily the energy that has surrounded me up until this point has been very pure. From when I was going to a youth club and we were just rapping in the local studio, it really pushed us. Fast forward to when I met the Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company and Akala and we started doing some work there, and I met a lot of people there, mentors and musicians and now the record label that I’m signed with – Future Rebel – it’s just been a constant progression of people that have really backed me; my whole team now have really been able to push me. Aside from that it’s my friends, we went through a period of about a year where we met up every Tuesday and called it Truth Tuesday, where we would sit down and talk and discuss. We wouldn’t have the PlayStation out, it wouldn’t be a smoking thing, it would just be conversation amongst friends, and we would discuss different things we’d seen in the news or just things we were thinking. And that in itself, while no one said it, it encouraged us all to pursue the art of beautiful conversation, in whatever context that may be.
And has being interested in what was going on in the world around you had a big influence on what you do?
Exactly, it’s so easy to become engrossed in sensationalism and celebrities, especially with our phones, we get engrossed, and we need to remove ourselves and enjoy the moment, see what’s happening around us in the present moment and put all of those things aside and be present – that’s a beautiful thing and a beautiful gift, and it’s quite scary that a lot of people are going to grow up not knowing that that’s normal. But again, as artists it’s our duty to reflect the times and see those things happening and address them and hope that we can pass on the word.
Your new single has recently been compared to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly – was that what you were going for with this track or was it just a huge compliment?
It was a beautiful compliment. Art is subjective, but for me Kendrick is the artist of this generation. The way he can articulate things and the way he says things – he sees something and says it in a way that makes sense. He comes from Compton, which is a very small place relatively, and he built this whole movie presence about his area and he’s told us about it. It’s a small thing and I’m not holding on to it, but it’s a lovely compliment, of course. It just goes to show that we’re all human and we’re all doing the same thing, we’re all doing what we like, and if you continue to pursue something, people will recognise you amongst people who do a similar thing.
Akala was the one to take you under his wing within the industry – was he your biggest mentor or have you had any other notable mentors?
I haven’t spent much time with many other established or well-known rappers, so definitely as a rapper he has been a pillar – the biggest thing that’s going on there is that he set up an infrastructure through Hip-Hop Shakespeare, so I came in and met people – we helped with music but more importantly just being able to see the flourishing of what you can do with rap, that in itself is inspirational enough. But on the side of that, we have the Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company, which has just expanded the perception of what we do. I was a rapper originally, and all of a sudden I’m acting and we’re rewriting Shakespeare plays, plays that were relatively inaccessible to me growing up because I didn’t know them in the context that I know them in now. And that opens many doors. So in terms of that, he has been a pillar in my career.
You’ve been a part of the Akala founded Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company for some time now – what do you think is the importance of getting people interested in both Hip-Hop and Shakespeare as part of their education?
I think it’s important that we contemporize history and contextualise what is current and modern. What I mean by that is that it doesn’t matter where we are in time – time is just an idea – people are always going to want to express themselves and their art. When we remove the timeline from Shakespeare and look at it as a raw art form, and then you look at hip-hop or rap or folk music or blues or anything, you take away the context and look at the art form, it’s the same thing, people are doing the same thing, people are just expressing and they’re telling a story. A lot of the time, when I was at school, rap and anything contemporary or ‘vulgar’, I guess, for those who don’t understand it, they remove it from the curriculum and say it’s not art, but when you get through the language just as you do with Shakespeare, you get to the point of what they’re trying to say, it is art. It might not be a story that you enjoy, but it is art, and we should recognise and respect it as that. And it gets people interested; if they can relate to it immediately then they’re interested – sometimes you work from the top down and sometimes from the bottom up, but it’s definitely important to do it. Regardless of whether older people decide to be tolerant of hip-hop or not, it’s going to happen eventually, and it will be a part of our education.
What former knowledge or appreciation of Shakespeare did you have before joining THSC? Was this the first time you had thought of combining poetry and rap?
I studied Shakespeare at school, I studied English in Sixth Form as an A-Level. It just didn’t interest me, though – like I said, the English language interested me; but Shakespeare particularly, the way it was packaged, just didn’t appeal to me. It was through doing the work with The Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company, where I wasn’t just learning through reading it, I was going to the theatre productions and experiencing it as it was intended. I was rewriting it and contemporizing it and making it way more accessible, and that’s my history with Shakespeare.
How has it been touring with Akala so far?
It’s been cool – we started in Leeds which was really good, it was a vibe, it was really nice to get that out of it. Manchester was crazy, the biggest stage I’ve performed on so far – people were having a good time and enjoying themselves. That’s what I want out of a show, I want to enjoy myself and I want other people to be enjoying themselves.
What has been your favourite venue you’ve ever played?
Probably London if I’m honest. I don’t want to take away from the fact that I get to travel the UK for 10 days and visit every big city, which, in itself, is incredible: seeing different people, hearing different accents, seeing people singing back to my songs, I can’t explain that feeling – it’s a void that can only be filled with that. But going back and performing at the O2 London, I went to see J. Cole there just 2 years ago on his Dollar and a Dream tour, and it was a movie – that’s the man, he’s one of my favourite artists ever. Not just the fact that it’s in London but that’s a milestone for me; I said I’d be on that stage, keep flitting about, keep on working and we’re taking the stage, next time we come back around hopefully it’ll be with my tour. I think that’s going to be something special.
Have you ever had a negative response to your music? How did you use the experience to grow/improve as an artist?
I’ve had multiple: I think the biggest moment of realisation was at an open mic in South London, and at the time I was moving with a few different people, they were sort of managing me – one of them was a rapper and the other one was trying to look after me. We went to the show and there were two people in the crowd, extremely small open mic night. We left, went to Nando’s, I’m like 16, 17. He says to me, “I’ve been thinking I should ghost write for you, and you could perform and people would love it”, and I’m young and I’m thinking, “is this what people do?” But it wasn’t something I wanted to do; I wanted to write my own stuff. So I told them I was improving and that I had a lot of work to do but I’d get there, and he said “well that’s why you’ll never make it in rap”. And at the time I didn’t really take much notice of it, I don’t know why, but I kind of brushed it off, and that’s sort of my nature, I don’t really react in the moment. It was only when I went home that I thought about it, but it wasn’t until years later that the moment became profound, and it became its own chapter, because I realise that in hindsight I thought, “I’m not going to stop because someone thinks they can do it better than me”, I don’t even feel like it’s a competition, we can all do our own thing and have totally different styles and that’s fine. So in hindsight, I’m proud of the younger me for his resilience, for not taking that on board, and that really did inspire once I realised how profound that was.
Where do you get your writing inspiration from? What makes a good writing environment?
It has taken me a really long time to understand my creative process – I still don’t really understand it. Sometimes I’ll be in the perfect setting: I’ll be in a big studio, massive speakers, bass pumping so you can feel it in the hairs of your big toe, I’ll be feeling it, everyone around me will be rapping or writing, but I won’t be inspired. That irks me – I don’t get that because it’s scary to think that you won’t be inspired when you’re called for it. But the headspace is a complicated thing, you need to treat it as a muscle, you train it. So I’m getting better at writing every day, what I’ve been doing recently is just writing 750 words a day, just gibberish, sometimes you just don’t even need to read it, just keep on walking. Once you do that it becomes easier to flow with things and stop editing in the moment. I haven’t got an ideal situation, but I’m inspired heavily by conversation. Slightly tangential – I work in a summer camp in California, you work with kids for two months with no phones or signal, and it’s the conversations between the adults and the children who are allowed to be children and are removed from an environment where they’re forced to be an adult, and some of the things they say are so profound. The things that are simple are often the things that really hit home. That environment is the most inspirational for me. Conversation is definitely where I get my inspiration from.
Do you find that environment away from the real world without phones is the best at finding inspiration?
Definitely. I practice this thing I call zen until ten, the idea is that I don’t touch my phone until 10 o’clock, I wake up, go for a walk, drink some juice, have a tea, have some breakfast, do some writing, whatever I need to do to start the day until ten o’clock, then I send my emails. It’s hard not to keep your eye on what everyone else is doing, but just do it. When I start my day like that the day is normally good.
What would be your #1 piece of advice to somebody starting out in any creative industry?
Trust the process – I know it’s a cliché thing to say, but another way of putting it is that life goes in waves, your journey works as everything else works, it goes up and it goes down. You can be absolutely on top of the world, or you can feel like everything is going to fall apart. And the majority of the time, you’re going to be fine. Two weeks of heartache is nothing in the grand scheme of life, and neither is two weeks of happiness, but it’s either going to allow you to be inspired to never be in that place again, or to aim for that place. Don’t be too hard on yourself, and trust that those moments are profound, allow yourself to experience them.
Have you ever met any idols of yours or been starstruck by anyone?
I’ve been starstruck, but that’s probably because I fancied her. I met Lianne La Havas once, and then I bumped into her years later on the high street in Kensington and she was on the phone, and she looked up at me and she smiled and I just went “…wow”, and she just laughed and walked on. I’ve never ever done that before in my life, but that’s what happened.
*Deacon’s single, No Evil, is out now*