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BackRoad Gee: “I’ve got PTSD from the police. I’ve been pepper sprayed, beat up by them – it was just wild”

BackRoad Gee: “I’ve got PTSD from the police. I’ve been pepper sprayed, beat up by them – it was just wild”

L

ondon rapper BackRoad Gee lights up when Jay-Z comes on the playlist in the studio where we’re sitting together. “Not many people can say ‘Yo! I made a tune with Jay-Z’”, beams the only UK rapper to ever feature on a track from the hip hop legend. “There’s a lot of people who really do this rap thing and a lot of people were hurt when he chose me,” he laughs mischievously. “But what can I say? I’m the chosen one and that’s the way it had to be,” he deadpans. “I’m sorry to all the others… I mean though not really, I loved that I was the chosen one!”

BackRoad Gee, whose real name remains a closely guarded secret, featured on Jay-Z’s King Kong Riddim, which appeared on the soundtrack to Idris Elba’s film The Harder They Fall in 2021. He still pinches himself that it happened at all. “I didn’t think any of this was real until the premiere,” he smiles through his diamond encrusted grill. “At that moment, then it became real. I met Jiggs [Jay-Z’s nickname] and I didn’t know what to call him. Jay-Z, Mr Jiggs? Mr Carter? I wasn’t sure! I introduced myself and he said he f***ed with my thing [which in hip hop speak means he loved what BackRoad was doing]. He’s a busy man and that meant everything.”

BackRoad, who plays the second weekend of Wireless festival at Finsbury Park on July 8, has been making music that fuses the Congolese heritage of his parents with the grime he grew up with on the streets around various parts of London (he lived between Tottenham, East Finchley and Stratford) since he was a kid. His uncles introduced him to rappers like Jay-Z, DMX and Griggs, which led him to garage, afrobeat and drill. He had dreams of becoming a drummer to begin with, but later drifted into making rap at school where his talents were first spotted.

“I just loved the music of my country, the Congo, and I would just get two video cassettes, two pens and just beat the f*** out them at first,” he laughs (eventually his exasperated mother got fed up with the inevitable breakages and bought him a cheap drum kit). He started rapping “in the playground at primary school,” he continues. “I used to take a couple of orders from my areas, take these bars and remix them, making them my own. Then at secondary school, we’d all be in a circle, and I’d bring out the Walkman, put on an instrumental and we’d do [rap] battles right there in the playground.”

But the road from rap battles to red carpets with Jay-Z wasn’t smooth. Things were challenging at home for BackRoad and the family struggled financially at a time of national austerity. “There wasn’t really any support, man,” he says. “There were little things out there that offered little opportunities, but nothing that could really help a man become a man and sustain life.”

While music at school provided him with an escape, he started to struggle at home. “After school, it was a whole different story,” he explains. The family couldn’t make ends meet, and he felt unhappy and lost. “That’s where real life happened. My mum tried her hardest, but I ended up leaving home at a young age initially, around 16,” he says. Soon after, he found himself on the streets, homeless, and started to sell drugs so he could afford to eat. “I was on the streets defending myself and one thing led to another for survival.”

A few years later, he ended up in prison on charges relating to drugs crimes. He says this was the point at which he reached his lowest ebb.

“There were times in there I didn’t care about music or anything at all,” he says, his voice wavering momentarily. “Music was, for the first time, the last thing that I cared about. I knew jail wasn’t for me and it killed my spirit. I like to make noise; I like to be active. But in there…” he trails off. “There was nothing.”

Towards the end of his spell inside, there was one song that he started to write in his head: I’m Free Part 1, which he eventually released in 2019.

He says now the song was a key turning point. “I didn’t want to sell drugs anymore,” he explains, rapping the song’s key message to me: “Alhamdulillah I’m free, my vision is clear, I can see.” He vowed to turn his life around when he left prison, but says keeping to his vision was challenging. Homeless once again after his release, things could have easily gone back to the way things were before, were it not for a chance meeting with a record label and a friend, which led to his being approached by his now manager, Money Max, who had heard several of the demos he’d released online prior to being in prison.

BackRoad Gee photographed by Natasha Pszenicki for the Evening Standard, assisted by Monty Vann; styling Alice Hare and Neesha

/ PHOTOGRAPHY NATASHA PSZENICKI

“I had a three-hour meeting with him,” BackRoad recalls. “I made a decision that day that I was going to stop doing what I was doing away from music. I’ve never looked back.”

He has certainly not looked back these past few years. His 2020 song Party Popper became a million-streaming smash hit and he’s released two critically acclaimed EPs, Mukta Wit Reason and Mukta vs Mukta, as well as the recent release, Reporting Live (From the Back of the Roads). Further collaborations with the likes of Ms Banks, Lethal Bizzle, JME, Stefflon Don and Pa Salieu have cemented him as one as the most exciting new voices in rap. With a style that combines grime, garage and afrobeat with beats from his Congolese heritage, he’s twisting grime into exciting new shapes and combining it with razor-sharp lyricism that candidly addresses his past.

He says much of what he went through will form the content of his next project. “I don’t want to give too much away,” he smiles, “but there is a big body of work coming, music that can live forever. It’s about me and my journey – it’s about showing you that journey honestly – good and bad. It’s about my growth spiritually and where I’ve come from – how I’ve got a better understanding of me now and how I’ve come up. I realised I make my best music when I’m going through things. With this next one, I’m giving you much more real stuff on there.”

He’s seen plenty of “real stuff” in his young life so far, on the streets, in prison and in the way he was treated by the authorities in his youth. “I’ve got PTSD from the police,” he says, saying the manifold times he was singled out as a young Black man growing up in London left a lasting mark.

“Even if I haven’t done anything wrong, when I see them now, my heart drops to my stomach. They really left an imprint on me. I’ve been pepper sprayed, beat up by them – it was just wild.” He recalls how, long before he was involved in drugs, he felt continuously targeted.

“The police had it in for me, but they probably couldn’t get what they wanted,” he says. “Not all the police I’ve met are bad people… but I feel like there are a lot more bad police than there are good.”

He says he felt compelled to march in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in London following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of US police officers in 2020. “Sometimes the police overdo their job,” he says, clearly upset. “I know how it feels first hand, so I felt it was only right that I went out there and I marched [with] the people.”

While his music may be a frank, sometimes tough-talking, document of a life that seems to throw up challenging topics, BackRoad explains that he’s not a drill artist as sometimes people categorise him.

“I’m not that,” he says. “They paint very vivid, gory pictures and I’m just not about the gory stuff. We’ve all seen it and we’ve all lived it but that’s not the music I want to push. There might be some violence in there, but with my music, I want you to hear the song, dance, lose your mind. You might not even clock that I’m talking some crazy stuff, because that’s not what you’re focusing on. That’s how I differentiate myself from them. I don’t tell my story the same way they do.”

Busy at work on his next project, he says he’s now “in a good place – the best I’ve been”. He’s reconciled with his mother who is his “biggest fan and supporter” and his family are “extremely proud” of the way he’s turned his life around. But he stresses that he’s not finished yet.

“I want all of it – Grammy’s, awards, everything!” he laughs. “I can’t tell you exactly where I’m going to end up, but it’s going to be somewhere big. Someplace I never imagined,” he beams, exuding confidence.

He’s also looking forward to an exciting summer of live performances. He hints we may see some of his drumming for the first time live, and eventually other instruments he’s been learning to play over the years. “It’s going to happen. You’re going to see it – it’s coming for real. I play a little bit of the piano, play a little bit of the guitar… but I’m strongest on drums.” And what can people expect from the show? “Everything!” he smiles. “I want people to lose themselves in the moment.”

And as for his next high-profile collaboration? Well, he’s already had some thoughts. “I’m waiting on the call from Adele,” he laughs. “Adele – call me!”

BackRoad Gee plays Wireless festival at Finsbury Park, July 8-10

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