Camden-based rapper Awate has been a longstanding, active member of UK rap’s underground scene. Born in Suadi Arabia to revolutionary minded Eritrean parents, he spent his early childhood in Eritrea before arriving in the UK as a refugee. He grew up in Camden, experiencing both street-level bigotry and violence, and the institutional racism that upholds it, spending much of his primary education excluded from school.
He was inspired by 50 xCent’s superhuman-like debut to turn the poems he’d been writing as therapy into raps, and Mos Def’s ‘Black On Both Sides’ soon after to build the trauma he’d experienced into the bigger picture of societal ugliness. He then connected with the likes of Lowkey and the Poisonous Poets, cutting his teeth on stage performing and touring.
Debut album ‘Happiness’ dropped in 2018, after four years of personal battles and successful court cases against the police. The brutality he experienced at the hands of the police left him suffering with PTSD. Despite that heaviness, his connection with producer Turkish Dcypha on the project resulted in a soulful, jazz-driven dispatch from the margins of British society, with Awate’s subtly commanding flow and vivid storytelling the centrepiece.
For the most part, latest, lean EP ‘Fear’ sheds those warm soundscapes for something that feels more industrial and ominous, without ever collapsing into hopelessness. It’s a typically honest reflection of the past year, both personally and collectively. Awate questions what it means to be an artist in the era of the algorithm, and what it takes to endure broken Britain's hostile environment.
Clash caught up with him to talk through the project, and the path that led him to it.
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Talk me through your come up. What are some of your earliest musical memories?
I'm the oldest child in a refugee family. And my dad didn't really listen to any music and my mum listened to Eritrean music, so I didn't really have I didn't really have anyone to pass stuff on to me other than older cousins on the occasions that I'd see them. So from the beginning, I was just taping the radio, taping the top 40 on Sundays. I didn’t have Sky or cable, so I couldn’t access whatever everyone else was watching. I’d have a cassette with my favourite tracks from each week.
Then in Year 7, ‘Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ came out. It was inescapable. It wasn’t just the music. It was 50 Cent’s story. He was shot nine times. He’d come from a traumatic childhood. Then you look at the front cover of the album. He didn't look like he'd been shot nine times. He looked like he'd been in the gym forever, like a transformer with Gucci gun holsters. So for me being someone who’d lived through 12 years of fights, whether it was on my estate with National Front families, at youth club or at school, constantly being excluded and missing what was basically a third of primary school, it felt significant.
At this time I’d started writing short poems and short stories, as therapy basically. I realised that what 50 Cent was doing was like the poems I was writing - especially ‘Many Men’ which has some very bait, big poetic lines about joy and pain - I was like ‘oh my god, this is cool, this is a thing of beauty!’ It was deep to us back then.
And how did that lead you to the studio?
I'm very, very blessed that I came through at a time where the Labour government was trying to distract you from the illegal ethnic cleansing of Afghanistan and Iraq that they were involved in. They were paying for youts to do whatever we wanted. So every school holiday there were 500 places in Camden for youts to access professional music studios that offer accredited courses. We could get sound engineering qualifications, DJing, songwriting. So I was lucky that I was able to go to these places and meet other musicians.
I initially honed my craft over grime beats, but I decided to go the 50 Cent route, because that’s what spoke to me. I was trying to shott mixtapes at school, at Camden Lock and whatever. I was carrying a shank at all times and getting into mad beef. And then just before I turned 15, I finally gave into this guy from my estate called Wale, who’d been trying for a year to get me to listen to this Mos Def guy. ‘Black On Both Sides’ changed my life immediately.
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I'd never heard the Quran in a song before. Nas and Tupac were the most pro-black artists I was listening to then. I had been put onto a lot of pro-black literature by black teaching assistants and teachers at school, because I was being excluded so much and missing so many lessons. So I was already that person, but I didn’t know the music existed. After one listen I was like, ‘I'm gonna stop blazing. I'm going to stop carrying a shank, I'm going to read more African history!’ I started researching the samples used in the songs. I got into the neo-soul scene, J.Dilla, all of that stuff. I also discovered UK hip hop at the same time and started linking with guys like Lowkey, Poisonous Poets, those guys. I was part of the UK Hip-Hop underground, doing gigs in the evening and shotting CDs during the day. Rappers like Mike GLC, Klashnekoff and Skinny Man were around all the time.
I met DJ Semtex and he took me under his wing. He saw something in me at the age of 17. It was a real moment in time. He kept bringing me to shows, building my confidence. I accidentally opened up for Jay Electronica at Cargo when I was 19, because Semtex’s decks weren’t working. I just did 10 minutes of freestyles acapella over whatever Sem was playing! A month after that I spat to Kanye outside BAFTA.
My parents grew up in a revolutionary time. And they actually got to meet people who were seriously influential, and seriously memorable. I was poor and broke, but I could walk everywhere and was right in the middle of London. All of my favourite artists came to the city at one point or another. All I wanted as a rapper was to meet these people and let them know I exist, that’s all. Just to be part of that wider tapestry of hip-hop and rap.
Musically, ‘Fear’ has a very different feel to your previous work. It’s vibe is experimental almost. What inspired the shift?
My debut album ‘Happiness’ and the previous EP ‘Shine Ancient’ were both completely produced by Turkish. I wanted to do something different. ‘Like, Share, Subscribe’ and ‘DWP’ are both beats that Maverick Sabre gave me. They bookend the project. ‘Like, Share, Subscribe’ is about being an artist in the modern world, basically shotting yourself, live streaming everything, ‘watch me unbox these trainers sent to me by this brand’. Whereas I came into this because writing music makes me feel good. And finding out that people liked it made me want to do it on stage. Now you want me to show you my nose hairs and my birth certificate and what my nan looks like before she goes to bed. Like … leave me alone!
‘DWP’ covers the same subject matter, it’s like my version of travelling man by Mos Def. These are not the soulful funk productions that Turkish makes. Sonically I’m into lots of weird stuff. I wanted ‘Fear’ to be prog rap. I’m not a pop artist. All of my favourite artists died penniless, and no-one knew who they were. Their seminal EPs get 500 views on YouTube. It’s inspired by the demos of The Stone Roses’ second album, which they made in a van in Wales. And Kate Bush. Also the time I spent in Brazil added a bit of those flavours to ‘Dominic Cummings’ and ‘Hostile Environment’. I wanted the project to sound a little bit industrial, and a bit like Brazil, the movie Brazil. So there’s a blend of intimidating industrial sounds and more hopeful sounds through natural instruments.
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Conceptually, there’s a lot of macro and micro themes intertwined across the EP too...
As a larger conceptual influence, Adam Curtis’s documentaries really influenced my writing, the big concepts that are linked to each other. And the juxtaposition of different feelings. So he has like a happy chorus choir singing, and images of genocide and war and buildings being destroyed and landslides. It’s just weird. I wanted to create something along those lines.
Brevity is a word that comes to mind when I listen to ‘Fear’ and ‘Happiness’ too. Are you making a concerted effort to say more with less?
Between 2010 - 2015, people would just bloat their projects and do like 30-track double albums. And I felt like I'm never going to listen to these songs again. Something that's way more important to me is how much you can listen to a song. I'm going to try and sell my audience this thing. I don't want to sell them something they can only listen to once. If it's half an hour long but you can play it again straight after you've finished listening because it had all the emotions, all the different colours that you needed, the different flavours. sweet, sour, umami, then that’s the sign of a good project.
It’s not just the length of the project though. The songs themselves are very lean and concise, like Earl Sweatshirt’s more recent work.
When I was in Brazil, I met an incredible artist and youth worker called Marciela in Sao Paulo. She saw me perform. After the set, she was moved. She said ‘your songs are so short. And our lives are so short. They’re just cut down.’ When I turned 25, I broke down. I couldn’t stop playing ‘We Don’t Care’ - ‘We weren’t supposed to make it past 25’ - I’ve been in so many situations where I felt like my life could have ended, from the roads to the police brutality. I’ve got so many friends who have passed away, died young. And it’s not like my songs fade out. They stop on the third beat, or the second. It’s like an affront to the listener. She broke it down, and I saw what she saw.
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The title ‘Fear’ could be interpreted in many ways, I’m sure. What were you referring to? Artistic fear?
It's mainly about making music and performing and making art. But also doing a lot of things in life, getting up in the morning, if you have anxiety, or depression, most of it is about conquering fear and still doing something. Like Luke Shaw is having an incredible season for Man United because he's conquered the fear of his past leg break. You can see how beautiful it is when someone has conquered that fear, like he has. Like the secret of life is to have no fear, right? That song by Mos Def - ‘Fear not of Man’ - samples Fela Kuti’s ‘Fear not for Man’ and Fela quotes Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, who says ‘to all African people, the secret of life is to have no fear.’
Nina Simone says ‘freedom to me is to have no fear.’ How liberating is it to not have fear. During the pandemic we’ve been completely surrounded by trauma and fear and death. Black people are being murdered by the state again and again. Personally speaking, I’d stopped a lot of stuff because of fear and anxiety. I had depression and PTSD after my police stuff. I was on bail for two years and had four cases. Performing on stage helped banish a lot of that fear. And I was doing it regularly, like every three nights. It was weird to suddenly stop all that. So the title is referring to all those moments, individually and collectively, the paralysis of fear.
Is it frustrating that the key themes you’re exploring are urgent and timely, but the project’s impact and reach might largely be determined by the ‘algorithm’?
As I said about my favourite artists, nothing really happened with their careers other than the fact that they really left an impression on people. So deciding I was never going to try and make pop was really a good decision for me. It takes away so much pressure, so much disappointment. I’d rather have the impact of Mos Def than 50 Cent. I’m not saying 50 Cent had a negative impact on me. He made me want to write, and gave me confidence that I could use as armour. But if people need my music, they’ll find it. Wale was trying to get me to listen to ‘Black On Both Sides’ for months and months because he saw the path I was going down, and knew what I needed.
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'Fear' is out now.
Words: Robert Kazandjian
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