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“I’m not an afrobeat artist,” says Kojo Funds with a semi-smile that’s both friendly and deadly serious. “My music’s got that African element, but then it swings through dancehall, reggae, R&B and new jack swing. So I decided to come up with my own name for it: I call it afro-swing.”
Considering Kojo had never written or released a song until 2014, you could describe his rapid rise to fame as something of a madness. The average joe on the street may think of 2016 as the year of Brexit, but for anyone with an ear pressed against the shop window of UK music culture – who pays more attention to GRM Daily than Good Morning Britain – it was the year of Kojo Funds. In just three songs, the Newham-born artist transformed from a young prospect into a colossal hitmaker, as bittersweet bangers like “Fine Wine”, “My 9ine” and “Dun Talkin” racked up almost 30million YouTube views between them.
“My 9ine” came first, dropping on Soundcloud early last summer. Opening with a tribute to Wayne Wonder’s 2003 dancehall hit “No Letting Go”, the song is pure syrupy romance, right up until the moment you realise it’s not about his girl; it’s about his gun. It’s indicative of what makes Kojo such a compelling artist; he creates songs so fluorescent and melodic that it takes you ten listens in the club and ten more at home before you realise the depth and darkness of his subject matter.
“I’ve seen things in life – some real shit,” he says, “so when it came to writing I decided to stop shying away from all that, and make something good out of all that negativity. But you don’t want music too negative, you want it to be positive. So that song is me taking the truth, and then sweetening it up a bit.”
Kojo was born to a Dominiquais dad and Ghanaian mother in Newham, East London, and had a fairly musical upbringing. His dad was crazy for reggae; vinyls would be left lying around the house, and his mother occasionally put a little gospel on. “Being African, music plays a big part in your life,” he explains. “You’re going to church a lot, and those old school African songs your parents play become part of you.”
He learned to play drums at school, but the real action came when the school week ended on a Friday. “Every weekend, me and my boys would go partying at the local raves in my borough,” says Kojo. “They would be playing all sorts of music: bashment, R&B, grime, rap, everything.”
He was into original UK dons like Giggs and Lethal Bizzle, but he’d also found himself drawn to sounds of the Caribbean and West Africa, sounds he’d build on himself in the future. Artists like Sean Paul, Mavado and Vybz Kartel were getting just as much if not more airtime amongst his peers as the biggest grime and rap tracks of the day. “I was just really into that tropical sound; that dancehall feeling,” says Kojo.
Like a lot of young black kids growing up in East London during the culture boom of the 2000s, he knew how to spit, and would do freestyles with his mates. But the big moment came when he decided to start singing too. “Me and my boy were in his crib watching a Wizkid freestyle on Westwood TV, and Wizkid was coming out with all these melodies – it was crazy. It got me so gassed. I said to my boy, ‘I’m gonna start singing.’ I was joking at the time, but then look at what’s happened now. It’s weird, fam.”
Kojo writes songs fast – “If I start a tune, I will wanna finish it that day. Once I lay something, I just keep stacking.” Breakthrough hit, “Dun Talkin” – in which Kojo sings like he’s pouring drinks with his voice – was written at the height of his ongoing feud with J Hus, and all came together in one afternoon at his mate’s house. “It was a usual day on the block; chilling in the back garden, smoking.” His producer GA had sent him the instrumental two weeks prior and he decided to “touch on this beat real quickly whilst I’m in my zone.” As his mates filmed on their phones, melodies started to flow out, and then he started fitting words into the verse. In one intoxicated garden session, the foundations for a banger were built. “The smoke gets a co-write on that one,” smiles Kojo.
When it went online, he dreamed of hitting 200,000 views, but one of his crew was adamant: “It’s gonna hit 10 million.” Kojo laughed him off, but as the song rocketed through the internet, hit the clubs and then became the launching pad for his first major tour it was clear that fantasy was becoming reality. The door started knocking, and everyone wanted involved, but he kept his team in house. “You need that, to keep the passion in the project,” he says. His manager is a close friend, he sticks with his producer GA for almost every track, and childhood friend and rapper Yxng Bane is one of his most frequent collaborators.
Since the success of “Dun Talkin”, he’s moulded a reputation for being one of the hardest workers in the game. He’s been playing shows across Europe, and it feels like not a week goes by without another dose of his tropical Afro-swing sound. In the last four months we’ve had the rump-shaking “Warning”, “Fear No One” and a feature on Asco’s “Ride With Me”. That, says Kojo, is only a small sample of “the heat” he has stored up and ready to go.
Despite the thirst for everything he drops, he’s quiet in person, like a man taking everything slowly in his stride. “I’m not a loud guy, I stay humble. But when it comes to music and I’m in the studio: that is when I’m loud, because that is how I express my feelings to people.”
As his reach expands, it’s no longer just the UK connecting with these feelings. Earlier in the year, Kehlani invited him onstage at her London show to perform “Dun Talkin” and “Fine Wine”. At Wireless 2017, Kojo’s performance was one of the most talked about of
the weekend, and was hyped even further when Young Thug brought him out during his set. You can see why Thugger would like Kojo Funds; both artists are often placed by fans and critics on the rap continuum, when in fact they make something far more melodic.
With his new single ‘Check’ written with RAYE already storming the clubs, Kojo
has his eyes on a big year. His debut album is scheduled for 2018 and he wants to show it to
the world. “I wanna touch the Dubai’s and the Sweden’s. And I wanna touch America, man.
Where I’m from, we were always watching American lifestyle and culture. Now I just wanna