The Rap Game UK winner Graft: 'The more rappers from the North, the better the scene will be'
Graft has won The Rap Game UK Series 2 - he explains why the North of England needs a voice in rap and why there's no sexism in his lyrics.
Graft - winner of The Rap Game UK series 2 - almost became famous for another reason: football. The rapper had a budding career as a footballer and reached academy level before pursuing music – a decision that clearly paid off.
His heartfelt lyrics, in which he actively steers away from sexist themes, and determination won over presenters Krept, Konan and DJ Target, leading to the Northerner triumphing over strong competition.
The respect and appreciation of women that he raps about stood out to the presenters, and Graft wants his listeners to hear it too. "I've come from watching music videos from the 90s, Tupac and Biggie and LL Cool J, those types of rappers really uplifted women and spoke about love," he explains.
"I haven't always spoken about women in the best way, I've never spoken about them in a negative or bad way, but in hindsight, I said certain things growing up that came from a lack of knowledge and an immature place.
"Now I'm older, I want to push the right message because music is very influential. It touches a lot of people, young kids are listening to it, and people who have the same message as me are gonna be feeling what I say. When I listen to music these days, it's just the same stuff, the same message. Nice cars, nice girls, clothes… fair enough, if that's your environment, cool, but I know there are so many more people who want to hear a different thing."
While writing lyrics was something he'd done since he was a young teenager, deciding to leave football wasn't easy.
"My football career wasn't going as well as I would've liked at the time. I decided to put more energy into music. It was hard to make that decision because I was always set on becoming a footballer, but I knew something was calling me to pursue music. After about two years of deliberation of whether to pursue football or music, I chose music, and here I am today."
Graft had already been making waves in the rap scene before appearing on The Rap Game, receiving airplay for his music videos from respected platform LinkUpTV, and winning a MOBO UnSung award last year. He hopes the show will propel his career to the next level, and open up the British rap scene beyond its London heart.
"Obviously London is the founder of grime and UK rap for sure, we all know that," he says. "But my mission is to establish myself and put myself on the map, really establish my career in this industry and take it by storm, nobody else is bringing what I'm bringing.
"Once I’ve done that, I can bring other artists from Leeds and surrounding areas into the limelight, I can't just take it all up myself, there are so many other artists who are deserving. The more artists from the north and Leeds there are coming through, it makes it more of a collective. It makes the scene more wholesome and more people can relate."
The Leeds scene was a vibrant starting point for Graft, but he thinks some northern artists never got the exposure they deserved.
"Within Leeds, there's always been a really good scene. I feel like there's been a lot of older artists that never really got the opportunities the younger artists like myself have, they're like the founders of the scene," he explains.
"Then there's youngsters coming up like me, making a lot of noise and putting a limelight on Leeds for the new generation. You've got drill artists, grime, R'n'B singers, people doing more of the commercial stuff, jazz, rock… there's so much going on in the Leeds scene, it just needs someone to break through and shed more of a light on it. There's so much talent, they just haven't got out there as much as they can.
The music industry can be a Wild West – The Rap Game's Lesia and Zones can attest to this, as both said they'd encountered people who wanted to capitalise on the fact they're women, rather than focusing on their sound – and Graft wants to ensure he works with the right people, and succeed without compromising his authenticity. He'll get a head start after winning The Rap Game, with a single deal with Krept and Konan's Play Dirty Records, and the support of the label.
"I want to start building the right team around myself like a manager, A&R, PR – get around the right people so I can manoeuvre within the industry and build a network and links," he says.
"There are a lot of eyes on me right now and I've got to keep my eye on the ball and think ahead. There's a lot of money to be made, but I'm not in the music industry just to make money, I'm here to really change the game and speak to the masses."
Buying his mum a house is on his to-do list, as well as ensuring that he and his closest family members are looked after money-wise, but for now, it's all about staying focused and gearing up for his first music release, which is yet to be announced. The pandemic might have stalled the music industry, but it definitely hasn't killed Graft's ambition.
"For me, I'm staying productive, I'm hopeful, I believe in myself so much that regardless of the situation to do with Covid, I know I'm going to do amazing things regardless," he says. "Where there's a will, there's a way."