The wonderful world of Skepta and what we can learn from it 

For the past week I’ve had Gas Me Up (Diligent) on repeat. On one of my recent listens I thought to myself “I swear this guy released a film like last week”. He did. Tribal Mark, Big Smoke’s directional debut, tells the story of a Nigerian immigrant turned hit man exploring the effects of migration and conflicts of assimilation on the human psyche. In an interview with BBC News Africa surrounding the film’s release, Skepta vented his exasperation at one of the most tiresome debates in modern cinema “There’s always talks of who’s gonna be the Black James Bond, after a while I just kinda got bored of that narrative and you know, James Bond is white” continuing “So I wanted to make a character, a superhero, for Black actors way beyond my time”.

This DIY attitude defines Skepta’s career. It makes sense considering his origins as a DJ and ascent into stardom as a grime emcee. Subcultures are typically born out of the innovations of marginalised people, shunned by mainstream institutions. The pirate radio sets that served as grime’s natural habitat are one of Britain’s best examples. Generally, grassroots art is more interesting because it isn’t watered down to appease the sensibilities of people outside of the culture. This is why plaudits from institutions beyond community don't mean much to authentic creators. On 2017’s Hypocrisy he raps about his contempt for a Western eco-system seeking to swallow him up in the wake of his success “The MBE got rejected, I’m not tryna be accepted”. He doubled down on the claim on his guest verse on Ghett’s IC3 rapping “The Queen offered me the MBE, I said no and I raised my fist. I went home, got my chieftaincy, now I’m back on the strip” . For me these were pivotal moments in understanding that Skepta represented something beyond his art being enjoyable. I have never trusted figures who build their careers from proximity to Blackness, then gladly take on a title to join an empire built on the belief that Black people are less human. In 2018 Skepta was made a Chief in his parent’s hometown in Nigeria. He proudly rapped “I’m a chief if my father’s village” on his guest verse on the remix of K-Trap’s monster hit Warm. These decisions come naturally to Skepta, who has always prioritised community over accolades from the machine. Its this authentic creative environment, where people are creating, just because they love it, that saw Skepta seamlessly transition from selecting riddims behind the decks to blessing the mic. Emerging creatives everywhere can relate to having to wear many hats to make their vision a reality. Before founding Sludge Mag I have memories of styling my own shoots trying to build my photography portfolio, carrying suitcases of clothes and camera equipment alone to shoots. Fond memories.

After closing out the noughties with marquee albums Greatest Hits and Microphone Champion, Skepta entered the 2010s where we would really see the fruits of his versatility and unwillingness to conform. Solidifying himself as a guiding light for ambitious young people everywhere. After the indifferent Doin’ It Again album in 2011 (a project that in Skepta’s defence should be understood within the context of a confused time for Black music in the U.K. as we struggled to navigate newfound pop validation and American influence) Skepta’s exceptional Blacklisted in 2012 would lay the groundwork for massive creative expansion. 2 years later the JME assisted That’s Not Me would emerge as one of the soundtracks of grime’s modern resurgence. He picked up a MOBO award for Best Video and delivered a rousing speech awakening a sleeper cell of dormant DOPs. “I said if there’s one award I wanna win it’s for this video that’s not me because: coming from the streets you feel like, my man’s video’s £100’000, my man’s video’s £1’000’000, you get me? So I have to keep up with that. That’s not me video cost me eighty English pounds” continuing to big up a plucky up and comer by the name of Stormzy.

If the MOBO, subsequent Mercury Prize, era defining Konnichiwa album and other musical accolades weren’t enough 2017 marked Skepta down as a serious player in the fashion game. The shrewd appointment of Grace Ladoja as co-manager in 2014 was undoubtedly a key step in establishing his cool factor, with the launch of his MAINS London line with Selfridges in 2017 really solidifying his standing. During my final year of university I was working as a sales assistant in Selfridges and I can attest to the MAINS line and his first collaborative shoe with Nike the sought after ‘SK Air’ having the youth in an absolute chokehold. This is a testament to surrounding yourself with people who understand you as a person first, rather than seeing you as a commodity. Grace Ladoja’s impact on Skepta’s career trajectory can’t be ignored. The Metallic Inc co-founder boasts a clientele ranging from Supreme to Fenty and facilities ongoing cultural exchanges between London and Lagos. Her own craft mirrors the values of Skepta’s creative pursuits since they joined forces. Skepta’s willingness to branch out and trust the input of Ladoja is easy to overlook now that it has gone so swimmingly. But in 2014 linking up with Nasir Mazhar and appearing on the runway was not a “safe" move for a grime emcee. 

Appearances of GQ’s Best Dressed list and catwalk showings were likely key factors in Skepta becoming the face of Diesel in 2021. For lifelong grime fans like myself Skepta has always been famous, so these later accolades might feel like a continuation of constant success. But if we really think back to watching him alongside other emcees freestyling to beats playing out of car stereos in the early 2000s, the path to their present reality was not linear or inevitable at all. When Skepta went up against Devilman is Jammer’s basement in 2006, even the most ardent believers in grime’s potentials would not have foresaw Skepta becoming a painter and selling Mama goes to market for £81,900 at Sotheby’s. His life should remind us of a few things. Creativity is the discipline, not mediums. Taking risks leads to greater rewards. If something doesn’t exist, don’t complain, create it. Surrounding yourself with people who understand your vision is key. Perhaps most importantly, you never know what’s around the corner if you believe in yourself.

Article by Martyn Ewoma


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