What does it mean to write for others and not just yourself? Ahead of his first international performance at London’s The Jago this Thursday 12th Sept, rising Sierra Leonean rap star Drizilik caught up with Skin Deep’s Courtney Yusuf to chat about the power of memory and listening in writing, losing a family to gain everything, and his slick new Krio album, Shukubly.

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Courtney Yusuf: You’re from Freetown, what’s your neighbourhood like?

Drizilik: I’m from Soja Tong in the central part of Freetown. I spent all my life there until lastyear. It’s a big but small community because everybody knows everybody. Back then kids used to play in the streets and it was like growing up in a bignursery. Family friendship was key and I could pass by five other places if I couldn’t enter my house at night. At times like this – school holidays – we’d be hanging out at the football fields over at Tower Hill playing aninter-street competition. I was the goalkeeper for the team on my street. Well, the second choice goalkeeper (laughs).

We played football everyday, bare hand tennis, and spent our lunch money on renting bikes and cycling far out. We used a lot of energy trying to connect with each other. Then allthe energy went into PlayStation and video games and it all kind of ended when we started going to carnivals and doing adult stuff. I lived there for 23 years of my life and everything I learned, everything I experienced has been around that community.

CY: And now?

D: Most of my friends’ parents have sold their plots of land and moved outside the city because it was getting too commercial – the traffic jams, the car honking. There are shops allover the place and a lot of offices. Kids can’t play in the streets no more as there are cars parked everywhere and a lot of accidents. People outgrew the old habits and started focusing more on other things in life. I know most of my friends have moved out of the hood – if I can call it that – and many have moved abroad or just out of sight. 

CY: What music did you listen to when you were growing up?

D: It actually changed over the years but in my house we used to listen to hip-hop and R&B of course. My mum used to travel to Europe a lot and would come back with all these CDs: Craig David (which I listened to a lot), and 50 cent. When it comes to Sierra Leonean artists, back then we used to listen to a whole lot of them, plenty. On the gospel side my aunts used to listen to Millicent Rhodes, Vicky Fonah and Kirk Frankly. There was a lot of Salone music too. It sounded like hi-life but it was modern and diverse and influenced by hip-hop and R&B.There were artists who would rap in Krio, English, and French all in one song. Then there were the bands you used to hire for weddings or naming ceremonies like Dr Oloh Band. They lived two or three streets away. There was a lot of music. Sometimes we would hear Bubu music [a more traditional percussive-heavy Sierra Leonean genre] but we were more into contemporary stuff back then. 

CY: Where did you learn how to be a rapper and musician?

D: I used to listen to a lot of music. Way more music than the average person. I think that’s how. I used to memorise every single lyric. My earliest memory of memorizing songs is from when I was in Class 1 in 2001. It was all those Celine Dion songs! My uncle would download the lyrics onto the VCR so I could read them. I would rewind one song for hours, just trying to memorize it. I think my love for music made me understand music before I knew I was a musician. 

When I decided to start writing raps my mentors were Kanye West and Drake – these people are versatile artists. Both of them do singing, rapping, production, and so they opened my mind to a lot of things. I listened to them a lot and tried to learn from them.I knew that if I were to enter into this kind of thing, I had to be that good.

CY: You now rap in Krio. What’s it like as alanguage to work in?

D: I started rapping in English because I was trying to sound like all the artists I knew, using the same literary devices and metaphors. But it got to the point where I needed to make myself relevant in the industry, so I started making music that would appeal more to my immediate Sierra Leonean audience, music that would connect and entertain them more. For performing on stage and not just for a record. When it comes to a crowd reaction, if you’re saying all your punchlines in English, and people don’t understand them, you don’t get a reaction.

So then I had to translate most of my lines to make them sound fun in Krio but that wasn’t easy. So instead of translating what I was saying from English, I started writing directly in Krio and listening a lot more to the local dialect. What’s funny in Krio? How do people express themselves? People have studied the English language really, really well and if you learn it well it can be diverse, used in poetry, plenty things. Of course we have Krio texts but the language hasn’t been explored like English and it isn’t really taught in schools. So when I started focusing on expressing myself in Krio, I had to really think about it and come up with a new style, adding a little bit of English too because I wanted this music to go worldwide. 

CY: Any phrases you love in Krio?

D: The phrase ‘kip tik biyen domot’ which means: ‘have a Plan b.’ 

CY: Last year you released your (first) album, Shukubly – what did you learn whilst putting it together?

D: Everything I know. I’ve been writing that album for my whole career. There are certain hooks and choruses I wrote three, four, even five years before they made it onto the album. Through that process I realized that I used to write songs to either show how skilled I was or the width of my vocabulary in English. But now I’m writing songs for the Sierra Leonean people to enjoy, giving them catchy hooks and phrases that changed the way I sounded. I was no longer writing for myself but for other people. But no matter the message, there is always a catchy hook. 

CY: Do you think that what a Sierra Leonean audience expects from an artist has changed?

D: Yeah. I came up with a young group of guys that had a mission to change the way musicians were seen in Sierra Leone. From 2010-2012, Sierra Leoneans had lost hope in their music. When things went digital with the invention of the internet, online streaming platforms, and mp3 downloads, Nigerian and American music flooded the market. There was music coming out of Ghana and the Francophone nations. So there was areal need for a new set of musicians in Sierra Leone, and we had to make it clear what was possible, that our music could sound this good. Our musicians can be professional and, even with all of the fame coming to them, responsible. So we kind of gave a new look to being a musician in Sierra Leone.

CY: How did your family respond to you becoming a musician?

D: When I chose being a musician, it wasn’t so well received by my parents. This meant the end of any allowances, the end of being treated like a child, which was a big decision for me to make. I had to lose everything to gain everything. I used to blame them for not supporting me but now I realize that I was hard to support. None of my friends were musicians, none of my parents’ friends were musicians. They didn’t know what to tell me. So I was kind of left to figure out how to go about my life for a very long period of time.

CY: Have you got a dream place to perform Shukubly?

D: The O2 in London. Madison Square Garden in New York. It might sound farfetched but it’s not so far. Actually achieving what I have already, getting a visa to go to the UK and getting booked for festivals – these are already big things! When I think about how much further I could go it excites me. Conquering these challenges has allowed me to start thinking of, anticipating and expecting bigger things. Playing at those venues used to just be a dream, but it’s not a dream any more. It’s something that I’m working towards.

CY: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in the music industry?

D: First of all you have to decide: Is this what I want to do? Music is so addictive. If you make it half and half you end up being miserable. You can’t be on top forever so you have to actually make use of the time you have in the industry from the very beginning.You don’t have to have a hit song to be a part of it. Take it seriously from the start. It’s not just about the skill and talent but the practice and time you put in. 

You can check out Shukubly here and see Drizilik, Brother Portrait, the Freetown Uncut Band and more in the Sierra Leone showcase this Thursday 12th Sept. Buy tickets here.