lohio gives off an air of quiet defiance; of unwavering self-belief, patiently earned. After years of being touted as the next big thing – in 2018 Naomi Campbell picked the Nigerian-born rapper in Vogue magazine among “10 rising female stars reimagining our future”; a year later she was named on BBC’s Sound of 2019 list – she’s finally on the cusp of releasing her long-awaited debut album, Out of Heart.
We meet at Tatale, the recently opened restaurant of Ghanaian-British chef, Akwasi Brenya-Mensa, at the Africa Centre in Southwark. It’s a few days after Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral and the death of Chris Kaba, an unarmed black man shot by a police officer in south London. “It’s a great time to talk about things that have been hidden underneath the carpet,” Flohio says, reflectively.
She watched the funeral, she tells me. “I found seventy years on the throne quite intriguing. It’s strong, but there’s skeletons in the closet, right?”
She describes Brenya-Mensa as “my brother”, with such conviction I momentarily assume she’s speaking literally. The chef and entrepreneur has been Flohio’s tour manager for the better part of three years. Together, they have roamed the breadth of Europe. She tells me she surrounds herself with “forward thinkers” with a vision of the future they’re willing to fight for. The creative alliances she carves are the products of loyalty forged over many years; her friendship with Brenya-Mensa is rooted in roaming the same streets as children.
Flohio – whose real name is Funmi Ohiosumah – is the kind of artist who challenges the status quo in her music – and having moved to south London from Nigeria aged eight with her family (her father is a pilot), she’s spent her life swimming among the shifting tides of gentrification and social change.
“I feel like our sense of community is dying now, a little bit,” she says. “People are moving out of south London to look for opportunities; some of my friends have just fell out of love with the area. But what little community is left, we try to hold onto.”
There’s a lesson to be learned, she thinks, from all the pageantry which surrounded the queen’s funeral – about who gets recognition, and where the money gets spent. Take youth centres – the first victim of austerity cuts. Flohio’s beginnings as an artist can be traced back sixteen years to The Salmon Youth Centre in Bermondsey, where, as a naturally shy, observant child, she would watch her peers MC, quietly developing the kind of intricate flows and incisive delivery which would eventually see her crowned as the victor of male-dominated battles. She can’t overstate the importance of such spaces for young people, she says.
“It was an outlet. I could be in a safe environment with my friends where we were allowed to explore as much as we wanted to. Nothing was too small; our ideas were never too small.” Now, she says bitterly, “a foundation is missing – good luck trying to find a replacement.” She is determined to step up herself, she tells me, to elevate young talent – with or without the resources. “Really and truly,” she says, “it takes everybody to raise a generation.”
Emerging in 2018 with her breakout single SE16, a collaboration with techno-inspired duo God Colony, Flohio established herself as an artist who felt claustrophobic in rap’s narrow margins. There was a variety of music in the house growing up (she has said that her mother’s taste erred towards gospel and afrobeat, while her dad would play “different vibes”, including Celine Dion) and now, drawn to alien sound design more suited to a Berghain DJ set than London’s inner-city house parties, she has created a sound entirely her own. She is a shrewd collaborator, a magpie of styles, relentlessly releasing singles and mixtapes: “I’m a creative junkie. There’s a hustler’s mentality that never gets turned off.”
But with success came misconceptions, she says. Observers simply saw a black rapper from south London and labelled her a “grime kid”.
“I never understood that. You’re giving people snippets of your life, and when you give people that power, they’re going to paint their own picture and run with that,” she shrugs. But she hasn’t rushed to change it – almost five years following her artistic breakthrough, only now is Flohio ready to make a full introduction with Out of Heart, which showcases a new side to the rapper. “I’m not just about heavy beats and intricate flows – though I do love my intricate flows,” she smirks, “but I guess I want to show a softer side to my music, some vulnerability.”
She has always been, she says, “a student of the game” and “really and truly, I felt like I just wasn’t ready [to release the album]. I want to learn a bit more.” She is wise to the irony that the same people begging for its release would be the first to criticise her for cutting corners if she rushed it.
To bring it to life, she has worked with the people who have supported her since her earliest drops. God Colony and producer Speech, who have been devoted to her work for almost a decade, are the architects behind Flohio’s vision to evoke “arcade nostalgia”. A seasoned gamer will pick up on sounds which echo a childhood spent on the PS3, losing hours to Crash Bandicoot, Donkey Kong and Final Fantasy. She recorded in studios in Bermondsey and Forest Hill, with Nigerian superstar Burna Boy and drill linchpin Unknown T coming through to party and listen to the new material.
Every aspect of the album carries a certain duality, from the division between the “cooler” and “hotter” songs, the vulnerable moments and the incendiary crowd-pleasers, down to to the title itself. It comes from a place of exhaustion, she says, but is also a statement that this album comes from a personal place.
Lead single SPF embodies these contradictions. A disco-indebted anthem with Flohio’s vocals elevated to futuristic heights through gleaming layers of distortion, it is not what it seems: “That’s a sad song, you know. I wasn’t in the best place. I was feeling disassociated from people around me, couldn’t trust anyone. I was going through family shit, losing friends…”
It’s not only strained relationships she’s referring to, but deep grief. “I was a musical kid,” she says. “If I wasn’t at home, I’d be with kids in my community. I wanted to put some of that into my music because some of these kids are no longer with us. There was a way they made me feel, certain emotions they left within me, you know… just wishing certain things didn’t end.”
The simpler time of just playing video games together is what Flohio is trying to conjure on Out of Heart, she says. “That’s what helped me solidify my friendships. We were carefree in that moment in time,” she tells me, running away with a memory of getting ice cream with her friends; coming back from house parties and picking up where they left off on the PlayStation, crashing on the sofa.
“F*** it, everybody always wants to talk about breaking up, relationships, and I’m just like, ‘Yo, I just want to capture a moment in time and embrace my youth once again’,” she says, wistfully.
Yet, despite all of this, Flohio has a certain serenity; she has learned to live with the loss. “I don’t really cry,” she shrugs. “I guess because it’s something that will happen eventually. We all have to go somewhere, sometime, but it’s the shock of it that gets me, like, ‘I literally just saw you last week.’ You have to learn how to make life easier for the next person you come across – because as you can see, life can just go, like that. Don’t be greedy, don’t hold onto your love. Show people that you genuinely care. It helps.”
Out of Heart (AWAL) is released on October 7