- TextTed Stansfield
Up for this year’s Mercury Prize, alongside Arctic Monkeys and King Krule, the 21-year-old musician is a force to be reckoned with. Here, he opens up his nomination and his faith
“I tensed up,” says Novelist, recalling the moment he found out that he was nominated for the Mercury Prize 2018. “I was really happy. Because it’s something that you hear about. I wouldn’t ever discount that I could be a part of it, but when it happens it’s different. It’s not a desire anymore, it’s actually happening. It’s a dream come true.”
Awarded for the best album released in the UK by a British or Irish act, recent winners of the Mercury Prize include The xx, PJ Harvey, alt-J, Young Fathers, Benjamin Clementine, his collaborator and former Another Man cover star Skepta, and most recently Sampha. So it’s fair to say that it’s a big deal for the 21-year-old musician and producer.
Born in Lewisham, Novelist (real name Kojo Kankam) first began drawing attention on pirate radio stations. A founding member of grime crew The Square, he was dubbed “the new face of grime” and played a role in its resurgence; he took to the stage alongside a who’s who of the scene during that Kanye West’s BRIT performance in 2015 and featured on Skepta’s album Konnichiwa released the following year.
Released in April, Novelist Guy was Novelist’s first full album of his own and it was received to glowing reviews in the press – the Guardian lauded its “commanding production”, while the Financial Times slated it “a landmark grime release”. For all it’s musical merits, Novelist Guy is a highly-political and social-conscious record with more-than-subtle hints to his faith. In Stop Killing the Mandem he rallies against police brutality towards black men, in Start he reminds us that “giving love is healing like a plaster”, while in Dot Dot Dot he raps “God’s on my door like knock knock knock”.
God has always been a part of Novelist’s life – and his music – but in the last year or two, he seems to have taken more of a centre stage. Follow him on Twitter and you’ll know this to be true. Here, he opens up about this part of his life and his very-well-deserved Mercury Nomination.
What does this nomination represent to you?
I always bring it back to the art. It’s a great stamp to say that ‘this is great art’, because they’re known for promoting great art. When I was making my music, I wasn’t thinking about award shows. I was just thinking about making the best music I could. I’m glad that with the Mercury it can reach way more people, than what I’d be able to do myself.
How do you stay grounded?
Yeah, 100%. You know what it is, in my life, I know that the wealth is in the people. So no matter what happens, I’ll be rich. I care about people more than accolades. It’s not that they don’t excite me, things do excite me, but the really, really important things in life are very overlooked. But I see them.
“In my life, I know that the wealth is in the people. So no matter what happens, I’ll be rich” – Novelist
Have you always been like that?
Nah, I haven’t always been like that. In my heart I’ve always been like that, but I haven’t always moved according to what I know. God is a very big part of that. Everyone is valuable, every person is valuable. We should all inspire each other. We should all use the gifts we’ve been given to inspire each other. I like being able to do that.
Has your faith always been a big part of your life?
Nah, you know what it is, with life, you progress in your confidence, you progress in your understanding of things, and as a child of God I believe we’re all sinners saved by grace. So now I fully understand that, I talk about my faith freely. It’s nothing to hide. I’m 21 now, so this is a landmark age of a man, worldwide. I’m a man now and I like to be responsible for my words and my faith in Jesus Christ makes me think, ‘What am I putting out there?’
From afar, it looked like there was a shift – I wasn’t aware that you were a Christian, then I started seeing your tweets… Was there a before-and-after moment, or have you always been a Christian?
I’ve always been a Christian, but now I’m really living as a Christian, rather than just knowing about Jesus. Now I want my life to be like this. I want to live as a Christian man. I’m really proud of that, I’m really happy that I’m still alive, that God’s given me breath, and that he’s given me a platform where I can talk about Jesus.
What does that mean for you as a rapper, as a musician, living as a Christian man?
It means that the love that God has given me, that I’ve come into an understanding of, I can give to other people. I can really give it. Because I have it. You can’t give what you don’t possess. I have it now. I see things differently [now] and I love people, much more. I’ve always loved people, but I see people so differently now. Even my so-called enemies. If they knew what I knew, they’d act differently. I love them all. A clear part of my life is music, so it will seep into that. If I started painting pictures, I’d probably be inspired by God in that as well.
“I see things differently [now] and I love people, much more. I’ve always loved people, but I see people so differently now. Even my so-called enemies. If they knew what I knew, they’d act differently. I love them all”
What does Jesus mean to you?
I believe that he’s reconciled all of us, as sinners, back to God Almighty. To give your life is a deep thing – he actually said it, that one of the greatest loves is to give your life for a friend. I feel his Spirit. It’s not something that you can give to someone, it’s something they have to find. And I’ve found it. It’s even written that if you’ve seen Jesus, you’ve seen the Father.
You say that God’s given you a platform. Do you feel like he’s given you a calling?
Yeah, everyone’s got it. I’ve got it. But whatever I do, it’s going to shine it. It’s written already, do you know what I’m saying? [laughs]
And do you feel like music is a part of your calling?
Yeah, of course. I wouldn’t be doing it if it wasn’t. So yeah, 100%.
What issues are important to you?
The album speaks for itself. All the songs on my album, they talk about things. But I’m not a political guy, I know a lot of people see it that way, but I’m everybody else. Except people can hear my voice, whereas they can’t hear the average Joe’s voice, so they’re going to be like ‘look at Novelist’s opinions’. But I know that as a musician, I have a social responsibility and not everyone sees it that way.
What kind of responsibility?
Just to keep it real and try and make a change when you can. In 2016 I was very aware of what was going on in politics, so to speak, so that’s why I tweeted Jeremy Corbyn. [“Do not resign. The mandem need you,” he wrote.] But I don’t want to be a politics guy or nothing like that. I’m just a man.
In a recent interview you said, ‘I’m obliged to give the knowledge that I have and speak the truth. I’ll die for the truth.’ What truth is that?
Jesus. ‘I am the way, the truth and the life.’ Jesus is the truth.