On a brisk, murky-skied day in early April, Rejjie Snow is standing outside a local branch of the Tesco in Drumcondra, a residential area of north Dublin, Ireland. “You wanted to see where I grew up, right?” The small street and local stores seem unremarkable, but their significance for the 23-year-old rapper is undeniable. “God, I’ve spent a lot of time on these roads,” he says. Affectionately glancing around, he points out his Jesuit Catholic school across the street. “Just chilling and walking about. Hours and hours of this scene.”
Inside a no-frills “greasy spoon” cafe on the strip, the artist born Alex Anyaebunam sits opposite me and immediately orders tea and a cheese sandwich. He’s wearing a soft grey fleece tracksuit, black and gold Nike TNs, and his hands are adorned with sovereign rings and tattoos. He sits quietly, smiling often, and speaking with a disarming charm, even as he’s trying to soothe a cold by inhaling a menthol nasal tube. It’s as if his body is physically unsettled as he prepares to to relocate to Brooklyn later this month. He’s left plenty of times before — most recently for a year’s spell in Los Angeles, and before that a boarding school in Florida — but now he isn’t sure when, if ever, he’ll ever live in Ireland again.
Snow, born to a Nigerian father and an Irish-Jamaican mother, grew up as a distinct minority in an Ireland that was unused to integrating with immigrant populations. (Out of Dublin’s 5 million residents, 1.9 percent are Asian and 1.4 percent are black.) From a young age he gravitated to what he calls the “weirdness” of N.E.R.D. production and the sharp snarl of Tyler, The Creator. Later, he blew up on YouTube as a teenager with warped cuts like 2012’s “Meddling Loops.” Since then, Snow has been simmering on low heat with occasional bursts of fire. 2013’s confident debut EP Rejovich peaked at No. 1 on iTunes’s hip-hop chart, and the video for his official debut single racked up half a million views in its first week. In summer 2016, he was signed to 300-affiliated imprint Honeymoon, and later upstreamed to the main label. 300 is currently headed up by Kevin Liles, who says over email that Snow is “the definition of true artistry — from the first time I met him, I knew he’d be family forever.” It would suggest that there is anticipation for his debut album Dear Annie, out later this year, on which he raps of his heartbreak and melancholy atop a kaleidoscope of beats and basslines. It’s a look back on old relationships and touches on his beginnings, which we discuss against the backdrop of these roads that framed his formative years, crossed thousands of times.
You attended Catholic school in Dublin. Did you connect with the devotional music of the church?
Not really, but I went to Nigeria twice when I was a kid and saw the churches there. It got me into devotional music because everyone looked like me and I felt connected — as opposed to going to church [in Ireland] and just not feeling it. I'd say my Dad has got the Lagos party spirit, [he’s] just happy and always dancing. I grew up listening to a lot of pop music like Queen, and I was a massive George Michael fan — I was gonna get a tattoo of him. When he died I was heartbroken. I wanted to meet him and show him my album.
What was your gateway into hip-hop?
I discovered hip-hop through soundtracks on PlayStation games, and skate videos like Tony Hawk and the radio on GTA. I didn't really identify with people like Tupac and Biggie so I gravitated towards more eccentric stuff, like MF DOOM. It felt more colorful to me. I think hip-hop is kinda corny.
I don’t know, just the culture, the approach...when I made that song “Loveleen” I was feeling it a bit. I think I didn’t connect with the hip-hop image, and how a lot of artists are set up to be exploited. I guess I connected more to what you might call conscious and artistic rap — not just 16 bars talking about shit you don’t even do.
You were in a boarding school in Florida for some of your teenage years. What effect did that have on you?
From 16 to 22 I lived away [from Dublin]. I was in Florida playing football on a scholarship, which was weird. It was oppressive, there was a lot of rules, and I was getting shouted at. But I needed [the strict regime] because I was super lost. I was getting into trouble. It was great because it was really international and I learned about cultures that weren’t around me in Dublin — like, my roommates were from Korea, so that was an education. Then I went to a college for a year, to art school because I draw as well. Then, I dropped out after a year and a half because I dropped a track on YouTube and saw a load of people fuck with it.
What kind of trouble were you getting into?
I don't do drugs or anything like that but I was doing graffiti on trains. That graffiti culture in Dublin is what also got me into music. It's dangerous; I've had friends who have died. You'd go to where a train is parked up, so you’d write your name, or letters, not stencils, that's too “art faggy.” When I say that, I don't mean to sound homophobic, it's the term used in the community to describe people that do stencils like Banksy...it’s not the real shit. But yeah, I’d never say that term now but people use it. Dublin has a real underground culture of [graffiti]. When I discovered it it took over my life. Part of it is stealing the spray cans, and then that got me into other shit.
“I respect anyone who died for a cause. That’s how I’m trying to hold my life.” —Rejjie Snow
After we eat, Snow suggests I meet one of his childhood friends at their home. During our short taxi ride, he points out old bits of graffiti that have stood the test of time since school days, and alleyways where he had fights with other kids. Once we arrive, we’re greeted at the front door by Dale, a charismatic producer who makes beats as Loop Heavy, and is also a boxer. For his debut album, Snow has been working with Domo Genesis collaborator Cam O’bi and L.A. producer and Grammy-winner Rahki. Today, however, is about keeping it low key with a familiar, old friend.
“You can probably count on one hand the number of people doing hip-hop in Dublin,” says Dale. We’re in a makeshift studio at the bottom of the house’s compact garden. The cozy space is adorned with N.W.A. posters, piles of rap magazines like The Source and Hip Hop Connection. Dale’s computer is packed with Snow demos, and other general beats made on the fly saved with names like “Yup.” The producer tells an anecdote of getting Snow successfully into clubs by using a fake ID with “another black guy on it.” It hits on the reality of how the rapper might have learned to navigate his way through a majority-white surroundings growing up. The story is shrugged off: in their version, they’ve subverted the sometimes insidious racism of club bouncers. They move on to praising the new Kendrick Lamar single “Humble,” and a huge mural of Stormzy that recently popped up in Dublin’s city center.
You’ve spoken about police brutality on tracks like “Crooked Cops.” How much of a political agenda is in your music?
“Crooked Cops” is a reflection of my time in Los Angeles while I was working on this album. The tension in the air was real. Even being a complete outsider I felt like I was accountable to some degree, or had an obligation to speak on it in some way. Being out there I learnt a lot. I still have no time for the law. Right now, my main concern is community and giving back. Kids truly are the future and they're smarter than ever. I feel that the same people that are being labeled and getting black-balled, can go on to do amazing things with the right development.
Who are your creative and political inspirations?
Politically? Michael Collins [an Irish politician who advocated for independence]. He’s someone that really fought for a real reason — a man of the people. [I admire] people who take things into their own hands and control their own destiny and die for their cause, and also Bobby Sands.
I respect anyone who died for a cause. It's one of the most beautiful things ever. That's how I'm trying to hold my life. So I can die being proud of what I did. Give back to my city. That’s really all I’m trying to do now. When I was younger I was thinking about making money and me me me, but I don’t get anything from that.
As someone who has grown up hearing rap with an American cadence, what musical considerations do you make for your Irish accent?
I think subconsciously you think about it. I think we [Irish artists] need to make our own sound — like how the U.K. were like, "OK, we need our own thing because we don’t fit on U.S. rap beats," so they created grime. That’s what we need.
Is there a creative community in Dublin that you’re connected to?
Have you had defining moments that made you realise that this is what you wanted to do?
I met Pharrell when I was 12 — I went to a show at the Olympia in Dublin with my parents. I knew every word to the songs, and I was like, “He keeps looking at me!” Then he pulls me up on stage and I just rapped “Rockstar” along with him. I was a little kid wearing a fitted cap and baggy hoodie, and I knew I wanted to do that. It was a sick feeling.
“You can probably count on one hand the number of people doing hip-hop in Dublin.” —Dale
Later, Snow is in a photography studio in Ormond Quay, central Dublin, posing to the camera with ease. “I’m in my happiest place musically,” he says during a break in shooting, as he slowly munches on a burrito. “I’m making stuff that I really like.” He’s photogenic and understands the power of image and aesthetic, and explains to me that his interests in photography, drawing, film, and art, inform what he makes in the studio. His upcoming album Dear Annie is about an ex-girlfriend, loss, and rebirth, but was also inspired by “a load of Blaxploitation films.”
Before that drops, he’ll put out a mixtape this month titled The Moon and You. When pressed on the title, all he’ll say is that “it’s just about my love for the moon…I feel really connected to it.” For Snow, feeling the connection is a bigger thing than explaining it, and viscerality dictates much of his creative life. Between poses, he gazes out to the quay from the studio, looking older than his years as he pensively takes in each reflection of the water before he departs his home for Brooklyn. As the shoot winds down, I ask him if he’s excited about what’s next and his face transforms into a glowing, boyish grin. He looks young again. “Yeah, I’m excited!” he laughs, “I just wanna be massive — and who knows? Maybe I will be.”
What does Dear Annie sound like?
I just wanted the album to feel like a movie basically. I’m just happy it’s finished, it’s not going to be my College Dropout album, it’s just something I needed to get out. My time is yet to come to blossom into who I really want to be. But I can see it coming, I trust myself more than ever now. I’m not going to fuck about trying to impress people anymore. For a while it was in the back of my head making tracks and just getting blast. Sonically. I guess the most prominent instrument is the piano. I think that sets the sombre mood for me. The instruments make it real colorful, that's how I wanted it to come across. It feels like a movie. The artwork is a photo of my friend’s mum when she was 18. She’s got a big ginger curly afro.
What does signing to 300 mean for the future?
I’m lucky that I get to do that at this stage of my career. By the time the second album’s finished I’ll hopefully be a bigger artist. I’ll be much more in control about my vision and stuff. I’ll have much more of a platform.
How much creative urgency do you experience?
A lot! Everything has to happen now. But, I think that things have to happen. I understand I'm still young. It's about knowing that I'm going to make mistakes and then learning from them; that's what it's all about. It's a weird industry too. It's got mad pitfalls. You have to be strong, really. This shit can crack a lot of people. I seen it. I'm just trying to protect myself. Keep everything low-key. Have good people around me, have good energy. With my music you just listen to it, and you know, it's not like I need to explain every detail.
Have you had difficulty navigating black Irish identity to people unfamiliar with you?
Recently, I had an altercation with someone, in New York, because he was ignorant about me being Irish. What came from that was me understanding that you can't expect everyone to just understand everything. He was saying, “Oh, you're not Irish.” Normally that would just go over my head but, I guess this time I took it quite personally.
I’ve experienced many things racially, the fact that I'm saying I'm Irish, that should be a thing in itself. People should respect that. But I'm not obsessed with skin. I don't have many black friends. I’m just the product of my environment. Most of my mates are Irish, so I was always just the black sheep.
Where does home feel like for you?
I don't know really, but I guess Drumcondra. This is where my friends and family are, and my family are everything to me. I wanna make them proud, and everything else is just a bonus. I'm not someone to totally invest my life in other people's opinions. Even with music, I don't want to have to explain myself too much because it's like, Why should I have to? It's all there — it’s up to people to find the meaning.