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Grove’s radical self-expression inspires collective freedom

Jemima Skala speaks to Grove, whose empowerment anthems will make you "get down and dutty wine!"

  • Words: Jemima Skala | Photography: Khali Ackford
  • 28 April 2021

With their politically charged lyrics and beats inspired by dancehall, jungle and drum ‘n’ bass, there’s no one doing it like Grove. Growing up in Cheltenham, their parents divorced when they were young, which led to a diverse musical education. “My dad had this mixtape in his car which had a huge variation of stuff from Bruce Springsteen to Wyclef to Cyndi Lauper and everything in between,” they remember. “On my mum’s side, I’ve got memories of reggae music and also power ballads, just singing and dancing all night long.”

Although there wasn’t much of a scene in Cheltenham for the kind of music that they wanted to make, Grove soon got involved with the local hip hop collective 5 Mics which offered them essential mentorship that they needed to gain confidence in their music and themselves as a musician. Two years ago, Grove took the plunge and moved to Bristol, where they’ve been embedding themselves in the musical and political history of the city.

Grove’s debut release - ‘Queer + Black’ - came out earlier this year. Inflected with hints of hyperpop, dancehall and jungle, it’s as carefree and sweaty as it is intensely personal, charting Grove’s journey of self-discovery as they began to step into themselves as a queer Black person. With songs like ‘Fuck Ur Landlord’ and ‘Ur Boyfriend’s Wack’, Grove makes no apologies for themselves or their views, simply asking listeners to get on board or get off the bandwagon.

In everything they do, Grove reaches for collectivity. From making leftist politics accessible through music or just bringing their audience together for a good old dance, their ambitions, both musical and political, are refreshingly utopian. In pushing for change, Grove asks for a mutual vulnerability, breaking down barriers in order to build something productive.

Have a read through their interview with Mixmag and get stuck into their Impact mix below.

How did you settle on music as something you could do?

It’s a weird one in terms of my journey with music because I never really thought that I could do this. I was in Year 6, they were casting for the school play of Aladdin, and I had no idea I could sing but then the music teacher cast me as Aladdin. That was the first time I performed. From there, I’ve developed this unhealthy obsession with performing and music, and wanted to explore all elements of it. I did that through some unconventional methods.

What were those?

The main thing was when I was 14, I had the GarageBand app on my iPhone 3 and started playing around on that. For two years, I was exclusively producing and multitracking on that. I had a Casio keyboard, the one with the “yeah” sound, and I would use my phone as a multitracker, recording all of these different layers to make pop tunes. I ended up showing it to someone who actually thought it was good on some level. They gave me a laptop through a community studio and really helped to mentor me into proper making and production. Through this, I’d also been part of a rock and metal band, singing in one, and part of various hip hop collectives.

How did you settle on your current sound, then?

There’s two really big influences on where I’m at now. The first is the hip hop collective I was part of, 5 Mics. Through that I met two sick rappers JPDL and Griz-O, and they mentored me in terms of everything to do with lyricism and rapping, alongside singing. I got really confident with doing that over the years that we spent together. I’m also part of an electronic duo called BAAST, which is me and a wicked producer called Diessa, so we were learning production together. We learnt dance electronic sensibilities and incorporating more abstract and harsh sounds into that. Melding pop, electronic and hip hop experiences has created what’s happening now.

Griz-O features on your EP, doesn’t he?

He does! It’s a really nice full circle moment because he’s featured me on a few of his tracks before, which were some of my first features. It’s proper character-building stuff.

With all of that mentoring and discovery, how do you think you’ve evolved in your musical practice?

I think my environments shape me a lot in terms of what I’m creating. About two years ago I moved to Bristol and that was a kickstarting moment, having so much creativity and so much acceptance of all those different forms of creativity around and constantly being stimulated by new sounds and new perspectives. That really helped me home in and shape my current path.

Bristol is very audible in your music, especially the political nature of it.

I still had leftist principles before moving to Bristol. Those were formed through my friendship with Diessa. We were both living in Cheltenham being lefty as fuck! Bristol definitely brings that out even further. It’s a great place for relating to people on a political level and feeling free to express it. In some cities, it would be more contained in terms of how you express it, and people might turn their nose up at it whereas in Bristol, you could say something like “fuck your landlord” and everyone’s like, “off with their heads, mate!”

Read this next: Politics and dance music are intertwined and there's nothing you can do about it

What was Cheltenham like for you growing up as a musician?

Previously, I’ve said that I felt so not seen there, but I’ve been re-evaluating that because although there wasn’t much of a scene for the music that I’m currently making or that 5 Mics made, there were some really key people who believed in us and wanted us to do the best. Malaki Patterson is one, who helps run The Music Works. I was part of an artist development programme there, and if it weren’t for people like him and the small scene that there was for the hip hop community, I’d be on a very different path. I’m very grateful for the experiences that I had in Cheltenham because they’ve definitely shaped me as an artist.

Talk to me about the ideas and process for ‘Queer + Black’ then.

I started writing the tracks when I first moved to Bristol, so a lot of it is about my life experience. I wrote ‘Sticky’ with the intention of like wanting to write a dutty dancehall-infused rave tune that is for queer femme people of colour. I went to Pxssy Palace for the first time after living in Cheltenham which is a very homogenous place, and Pxssy Palace a place where I felt like I belonged the most ever. ‘Ur Boyfriend’s Wack’ is tongue in cheek, but the understory of it is reclaiming the shame that I had felt growing up in my queerness. The lyrics “sitting in the dark, palms pressed to my eyes / Can’t stop thinking bout the girl / No I can’t stop thinking, thinking”, that was a literal thing that happened. But what better way to alleviate the shame than turning it into a dance track and making it jokes! ‘F.I.U.’ is a production-only track and it’s just highlighting that I produce as well. I produce everything.

Read this next: Pxssy Palace and gal-dem's Sugar are setting the blueprint for safe clubbing

Production definitely gets lost sometimes when a vocalist also does their own production. The tendency is to focus on the vocals.

It feels like a pretty mad thing to have done vocals, produced and mixed everything. I definitely learned so much from it through the whole process but it’s just a lot to be on the shoulders of little me! I’m looking forward to working and collaborating with other people because it’s an exciting prospect.

With ‘Sticky’ being dancehall-inspired, what does dancehall mean to you?

Historically, in dancehall culture, there’s been an openness with which people would be anti-gay, and there are specific songs that imply that you should be shot. Making dancehall that is actively queer friendly and queer-centric is important. There are so many people of colour of Caribbean descent that are queer and who want music that is of Caribbean descent and queer. Making that is really fun for me to connect the dots between Caribbean music culture and the queer!

Would you say that making dancehall inspired tunes for you is a way to honour your Caribbean heritage at the same time as honouring yourself?

Totally. Within the Black community, there’s an undercurrent of homophobia that I’m constantly worried about. Ultimately, I want to be accepted by half of my heritage. I want that to be in an open sense. For example, my Jamaican nan found out that I’m gay. She’s a proper Christian Jamaican woman, and I initially felt a sense of rejection from her saying to me, it’s just a phase, have you got a boyfriend yet. Literally for the past five years, every phone call was like, have you got a boyfriend yet? At this point, she’s saying it as a joke but at the beginning it wasn’t. That kind of thing cut deep, and it’s not just with my grandma, it’s with other people in the Black community. I want to have a safe space within music for myself and other people to just get down and dutty wine!

Read this next: Berserk dancehall: How Equiknoxx caught the world's attention

How do you approach making a track then?

It really varies. In general, I start off quite sample-based. I’ll find a sample from a YouTube video that’s really jokes or really poignant and quite serious. I start off incorporating that in and then making drums around that and making a feeling around that. Quite often, I won’t even leave the sample in, sometimes I will, but I take the sample out and then you’re left with the feeling but minus the words. When I’m writing lyrics, I’m constantly writing an odd sentence here and there, then I’ll be ready—it could be just sixteen bars—to start piecing together the concepts that I want from it. Sometimes I can produce a whole track intending it as an instrumental, and then I’ll be like, ooh is there room for me to sing here? It really does depend, but the sample based one is most common.

That feels really clear in ‘Black’ with the Nina Simone sample. How did you find that?

I’m pretty obsessed with watching Nina Simone interviews. I’ve got so many of them saved and I’ve watched them so many times. That bit that I sampled has always just stuck with me, it gives me goosebumps. It just made perfect sense. It wasn’t even a conscious thought to include it in the track; ‘Black’ was written the week after the Edward Colston statue was pulled down and the Black Liberation Movement was at a really solid point. It’s a proper empowerment tune, written to reflect that I was feeling so empowered in my Blackness within my biracial identity. That sample perfectly represented that.

How important is it to you to be political and voice those views in your music?

Obviously, there is a place for not being political in music and a place for just a dance tune that’s sticky and sweaty for the sake of it, but if you’ve got a strong opinion and you’ve got something to say on the matter, to intentionally hide it for the sake of monetary gain is not genuine to me. I would rather be super open and real. If the compromise of that is alienating a few people, then ultimately the music isn’t intended for them. Music with intention is a thing that I fully subscribe to.

‘Fuck Ur Landlord’ speaks about class disparity; how do you notice that in the music industry?

With ‘Fuck Ur Landlord’, it’s encouraging a contemplation of whether landlords are good for society. Systematically and structurally, landlords are wack! They’re stealing half of everyone’s rent and that’s just the normal thing. Who are the real people leeching off of others, is it the people barely getting by relying on welfare or is it the people literally zapping money from the whole of the working class? I could carry on, but in terms of the music industry, I think a big thing that people are noticing is an artist’s aesthetics being working class despite them being very middle class and trying to profit off of working class culture in a way that marginalises working class people from it. People should be made to feel uncomfortable about that as a thing that’s happening, they should be made aware of that and ultimately try to redress that balance to create a proper equilibrium instead of profiting off of someone else’s culture. That goes for race, gender, sexuality and class, the whole spectrum.

Read this next: Jeff Mills on electronic music: "It's too middle class"

You’re at the beginning of your career, but do you have a sense of having to balance playing the industry game and being true to yourself?

That’s definitely a thing that crosses my mind, but luckily, I’ve got a really good supportive team around me who do just want me to be my authentic self. They’re political themselves and encourage that level of self-expression, so it’s not a thing that I’m told to worry about. It feels like a great place to be, and I’m very grateful.

How have you found and maintained queer Black spaces over the past year?

To be honest, over the past year, that hasn’t been a thing. I haven’t really engaged with queer and Black spaces. But definitely I’ve joined a few of the All Black Lives marches in Bristol and there’s been queer speakers of colour. I’ve done some speaking there myself. With All Black Lives, they’re very specific to being inclusive of LGBTQ+ people whereas there can be some fractures with people thinking that LGBTQ+ people have hijacked the Black Lives Matter movement. But I think how it’s being done in Bristol is great. Through going to those marches, I’ve had those interactions with other queer people of colour and branched out my community even during COVID, which is great. But less in terms of a club space, which is almost good. I think there’s an importance of having community away from drinking spaces.

What are your hopes for those kinds of club spaces post-lockdown?

Don’t get me wrong, I love drinking! I think it’s great! But I think having spaces that aren’t purely alcohol and drug infused, in terms of community building, would be great. I’m sure they already existed before, but I think for them to be more at the forefront would be great.

Read this next: How the music industry condones a culture of excessive substance use

With your headline debut show coming up, have you got plans for how this is going to translate live?

Yes, I’ve got some really fun visual elements. I’m already thinking of various clothing and styling elements to just make it the sweatiest, most hype show in the entire world! Live performing is where I’m in my element, so I’m so excited to just be sweaty with everyone again! I want it to be a very visceral in-person exciting thing and be very visually exciting as well.

With the end of lockdown on the horizon, have you got any definite musical ambitions that you want to achieve?

It’s tough in terms of trying to grab onto anything specific but I want to create albums and visual albums all with a strong focus on the different experiences of queer people of colour around the world. It’s not community building, because the communities are already there, but community joining, is definitely a big focus. The end goal of that would be to enact some kind of political change that’s in our favour, because it feels like so much of the world currently is moving towards this full-on fascism, and I think all minorities across the world do have the power to effect change. My method of being able to do that is through music and speaking, as well as doing on the ground stuff. But ultimately that’s a long-term goal, community joining and resisting against what we’re currently seeing in the world and having a good dance throughout all of it.

Read this next: "Creating and sustaining": DJ Pitch is a catalyst for the progress of experimental music

What motivates you to keep going in music through everything?

I really want to buy a house for my mum in New Zealand because I think she’s had enough of it here in the UK. She’s been through a lot in this place, so buying her a house in New Zealand is what I’m working towards constantly, bubbling away. It’s a funny little ambition, it’s weird voicing it to actual people! But that’s it.

What was the inspiration behind your Impact mix?

It’s going through a journey of some of my favourite bass-heavy tunes but with a strong focus on queer producers. I’ve got a radio show on Noods called DRIPDRIP and it’s focusing on producers of colour, queer producers and femme producers and I think that’s always going to be a solid focus. Essentially, I want it to be a building dark journey that touches on some gay places and just ends in this gritty yearning darkness with the final Giant Swan track. I want people to feel and dance.

'Queer + Black' is out now, get it here

Jemima Skala is a freelance writer and Mixmag’s Weekend Editor. Follow her on Twitter

Tracklist:
TSVI – Mesmerise
Jurango – Before Meander
Air Max ’97 – IP68
FKA Twigs – Video Girl
Simo Cell & Abdullah Miniawy – Sama (Learning How to Fly)
Batu – Rebuilt
Nazar – Fim-92 Stinger
Ploy – Snorkeling
Diessa – so long as we believe
Mun Sing – A War in Heaven
Dynkur – Ocean of Sound
Flore – Aether
Happa – 12Three
sente – medusa
ESTHER – Hedon Hack
Anz – Loos in Twos (NRG)
LCY – shhh
Loraine James – Simple Stuff
monroe – Ride
TT The Artist – Pussy Ate (ft. Murder Mark)
Giant Swan – Silkworm
XTALS – RUN IT UP
Stush – Ah Me Dat (Wiwek Remix)
Giant Swan – Do Not Be Afraid Of Tenderness

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