Lady Leshurr is a force to be reckoned with and one of the biggest advocates for women in the notoriously male-dominated genre of grime. Which is why the latest project from the 28-year-old Birmingham native and MOBO award-winner (and 2017 nominee) is both terribly exciting and exactly what we'd expect.
Leshurr is perhaps best known for her legendary "Queen's Speech" series of freestyles, in which the appropriately dubbed "first lady of grime" offers up witty gags, cutting cultural commentary and throws shade at her haters' vain attempts to bring her down. The latest, much-anticipated instalment involves a seriously fierce collaboration with Nike.
"Queen's Speech 7", which dropped last night, features – and was created by – a handpicked, all-female crew and is not only a showcase of some of London's most fearless female creatives, but also a celebration of the 35th anniversary of Nike's classic Air Force 1 trainer. In it, Leshurr wears the brand's new women's capsule range, the Force is Female collection, a reimagining of the iconic shoe for those "who value realness, toughness and creativity" (sign us up). The outspoken feminist wore a customised pair in her first "Queen's Speech" back in 2015, so it's a felicitous musician-brand partnership in more ways than one. Refinery29 met the acclaimed rapper to talk personal style, female rivalry and handling those inevitable online trolls.
How important is your look to you, both in your personal life and as an artist?
Fashion is a form of expression. If fashion could speak, it would show you how people have different personalities through clothing. It's been like that since I first knew about hip hop. The first thing I knew about hip hop was the fashion – the baggy clothes, the camo, the bucket hats. It's a massive addition to an artist – it can really create and shape an artist and how they feel inside. I wear my clothes like it's me talking – my style is raw, it's edgy. Like my personality, what you see is what you get.
Do you feel pressure to look a certain way as a woman in the industry?
No I don’t, I literally do not care. I’m so confident in being myself that I couldn’t care less what anyone thinks about me. That's why I have to wear what I feel comfortable in, because if I don’t, you’ll notice it, which is why I hardly wear heels or stuff like that. I do at music shows because you have to wear heels with a dress, but I usually wear trainers because they represent me and make me feel comfortable and free.
If you weren’t as self-assured as you are, do you think people in the industry would try to mould your style more than they currently do?
People will always try and dictate what you wear but you can come to a balance with anyone you’re working with, without completely selling your soul. If you don’t want to do something, don’t do it because it's not you. Find a balance with the people that want to work with you on outfits. I like experimenting so it’s not like I’ll never try new things, but I do believe in being comfortable in what you're wearing and standing for what you believe in.
"Queen's Speech 7" features an all-female crew – why was that important to you, and how did it come about?
I’m not sure if anyone else has done that. Also, I watched something Beyoncé did a while ago and she had an all-female band, which I just thought was amazing. I’ve always wanted to do that through my DJs – I’ve got two female dancers – so I just wanted to try something different and work with a collective of females with a journey and a story like mine and try to create something amazing for the females and obviously it’s called the "Queen’s Speech", so it’s for every girl that wants to feel empowered and believe in what they believe in. I just wanted to work with people who all wanted to get stuff done and it happened.
I’d never done anything like that before – I'll go onto a set and you just get what you're given and usually it's just shouting "hurry up" or whatever. This time it was so different, it was weird. Everyone was so calm – I never heard anyone shout once, it was really cool. I felt a sort of unity as well, everyone got along. I know sometimes women can be a bit catty, but there was none of that, no malice and everyone was there to have fun.
You’ve spoken a lot about sexism in the music industry, so I wanted to hear your view on the position of women in grime in particular. Women say it's difficult for them to break into the genre. Have you experienced any sexism as a female grime artist?
The only thing that really bugs me is when people say there’s only one female. Internationally, everyone thinks that and there’s a stigma around the word "female". People say "she’s a female this" or "she’s only good for a female" but you never hear "he’s good for a male" and I think it will never go away. The media and the fans are always going to make rivalries. Also, if you put out a video, nine times out of 10 comments are "she’s ugly" or "her hair’s ugly". Guys will just look at what you look like before they hear what you’ve got to say and that’s one of the main reasons why I decided to do the "Queen’s Speech" and not dress in a sexualised way. For one, I feel comfortable in what I'm wearing in all my "Queen’s Speeches" and two, I wanted people to hear what I had to say before they saw what I was wearing and I think that’s what drew people in. I’m just walking down the road, there’s no edits or cuts or anything, you either watch it or you don’t.
Do you ever get offended or hurt by those comments, or do you just not give a shit at all anymore?
I think it begins with growth and development. I’ve been doing music for a very long time, I’ve had my knockbacks, setbacks and both negative and positive comments. I've grown as an artist, seen how the industry is, how people are and how keyboard warriors work. I don’t know when I just stopped caring, but now people could write in the comments all day and call me ugly, but they will have posted a comment, which makes it look like I've got more comments anyway! And they gave me a view, so it’s like, "Thank you, but I don’t really care about your opinion" and that’s what I try to preach to anyone in life. Just don’t do things for other people, you’re not going to be happy that way. Being yourself and being free is what brings happiness.
Male grime artists, such as Skepta and Stormzy, have received a lot of attention and acclaim recently, particularly in the last year. Do you feel that women in the industry are given the recognition they deserve?
Again, it’s just a female thing and another problem about that is that many women don't support each other anyway, which is why I was so happy to work with females on this project, because it’s very rare that another female rapper shows respect or support. I think it just stems from the myth of "there can only be one female rapper".
If there was more acceptance of women in the industry, maybe there would be more sisterly support and there wouldn't be those rivalries...
Yeah, if everyone was treated exactly the same – different races and wherever you’re from – if everyone in the world was treated the same, there wouldn't be a stigma around people of certain colours or genders, but it’s life isn’t it. I love that I’ve been able to break down barriers, just by being myself. When I stopped listening to everybody in the industry and people giving me advice, saying "you should do that" or "you should show a bit more flesh", I just did me and that’s what got me to where I am now.
How does it make you feel when you say that?
It makes me feel so happy. I can’t explain how it makes me feel because I’m doing what I love and I’m doing me and getting paid for it. It’s a win-win situation, you can’t lose. That’s why I strongly recommend people just be themselves.
A lot of lyrics are still pretty sexist. Does it offend you when men use the word "bitch" and say stuff that sexually degrades women? Do you think there should be less of it?
There definitely should be less of it, but it doesn't offend me anymore. I really don’t care what anyone else thinks. Those kinds of words have been in hip hop and grime for decades and I don't think it will ever change. A lot of American rappers do it a lot and even female singers do it, so what do you expect? If you’re going to say on the one hand, "You shouldn’t say that" then on the other hand you’re saying it in your own songs, what do you expect? They’ll keep calling you it because you co-signed it.
Do you think women would be treated with more respect or that things would improve for women in the industry if these words weren't used?
No, I don’t think if we banned the word "bitch", or any other word that puts a woman down, that it would make anything better for us. Men in general ultimately think they’re stronger than us, they’re better than us. I don't know why, but by default lots of men think that and I don’t know why because some women would knock out a man. I don't know what it is and it is a bit frustrating when I sit down and think about it because I know I can battle a male rapper and probably do much better than him. I’m not boasting but I think I could do better and a lot of women could do that.
It's the same in fashion and art. I just came from an awards show and nearly all the winners were female – there was probably one man – and that just shows you. When I did my speech after I won an award, I said, "The females are wearing the trousers today" and everyone started laughing. It's definitely getting better for us – before there was only Nicki [Minaj], now there’s Cardi B, there are more women coming up and there’s also more acceptance than before.
What needs to be done to get more women in the industry? I read that you hosted a workshop for female MCs last year. Do you think we need more initiatives like that?
Yeah, one hundred percent. I did that because I felt passionate about finding new female MCs and trying to bring them to light to people who’d never heard of them. If I could, I'd do this all day but I’ve also got a career to do myself! But it would be great to have more workshops. That’s why at the moment I’m trying to open up youth clubs based on mental health issues for people who need somewhere to vent and make friendships with others who are going through similar things.
Can you tell us a bit more about the youth clubs? Why is mental health important to you?
They'll be for anyone that suffers with mental health issues and doesn't know how to express themselves to people close to them, because I’m like that sometimes. I’ll talk to a stranger and put it out in the universe but I won’t tell my best friend, so I know a lot of people are like that and a lot of young kids are going through it as well. It’ll be a great way to get kids off the street as well and having them making relationships with people going through similar things. A place where they can just be themselves.
We’re doing one in Enfield [north London], where they shut down a million-pound youth club, I think because someone got stabbed around the corner. And the fences around the basketball courts weren’t high enough and when basketballs went over, the neighbours were complaining. So again I’ll be working with Nike to try and make that happen.
You're known for making really astute, culturally relevant references in your music. Where do you get your inspiration?
A lot of it is Twitter. Literally, Twitter is how I make my "Queen’s Speeches". I don't even know where else. You’ve got all those trending topics, so you always know what is happening and I’ll always go on that page and just see what’s going on in the news or scroll down my timeline. A lot of the stuff is funny stuff and everyone seems to know about it, so I tend to use those things because it's an automatic connection with strangers. There will be people who have never heard of me before, so it brings the "Queen’s Speech" project into a new direction. When I first started doing the "Queen’s Speeches", grime wasn’t really international like it is now. No one was really co-signing it or saying it was a good genre.
That's a good segue into my next question. You've spoken before about the internationalisation of grime, saying that "some people are just jumping on the wave". What did you mean by that?
I’m not going to eat my words as such, but back in 2015 when I first started doing the "Queen’s Speech" project – when Stormzy was coming up, the Kanye West thing happened at the BRIT awards, then Drake got the BBK tattoo and stuff – I got scared. I know a lot people in grime got scared, because they thought Americans were going to take over grime, take it back to America and just run with it, because it's fresh, it's raw, it's British and they always look over here and watch what we're doing. So at the time I was frustrated because I thought, instead of working with us, they’re just taking our words, our slang and style, so it did frustrate me. But at the same time, it really helped the genre – it got us out there internationally and a lot of people who’d never heard it before, heard it and wanted to listen to it. So I have to big up Drake for bringing Skepta onto his album [More Life] and giving him his own song. That was really good of him.
A recent report by Ticketmaster on the social and cultural impact of grime found that three quarters of people in the UK know about it in some way, and it's been hugely politically influential this year – what with the #Grime4Corbyn movement and the #Grime4Grenfell fundraiser. What would you say the biggest impact of the genre has been on wider society?
The campaign for Corbyn definitely helped. I didn't know anything about it until I saw the #GrimeforCorbyn hashtag on Twitter. I loved that they put the word "grime" in there as well, so it was like a political grime party on Twitter. And I love the fact that JME met and interviewed him. I’m not too good with politics, it frazzles my brain – but JME meeting him and talking to him like how we talk, how the youths of today talk, helped to form a connection. Young kids are now going to know about Corbyn and what he represents because he met with JME, someone they listen to and respect. Sometimes you do need to get the rapper in to do something completely different with politics because it’ll connect the two worlds, which is why it did really well.
Do you feel personally more inspired to get involved with politics now?
I wouldn’t say I'm inspired, but I am if something really touches me, like the Grenfell thing, I donated. If something has really touched me, like the fact that people didn’t have houses and just needed help, I'll [get involved] where I think it's deserved. But I’m not going to go around like... I was going to say Theresa May then, but she’s doing an awful job [laughs]! I won’t go around and say "Lady Leshurr for Mayor" and stuff, but I will do my part behind the scenes. I never went on Twitter to say I donated, I usually just ask where I can donate. But I’m not good at speaking about it because I’m not knowledgeable enough.
Which artists would you say are slaying right now, for want of a better word?
Cardi B. She was a stripper and her hustle game is on fleek. I’ve been watching her since way before Love & Hip Hop, she had a million followers on Instagram and I love females that have a story. She always used to rant on Instagram and people found her funny, then she had the opportunity to go on Love & Hip Hop. Then a producer she wanted to work with didn’t want to work with her, so she left Love & Hip Hop, did her own thing, then "Bodak Yellow" came out and it was number one in the charts and everyone really respects her. The way she did it was so clever because people felt like they already knew her before she came on the scene. If nobody knew what she’d done before that, and she just came in, people would say "Oh, she’s trying to be Nicki [Minaj]".
I’ve always loved Little Simz. I think she’s amazing and I've watched her journey, so I feel like her big sister. Again, she’s got a story behind her. She grinded and did everything herself, she’s still independent, she set up her own label, her own clothing line with the rappers she raps with, she takes them on shows. She moves like a Queen. So you've got Queen Cardi and King Simz. And Ms Banks – I saw her story and journey as well and she’s been grinding for so long. It’s got to a point where she’s getting label offers and experimenting with her voice. It’s really nice to see how an artist develops from where they came from.