From boundary breaking and digging into her heritage, to honest lyricism and refreshing beats, London based multi-talent, Shunaji, is serving the music scene a dollop of gritty real life. As she redefines the rhetoric of rap, Shunaji paves the way for young women of colour to embrace their histories and their bodies whilst continuing to facilitate open discourse on stigmatized sectors of society. With a new EP just around the corner, Shunaji is fighting her way to the top, and there’s no chance of stopping her now.
Shunaji, you've grown up and lived in different cities - can you tell me a bit about your childhood and how this filters into your music?
Growing up among different cultures has opened my mind and broadened my horizons. I think this is reflected in my music. I often talk about Black womanhood and identity in my lyrics: I'll never stop talking about it! Living in a country with little diversity had me singled out as a child. I distanced myself a fair bit socially, "an alien alienated" (lyrics from Red Honey), and found solace in music. I spent a lot of time discovering music because it was freeing, non-judgemental and reflective. I listened to Italian songwriters but constantly searched for music from abroad as a way of branching out from a confined reality. Through music, I reclaimed my Italian nationality and merged it with my African roots. I am proud that my music is diverse. It has developed in resistance to claims that I could not be both Black and Italian. I feel that I demonstrated how different cultures and influences can coexist. I'm very proud of this achievement and how I developed my own musical identity from a complex upbringing.
How old were you when you first started producing music?
I started seriously producing music two years ago, I was 22. Before that, I had made a few beats in the summer of my 18th birthday, just as an experiment. In high school, I used to record myself singing and playing guitar then uploaded tracks to MySpace, with that lofi Daniel Johnson approach!
Who are some of your biggest inspirations when it comes to lyricism and musical melodies?
Sonically, I'm a big fan of Portishead, Lovage, Handsome Boy Modeling School, Karriem Riggins and Dilla. Lyrically, I look up to Bahamadia, Jonwayne, Phife, Noname, Missy Elliott, André 3000. But I'm also inspired from outside of hip hop, I like Björk's eclecticism and Grimes' use of hardware in her studio and live sessions - I was inspired by her setup when looking at which gear to incorporate into my own. Donald Glover’s ‘Awaken, My Love!’ was really enlightening for me; I love how Gambino has evolved and the determination he shows in challenging himself artistically.
Your music is a fusion between different genres and time periods - how did you get to this point in your creative practice and is there a specific era from which you draw most of your influences?
There isn't a specific era I’m inspired by. I think it would be narrow-minded to emulate a specific era of music. Music is in constant evolution and nothing comes from nothing. Of course, I’m a 90s child and I have an emotional attachment to the experimental traits of the era. However, the 90s followed the 80s, which followed the 70s and jazz and blues. From spirituals and gospel music, one day we woke up and Moby had sampled Vera Hall’s “Trouble So Hard”. We can talk about appropriation and influence in music, but I believe that all music is intertwined. To open our minds, we need to abandon our obsession with categorisation. My music is what I want it to be at any given point in time. In my opinion, creativity is about creating, not recycling or replicating. I love to write, draw, read, sing, dance and make music, so my inspiration has always been from across the board.
Now that you're living in London, what’s your opinion on its art and music scene?
There's music bubbling everywhere in this metropolis! I live in South London and I’ve realised the amount of new activity happening here. Personally, I've also got a soft spot for my garage rock, post-punk revival so East and North London have been good to me with venues like Moth Club and The Garage. I’m interested in a wide range of music and don’t consider myself an expert in any genre.
When I began producing, CDR Projects was helpful in discovering new music and interacting with other producers across the musical spectrum. Going to CDR events made me realise that I could be exposed to and inspired by different types of music. This is something I really love about London and I didn’t experience in Rome. In terms of London’s music scene, luckily art is beyond borders! I think that the art and music “scene" is a journalistic fabrication. Maybe one city will take interest in a certain genre at a point in time, but the wheel will keep on turning. Even more so in the age of the internet! Music isn’t as geographically exclusive; I guess I just don’t accept borders like that. One thing’s for sure – I'm privileged to be exposed to the variety of music and art that London has to offer!
How do you think hip-hop and rap have evolved over the past decade? – in terms of concept, experimentation, sonic layers?
Over the past decade, many sub-genres have branched out of hip hop that are not aligned with my own understanding of hip hop culture. I consider hip hop and rap to be about creativity, innovation, lyrical prowess and imagination. As a result, I’ve never been a big fan of Trap to be honest, although I appreciate elements of Southern Rap. Luckily, hip hop continues to evolve in many directions. As an artist influenced by genres from ambient to darkwave, I gravitate towards like-minded artists who release genre-bending, experimental music. Some examples are Shabazz Palaces, M.I.A., Tyler, the Creator and Gnarls Barkley. I really enjoy listening to artists who don't have only one genre in mind when making music and I think this approach produces the most original hip hop. I believe the bright future of hip hop will be continuous influence by other genres.
Do you think contemporary rap should be conveying a certain message or energy to society?
No, I think people should convey their own truths through rap. I'll continue to raise awareness about issues that matter to me, such as intersectionality, sexual harassment, Black womanhood, love and mental health using my rhymes. I hope that people can understand my message and that it resonates with them. In an ideal world, I would like all rap to avoid degrading women and inciting violence. I'd also want it to discourage the use of weapons and the meaningless pursuit of material wealth, but that may be wishful thinking!
As a woman MC, what are some of the obstacles that you face on a daily basis? Do you think the music industry is progressing in the right direction in terms of equality and recognition for female artists?
I face daily obstacles as a woman. These include sexual harassment, being patronised by men and them making assumptions about my abilities in general. As a woman MC, I experience the same things but in a musical context. On top of that, I’d say certain people being interested in my music for reasons other than…my music! That’s always been dodgy to me so I avoid engaging with them. I would love for more women to listen to my music. On platforms like Spotify, audiences are really transparent. As a woman in music, I find it hard to comprehend how my audience is predominantly men…especially when I touch on subjects that are women-centric. Maybe that's a good sign and I can educate more men about women's experiences. I am committed to improving my outreach and I hope that the launch for my upcoming ‘Blue Melon’ EP can contribute to this goal. I’ll be hosting it as a women-led event with a line up made of all women, from poets to musicians and DJs.
The industry’s attitude towards women is also changing for the better, although slowly, like the rest of our society. Nevertheless, I think everything that I achieve as a Black woman in music is because I work hard for it. I must always hold my foot down and triple check that I'm not being disrespected. This can be in the most simple contexts, like engineers at sound checks assuming I don’t know how to handle my gear and cables. Anyway, I’m building on my own knowledge and wisdom, and I’m always open to schooling people who think they know more about me than they actually do.
Do you have anything in particular that helps you with your creative process?
I’m often inspired by film and literature. I keep consuming other art forms so that I can associate their messages and figures with my own musical expression. Most of the time, I create melodies in my head, like an internal jam that’s happening between my ears. I go to my studio and record or make acapella voice notes on my phone. Over the past month, I’ve rediscovered the power of voice in creating melodies, harmonies and beats.
You've worked with some amazing musical talents and producers so far in your career, are there any other creators out there that you're dying to collaborate with now?
I am always open to collaboration! I enjoy working spontaneously with other creatives and mutual understanding is key. I’m keen to work with other emerging artists and I want to produce more for other vocalists. Recently, I spoke with Emiko, who featured on my debut EP ‘Midnight Movie’, about doing a track with him this summer. Hopefully, that goes well! Balancing creative control is important to me and I prefer working with people who are flexible in the process of making music. I’m currently scribbling on an instrumental by Kayla Painter (who was in Future Bubblers Year 3 with me) and I hope we can release a track together soon!
And lastly, what can we expect from you this year?!
I'll be launching my new EP on 16 May at Redon in Cambridge Heath (East London), so come through to that! I recently worked on a video for the new season of an online music series, which will most likely come out in May. I’ll also be working with Sofar Sounds and touring with my band in the summer: we’ll be at The Great Escape, Brainchild and We Out Here Festival, as well as doing a headline show in July (details to be announced). I’ll be doing a solo set at Love Supreme and planning for new releases. Watch my Instagram or Facebook for the latest updates!
interview RUHI PARMAR AMIN
More to read