It’s a sunny day in Hackney Wick and I’m holed up in a small waterside studio, ready to chat with Flohio. I was pleased that we weren’t among the laptop-tapping ‘creatives’ of Wick’s Canalside, instead hunkering down in a dark, cool studio for a lengthy conversation.
Sitting in the sun surrounded by people on the digital sphere doesn’t feel like the right setting for a talk on Flohio’s work. Not because it’s dark, although it is moody, but because it’s of a more analogue nature. Even her stage name came from a vintage form of digital – real name Funmi Ohiosumah, Flohio was a conception necessitated by an MSN handle.,“Something is being saved from what’s happening right now,” Flohio tells me when I ask if she thinks the Digital Age changes how music sounds. “1000 per cent. It’s changed. It’s always rapidly changing… You can do more crazy shit now. Everything is right here. Garageband, what the fuck! People just made that, right there, on a phone! I’m going crazy.”
Although unsigned, Flohio is doing big things. She’s all about that DIY lifestyle.
“People are their own ambassadors, pluggers, managers, promoters,” she tells me. “The power is in your hands. This is why I can do so much without even being signed. But you know, I do still struggle. Don’t get it twisted. A label can help you, but we have that space now.
“Let whatever is happening, happen. I have time to have space, get creative, my focus now is to build up my label,” she smiles.
Briefly digressing from the conception of her imprint Alpha, we go back to the beginning of Flohio’s music career. She reminisces on a time spent in the upstairs studio of the Salmon Youth Centre in Bermondsey, South East London.
“We didn’t have phones or nothing at that time, we just knew everyone was going to youth club. There was a whole bunch of kids. Everyone had their spaces, they were into sports, acting, cooking, whatever. Everyone had their section — it was like school but no rules.
“You were free to be a kid. That’s what it was about. For me, I was always a musical kid, always upstairs in the studio with other creatives and that was our space… That was a big part of my childhood.”,Flohio and I have something in common: my mother is an air hostess and her father a pilot. Both of us share memories of being left at after-school clubs on the days when our parents were working. She laughs when I refer to her beloved youth club as a ‘holding-pen for kids’.
“Yeah basically! That was what it was, but it was a fun holding pen. I guess after-school clubs now, they ain’t the same. They got people from the industry to come speak to you, whether it was music, or sport, or cooking. It was really nice. It gave the kids something. It made you think, ‘I wanna do this’.
“We met teachers that actually cared. They didn’t give up, they had so much patience. They respected you, they never looked down on you. they didn’t treat you like a child.”
Flohio is still making music like she used to, creating and getting the words and sounds down the same way she did 10 years ago in the Salmon Centre. It’s just that now, both the artist and the output are more polished and mature.
“I have to make music for work now. I used to just make music and bank it. Bank, next. Making it and sending it. It’s a long, ongoing tennis game. I think you become more mature how you create. It could still be rough, hard- core rap, but it’s got more depth, I guess. I guess it’s more, I don’t wanna say professional… It’s my music and I don’t care what anyone else says, but the structure of it…” She tails off. “I used to just write lyrics. Now I have people saying, break this up, do this here, put a chorus here. It’s good. They don’t change the words or anything, it’s never like that. It’s more just learning how to put your pieces together and have it all make sense.”,Before going full time with her music, Flohio worked as a graphic designer for Ninja Tune. She even contributed to Bonobo’s artwork, but when I mention it she doesn’t give its influence much weight.
“I always did music, not design. I did graphic design because I thought music would be so hard. I went to college, and thought I’d do music on the side. It just turned out that wasn’t the case.”
In the neo-liberal, capitalist cities we hail from (London, Glasgow and Dublin) it feels second-nature to be told that to work in a creative industry you’re either sacrificing the fruitful bounties that a safer option would offer, or you’re a dreamer. Head in the clouds, unrealistic about the political and financial climate we live in.
I ask Flohio if she thinks people our age are being dissuaded from following their dream careers.
“It’s always scary to do new things, innit?” She asks. “You don’t know what the outcome will be. It’s always putting the fear behind you. I want to learn French or Japanese, but I’m scared to learn a new language because I don’t think I’ll be able to do it. Driving as well. I’m scared I won’t pass that shit.”
The prospect of fear doesn’t appear too often in Flohio’s music, but it’s a theme that regularly crops up the more you read about her. She’s get’s a bit pissed when I tell her she’s often described as shy or introverted.
“I ain’t never been afraid! Who said I was afraid? Show me that article!” It’s said with tongue in cheek, though. She gets it.
“I am shy, I was shy. I didn’t even fill out CV’s to go to interviews. I would go to the door and turn around. I’d look to the door, the window, walk back. Couldn’t do it. I’d get so nervous and shit. I’m socially awkward. I grew up alone, parents never around. It was me, me, me. With music, people get me. They share my vibe.
“I’ve learned not to be shy about work, I have to open up,” she continues. “Have to do it. If it’s business or meetings, it’s different. I just can’t be bothered to talk, converse, release energy. I like being a wallflower, homebody, my space. I like being cosy.
“This is why I make the music I do. Someone called me an ambi-vert… I always said I was an introvert, but they said I was an extrovert although it has to be on my terms. If we’re all on the same page, I feel comfortable. It’s a two-way thing, I don’t know how to explain this shit, man. My music allows me to connect to my other side, my wild side, to be more outspoken and free.”
On stage, Flohio is precise, skilled and professional. Her flows are astonishing, and she has the swagger of someone who knows they have the crowd in the palm of their hands. She describes her live sets to being on autopilot.
“When I grab the mic, I lose control,” she tells me. “When I try to figure it out, like how is this shit working, my body is just going. It’s a weird feeling, almost an out-of-body experience. Everything is being slowed down. The words are coming out, but I’m not saying the words. I’m not having a conversation when I know what’s coming next They’re my songs, I wrote them, I know what’s coming next. But it’s not like that…”,I float the idea that when she’s on the stage, she becomes the songs rather than just merely performing them. It sounds wanky, I know. I first read about the idea in Sally Rooney’s ‘Even If You Beat Me’, an essay for the Dublin Review about her debating career. She wrote about a state called ‘flow’ where, according to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the ‘form of focus becomes so clear that all distractions, even the ego itself, fall away.’ Flohio says that sometimes when she’s freestyling she’s in this state. Her lyricism comes so naturally, it’s like blinking.
“When I try to catch myself thinking about the words I fuck it up, I trip up. I’m on autopilot most of the time, even when I’m freestyling. Sometimes it’s so shit and sometimes it’s so good and I’m like, ‘Ugh I should have recorded it’. You speak and you don’t even know that you know these things. It resonates. It’s power.”
On rapping she tells me, “If you didn’t do it for a couple of months, you’d be rusty.
“Flows and words, you can forget. They’re so tricky… Like anything, practice makes perfect. I taught myself by basically writing every day, freestyling every day, all this muscle memory. Even your breathing changes.”
We stick with her lyrics for a moment. On her 2018 track ‘Bands’, Flohio mentions Grenfell:
Grenfell Tower couldn’t burn me out / and I send mad love to who’s mourning now’. She recalled a time when someone asked her about that line. Why had she written it? What right did she have?
“It touched me,” she says. “I was so hurt. It could have been avoided. We couldn’t stop looking at it. I wrote that song 12 days after… We will mourn that death ‘til the day we die – that was a murder. It’s nice to memorialise that in your music. Music is about forever.”
As an artist, Flohio has a right to both ask questions and beg for answers. She’s using her platform to create tracks which attempt to make sense of the world around her; Her community, her emotions, her tragedies and celebrations, her youth club and the streets she grew up on. Flohio’s music is her salvation.
“Music has saved me from myself. Certain shit I don’t feel brave enough saying in conversations is easier when I rap. It’s even easier on stage. When you’re feeling what you’re feeling in that moment, your soul hears it.”
To finish, I ask Flohio if she feels she’s providing a service with her music, making what people want to hear?
“No,” she replies. “I feel like I’m a preacher, at a
service. I’m an urban preacher. The studio is my altar.”