At the back of an east London photo studio, sitting on a wooden bench and sipping tea, Kano takes a breath.
After months on the road, and a cover shoot that has just wrapped, the British MC reflects on what’s been a thrilling and hectic 12 months. ‘When it comes to what I love,’ he says, ‘100 per cent dedication and whatever it takes: that’s the mindset.’
There has, of course, been the runaway success of Top Boy, the show revived by Drake exclusively for Netflix, in a role that drew plaudits from around the world — he is about to start filming the fourth series, alongside preparing for a string of festival dates this summer. Last year, there was a stellar performance at the Royal Albert Hall, two national tours that ran through the autumn and winter, and most of all the widely acclaimed, state-of-the-nation album, Hoodies All Summer. It’s an unflinching stare at the ignored corners of Britain today: a theme threaded through much of Kano’s work, whether on screen or on record.
Kano found his talent early. Born Kane Brett Robinson in East Ham, with a gift for words and song, he came of age in London when grime was still a nascent genre. An early member of the east London based N.A.S.T.Y Crew, he was soon signed to produce his own solo album, Home Sweet Home, in 2005, which features stand-out tracks such as ‘P’s And Q’s’. It became a watershed moment for Kano — catapulting him from underground grime artist to one of Britain’s most distinguished MCs.
‘It’s a weird world to navigate,’ he says about how success can quickly separate rappers from the communities that raised them and the new worlds they are entering. ‘That could be friends switching up on you, or moving out [of] the ends [but] not wanting to be labelled as “moving out the ends”. Or that could be “money came in, I spent it and then a tax bill comes in”.’
At 34, almost two decades into his career, there’s a feeling of isolation that has come with the fame. ‘I had people that were there for me,’ he says, ‘but there’s not much help you can get because you don’t really know anyone that’s experienced the same thing. It’s a tough one, it really feels at times that you’re just out here on your own… really out here on your own.
‘As I’ve got on, I’ve become less embarrassed to speak to people because the moment you do — and I would like young artists to hear this — the moment you do speak to someone, or a peer, you realise that it’s not just you with these problems.’
Throughout his music, Kano speaks of a country torn at the seams, black communities in Britain fractured by hostile Home Office policies, and gentrification tearing through east London neighbourhoods. He unpacks the psyches, fears and frustrations that bubble under the surface for teenagers and which become headlines in youth-violence articles, with songs that seek to humanise the ridiculed and draw attention to the lives of the young working-class kids who have become scapegoats.
‘They’re questions,’ he says, ‘about the country we live in. Questions about the hypocrisy, questions about our place in this country, questions about how much we’re doing and could we do more, could we care more? Questions about this street thing and how important is that? And how much do you value life? That’s a very big question raised.’
Among it all, there are questions for himself, too — thoughts about where he stands amid some of the misfortunes unravelling in the community that he’s from. ‘Even I have to understand who I am sometimes,’ he says. ‘The question to myself then is, “Who the f*** are you to tell anyone anything unless you’re going to do anything about it?” The same person you’re telling not to do that, are you going to give them a job so they don’t have to ever do that?’
Which brings us to Top Boy. When the show first aired on Channel 4 in 2011, it ran for two seasons. A gritty portrayal of life on the estates around the east End, depicting the perils, pressures and violence of the drug game. Kano’s character Sully was reckless in Top Boy’s early seasons: a young man to whom violence came easy, so impulsive that he once kidnapped his own cousin.
So when it was announced in 2017 that the show would be resurrected and executive produced by Drake for Netflix, fans waited for Kano’s second act. In the most recent series, we meet Sully as he serves out the final days of a prison sentence and is growing reflective into his 30s; wrestling with anxieties over money and a nervousness about building a relationship with a daughter who has grown up in his absence.
‘It was scary,’ he says, ‘to be able to play a character with that much depth was hard… But I needed that, it’s what an actor dreams of.’
Like so much of what Kano does, his role in Top Boy lifted the veil on the stark realities of life lived at the edges of the city and those who find themselves caught up in these unstable lifestyles. ‘You get to see the reasons why he [Sully] does what he does,’ Kano says, ‘being in prison and paying for what people would call his mistakes. Dealing with loss which he feels is his fault, the relationship that he’s longing for with his child but then having to see her with a new family. All of these things happen to people in real life and it takes a toll on them.’
This holding up of a mirror to reality is important to Kano. We are meeting two days after the Brit Awards, at which Kano’s Top Boy co-star and rapper Dave stole the show, using his performance to call out the continued mistreatment of the Windrush generation and the Prime Minister for being a ‘real racist’. ‘He [Dave] was strong enough to be like, “Nah, this is what I want to do,”’ Kano says. ‘It’s inspiring, and eye opening, to see other artists do what they believe in and say what they feel. I’ve always tried to do that, and hopefully I have inspired people to do the same.’
Kano himself has done this. Not long after that performance at the Royal Albert Hall, when his voice was still recovering from the strains of a nationwide tour, Kano made an appearance on Later… with Jools Holland. Flanked by his band and choir he smirked into the camera while they sung the chorus to ‘SYM’. It’s the curtain call on the album, a track that calls out everything from the decades of racism and suffering by black British communities at the hands of the country’s government to the censorship of black music. ‘SYM’ is perhaps his most powerful song to date, and yet in the days leading up to the performance on Jools Holland, he sensed a nervousness around the decision he had made to perform the song live on national television. Things came to a head when the team gathered for a meeting while on the move to the next city. ‘I was like, “Look man, this is what we’re doing and if we can’t do it, it’s unfortunate but then I just can’t do the show.”’
‘A long time ago black people on TV in England maybe had to conform just to be on there,’ he continues. ‘But we have that platform now and it’s important to say something. I feel it really is important to get that message across to people beyond the people that already get it. It’s an eye opener.’ The scandals that Kano speaks of in
‘SYM’ have left questions about what it means to be black and from Britain. In the days before we met, the controversy had flared up again, with the Home Office chartering deportation flights to Jamaica. The mood hangs heavy. ‘They’ll put you in a plane for whatever,’ he mutters. ‘Hopping a train? Deported.
‘The more you think about it and the deeper you get, you start questioning the validity of your British kind of credential[s]. But then the more you do that, they’ve won. So you’re like, “No, f*** that, I am black British.”’ For a moment we fall silent, and then he says; ‘But I’m getting my Jamaican passport — my mum’s born there. Something about me just wants to have that.’
It’s clear that Kano’s mother, and his family, continue to be an extremely big influence on who he is and how he operates. ‘My family are keep going kind of people,’ he says. ‘Not really emotional, we just march forward. That’s who we are. That’s how my mum is, my aunts are. I just crack on.’