How 2022 Mercury Prize winner Little Simz took over the world

 (PA)
(PA)

She’s been referred as “the illest doing it right now” by Kendrick Lamar, a “legend” by Stormzy in his 2019 headline Glastonbury set and has had Rihanna fangirl over her, but for a long time Little Simz – born Simbi Ajikawo – was largely ignored by the mainstream industry.

That was until Tuesday night, where the Nigerian artist won the coveted Mercury Award. The 28-year-old told the ceremony in London that she was "very overwhelmed and grateful" to receive the honour, and paid tribute to the other nominees Self Esteem, Wet Leg, Harry Styles and Sam Fender. "We all made incredible albums," she said on stage. "We all changed people’s lives with our music, and that’s the most important thing."

Apart from the Brit Award she won earlier this year for best newcomer (despite releasing her debut album seven years ago), Little Simz has yet to be acknowledged by the major award ceremonies. This is despite a slate of undeniable songs which have been championed by critics and her peers alike.

Now as the 31st winner of the Mercury Prize, one of the most prestigious awards in music, which has previously been won byr Arlo Parks, Michael Kiwanuka, Dave and Wolf Alice, the critically acclaimed artist is finally getting the flowers she deserves.

From learning to make music at her local youth club to premiering tracks on Jay Z’s Life + Times blog, here’s how Little Simz finally took over the world.

Growing up in Islington and getting her start at her local youth club

Born in 1994 to Nigerian parents who split up when she was young, Little Simz grew up in Islington with her mother and three older siblings. From the age of 12 her mum also started fostering children, meaning there “so many different kids from different walks of life,” according to an interview with The Guardian. Her closeness with her mum is well documented, having been shot with her for an issue of GQ Style and inviting her on stage during the Brit Awards.

She first found her voice in a local Youth Club, St Mary’s. It was here that she developed the confidence to perform in front of others, and discovered that she was a star in the making. “I was about nine or ten and the same youth club were having a showcase at Islington O2 Academy. I played a song called ‘Achieve Achieve Achieve’, I was wearing a red Echo tracksuit, Nike Airforce trainers and had my hair in two bunches. My family were on the balcony watching,” she told GQ, about the moment when she decided to take music seriously.

Little Simz was also surrounded by strong creative influences from a young age, such as childhood friend, the Black Panther star Letitia Wright. “I’ve always known Tish would go on to do great things,” she told Vogue earlier this year. “Her success is a win for me, and for so many other women that look like me.” Then there is longtime collaborator Inflo who has worked on the majority of her albums. “That’s my G, bro,” she told NME in a 2019 interview. “Our chemistry is just unmatched. We really understand each other in the studio. It’s a trust thing as well: when you go into making an album with someone, there has to be a high level of trust because it’s not going to be an easy ride.”

The seven year grind to award show success

Little Simz started uploading her music to Soundcloud and Bandcamp as a teenager. After a brief stint at the University of West London, she decided to pursue music full-time. By 21, she had written, recorded and released four mixtapes, five EPs and that first studio album – all on her own label, Age 101 Music.

She quickly became the rapper’s rapper, with Jay Z premiering her tracks on his Life + Times blog. However, music journalists were quick to point out that this enthusiasm for the up and coming artist was not being matched by the industry. In a 2016 Vice article “Little Simz Is Pioneering UK Rap, So Why Won’t the Industry Support Her?” Journalist Daisy Jones investigated why this might be the case, writing that, “her hard-hitting, narrative-focussed output is far more aligned with the likes of Lauryn Hill, Kendrick Lamar and Eminem – sometimes even Drake – than the grime artists she gets lumped in with.” And that, “while men are often celebrated for deviating from the norm and breaking barriers, it often feels like these award shows still recoil from women who do the same thing.”

“I’m just very to myself and I didn’t know how to really navigate that, especially coming into this industry where you’re expected to have this extroverted persona all the time,” explained Little Simz in the aforementioned Vice article.

Still, that all changed with her latest album, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert. In a bid to create a “timeless” album, Simz listened to greats such as Nina Simone, John Coltrane and Billie Holiday while in the studio back in London. “Just studying what makes a classic album and why these albums stand the test of time”, she told Notion Magazine in 2021. “I didn’t get the feeling that they were trying to chase commercial success, or they were trying to get a hit song, it just felt like they were just following their spirit… It’s never gonna sound like those artists because I’m not them, I’m me, but I know how to follow my spirit and that’s gonna take me somewhere.”

The album went on to go number 4 in the album charts and was given a  8.7/ 10 rating by Pitchfork, while The Guardian described it as an “Intensely creative as she discusses race, womanhood and family – and with a cameo from Emma Corrin – Simz’s fourth album feels totally alive.”

Entering the acting world

Little Simz has also dabbled in acting her whole life. As a teenager, she appeared on TV shows, including the BBC’s kids’ adventure series Spirit Warriors and E4 comedy drama Youngers.

In 2019, Little Simz was cast in the latest edition of Top Boy, the Drake-backed edition picked up by streaming giant Netflix. Simz played Shelly, a single mother committed to making a better life for herself and her daughter. She made her Marvel debut in 2021 alongside Tom Holland in Venom: Let There Be Carnage, where she played herself in a scene where Venom attends a rave that was described as "his coming out party" by director Andy Serkis. The British rapper scored the part thanks to Hardy, who became a fan after hearing her (unrelated) 2019 single Venom (which featured on her 2019 album GREY Area).

Awards at last

Any sense that she was underappreciated as an artist has now changed with her latest album, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert. In a bid to create a “timeless” album, Simz listened to greats such as Nina Simone, John Coltrane and Billie Holiday while in the studio back in London. “Just studying what makes a classic album and why these albums stand the test of time”, she told Notion Magazine in 2021. “I didn’t get the feeling that they were trying to chase commercial success, or they were trying to get a hit song, it just felt like they were just following their spirit… It’s never gonna sound like those artists because I’m not them, I’m me, but I know how to follow my spirit and that’s gonna take me somewhere.”

The album went on to go number 4 in the album charts and was given a  8.7/ 10 rating by Pitchfork, while The Guardian described it as an “Intensely creative as she discusses race, womanhood and family – and with a cameo from Emma Corrin – Simz’s fourth album feels totally alive.”

With a Brit and a Mercury to seal the acclaim, true superstardom now beckons.