by Zahra Dalilah 

Rapper and songwriter 4i first made waves back in 2014 when he released his debut album, Soul Rich. Introducing a new sound to UK hip hop, the record fused a UK reggae and dub influence with a 1980s New York rap style for the perfect soundtrack to break the silence in the sunshine.

Back with a new release, 4i’s latest EP Dreamt But Never Slept leaves sunny skies and silver linings behind, indulging instead in life’s hardships and unapologetically putting forward the hungry bar-sprayer, who took a back seat throughout Soul Rich.

4iUpon meeting 4i, his humble and introspective persona becomes evident. Stroking his beard as he speaks, he carefully recounts his story always injecting extra effort to portray himself in a balanced light. Rapping from the age of 12 or 13, 4i was obsessed with US hip hop and credits KRS One’s “Criminal Minded” with the birth of 4i, the artist.

As grime was on the rise across London with artists like Tinchy Stryder taking the UK by storm, he was in his bedroom studying Big Daddy Kane and Big Pun, learning to beatbox and spitting in an American accent. As a teen, 4i wholly embraced the US hip hop scene, enamoured by everything from the lyricism and wordplay to the the aesthetic of the graffiti era. Soon however, he noticed that the rest of the UK “never really embraced hip hop culture in its essence; because it’s not our culture at the end of the day, it’s American.”

The disconnect felt between 4i and his contemporaries was to some extent inevitable. Raised Jehovah’s Witness, 4i wasn’t able to swear on his tracks, which already marks a chasm between his work and that of his peers. Whilst playground battles were all the rage, 4i knew he would have had to “come up with some real in-depth, intellectual bars to compensate for my not being able to cuss.”

His outsider status became more concrete as he looked away from the grime and hip hop that reigned dominant, only ever impressed by spitters who avoided self-indulgent ego massages to “bring real issues to the forefront.” Questioned on artists he sees himself in, he jumps from Mungos Hi Fi to J Cole, from UK dub to US hip hop, without pausing in UK hip hop or grime at all.

“I’m all about the music, the vibe, the vibrations so when it hits you, it hits you. A lot of conscious and political music the message is at the forefront where for me it’s important that the music comes first.”

Between his dreadlocks, modest dress and passion for music with a message, 4i fits snugly under the banner of a “conscious rapper”. However, whilst his raps depict a series of reflections on spirituality, society and struggles within the self, he is quick to disassociate himself with politics, emphasising that he lives by his own definitions of consciousness.

“People tend to mix boxes of conscious and political,” he states. “You can talk about gun crime, your neighbourhood, which are conscious topics to talk about, but they don’t necessarily have to be political”. So what’s the difference, I ask? Although he eventually concedes that “everything is political”, it’s clear that 4i wants to steer well clear of the political system. A non-voter, the rapper seems to channel the view prevalent amongst many people of his generation in the UK, heavily politicised but completely disillusioned with the traditional realm of politics.

At the age of fourteen 4i chose to opt out of the Jehovah’s Witness church in which he was raised. Continuing to uphold many of the beliefs instilled in him – his songs, for example, remain curse-free – he began to manifest his spirituality elsewhere. The heavy reggae influence in his music, which sees him slip easily into praises of Jah, spark a curiosity regarding his relationship with Rastafarianism. “Everyone’s searching, and I happened across that and the vibe was just right”. But after dabbling, further research pushed him away from committing to the religion predominantly because “worshipping a man” just didn’t sit right with him. Today, he claims no religion but professes that he is “100% spiritual, which is all I can be at this moment in time, whilst I remain open and forever searching”.

“I’ve been so focused on myself, on my journey, who I am as a person; what do I represent, who do I speak for? I’m still searching that space within myself. For me music is something I hold on to, it is supposed to be liberating.”

Musically, this search is something that comes through in all of his work. When he talks of his curiously precious relationship with his music, I am reminded of the journeys he has undergone to produce it. Protective of a brand and sound that is truly unique to him he has historically been hesitant to collaborate and keeps his circle fist-tight. Speaking on how closely he guards his music and his hesitance to collaborate with other artists he adds “music is a representation of me, of where I am in my life now; I won’t just throw a verse wherever, connecting and building a relationship with someone is important”.

His history with collabs considered, it says a lot about his growth that his new EP includes features from Kieron Boothe to Latir to Autumn Sheriff. Showing his versatility as he plays with new content, whilst consistently ensuring immaculate production and flawless song-writing is at the forefront, the new EP is a great step for 4i. Projecting forward he is clear on the different directions his music may take, and with the talent and vision he already has under his belt, it is difficult not to get excited about the heights that he could reach.

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Take Back The City community activist and co-founder of Our Fathers and Us, a research project on Black British fatherhood, Zahra’s truest loves include hip hop, Lewisham and theories of revolution. Also a trilingual travel addict, you can usually catch her skipping borders across continents whilst trying to understand the true meaning of diaspora. Twitter: @ZahraDalilah1

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