You’d like Lady Leshurr’s flat. The Birmingham-born rapper, based in London since 2011, can play table football while looking down from a dizzy height on Stratford station and the Westfield shopping centre. She’s got an entertainment set-up that includes DJ decks, a PS4 and a VR headset. She’s got a little white robot to play with, and her spotless kitchen is lined with bottles of high-end Ciroc vodka, which she always asks for in her dressing room when she’s on tour and then keeps. It smells nice in here. There are trainers in an endless line along the walls. And never mind those celebrities who claim they keep their awards in the toilet or use them as doorstops – she’s got a gleaming trophy cabinet in which her 2016 MOBO for Best Female has a proud central spot.
She’s earned all this mostly by being funny. While other rappers were competing to be the hardest or the most boastful, she was uploading a series of videos to YouTube entitled Queen’s Speech, in whish she insults everyone around her in the most hilarious ways she can think of. “The rave smells frowsy, ‘cause your feet stink: cheese Wotsits,” she proclaims on Queen’s Speech 3. “Idiot gyal, pick your nose and eat it gyal,” she raps on Queen’s Speech 5 in her distinctive mix of Jamaican slang and Brummie tones, before going on to inform her perceived rival, over and over: “Your lips look like crispy bacon!”
Queen’s Speech 4 is the one that went viral in the summer of 2015 – now on over 42 million YouTube views. With its “Brush your teeth!” chorus and corresponding dance move, it’s closer to Sesame Street than the dark alleys of grime. She never swears, so you can show it to your kids. “It’s all based on battle rapping. You say anything to get a reaction. I love that,” she explains. “I thought I’d do battle rap lyrics and then put in a chorus, because that’s all that’s missing really. I’m not perfect, I don’t think I’m above everyone. It’s just me trying to bring something fresh and different to the scene. Grime’s not all about being angry on the mic. You can laugh at it.”
It made the woman born Melesha O’Garro (“Leshurr” is pronounced like her real first name, and not, as I initially thought, like “leisure centre”) famous in her field. People shout “Brush your teeth!” at her in the street, which probably isn’t what she was hoping for. Having signed a major label record deal with RCA, she’s been working with bigshot producers in the US and has just released a proper EP, Mode, as opposed to another YouTube track. A debut album, to be called Queen of the Scene, is on the way.
So this ought to be your typical “hot musician primed for superstardom” interview, but there’s something else going on. Throughout our conversation, she keeps her large television loudly playing ITVBe, the channel that only shows docusoaps about the Real Housewives of various places. At first I think it’s a bit rude, but later realise she’s probably nervous. High in this gorgeous flat, she doesn’t seem on top of the world; more isolated and lonely.
I mention how handy her place is for the shopping mecca down below, and she says: “I’ve lived here for over a year and I’ve only been in Westfield three times. I know I’m not really that well known but it’s the kids. They go there after school. Kids, and guys in general, act really silly when they see me and I don’t like to put myself in that position. They follow me, or shout things like, ‘Oi! My friend wants a picture!’ It’s just really rude. I’m on my own, I’m smaller than the majority of them and there’s nothing I can do if they try to do something. So I take myself out of that situation and lock myself up in here.”
She did go down the other day, to buy an iPhone 7. But a group of kids who would probably know her were in the shop, so she just carried on walking. She’s currently taking driving lessons as she can’t take the tube and is spending a fortune on Addison Lee taxis. “I was going out clubbing a lot, but people on my team were telling me I shouldn’t be out too much because anything could happen to me. I thought, ‘You’re right. Anyone could film me and put it online. Anyone could hit me.’ I started getting anxiety. I’d wake up and say, ‘I’m not gonna go out of my house today.’ I do feel like I’m kind of trapped. I can’t really walk anywhere without thinking, ‘Are they looking at me? Are they gonna do anything to me?’”
Once you’ve finished laughing at her Queen’s Speech videos on YouTube, you might click onto another song, from this January, called #Unleshed 2. It starts all grimey and aggressive, with her firing out typically cocky lines over blasts of synthesized horns. Then, at the two minute mark, it slows right down, a piano arrives and the lyrics become truly shocking: “My anxiety’s killing me, making my mind go mad/I’m scared to go to the shop cus people know who I am/And I know some kids wanna do dumb things record it on cam/So I lock myself away/But I still feel trapped/I’m a human being with a broken heart and a soul that’s cracked/I tried to take my life in my own flat/A few months ago I got assaulted for being black/So why would I want to live?/Why would I want to stay?”
She’s matter of fact about it today. “Yeah, it was a hard time for me. But this was four months before I released the song. So when I did release it, I was in a happy place again.” I’m particularly surprised to learn that no one knew what was going on with her until the song appeared online. “My family didn’t know about it ‘til they heard it. My mum was upset. But that’s the only reason why it didn’t go through: because I thought of my mum. She’s the only person that matters to me in this world, the person who stops me from doing stupid stuff.”
There have been positives from her putting such a cry for help out there. Fans with anxiety and depression have told her she’s helped them by being so honest about it. She’s now doing some work with the mental health charity Mind. She certainly doesn’t regret releasing the song. “If I’m going through something, you’re gonna hear about it. The way that I process something is to write songs and get it out,” she says. “I have to express, to lay myself bare. It’s what I have to do to get over it and I don’t really care what people think, because people are gonna judge you regardless.”
That track is the moment that showed people that Lady Leshurr is not just a comic cartoon character. She says that her forthcoming album will also be a mix of humour and more serious material. Having begun rapping because she was inspired by the vulgar humour of Eminem’s early material as Slim Shady, she doesn’t need an alter-ego any more.
“I’m just me. It’s not a fake. Melesha is Lady Leshurr. When I was growing up, Melesha was timid and shy and wouldn’t look people in the eye, and Lady Leshurr was the person I’d be on stage who was the opposite. There was a difference then. Now you just take me for who I am.”
Such strength of character ought to take her music career to great heights. I hope she can enjoy it when it happens.
Lady Leshurr appears at Field Day festival, June 3, Victoria Park, E3 (fielddayfestivals.com)
The Mode EP is out now on RCA