A lot of rappers have stories of the testing circumstances that they needed to overcome on the rocky journey to stardom: absent parents, poor schooling, crime inflicted on them or by them, drugs dealt or taken, prison time. However, not since 50 Cent was shot nine times has anyone faced as daunting an obstacle as Alex Anyaegbunam. The 23-year-old, who weaves his rhymes as Rejjie Snow, is Irish.
“It was never supposed to be a career. I never thought it would be that, because where I’m from, that shit doesn’t happen,” he tells me in a deep, relaxed voice, plainly Dublin in origin but far from a begorrah brogue. In any case, he hasn’t lived there since he was 17, having left for high school in Florida and then college in Atlanta on a football scholarship. He plays left wing and was decent, he says. When we meet in Brighton, just before he makes an appearance at the Great Escape festival, he’s straight off the plane from New York, where he’s been living for the past three months. But he’s considering coming back home.
“I went back recently and just felt happier there. More grounded, not as much chaotic shit going on. I need friends and family close by and the last few years I haven’t had that,” he says. “It’s kind of made me a little bit crazy.”
It hasn’t affected his creativity in any case. A flurry of singles since last autumn (D.R.U.G.S, Pink Beetle, Crooked Cops, Flexin’) characterised by loose, jazzy piano and his smooth, casual rapping, were followed last week by a 13-track mixtape, The Moon & You. A proper album, called Dear Annie, will arrive in the summer, and he says he has another one done too.
On this free collection, put together in just two weeks, he sings as much as he raps. It’s modern soul music, colourful and romantic, to file alongside Frank Ocean and Childish Gambino. “I’m getting singing lessons now, so on the next album maybe I’ll just be singing,” he says. As a child he attended Dublin’s Billie Barry Stage School. He was in a few pantomimes, played the janitor in Bugsy Malone and had a small part in a film adaptation of Roddy Doyle’s New Boy, about an African child starting school in Ireland. It was nominated for an Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film in 2008. “I’m not even trying to make hip hop no more. When people call me a rapper I don’t like it. The demeanour of hip hop is so negative. I just want to be seen among people who are more musically inclined, I guess.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with his rapping. The form has long been a global thing, of course, with the London strain currently enjoying a big moment. If you heard Rejjie Snow without knowing who it was, there isn’t much to indicate that he isn’t American aside from this line in his tense, relatively aggressive song Flexin’: “Beg the boy to river-dance/I’m Irish, what you fucking mean?/Come, girl, shake your laffy taffy.”
What’s Irish about his music? There’s a long pause. “Probably quirkiness? I don’t know, maybe. There’s a lot of poets where I’m from, so maybe my lyrics. I don’t know.” He’s a long way from Nineties Irish-American rap duo House of Pain and their Shamrocks and Shenanigans, anyway, and doesn’t care much for the cliches of Irish culture. I ask what he makes of Ed Sheeran’s recent hit, Galway Girl, and its mix of modern pop, fiddles and uilleann pipes, and he’s tactful: “I have heard it, it’s interesting. I wasn’t expecting him to come out with a song like that. But he’s a nice guy, I’ve met him.” Only later do I find that a tweet which he posted on April 13 – “That Galway Girl by Ed Sheeran makes me wanna cut off my own dick” – has been liked and retweeted thousands of times.
Growing up in Dublin, the middle child of an Irish-Jamaican mother and a Nigerian father, he only had white friends. “I was the black sheep,” he says. “When you tell that to someone from England, they don’t get it because it’s so multicultural there.” His mates were into house and techno, but it was a mid-teens obsession with graffiti that started him gravitating towards hip hop culture. He won’t tell me the name he used (“I’m not glorifying it.”) but it’s obvious how exciting he found it. When he was back in Dublin over Easter he spotted a couple of things he’d done years ago. It was a good feeling.
“It’s a society, an underworld. It was about being incognito, but in the community, everyone would know you. I was so heavily invested in the whole thing. I’d just be in class drawing my tag name, not doing so well in school. But I’m so happy I did that instead of some other shit. I don’t smoke weed or nothing.”
Being caught once, and having to do community service, put an end to it. He focused on football, while also thinking that the opportunity to move to the US could strengthen the possibility of a music career. As early as 2011 he’d started putting some songs on YouTube under the pseudonym Lecs Luther, and received praise and decent view counts.
I ask how, if you’re from Dublin, it even gets into your head that there’s a possibility that you could be a rapper. “It doesn’t. There’s nothing in place for you to do that. There’s no events, it’s all DIY. Everything I did was from the internet: going on YouTube and looking at music videos and almost copying what they did.”
Then there’s the problem of what to rap about. “Anyone that raps in Dublin, it’s always been deemed corny. What can you really talk about? There’s no glitz and glamour,” he says. “So my music is all based on fantasies and love. That’s why I get a pass, I think. I’m not talking about gangster shit.”
He did get one early taste of the thrill of the music life, aged 12, when he attended a concert by Pharrell Williams at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre, sneaked to the front row with his family and got invited onstage to sing Pharrell’s song Rock Star. “I sang the hook. I was small and skinny with a big hat on. It was so crazy. Afterwards he brought me backstage and talked to me. I still have the photo and T-shirt that he signed. I’d love to see him again, I’m sure he’d remember it. It was great, a really empowering feeling.”
In some ways, being a rapper in a place where there weren’t many was a positive. Very early on, he had the opportunity to play support slots for Kendrick Lamar and one of his heroes, MF Doom, when they passed through the city. Now he’s the only non-American rapper signed to the New York record label 300 Entertainment, also home to Migos, Fetty Wap and Young Thug.
It’s a stamp of approval that means he can stand with the best of them. There’s no need to hide that heritage. “With maturity, seeing how people were viewing me, I knew that being yourself is always the best way,” he tells me. “My identity, my Irishness, crept back more. I think people really see me for me now. I created this character from nothing and I’m really in control of my own thing.”
The Moon & You is free to download at rejjiesnow.com