OCTAVIAN interview – Evening Standard, 11 Jan 2019

And lo, it was decreed across the nation that in the year 2019, the musician of greatest import is named Octavian. Ask the internet and it’ll think you’re looking for a Roman Emperor, or perhaps a St Leger Stakes-winning horse from the early 1800s. This one is a rasping London rapper, 22 years old, who was revealed as the winner of the BBC’s annual Sound of… poll this morning, picked by a large panel of music “experts” (including myself) as the newcomer most likely to see success over the next 12 months.

A BBC team went round his house earlier this week to break the news. “I stayed as cool as I could,” he tells me. “I don’t really like awards and stuff like that. I’m just a year in, so winning this thing, it’s great, but I feel undeserving… maybe.”

In December 2017, he released the song that would start a riot of hype and lead to a record deal with Black Butter, the Sony-backed label that launched Rudimental, Jessie Ware and J Hus. At a time when UK rap is centre stage, a familiar sound in the mainstream, Party Here comes from a different planet entirely, with its long pauses between the synth lines, unpredictable beats, a chorus that whooshes towards dance euphoria and has that sandpaper voice beginning to sing. On January 9 last year, Drake posted an Instagram clip of him and a friend rapping along to it at a Golden Globes afterparty.

It was a golden endorsement that would make anyone dizzy, but Octavian had ascended further and faster than most. Kicked out of his home by his mother at just 14, around the time of that song’s release he was still effectively homeless and in deep poverty. Party Here’s video cost just £50. “In 2017 I started my birthday with 0.00p. From being poor to having my songs on the radio is so unbelievable,” he says. “I don’t even know how to explain how much it’s flipped and transitioned.”

The profiles written about him so far have been mistaken about his family background, he says. That’s because he still isn’t clear on it himself. Octavian is not a stage name but his real first name, he tells me, and Oliver Godji, which everything online says is his name, is actually his middle name and his father’s surname, a title he learned about not long ago. “I just got my birth certificate recently,” he explains. “I knew that my father wasn’t alive any more but I didn’t know what his name was.”

So he can also tell me that, although it’s been reported that he is French, born in Lille where his wider family is from, he was actually born in King’s College Hospital in Camberwell. He spent most of his childhood in south London apart from two years in his early teens, living in Lille in the care of an uncle after he was excluded from secondary school. “I still have lots of questions, because me and my mum got further and further apart,” he says.

After he was kicked out of home for good, he drifted between friends’ houses, sleeping on the streets, on the tube, and abandoned houses used by drug dealers. “I used to look at averagely dressed people – normal, everyday people – and evny them,” he says. “Envy the fact that they had a home to go to. Envy the fact that they could buy a drink of water. When I look at it in hindsight, it doesn’t really seem like it happened.”

Somehow, he still managed to win a place at the BRIT School in Croydon, the performing arts college previously attended by Adele, Jessie J and Amy Winehouse. He applied to study musical theatre despite never having seen a musical, and in the end was accepted on a community arts practice course. There he met Jordan Christie, who would go on to produce Party Here under his alias J Rick and offer Octavian sofa space at night in his Wood Green flat. But he didn’t complete the course. “I was there for about a year. In the second year I couldn’t really go in because of my situation. But it was good, being among talented, motivated people.”

I ask him how he could manage to think about pursuing music when his most basic needs of food and shelter were not being met. “I feel like being hungry motivated me more,” he says. “If you strip someone of everything, they’ll look where they need to look depending on their motivation. If you’re not motivated by anything you’ll spiral downwards. Me, I looked up. With nothing, I’ll make everything, and with everything, I’ll still make more.”

He put out a mixtape titled 22 in 2016 and an EP, Essie World, in the spring of 2017, and didn’t get much attention. Party Here was a last throw of the dice. “It had to be the song. I knew it was gonna blow,” he says. “But even now I don’t think it’s really and truly blown. It’s a big tune but not as big as it could be. I feel like people are still discovering it. But it took me out of my situation and that’s what I needed it to do.”

When he signed his record deal, he got the keys to his own apartment for the first time. He, Christie and his manager Cillian Farrell spent a final night all sleeping on the same sofa, knowing that the next day, everything would change. The past year has been spent ticking off triumphs, including walking in a catwalk show for Louis Vuitton in Paris, releasing an incredible single, Move Me, with producer Mura Masa that is just as powerful as Party Here, and wide acclaim for a 14-track mixtape titled Spaceman.

Then there was his gig at the Electric Ballroom last September, upgraded from the smaller Village Underground venue due to demand for tickets, then delayed because the queue down Camden High Street was so huge. I was there and the excitement in the crowd had sparks. “Seeing that line was nuts, man,” he says. “There’s nothing to compare that to. It’s been an educational year of learning how to grasp what’s going on and compose myself.”

But as he looks out at 2019, he knows exactly what he wants to do. “I never want to be called a grime rapper. I want to build a legacy of my own. If you close your eyes and think of a hip hop artist, there’s a very clear image and that’s not what I want to be. I want to be my own thing, as diverse as possible.”

He’s accepted that this prize means he won’t be able to remain an underground talent, even though the BBC poll seems like less of a guarantee of success than it did when Adele, Ellie Goulding and Sam Smith won it. The last two winners – Sigrid in 2018 and Ray BLK in 2017 – have yet to release debut albums. Octavian says he has two new songs ready to release any day now and an album will definitely arrive this year.

“Right now, I am ready. I’m not gonna lie,” he says. “It’s gonna be a crazy year.”

Feb 28, O2 Forum Kentish Town, NW5. o2forumkentishtown.co.uk

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