For one member of WSTRN in particular, being nominated for Best Newcomer at next week’s MOBO Awards is the result of a lifetime of striving. Akelle Charles is no newcomer. Now 25 years old, at just 12 he and his relatives were the subject of a BBC One documentary about making it in the music business. Except it turned out to be a show about not making it, and it clearly had a huge affect on the singer and rapper.
“When it came out I was begging my mum and dad not to make me go back to school,” he tells me of A Big Deal for the Charles Family, broadcast as part of the BBC’s One Life documentary strand in 2004. In the film, celebrity agent Jonathan Shalit (best known as the man who discovered Charlotte Church) attempted to secure a record deal for Akelle, his two older sisters Tahirah and Sariah, his older brother Sirach and his cousin Kassa. They were a kind of Jackson 5 proposition, but at the time Akelle, the youngest, was no Michael. They didn’t get the big deal and he still thinks it was his fault. “The next day everyone came up to me saying they saw me on TV. What made it worse was the only thing anyone said was, ‘Ha, that man said you couldn’t sing!’ That’s what I remember from the show. It proper hurt me.”
Now, at last, he has his happy ending. His new trio (pronounced “Western” because they’re all from west London) also have a strong chance of winning Best Song at the MOBOs, for In2, a supremely catchy pop R&B tune that spent 11 weeks in the UK top 20 last winter. It was certified platinum for 600,000 UK sales just last month. Meanwhile, his big brother has sung on three different top 10 singles under the name Angel, and the man who disputed Akelle’s talent now runs Warner Music UK, where WSTRN are signed. “Jonathan said to him, ‘Do you remember what you said to Akelle a few years ago?’ I reminded him: ‘You said I couldn’t sing.’ He said: ‘Well you can now.’”
His bandmate, rapper Louis Rei, who completes the group along with the similarly surname-free singer and producer Haile, repeatedly describes their year as “a fairytale”. Louis Rei, 26, is another one who had to watch his youthful potential go unfulfilled before a second chance with WSTRN. In his case, it was football. He tells me that he was the first seven-year-old in Britain to be signed to a professional football club – Arsenal.
“I’ve got an extensive football history,” he says. “I was at Arsenal until I was about 12 or 13, then Fulham until I was 16. But I had an injury to my spine – the cartilage in between was wearing out. They caught it just before it got bad, but basically I had a time to get fit by, and it didn’t quite happen.”
He too was seen in a TV documentary as a child, ITV’s The Truth About Footballers in 1998. “I could do, like, two thousand one hundred keep-ups at the age of seven, something like that. I was a midfield maestro, I like to call it – number 10. I loved playing football, but I always hated watching it. I hadn’t realised how much music has actually been a part of my life until I walked down this path. I could always tell you what was going on in the charts and what songs I liked.” He recalls Akelle visiting him at home one evening to persuade him to confirm his commitment to the group, at the same time as he was waiting to hear about a place at Luton Town FC. The call came while Akelle was in the room – another rejection.
Louis Rei was also trying to make it solo as a rapper when he was offered a role in WSTRN. He was managed separately by Morgan Keyz, a video director for the influential online channel for urban music, SBTV. Keyz’s credibility, coupled with the celeb power of Shalit – whose clients include Myleene Klass and Lorraine Kelly – mirrors the appeal of the group, claims Louis Rei: “We have the ability to make a diverse range of music. We can do grime and we can do ballads. We love it all. We’re a mash-up of all these different sounds and feelings.”
“Our audience is from eight-year-olds to old: 30, 40,” adds Akelle.
I show the trio a recent thinkpiece from the music website Noisey about the death of the boyband. One Direction were the end of the line, apparently. Among other things, it suggests that WSTRN would once have been launched as a boyband, with their smooth melodies and lyrics about chatting up girls, but while the term is so unfashionable, are instead billed as a “collective”. They’re amused.
“The story of us coming together is so organic. I wouldn’t have been caught dead in a boyband if someone had said that’s what this was. It was a taboo word,” says Louis Rei. “We was all doing our own thing prior to this. You can’t fake realness, if that makes sense.”
Nevertheless, if we had to give them Spice Girl nicknames I’d go for Broody (Haile, who hardly speaks and puts large headphones over his waist-length dreadlocks the moment the interview is over), Bolshy (Louis Rei, who dominates the conversation with his booming tones) and Blingy (Akelle, all smiled and draped in gold chains).
But the only way in which Akelle and Haile have been manufactured is by their session musician fathers, brothers who have played with Bob Marley and mostly the popular UK roots reggae band Misty in Roots. Haile was too young to be involved with his cousins’ teenage foray into music, but is a major part of the songwriting for WSTRN. “I was producing a mixtape with Akelle, and met Louis because he was featured on one of the songs,” he explains. “The very first song we made all together was In2.”
Now they face an uphill struggle trying to match their early success. A follow-up single, A List, missed the top 40 in August. It has some lovely summery guitar but the lyrics are a bit sex-pesty (“Why you acting like you don’t know what your name is? You been trying to fight it for ages”). They blame the stagnant nature of the current, streaming-focused singles chart. “In the last few months the charts have changed a lot, with streaming. Everyone’s trying to figure out a new plan for how to break in,” says Louis Rei.
“We’re still doing good but we’re not doing as good as In2. That’s all it is,” adds Akelle. A MOBO Award or two on Friday will certainly help their cause, while at their first headline show in London the following week, they’ll be able to show off various options for another hit single. “Our path now is just to remind people that we can still make good music,” says Louis Rei. “I believe you can’t deny good music.”
Nov 8, O2 Academy Islington, N1 (0844 477 2000, o2academyislington.co.uk)