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When all is said and done, Sipho just wants to make good music. Not good RnB, not good Gospel, not good electronic – just categorically good, able to reach people of all walks of life. Doing so will mean drawing on every aspect of his humanity, plumbing depths that might be difficult to face. At 21 years of age, he knows that getting where he’s going will require both fierce commitment and emotional exorcism – the sort that’s been brewing for some time.
Growing up in Birmingham as part of the Seventh-day Adventist church, Sipho was serious about music from a young age, ever since he teamed up with classmates in Year 6 to deliver a cover of Green Day’s ‘Wake Me Up When September Ends’ for a school talent contest. “It wasn’t really a band so much as some kids playing guitar over a CD, but we came second place – shafted by a dance group,” he laughs. “We would practice at one of the guys’ houses and I just remember thinking ‘okay, this band thing feels really cool’, so I started writing my own terrible songs, actually looking at record labels and thinking like "yeah, I can do this". The others weren't taking it seriously so that kind of died where it was, but from then on I was just the kid that sang.”
Having gotten into the good graces of his school’s music teacher, he found himself with priority access to practice rooms, joining after-school acapella groups and recording where he could on a friends borrowed microphone. Early experiments with Soundcloud led to a stint on a songwriting degree at BIMM Institute - a last-minute swap from Physiotherapy when he decided he could no longer avoid his natural calling. Honing his industry nous, he learnt about the value of production and self-presentation, beginning to pull together his swirling ideas into concrete songs. When Dirty Hit’s A&R Chris Fraser dropped by the school for a student showcase, Sipho was ready; a performance of both ‘Bodies’ and ‘Almost Lost’ were enough to convince the team that he was someone they should have on their books. “I think it's a good fit in the sense that I've always intended on building my own world anyway – Dirty Hit are just there to kind of aid things and give me some extra ears.’ He says. “Instead of having to keep banging my head on the wall to figure out if something is good, I have this whole team who can bring their perspective.” Finishing school was no longer a necessity – why study your dreams when you can live them?
If Sipho’s journey to now sounds straightforward, it is testament to the power of his singular focus, his determination to only present work that exists at the very height of his potential. Ask him what he likes most about music, and he will talk about the importance of texture – weaving in unexpected elements and layers, going to places that the listener wouldn’t expect. If he likes a song, he’ll play it for you on the spot, flipping open his laptop adorned with Frank Ocean and Odd Future stickers, emblems of the artists whose careers have shaped his scope and ambition (‘Blonde’ is kind of like the Bible to me”). Getting his parents fully onside with his career was a simple matter of representation – while they were always supportive, watching Michael Kiwanuka win the 2020 Mercury Prize flipped the switch of recognition that music might be something from which he could make a living. “It went from “oh you’re doing a show, cool, tell us when you’ll be home” to “Oh my gosh, if he can win these prizes, maybe you can too!” he grins. A child of the Internet age, nothing is out of his reach – the emotional groundswell of Elbow, the playfulness of Mac De Marco, the freewheeling experimentalism of cult multi-instrumentalist Laraaji. In Sipho’s library of inspiration, anything goes.
“I just like artists who have character; something genuine to say for themselves. I pull in from so many places, and the EP has evolved so much because of it. Initially, I wanted it to be very minimal - just me in a white room, very dramatic, almost like a therapy session. But then it kind of grew - I listened to Solange's fourth album, and I listened to Earl Sweatshirt’s third album, and I knew what I needed to do. It became much more about providing ideas than them being these big roaring definitive songs.”
All of this ties back into Sipho’s ability to transcend expectation, speaking to the duality of our modern existence. He suspects that some might judge his appearance and presume a certain sound - “people are always quick to see a Black person and assume RnB” - but the ideas that truly move him to creation can be as abstract as a sound effect on a TV show, as innocuous as a snatch of song heard from on a shop floor. ‘Bodies’, the song that piqued Dirty Hit’s initial interest, builds its foreboding hook around an interpolation of garage classic “I’m Sorry’ by Monster Boy, selected simply for the pleasure of its uplifting mood. It could have been left bare, but instead he subverts it – squashing the euphoria down with an almost menacing growl of foreboding.
Elsewhere, he speaks of trying to capture the mood of ‘The Sopranos’ - the tightrope tension of violence and virtue, mournful suburbia rubbing up against brute masculinity. At the centrepiece of the record is ‘Moonlight’, a dynamic two-parter that speaks to his conflicting sides. “I’ve definitely been pondering the duality of the Black boy,’ he says. “As much as a dude might be screaming swag or have this shield up, he still might be depressed inside. I think Jay Z said this the best; if you go to certain areas and make eye contact with someone, they get defensive, because they realise that they’re truly being seen. It’s a point where you already know too much, but it does kind of come down to that sentiment of 'Come on, guys, we can cry too’. In making this record I’m finding myself in the early process of ‘adulting’, and ouch! There’s a lot of difficulty in finding the right path and then taking it, dealing with the consequences of choices you’ve made and people you may have hurt along the way. It’s a real record of growing pains – growing pains and good movies.”
Opening himself up to the possibility of feeling fully seen has also allowed Sipho to reconcile his relationship with God, the titular concept of the EP. Right across its eight songs, devout morality and rebellious scepticism intermingle with one another, finally coming to a head on the gentle piano of ‘Almost Lost’. As a YouTube-scrolling teenager, Sipho recalls happening upon a channel called ‘It’s Supernatural’, a chat show where near-death experiencing evangelicals would come on the show to share their close brushes with hell. Naturally, the concept terrified him.
“They were all having these huge epiphanies of how they had to be better people, and it really scared me.” He says. “For like a year and a half, I was really involved in church, very religiously aware of the things I was doing. Even the music I was making was really existential. But then eventually, I realised that everyone who came on the show with a story also seemed to have a book to sell, some special text that could ‘reverse your sinful DNA’. It was then that I realised there's a 50/50 to this – you can believe, but we can never truly know. I’ll always have that awareness of something bigger than us, but I can't tell you what it is. Nobody can.”
While ‘And God Said…’ cannot provide solid answers, it is the sound of an artist who feels wiser than his years, finding peace where he stands instead of running in fear. “Because of the platform that I want to build, I do feel that sometimes it is my job to be a bit of an open book and say, Yes, I've done this, Yes, I've made these mistakes, but this is what I've learned from it and what I have to share. If people take anything from this EP, I hope that they can hear that I’m trying, and I’m ready to figure some things out.” If the journey of self-discovery already sounds this good, Sipho’s destination is shaping up to be something pretty biblical.