There are many mixed race artists successfully forging a music career, however few use their music to speak specifically about being mixed race. Enter Essa, a London-based MC who has had a decade of experience in the music industry, having released three albums and numerous singles. Formerly known as Yungun, he released his debut LP ‘The Essance’ in 2004, ‘Grown Man Business’, a collaboration with producer and DJ Mr Thing, in 2006, and his most recent effort, entitled ‘The Misadventures of a Middle Man’ is out now. Also released this month is a new EP, entitled Evade & Seek: The Epilogue. Born to a white mother and Nigerian father, Essa grew up in the suburbs of London and attended the UK’s most prestigious boarding school, Eton. He is now a qualified city lawyer and new father. Afropean’s editor Nat Illumine caught up with this enigmatic individual to discuss his music, his upbringing and his experiences of being mixed race.
Like many teenagers, the young Essa wanted to carve out an identity for himself he could relate to. “I think the search to have a black identity drew me to hip hop. I was just instinctively interested in it as a young mixed race kid,” he states, from a pub in London’s Kentish Town. “I didn’t relate to the Caribbean black identity because my black family is West African. I’d go to the barbershop to get my haircut and they’d be talking in patois and I couldn’t understand what they were saying. I was just a little nervous teenager trying to get my fade,” he laughs. “As a young man it confused the hell out of me, because I had to find my identity. It seemed like the world was set up in a binary way – you’re either this or you’re that. I’m sort of this and sort of that and sort of neither,” he states. Thinking back to the old census forms before the mixed race category was added, he recalls “just hovering above the tick box for like five minutes going ‘Jesus, this is an existential moment!’”
Essa has always felt somewhat an outsider, whether as a mixed race kid at an almost all white school, or a middle class kid in an otherwise predominantly working class hip hop industry, therefore race and class issues are close to his heart. He recalls his experiences at Eton: “There was hardly anyone who was anything apart from white and upper class – aristocracy and royalty – it was nuts. I stood out like a sore thumb,” he explains. Yet he thrived at school: “I never felt it working against me, it probably worked in my favour and I stood out in a good way,” he remembers. “My racial background at the time didn’t occur to me. When I think about it I must have been looked at very differently, and maybe I was treated in certain ways on the basis of it without me as a kid really understanding what was going on.”
As a rapper making hip hop music, Essa has also come up against obstacles due to his class, but again he puts a positive spin on his experiences: “I’m from a privileged background. I went to a really good school, and that is why I am able to make the music I make, because my stuff is very lyrical, and the stuff I did in English Literature and Drama at school informs what I’m doing.” Essa has used his most recent album to explore these themes: “One of the things that people always say about me is how I’ve got a very well-spoken voice, and how that’s weird in hip hop. So I wrote a song about that issue. If I were a jazz musician no one would be surprised at all. Hip hop’s always had this class thing, this ghetto thing – people expect hip hop to be a certain thing, so it just doesn’t add up for many people. Like, how can this guy make hip hop? It reveals the level of ignorance that separates people, which is actually a sad thing.” The album is entitled ‘The Misadventures of a Middle Man’ and various tracks address the issues Essa has faced. “I just feel a bit different. This mentality is what this whole album I’ve written is all about. I tried to write songs that explore that feeling of being in the middle of things.”
Essa is now a fully qualified city lawyer. When asked if he has experienced prejudice in the workplace, he states: “I find that hard to tell. I mean I ask myself that about my job as a lawyer – has my race been an issue in the legal world? I’ve never seen a door slam in my face because it says ‘no blacks allowed’ in the boardroom, or ‘no posh people allowed’ at a hip hop club. I’ve never seen those doors slam in my face, but what happens sometimes is you never even knew a door was there, you never know where you could have got to, and opportunities are just not yours.” However prejudice exists, and Essa’s view of it is the same as many young people: “When people are racist or sexist, quite apart from being offensive, it is unprofessional and old school,” he points out, in reference to older people’s attitudes. “They’re not going to last with that kind of attitude – it’s dated. All the younger people in the room cringe when someone older in the room makes a prejudiced comment.” However he concedes that although there is a change in young people’s views, this does not necessarily translate to the upper echelons of power: “The pace of change in the population is one thing, but the pace of change within the corridors of power is a different thing and it’s much, much slower.”
Having recently become a father, I ask Essa how he feels his child’s experiences will differ from his own and his father’s before him: “I see so many mixed race families and couples and children now, it just won’t be a thing,” he hopes. “I talk to my dad and my dad’s generation, and I can only imagine what my parents must have gone through in terms of prejudice in the ‘70s in this country. It was a very different world. My dad grew up never imagining there’d be a black president, and that’s not the case for kids now. I hope for our children’s generation it becomes normal.” Recalling his father’s experiences of the corporate world, he states: “He felt it was shut to him. He tells me about his experiences in the ‘70s as an accountant, and he was saying racism was a huge factor and it held him back, and that influenced the way in which he brought me up.” Despite the prejudice Essa’s parents faced, they clearly did a great job, as Essa is now a successful man in his own right: a rapper, lawyer, husband and father.
‘The Adventures of a Middle Man’ and ‘Evade & Seek: The Epilogue’ are out now on iTunes or at any good record shop