“SOME PEOPLE say I sound posh,” says $YM, midway through our interview in a park not far from her north London home.
On the evidence of her rap style, it’s a fair point. Posh might not be the precise adjective, but the lyrics she drops over murky hip-hop beats are delivered in tones that intersect ‘street’ and middle class.
“Somewhere between ratchet and non-ratchet,” her manager Angelise Karanja chips in.
Surrounding the park, beneath leaden grey skies, a beige-coloured modern housing development gleams. Where it now stands, a crumbling old estate was demolished to make way – the kind of estate where $YM (real name Imani Yusuf) grew up in Camden.
“To hood people I might sound posh,” the 21-year-old continues, in a surprisingly husky voice. The next day she sends a voice note, sounding even more croaky – as though she’s been up all night smoking Gauloises outside a Paris café. Or, a more likely explanation, up all night in the Croydon recording studio owned by the Finesse Foreva label.
“With Threat, when I first recorded it they said it’s aggressive, and my voice is the opposite of that. So they told me to sound more aggressive,” $YM says, referring to the engineers she worked with on her last single. “I’m learning new things, how to rap certain words, because I rap so fast…”
“When you’re working with a label you have to make sure your music is going to bring something back, so I’m doing more drill music now, adding that to my catalogue. They’re a very London-based sound. I’m trying to do my American trap. Mumble rap meets drill.”
Her producer, JB Made It, who has also worked with Drake, was responsible for $YM’s most notable track to date, Threat – a glowering stare-out of a tune, peppered with Americanisms, brags about her earning potential, N-words, b-words, “hoes” and a gag about R. Kelly’s bathroom habits.
“It’s a serious issue,” she says about the R. Kelly situation. “But I turned it into humour. Nicki Minaj said about herself [on Up In Flames] ‘even R Kelly couldn’t touch the kid’. So I thought, if Nicki can say that and people love it then I want to do that too. Nicki Minaj man, she’s my biggest influence.”
It doesn’t take too big a leap to detect the stylistic link between the two. And their backgrounds are similar too – both Minaj and $YM are the products of parents who migrated from overseas to megacities. Minaj was born in Trinidad and moved to New York as a child. $YM’s parents are Somalis who arrived in London in 1991 seeking asylum from the long and bloody civil war.
“My mum and dad came here from Mogadishu with two children who were literally babies,” she explains. “All together there’s seven of us siblings, me included.”
“My mum used to tell me back in the day life was hard. She wanted to start a new life in the UK. We lived in cramped rooms with bunkbeds, a big family.”
As a rare Muslim artist making rap music in the UK, does she identify with her Somali roots?
“I’m Somali. I don’t like the word British for some reason. London is more what I identify with. I used to wear a headscarf, go to Quran school, Arabic school, proper traditional. I was 16 when I stopped wearing the hijab. I wanted to start being a bit more me, I wanted to show my hair, I liked dressing up girly. I always wanted to be like that my whole life.”
At first, she says, when she took off her hijab, her Somali peers at her all-girls’ school were shocked and confused. But soon many followed her lead.
After her older sister introduced her to Aaliyah and Destiny’s Child and her older brother taught her about Tupac, Biggie and later Travis Scott and A$AP Rocky, the young $YM began recording tracks using the voice recorder app on her mum’s phone, at the age of 11.
She describes her mum as her best friend. On one of her best tracks, the stark, minimalist, ironically titled Humble, $YM declares “I don’t fold, I don’t fumble, I make mama proud.”
So, is her mama proud?
“Not about me doing music, because she’s a religious Muslim woman. She’s happy I’m doing something I love, she finds it cute, but she’s like ‘do it, see how it goes, but always remember god and religion.”
The young rapper confesses that if her mother could decide her daughter’s path she would be in university or trying to meet a future husband. As for her father, she says old wounds have healed and they are getting on better than before – though she does hide her sexier photoshoots from him.
She also makes no bones about the fact she’s fighting on many levels to get to the top of the rap game. As a black woman and a Muslim, there are barriers that aren’t there for men in the industry.
“Black British women are not given as much support as the men are. In America you can name way more black women rappers. In the UK they’re waiting until ten years go by.”
As $YM and Karanja list a flurry of US acts including Megan Thee Stallion and Doja Cat, they rank Lady Leshurr and Stefflon Don among the few British female rap artists to have broken through.
“Compared to other countries, my experience as a young black woman might be better, but I feel like it’s hard,” she says. “We made UK rap music for the black people in the UK, and now I’m not allowed to be part of that thing we made because I’m a girl.”
“With drill fans it’s not a personal thing. If they like you, they have to drag you first, then you make a song and they’re like ‘oh actually guys, she’s hard.’ So I’m going through that phase now. Every rapper goes through this stage. For people to like you they need ten other people to like you first. I don’t think they like me but I’m gonna make them like me,” she says, letting out a wicked giggle.
Are there social issues she wants to address on record?
“Music is my escape,” she says. “Social topics are a big part of my life, I always speak about them on social media. I live that every day. Being a black girl is a social issue. Music is to empower myself.”
As an ice cream van jingles past, we end the interview talking about urban British genres of the last few decades, from garage to grime. But what about the negative connotations of the drill scene?
“I think it’s a way for people in those situations to express themselves. It’s glorifying violence, yes, but they’re speaking about what they’ve gone through.”
And why is everything drill now anyway, whatever happened to grime?
“Grime is dead,” say artist and manager in unison. “It’s fading out, it’s completely gone.”
If $YM’s tracks are the sound of grime’s eulogy, then it’s bound to be a spectacular funeral.
Next single ‘IDGAF’ is out 2nd August