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When he won BBC three's Rap Game UK in 2020, Leeds rapper Graft was heralded as one of the city's brightest raw talents, becoming a national star nearly overnight. But to those outside of Yorkshire, they may not have known just how much work had gone into that moment; recording from the age of 14, winning the MOBO Unsung award in 2018, and being a general ambassador for the creativity, for the hard work and no-nonsense creativity that defines our city. 

This year, Graft has inked a new deal with Come Play With Me Records/EMI North, and is about to embark on a whole new era of artistry, wanting his audience to get to know him more intimately and emotionally than ever before. 

To get the lowdown, we sent our very own Danny West — Graft’s manager and long-term friend — down to Graft’s Mum’s Salon for a deep-dive conversation about northern rap, building your community and recognising the intersectional pressures that shape black men’s mental health. 

(The conversation has been edited for coherence and brevity) 

"you’ve got to stay prepared; you never know when you're going to be faced with an opportunity that can change your life" First things first, a clichéd but essential question: how did you first get into music? At first it was through writing poems. When I was around 13, I wrote to get things off my chest; I didn't feel like I could always speak to someone about what I was feeling, so it became my comfort and way to talk. From there, poems progressed into verses and eventually full songs, but I never used to tell anyone I was making music. For some strange reason, one of my closest friends in high school one day was just like, 'C’mon, I know, you write lyrics!' Eventually, I showed him one song I wrote called 'Time Is Of The Essence', and it blew him away. I think I was about 15, in his living room, and he encouraged me to keep recording, so I did. I upped my writing, I upped the beats, and I just kept going. You were also a promising footballer; how did you choose between music and sports? It was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever made. From a very young age, football was always my main passion, so it took years of deliberation. But I think what helped me get to that decision was at the time, my football career wasn't going as well. I didn't get offered a pro contract at the last club I was at, Rotherham. I was 18,19, started trialling at different clubs, and nothing amounted from that. I went into Saturday league football and was enjoying it, gaining a lot of experience, but within that whole timeframe, I was still releasing music and it was all just levelling up a lot more than my football career. It just got to a point where I just wanted to focus and see what I could achieve. My gut instinct was showing me that I just needed to put my all into one thing, and that thing was music. It was the best decision that I made. It’s been four years since Rap Game introduced you to a whole new audience; with a few years distance and hindsight, what was the biggest learning lesson? The biggest learning lesson from the show was not everything is as it seems. A lot of things are painted in a certain way, and from the outside, it looks really glamorous and amazing. But once you actually get into the nitty-gritty of it, it can be very different to how it comes across on screen. It taught me to really solidify a good support system around me, because the industry can be treacherous, and I've only had a small glimpse of it! It reminded me that you’ve got to stay prepared; you never know when you're going to be faced with an opportunity that can change your life. Stay right, stay developing, keep being a student to the game…the preparation has to meet the opportunity. Would you recommend it as a route for other rappers? I would recommend The Rap Game for other rappers, for sure. Because it's a platform now; if you're smart, you can utilise it to change your life like I have, gain more exposure and connections and experience. In that time, I grew so much, but it's not for the faint-hearted. I'll tell you that! Rap Game also highlighted you as an ambassador for Northern Rap: how does the style hit differently up here? Definitely through our accent — that's a very unique selling point that helps us to stand out. Our lingo, our slang, nods to certain things in the community like certain landmarks or local food shops... those small unique observational elements really make a big difference. But I'd also say it’s different with regards to support - Leeds has never really had a big Breakthrough Act in the rap scene before, so when the city sees an artist doing well they really get behind you. "my whole focus with this EP was to be as honest and vulnerable as I could." How do you see the health of the Leeds rap scene in general? I think the Leeds music scene is looking really healthy and exciting. I've delved into more pockets, for instance, the jazz scene, the soul, the R&B…working with new artists in those areas, I've really started to see how talented the artists are that are in those spaces and it all feels really promising. As for the rap scene, I’ll be real…the artists I’m excited about are Pertrelli and D-Five, but a lot of other artists feel like a carbon copy of acts outside of the city rather than themselves. No disrespect to anyone, but in this industry, you can get drowned out by the noise, start to follow trends and do things that don't necessarily align with who you are. It can make you lose your way at times. So I think the best way to cut through and be most impactful is to be authentic and remain true to yourself in everything that you do. In terms of staying true to yourself, we’ve also spoken recently about your Senegalese heritage, and how you’ve recently discovered that your family is part of the Mandinka tribe. How has that made you feel, to learn more about your history? I’ve found a real sense of direction, reconnecting to parts of me that have been lost. It's felt like a ground breaking moment for me as an individual; it's made my whole direction clearer, showing me things that I want to continue learning. It's that classic saying; 'you don't know where you're going until you find out where you've been’. Why was 2024 the right time to sign with CPWM? I wanted to sign to Come Play With Me because of my relationship with you and Luke (from CPWM’s label team). You both really understand what I'm trying to do in this next phase of my career, and you believe in it. Come Play With Me are so focused on championing northern talent and with me being from here, it just made perfect sense. Can you remember how we first met? It was through mutual friends who are also musical artists. We'd always be around the same spaces, and friendship group but just never really spoke initially. You used to send me beats, and what's funny is the beats you used to send me I didn't use to rate! But then there was one time where a few of us were in the studio together, you were playing something and I was like yo, this is good! From that moment of hearing those beats, spending time together, everything just grew from there. It was never forced. When the Rap Game came about, you were the person who was there for me the most, willing to be a part of the journey with me. All those years of building have come together, and ever since then, we've just been best friends. Speaking of personal journeys, your forthcoming EP looks at masculinity and mental health — how have these themes emerged in your life, and how did you want to bring them to tape? My whole focus with this EP was to be as honest and vulnerable as I could. After the rap game, my life changed instantly; people's awareness of me just grew overnight, so I was in the public eye, adjusting to the industry and everything that came with it, and I was also going through a breakup… it was just a lot. A lot of pressure, grief, stress, overwhelm... there were so many emotions that I was going through at that time. And my way of dealing with it was talking to my friends and my family, but also making music. I was very focused on trying to create a project that allowed me to get things off my chest, but also to share them so that people could gain a better insight into me, my life and who I am as a person after Rap Game. So far, people have only seen me in certain lights, and I felt like people needed to know more about me before I could step into the next phase of my career. People like Kendrick Lamar, Stormzy, Dave, J Cole... some of their songs are so personal and vulnerable and create such a vivid picture in your mind that it inspired me to try and do the same with some of the topics I'm touching on. And this is exactly what the EP is trying to do - it's the bridge into the next phase of my artistry. Once I decided on the direction, it just felt really natural. What governmental and societal support would you like to see to help people - black men especially - open up about their mental health? I’d love to see more integration into the education system. We need lessons and subjects focused on ways of coping, of looking after yourself. Whether that be more opportunities to speak to a counsellor, opportunities to become more confident in your communication skills so that you can speak to people, lessons in mindfulness and meditation, even encouraging more young men to go outside and be immersed in nature, which is statistically proven to help all of us as human beings. I just want to see more of all of that within the school systems; young kids, if they're introduced to it from an early age and very early on in their life, it's going to help them move forward, as they grow up and encounter more challenging things. It's not going to be too late, because they're going to already have the tools and be equipped. We also need to recognise that although many of us are going through very similar difficulties because of the current affairs in society at the moment, being a person of colour is something extra for people to deal with, on top of all the societal pressures. There's a war that's happening every day for black and brown people that white people can't see, and will never experience, and I want to stress how difficult and how strong you have to be, every day of our lives, just to survive. If you think of it like a bench press, we've all got a 10kg plate on both sides, because of the cost of living, the day-to-day things that affect us all, all the little personal weights people carry. But then for people of colour, you add on fuckin 50 kg plates on both sides just to account for racism and discrimination. That's not to undermine anyone else's issues, but I want people who are not black and brown to try and increase their empathy and awareness. Just because you can’t see certain struggles, doesn’t mean they’re not there. Amen to that! Outside of music, what else is getting you excited? What can people look forward to from Graft? Running! I'm going to be starting a running community called 'Come Outside Collective'. The focus is to destigmatise the black perspective on being outdoors and running. In the communities that I'm from, when I say oh, 'You coming outside?', people always respond 'black people don't run', or 'It's too cold for us black people'. So I want to encourage more black and brown people to come outside, connect with themselves through nature and try to encourage fitness, health and community through running. The benefits truly are endless, so keep an eye out for that! Graft’s new single Same Yout As You is out now, with the EP Golden Child out on the 30th August.

Interviewed by Danny West
Photography by Andrew Benge
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