Lady Leshurr Lets the Music Talk
Interview and Styling: Nazanin Shahnavaz
Photography: Vicky Grout
After months of emails, calls, and rescheduled plans, I am waiting for Lady Leshurr at a sun-filled photography studio in London. Racks of neatly pressed designer clothes line the wall, a few feet away a vanity table glistens with powders and creams, and like a red carpet, the Colorama is rolled out for the queen of British rap to step into frame. An hour passes and the looming possibility of a no-show sends a ripple of nervous glances around the room. Suddenly my phone buzzes, the first lady of grime has arrived. When Leshurr enters from an adjacent lift, she is a petite, bare-faced beauty, coiling in her own shyness; a stark contrast to the feisty straight-talking MC known for the highly original disses and cutting cultural commentary of her infamous Queen’s SpeechYouTube series. Here we discuss self-respect, coming out, and breaking down barriers in the UK grime scene.
What are your early memories of making music in Birmingham?
For the majority of my childhood I stayed indoors. I was basically a bedroom MC, so I would stay in my bedroom all day every day and just write lyrics. I didn’t have a normal childhood. I didn’t go outside and play. I had a pink bedroom with Playboy wallpaper, and my mom never disturbed me. She’d cook me food and leave it outside the door. I was just so focused on writing. I would then go to the studio at the youth club, record my lyrics, go back to my bedroom, film a music video on my Logitech webcam, and fling it on YouTube.
You’re now opening youth clubs yourself, and you’ve launched your Lady Leshurr rap college, so I imagine your youth club was pretty important to you.
My youth club molded me. If I didn’t have a youth club, I don't know if I'd be doing what I'm doing now. There aren’t a lot of youth clubs in the UK anymore, they’ve all been knocked down. So far I’ve opened one in Enfield, but that got shut down because a little boy got stabbed around the corner. It was a million-pound build. It had all the studio equipment in there too, so that really upset me. I’ve also opened one in Stratford, mainly for people who suffer from mental health problems. A lot of the kids don't have anyone to talk to, or they feel embarrassed. In certain communities there’s a lot of stigma surrounding mental health and kids become isolated. This year, I want to rebuild more of these of spaces where kids can find support, make music, and meet friends. I didn't have friends growing up, but at the youth club, everyone knew who I was. They knew, “That's that girl, that girl MC.” Youth clubs are imperative for people that need a place to go.
It sounds like you’ve had your own struggles with mental health.
Being in the public eye, I had to deal with both anxiety and depression behind closed doors, and that really took its toll. I was overcome with anxiety because of how quick life is and the pressure, but I wasn't expressing how I felt, so I kept it all inside. There's been a few times when I've tried to harm myself and literally end it. I got to that point. I felt like no one understood me. People think this music thing is so easy, but in reality I felt like I was dying inside.
How did you get through it?
I had to face my fears. The main thing was, I was very shy and I would never let people know what I really thought. But it got to the point where I had to think of my wellbeing, so I cut people off, ended toxic relationships, and slowly started to regain control over my life. That definitely helped. I’m grateful to have gone through these experiences, because I always turn the negative into a positive through my music, no matter what.
What kind of messages are you hoping to get across through Queen's Speech?
That it's possible to achieve your goals, no matter what skin color you have, no matter what gender you are, no matter where you're from. I'm black, I'm female, and I have a Birmingham accent—10 years ago this could never have happened. The message for Queen's Speech is that you don’t have to flash your flesh to get to where you want to be.
I respect that you’ve never exploited your sexuality for views.
I let the music do the talking. In 2011, people were trying to get me to wear more revealing stuff and I refused. I lost a few opportunities for myself, but I think integrity is the best thing in the world. When you keep hold of that and you're able to do whatever you want, you're living your best life. I don’t care if people fancy me, I’m not here for that. People have always come to my level and been like, “Okay, she's not budging, we just have to go with her." It's good to be a boss.
There’s a video on YouTube where the interviewer keeps probing you about your sexual orientation. I couldn’t help but wonder if you were a man, whether he would even dream of asking those kind of questions.
It's true. Being gay or bisexual in the grime scene is hard, that’s why I didn’t come out straight away. Back then, I knew that I liked girls as well, but I was worried about how my audience would react if I was to come out. The grime audience is very young, they're very naive, and can be ignorant. They don't want to hear that whoever they're listening to is gay. There are people in the industry that I know are gay, but they’ll never say because of the impact it might have on their career. Every April Fool's Day I would go on Twitter and be like, “Guys, I’m gay,” because I thought maybe if there was a bad reaction, I could be like, “Just kidding.” I would always do it, because, man, I just wanted to let them know so badly.
People know now and I'm happy about that. But I did get certain tweets, and it would make me think, wow, you're telling me to burn in hell or get AIDS. It's horrible. But it’s out now and I’m happy. I'm living my own life, I'm not living for anyone else.
I’m sure you’re a role model for so many people.
A lot of younger kids have messaged me stuff like, “I'm so glad that you came out, because I'm scared and I don't know how to tell my mom.” I have the time to speak to them, because I know what they're going through. When you’re that young, you think it’s the end of the world. I know there are alot of kids that are suffering. They’re in school and they're suffering. I want to be that person that can give them advice and show them that it's okay.