NEXT: Lady Leshurr Is Birmingham, UK's Dose Of Rap Girl Magic
Murphy's Law has a way of creeping its way into a situation at the last possible moment. In addition to soaking up the balmy heat and festivities of New Orleans’ French Quarter during Fourth of July weekend, Lady Leshurr, England’s quick-spitting banter rapper, spent three days taking in her first ever Essence Music Festival. For the most part, as both a visitor and a performer, things were going fine. In one of four Superlounges erected in each corner of the Mercedes Benz Superdome, Leshurr stepped out onto the stage and, juiced up from the warm welcome beyond the barricades, commanded it.
Leshurr seemed to outrun her own shadow up there. As her petite frame propelled from one side of the stage to the other with each song, her teased, waist-length tresses played catch-up behind her. Snarky punch lines launched from her lips like a rain of gunshots. Audience members, most of whom hail from the Americas, recited every word with their own posh renditions of her accent. “I hold it down like a Snapchat/Go over your head like a snapback/Uploaded a pic, double tap that/And your flow's so old, granddad,” Leshurr rapped to the crowd before they screamed the memeable “Queen’s Speech 4” refrain, “Brush your teeth, brush your teeth,” back to her.
By her own admission, the debut performance was great (London singer Estelle intro’d her set and she rubbed shoulders with Queen Latifah, an idol, in the backstage area). However, during her moments of reflection the morning after, she’s visibly “shattered.” Her eyes are heavy and all that prior vibrant energy is subdued. NOLA was one blip on a non-stop international tour that, by the first of October, would have taken her from Spain’s Sónar Festival to Oslo’s Oya Festival to New York’s inaugural Roots Picnic at Bryant Park. Her manager, Natasha, says that for a whole year, they hadn't really taken a break, so New Orleans was a pleasant escape amongst pleasant people. That is, up until roughly three hours before her 4 p.m. flight to Vienna.
There's a high probability that one of two very important travel documents have been swiped from her room at one of the crowded Canal Street hotels while she was down the street doing this very interview. Panic has set in on all sides, and as I wait in the hallway outside her hotel room, chest heavy with guilt, she triple checks the room and waits on security personnel to arrive while simultaneously throwing the rest of her suitcase together. If she hadn't ignored her checkout time to make room for this hour-long chat, she'd be good to go.
After about 15 minutes of muffles behind the door, a shockingly relaxed Leshurr emerges from the room with a new camouflage dress on (our cafe-side interview found her in a simple red bodycon dress to match the replacement red lipstick she purchased at Walgreens, and crisp white Air Force 1s), two armfuls of luggage and a question: "Do you still want to go outside to snap some photos?" It’s a baffling inquiry given the circumstances. Are you sure? I ask. The predicament would leave the average person less-than-enthused to do a mini shoot without being 100% certain they'd be able to board their plane set to leave in two hours. "Everything will turn out okay," she says after reading my face, newly calm. "I have faith." Hours later, she uploaded an Instagram video from her hotel room in Vienna, chocked full of jokes as if the prior 24 hours hadn't even happened.
Lightening the mood is Melesha O'Garro's expertise.
The Birmingham native has always had a way with words. Since age six, the outspoken, charismatic youth frequently penned rhymes and poetry, but it was the birth of 2015's comical “Queen’s Speech” rap saga that turned heads, pushing her lyrical gifts and unique comedic style beyond the confines of her home. In the comical six-part series, her heavy puns and jabs are so facetious you have to laugh at them—“Don't think you're buff cause you're wearing contour/‘Cause I’ll wipe your brows off/I’ll snatch your wig and your nails off,” she quips. The biggest viral splash came from “Queen’s Speech 4,” the source of the latter quote, garnering over 34 million views on YouTube and enabling her to finally cover her mother’s mortgage, a major feat. The various three plus minutes of jest and clowning her haters are all memorialized in simple, one-take videos that show off the core of her whimsical personality.
She credits her roast-session sense of humor to cracking jokes with her older sister (she's confident that, by now, she’s surpassed her big sis' bantering ways), but insists she was the stranger sibling growing up. “I'm a bit more on the weird, crazy side than them,” she says. “I post weird stuff, sometimes things I know I shouldn't post. That's just me, that's just the person I am. Some people can't handle too much of me because I'm expressive.”
Expressive is one way to put it, but a more fitting adjective for the Lady Leshurr we see onstage is explosive. Her stature is dialed down and unassuming in the wings, but the mic in her hand acts like a match to a wick. “The crowd needs energy,” she says in between sips of her noon cocktail. “You just can't stand there and perform your song. You have to be energetic, you know? You have to be interactive, connect with the crowd and win them over.” Her youthful appeal and energy—her age falls anywhere between 19 and 30, and she likes that no one can pin it down—never dials down from 100 percent. Rare moments of rest come when she runs back to the selecta, or DJ to non-Caribbeans, to ask them to run the track back. Her high-octane performance ritual is a nod to her upbringing.
Although she’s never been to the country of her roots, the child of Kittitian parentage grew up in Brumtown’s (a local nickname for Birmingham) tight knit Caribbean community. Aside from saltfish, dumplings, plantain and stew chicken, her favorite dishes, she was spoon-fed a musical palate that spanned from Jamaica’s Vybez Kartel to New York’s Big L to London’s Shystie as a youth. From the Americas, she was an eager student of hip-hop heavyweights like Missy Elliot, Ludacris, Busta Rhymes, Ice Cube, Big Pun, Biggie, Tupac and Lil Wayne, with Eminem being at the top of the totem pole. “[Eminem’s] ‘Hi, My Name Is’ is the reason I do what I do now,” she says. “I started to take on music seriously when I heard him. His flow, his technique, how he puts certain syllables in certain places. I rapped like him, I wanted to be him.” On her side of the Atlantic Ocean, however, she pulls from the homegrown British sounds of garage and it’s evolved genre grime, where big names like Wiley, Skepta, Stormzy and Kano now reign supreme. Musically, Leshurr occupies the gray space in between the internationally divided but similar genres.
“I wouldn't say I'm a grime artist, and I wouldn't say I'm a hip-hop artist. I need to create my own category because I’m influenced by so many genres of music that I can't really place myself in one or the other. I'm me,” she says, jokingly labeling her lane “Shurr style.”
For a long time, the rap game excluded her hometown from the narrative. Birmingham is England’s second largest city (coming second to London, which has them beat by six million people) but it feels like a tiny bubble to Leshurr, especially for the lady rap scene. London is home to Shystie and Lioness, some of Leshurr’s favorite femcees, but in her own streets, she’s alone in the game for now. “There's no female rappers coming from Birmingham, and just being able to take the Birmingham sound global, like to America, to Europe, and they can understand it… It's like the UK is so powerful, we have got control and a lot of the Americans are looking at us now, seeing what we're doing, seeing what sounds we bring to the table.”
She pauses to relish in her accomplishments, which seem to have come tumbling in these past couple years. Prime billing at worldwide music festivals. Nearly selling out New York's Gramercy Theater, her first headlining show in the state. Working with Deputy, Bangladesh and Scott Storch, the producers responsible for Rihanna's "BBHMM," Lil Wayne's "A Milli" and Chris Brown's "Run It!," respectively. Meeting Kool Herc, the Bronx DJ widely known as hip-hop's founding father, and attending his 61st birthday party. Getting personal phone calls from Busta Rhymes and having Timbaland say he sees a little bit of Missy in her.
'Pinch me' moments for sure, but the journey to get to this point was one of great difficulty given the proverbial barriers propped up within the UK. Take her accent. Although it's considered endearing in the U.S., on her home turf, just an hour and a half train ride away in London, her sing-songy lilt was the stuff of joke. “At a point, I stopped using my accent,” she says. “But now, I'm not gonna lose my integrity for anybody. I'm gonna try and make it through just being myself, and I feel like being yourself will set you free.”
Add her tongue on top of just trying to make her way through as the underdog without much support. In the U.S., a cosign can make the world of a difference in boosting status and creating access to opportunities for a rising artist. Even though Leshurr has appeared in some of the same "one-to-watch" lists as her regional counterparts, she says that same camaraderie is hard to come by.
"I see it as tiers in the grime scene," she explains. A hint of weary frustration blankets her voice. "If you're at the bottom, you don't really get shown any love. If you're at the middle, you don't get that much love, but if you meet these people at the top at places, they'll say hi to you, but they won't support your music or tweet your music. I've been grinding, grinding, grinding to get into that top tier, where people will finally accept me. But for now, I'm just like you know what? I don't care if you don't accept me or support me. I'm just gonna be doing me."
Lady Leshurr is going for the gold on her own, with the intention of reaching back to pull other bubbling lady artists up when she gets to that level. "I just wanna change the game, man," she says, excited. "I wanna be the first British female rapper to be globally known and work with different types of people. American artists, producers, and yeah, just wanna take over."
With her next batch of material, she hopes to get some more traction going. For starters, she's got "Where Are You Now?," her festive single featuring Wiley, arguably one of the godfathers of grime, already under her belt. Quietly, she's been clocking in 15 plus hour days at the studio, readying the next Leshurr wave.
“My album is not gonna be like ‘Queen's Speech.’ [That] was just to grab enough attention to drop my album to show people what I actually can do… It's a new project of my dark side, you know, the old side.” A good indication of that old sound is her 2011 cover of “Look At Me Now,” where she goes toe-to-toe with Chris Brown, Busta Rhymes and Lil Wayne’s original verses. Or better yet “Unleshed,” her freestyle to Desiigner’s sinister breakout hit, “Panda,” and a response to people who call her Queen's Speech raps sellout material. In it, Leshurr is ruthless, going for the jugular with machete sharp raps defending her lyrical abilities.
Wagwan, what's happening?
When I was in the lab, just cookin' up
You were somewhere in the club daggering
Man, I'm savaging
Done with the talk, through, javelin
Yeah, I might have big teeth on a rabbit ting
But I'm still here, and I'm still managing
And you're where? Look - panicking!
I don't care! Shrug, ain't havin' it
My whole year's booked, travelling
You're nowhere, stuck, stammering
You see me, shook, MC Hammering
"There's just a few things I had to clarify for people who were really putting me down for something that has helped me and my family," she says. Though not the intentional subject matter for her songs, Internet trolls and their bristling opinions about her talent and looks provide ample ammunition for clap back season. Confrontation IRL isn't really her steez. She's a firm believer in karma and turning negative moments into positive ones. Instead, channeling her frustration into catchy and commotion-worthy songs leads to more revenue and, more importantly, more respect.
"You know what? I don't care if you think I look ugly," she says. "I don't care if you don't like what I'm wearing. I'm gonna make sure my music does the talking."