Between Hip Hop and a Hard Place

Despite being hailed as the latest saviour on the UK hip hop scene, Derek Safo – better known as Sway – is well aware of the contradictions that he embodies. Born of Ghanaian parents and brought up in North London, the 23 year old rapper is walking tall in the no man’s land between cultures. ‘I’m always gonna be in between places. Hence the name Sway. It only found meaning after I’d got that name, but that’s my battle in life, trying to keep a balance.’

Balance is something that Sway has almost mastered. He has marked his territory at the cross-roads between seemingly disparate cultural forces: Islam and Christianity, ‘trapped in between the imam and the priest’, American hip hop supremacy and British talent, ‘The Pound is stronger than the Dollar – holla!’, commercial success and critical acclaim. Yet these apparently incompatible elements have set Sway apart from the populous pack of emcees clamouring to get their 21 seconds on the mic. Quick to acknowledge his numerous influences, ‘Busta Rhymes, Eminem, Ludacris, Madness…’ Sway also knows that there’s a good reason that he can proudly proclaim to be ‘the rapper that people take to’, namely that ‘no one’s had that same combination of influences in one man, mixed with being someone who’s Christian-Muslim, Ghanaian-British…all of these things.’

Draped in the Union Jack and the Ghanaian tricolor flag, Sway is a model of British multiculturalism, proud of both his African and British heritage, with one eye trained on the States. ‘One thing Africans love’, he says with a wry grin, ‘is to see somebody come from nothing and become something. It’s usually labelled the American Dream, but it’s actually the African Dream.’ He recalls how his upbringing in London ‘was like living in two different countries’, the world outside his familial home in Hornsey, North London, bearing scant resemblance to the little slice of Africa that could be found behind his front door. ‘There’s a lot of time in Africa’, he muses, ‘so there’s a lot of conversation, and through conversation you get a lot of story telling, that’s an element I took within myself.’ The tradition of West African stories is weaved throughout This is My Demo, and not just in the comic appearances of ‘MC Charlie Boy’, Sway’s Ghanaian alter ego, who we hear is planning to swim to London ‘to eat champagne with the Queen.’ ‘He’s actually based on about twenty of my uncles’, he adds. He attributes his razor sharp wit and lyrical dexterity which permeate the record to his African background, skills which landed him ‘in HMV instead of HMP’, bagging a MOBO along the way, and all without a major label claiming a cut of the spoils.

Yet there is a danger that the qualities which have gained Sway a considerable commercial appeal are the same ones that make him unlikely to really make an impact on the die-hard avant-garde hip hop heads. ‘I’ve been described as “the more accessible Dizzee” which is a good thing…I am cutting edge, there’s nothing like me’, he says. Is there not a danger that you could be labelled ‘Hip Hop Lite’ I venture. ‘It’s not about being edgy for the sake of being edgy. I want people to understand where I’m coming from. Everyone has to be true to themselves. I can rap about guns but that’s not “keeping it real” to me.’ His major criticism of his UK contemporaries is exactly that reliance on an image inherited from across the pond – guns, drugs and violence. He would rather plump for honesty and integrity, even if that compromises the preconceived notion of what an emcee should be, ‘everyone’s a killer drug dealer with a 9 milla / That’s not sensible / And I can sense the bull / That’s why these rappers couldn’t see me coming if they were vaginas with spectacles’, he spits on ‘Hype Boys’. But even Sway, the thinking man’s emcee, the voice of hip hop with a sensitive side can’t resist a touch of machismo. ‘Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a rapper someone can talk stupid about. I got a lot of friends, and if you talk recklessly, they’ll come and see you, it’s as simple as that. I’m no wimp.’

Wimp or no wimp (and I’m inclined to agree with the man himself on this one), Sway is a man for whom respect and consideration are important factors. He eschews the attitude of many other British emcees which he comically paraphrases, ‘Well, I can rap about whatever I want, nobody’s gonna hear it anyway, and nobody’s gonna buy it, so fuck everybody!’ This in turn leads him to question whether other rappers would be making records that glorify violence if they thought they’d actually get played, and their mums might be tuned in to 1Xtra: ‘Do you think that if they thought their whole family could hear that they’d be saying those things? When I write my lyrics I think, “that might offend this kind of person”, or “that might take this person out of the picture.” Me, I think for the world.’ That’s not to say that This is My Demo skirts around serious issues, rather that they are dealt with in Sway’s inimitably humorous style – be it unwanted attitude in the pub, ‘If you’re a gangster, then I’m Prince William’, or domestic violence in the tragic-comic ‘Pretty Ugly Husband’.

Given the man’s predilection for in-jokes and diverse tastes, it is with some apprehension that I ask him to imagine that he’s been stranded on a traffic island in Wood Green with only one record on his iPod. I wait to hear his tune of choice. ‘That’s a really, really hard one’, he says after a lengthy pause. ‘Chaka Khan. Ain’t Nobody. It’d have to be that.’ I wonder whether he’s pulling my leg. ‘It was a toss up between that and Heal the World by Michael Jackson. I love that too, it’s the only song that makes me feel like I could jump out the window and not fall down. It’s a tough call, but I’d go for Chaka Khan’, he adds without the slightest hint of irony.

With the album in the shops and the buzz continuing to buzz only time will tell whether Sway manages to tread the most precarious path of all between integrity and success – without swaying too far either way. He is a man with a plan, having set himself the target of five albums to prove to the world that he deserves his ‘name up in bright lights and capitals.’ If progress to date is anything to go by, it’d be brave man who stands in Sway’s way.

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