Social consciousness often isn’t a choice – it’s a necessity. For Christopher Smith Jr, aka Smino, growing up in Ferguson County, St. Louis, and living the trying aftermath of Mike Brown’s police shooting in 2014, he felt the need to use his voice and lyrical talent to speak for more than just himself. So followed his debut EPs S!Ck S!Ck S!Ck and blkjptr in 2015, along with a growing fan base captivated by his percussive yet soulful delivery and funk-inflected productions.
Earlier this year Smino released his debut LP, blkswn, a statement of intent from an artist seeking to convey more than just the self-aggrandizing commercial tropes of hip hop. Largely produced by his longtime collaborator Monte Booker, the record amps up the soul and funk influences, as well as the lyrical content, tackling everything from amphetamine addiction to coping with grief, police violence on the local community as well as, of course, his appeals to the fairer sex. Ahead of his headline show at London’s Jazz Café, we spoke to Smino about being a figurehead for his hometown, keeping control of his music, and expressing the day to day.
Ammar Kalia: How did you first get into music?
Smino: My whole family is really musical – my dad plays the piano professionally, as does my sister, and my mum is a singer – so I grew up listening to a lot of soul music, gospel and jazz. I learned to play the drums originally but it was through my friends that I got introduced to hip hop. One of them had a big stereo in his house and when I was eight or nine I remember going there and listening to Ludacris’s Back for the First Time and I was amazed at how it sounded! How he put that album together, how he rapped the lyrics over the beats, that inspired me to start writing on my own.
Ammar: Do politics influence your music?
Smino: Not politics, as much as social conditions. I don’t really get into politics, my politics is just what matters to the people around me, not what matters to the leaders of the country. I mean, the [Black Lives Matter] ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’ movement started in my city [Ferguson], it was crazy and very unfortunate. To see that spread around the world to other black people was amazing though; I remember I was in London and there was a Black Lives Matter rally and they were saying it there too.
“My politics is just what matters to the people around me, not what matters to the leaders of the country.”
Ammar: Do you see yourself as an activist as well as an artist?
Smino: I wouldn’t call myself an activist but when the Ferguson protests were happening I was learning from everything, taking it all in. My biggest tool is my own voice and I was feeling helpless, not being able to show enough people that there was fucked up shit going on, especially since the media wasn’t covering it and there was a state of emergency. So, it just inspired me to keep going in my music and to make sure that I was saying something that represents my people.
Ammar: Are there specific tracks on blkswn that embody that sense of representation?
Smino: Yeah man, you’ve got Long Run, the first half of Amphetamine, and a bunch of other parts of the record. On my songs I talk a lot of shit, like about getting some pussy, but then also about sad incidents. That’s because you can be having the best day and then some bullshit happens – things can change at any time. That’s why I try and keep my music honest and vulnerable.
Ammar: What role does your hometown, St. Louis, play in your music?
Smino: St. Louis is my family. I get inspired by the interactions I have with the people there, by the stories they tell me, by seeing what my parents have been through, so I just want to speak for them in the most sincere way possible. St. Louis hasn’t had an inspiring figure to uplift the profile of the city in a while, so it’s really important to me that people know where I’m from. I’m wearing my St. Louis jerseys around the world so kids from there can feel like they can do something too!
Ammar: Is keeping your music independent important to you?
Smino: Yeah, that’s why we’ve started our own label called Zero Fatigue already and we’re going to have our own publishing and touring companies – it’s a long process to have complete ownership but that’s definitely the end goal. That’s the new dream, we want to own all of our stuff, we want to be like Master P.
Ammar: You’ve played in London quite a few times now – how does it compare to shows back in the US?
Smino: I love London, it’s so diverse, and the people there just seem really grateful for music. I’m looking forward to playing there again!
Ammar: Do you prefer playing live to being in the studio?
Smino: I love them equally. I started off as a drummer so playing live and being onstage is where my heart is but I also like to see how I can take the energy from the show back into the studio. Especially now while I’m touring, it’s taught me a lot about my melodies and songwriting and how to get a across to a group of people so they can take in and understand what I’m trying to say.
Smino plays in London July 7th at Jazz Cafe, 5 Parkway, Camden Town, London NW1 7PG. Blkswn by Smino is out now on Zero Fatigue LLC / Downtown Records.