Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante on pioneering grime, the artistry of hip hop and his new show Outliers

His upcoming Barbican show ‘Outliers’ is an audio-visual rumination on race, class and gender told through dance, music and film.

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Self-made renaissance man Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante’s oeuvre is as enviable as it is difficult to quantify. He’s worked as a composer, a record producer, a dancer and a DJ. To date, it includes co-founding the virtuosos dance company Boy Blue Entertainment, alongside Kenrick ‘H2O’ Sandy, collaborating with Danny Boyle to devise a distinctly British palette of rhythms for London’s 2012 Olympics, significantly contributing to the murky production that was the hallmark of grime’s cardinal talent -in particular Kano’s, and currently residing on the Guildhall School of Music’s faculty as a teacher of electronic music.

Now Asante is combining his talents and years of experience for his most ambitious project to date, a live interpretation of the race, class and gender-based observations he’s made throughout his career. Titled Outliers, his show takes place on Saturday 30th June at the Barbican, part of the venue’s Art of Change season. It’s hard to sum up Outliers in a sentence, but roughly, it’s a multimedia battle-cry against an ever-shifting social landscape. We caught up with Asante ahead of the show to gain an insight into the motivations behind the piece, its wider commentary on hip hop and his journey to this point.

Bex Shoruknke: Outliers is a mixed media production involving music, dance and film. Why was it important for you to use all these art forms? What does each mean to you?
Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante: They’re all an attempt to portray a narrative that I couldn’t speak of in just one medium. The music alone creates a good energy, but the visual elements like dance give insight into my thought processes. Through dance with Boy Blue, we get the opportunity to emphasise the physicality of the piece. The visuals are however more of a seasoning to the main meal – the music.

Childish Gambino’s ‘This is America’ video sees him use the body (through movement and dance) to narrate the African-American experience. How do you feel art (or even the body) can be seen as a vehicle for change?
Essentially Donald Glover wants people to draw their own conclusions, what I take from it is that the dancing and happiness is the veneer from all the crap which is going on in America, a distraction.

Hip hop is an art form, it’s about show and prove, and Boy Blue is about being examples of what we can do with our creativity. I’m born in Forest Gate, and Ken in Tower Hamlets it could’ve been a different road we’d gone down. Imagine if we’d used our galvanising skills, i.e. bringing together a load of dancers from various ages, ethnicities and genders, in a negative sense?

We’re seeing that now with the spike in knife related youth violence.
Exactly. Youth centres that kept us locked into our creativity and the extracurricular activities that allowed us to exercise our emotion are just disappearing. Yes, there’s music but there’s also a saturation with that now. Boy Blue sits on that side of the discussion Donald Glover is having; we can see there’s loads of bullshit going on how are we going to attack that and provide an alternative space and creative outlet that’ll enable youths to challenge what they’ve grown up in.

What does the Barbicans ‘Art of Change’ season mean to you?
It was something that came around to me inadvertently. I watched Miguel Atwood’s Suite for Ma Dukes, and I was inspired by the fact this concert space was showing J Dilla who I feel is hip hop in its quintessential most natural state. So, I spoke to Chris Sharp, and it turned out to be part of The Art of Change. My main goal is to increase the canon of what is hip hop, something I fell in love with in ’94, and bring that to the concert hall side by side with everything that’s been in that space. We’ve been associate artists since 2010, when that was virtually unheard of.

How have you and fellow Boy Blue co-founder Kenrick ‘H2O’ Sandy served as each other’s creative inspirations throughout your collaborative years?
I’ve known him since I was 12 years old and I was part of the energy that introduced him to the arts. We both try and see eye to eye with our vision and laying down the battle mentality with hip hop; I’d throw down the music, and Ken would respond with a choreographed dance. We are masters of our realm and navigate the world through our creative endeavours.

What was the motivation behind the creation of Boy Blue?
There’s no specific reason. We more serve the evolving energy of hip hop and its culture, i.e. ‘crumping’ didn’t exist before 2010 and we’ve incorporated it into our work, it’s now embedded in Boy Blue’s DNA. Our policies are education, entertainment and enlightenment, ensuring we are upskilled to build the next wave of performers.

Of your ten plus years career what has been the highlight?
Making Blak, Whyte Grey as it was a distillation of a lot of feelings. Also, A Night with the Bratz with young people expressing themselves and they killed it. Also working with Danny Boyle for the Olympics was interesting and the Emancipation of Expressionism getting into the GCSE dance curriculum was amazing.

A bittersweet thing I’ve learnt is to believe in yourself even when taking others advice as long as you’re authentic to your emotion and the intention. I got this tattoo which reads ‘evolve or die’ as there was a period in 2010 that was difficult for Boy Blue and this is the attitude I had to get through it.

How much creative freedom do you think artists of colour have outside of exploring themes of race?
I think it’s two-fold, there’s something else going on. I think some people enjoy watching the black struggle dramatised as it serves as some sort of cathartic release. It does annoy me as I’m like ‘that’s someone’s actual experience’. Art that comes from a place of struggle is important though, and struggle is useful. We have our own struggles here, for instance, I’m a grown man, never stolen anything in my life, yet I’m still followed around shops by security like a shadow. We are moving into another realm as black artists, with shows like the Barber Shop we are exploring what it is to be black and born and raised in this country. The people getting to tell the stories are younger.

Did you enjoy producing music commercially for artists?
The reason I’m doing Outliers and producing longer pieces is because its more in line with my interests than a three-minute song. I find the verse, chorus pattern limiting. With one of my long-term collaborators Kano we made a mixtape Not 4 the A-list with a track that was seven minutes long. He shares that same energy to create music that doesn’t fit in a box.

I’m trying to take hip hop into a composer space where the world will see it as an application to our creativity. Vox did a great documentary on J Dilla showing how technically intuitive he was in changing keys, pace and timing with his MPC3000. We do music a disservice when we regulate genres to certain spaces, the idea of the Art of Change challenges that.

Do you feel hip hop has a responsibility to engage with challenges facing minority groups?
I don’t think hip hop as much as art as a whole. Art gives license for a person to invade my conscience, thought and contest my ideas. Hip hop shouldn’t be locked off to the idea of what marginalisation is as its story alone represents marginalisation. Hip hop manages to sample content from all over, rip it apart and transmute it into something else. There’s no school or conservatoire you need to have graduated from to do it, it’s raw and wants your energy regardless of your background. Hip hop is part of the art conversation.

Which artists would you cite as playing an instrumental part in shaping contemporary culture in the U.K?
Kano, Dizzee, Wiley, myself and Ken. DaVinChe created a sick vibe in South London. When we were younger loads of grime artists big and small, came to my parents’ home to record as I did the best quality vocal. Through these interactions I got the beats to give to Kano for ‘Mic Check’, ‘9-5’, ‘Home Sweet Home’ and ‘Sometimes’ which became the foundations of his Home Sweet Home album. I made ‘Layer Cake’ as well, and Kano went into the booth and did the track in one take. In it he’s talking about what was happening at the time, that we were just a token at the Brits to fulfil a quota, our artistry wasn’t recognised.

Do you think these institutions are becoming more inclusive?
I think they can’t not acknowledge black music. I rate the Barbican for recognising us. As young black Brits, we are now setting the goalpost, and you can’t ignore the fact we’re making waves and setting trends.

Outliers takes place on June 30th at the Barbican, for tickets and more information head to the Barbican website.

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