Kenny Allstar is a man who needs very little introduction – best known as a curator, selector and creator of opportunities, he's a well-recognised face on the UK circuit. Getting to know the Lewisham native in the wake of Nike's official launch for the new 2018 World Cup Nigeria kit where Kenny hosted an evening shining a spotlight on Nigerian culture in London and hearing his journey in his own words adds an extra dimension to the public persona we associate with an artist dubbed The Voice of The Streets. Within a few minutes of talking about what he has going on, Kenny lays his mission out plainly. “In a nutshell, my purpose on this earth is to build as many platforms as possible for young guys and women from deprived areas of London to have an opportunity to showcase their talents whether that be singing, rapping – whatever.”
Growing up in a Nigerian household, Kenny was enamoured with DJ and radio culture from the age of 10, tuning in to and recording pirate radio religiously on tapes as well as listening to his favourite DJs on mainstream stations. It instilled in him a deep passion for DJing and radio as a medium. But it was after sneaking out to go to his first ever party at a nightclub in Harlesden – a space frequented by the likes of Goldfinger and Funkmaster Flex, aptly named Dreams – that everything changed. It was a place that Kenny felt at home in and it was here, he recalls, that he was first exposed to nightlife culture. “I enjoyed walking in and seeing guys and girls going crazy on the dancefloor, everyone letting loose,” he laughs, going on to explain that being in spaces where people could leave their troubles at the door was a new experience. Coming up on that dancehall culture and seeing the way parties were hosted on mic made Kenny realise that incorporating a hosting element into his work would be essential, and since then he hasn’t looked back. Kenny now brings his impeccable hosting style, as well as his innate ability to read an audience and versatility as a selector, to everything he does. It made sense, therefore, for Radar to invite Kenny to curate and host the Radar room at Nike Future Football. He didn't disappoint, bringing through fellow Nigerian artists Not3s, Naira Marley and Big Tobz for a full Kenny Allstar radio experience. We caught up with the man at the centre of it all in the days following the event to talk more about how important platforms are for elevating the artist community and how his Nigerian heritage shapes the work that he does on a daily.
You talk a lot about platforms – how important is it for young people to have access to these kinds of spaces?
Kenny Allstar: It’s very important. I started my first platform – Mad About Bars – off the back of being rejected by other platforms. I used to film hood videos back in the day – I used to go to all different areas with a shit £80.00 standard definition camera and I tried to film loads of people in my surrounding areas, so Kennington, Brixton, Peckham, and those artists at the time weren’t able to get on the bigger platforms. The biggest platform we had then was early days SBTV and unless you had a direct contact or you somehow managed to get your email answered, then you couldn’t access those platforms. I felt it was essential for people from inner city London to be seen. I went to loads of other places and they were all like ‘It’s not really original’, so I said to myself, ‘Ok, cool. I’m just gonna do it myself.’ DIY is always the best way forward in this creative industry. So, I hit up one of my old school mates who ran Mixtape Madness, and that was the only channel that was interested in me because they saw what I was doing. And they were just like, ‘Cool. Come bring this.’These platforms are so important. I know what it feels like to be a young guy in London trying to get put on and people just closing the door. I built this platform for guys like me hence why it’s important that I keep building platforms and expanding the ones I already have. It’s essential for us to have these things
You’ve touched before on how important dancehall culture has been to you, but you are Nigerian and you’ve said it’s not something you get to talk about as much. How did that culture influence you musically?
Kenny Allstar: A lot of people see how heavy I go for drill but that's not it – that’s my other side. I have two sides of me. The influences from my culture are very important – when I was going through the dancehall phase, Afrobeats was also huge for me. My mum came up with so many new types of music around the house, and it was either dancehall or Afrobeats, so, as much as I was growing up on Mavado and Vybz Cartel, I also grew up on Fela Kuti, 2face Idibia, old school Wiz Kidd. I was around all of those and that made me mould myself into a DJ who focuses on two types of sounds, and one of those is Afro Swing and the Afro bashment culture and all of that. People might not know this but Sneakbo, for example, who’s one of the originators of this new sound of Afro swing/ Afro bashment or whatever you want to call it – I filmed his first freestyle. I bought J Hus through for his first interview at my previous station. I brought Naira Marley, another one of the originators, through at the Nike event. I happened to be there for a birth of a sound and that’s important because I don’t play music that I don’t genuinely enjoy and love. I went back to Nigeria in 2011 and when I went back home to Lagos and I saw life there and my family there and how different the culture is – it’s evolving rapidly. Around November, December a lot of artists like Skepta, Not3s and Kojo Funds go back home to Nigeria and the club culture there is as lit as the club culture in the UK. But people who aren’t from Africa go there, too. Now that I’m getting older and I respect how much my family have done for me, I’m proud to step out and say I’m Nigerian and I’m African. I really rep that with pride. That's why being involved in the Nike Nigeria kit launch was a really emotional moment for me for so many different reasons
How does it feel to see your culture being celebrated in a very public way now?
Kenny Allstar: It's beautiful. Three or four years ago it wasn’t really a thing. Being African sometimes wasn’t really the thing. When I was in school, Caribbean culture was the hottest thing – artists like Sean Paul and Shaggy were commercial pop. But now, we're pop culture. It’s incredible. If you look at mainstream media and movies and you see how African culture is being embraced by everyone, it’s a beautiful thing. For me to be a representative of that is important. It's sick because now we're being embraced. I chose Not3s to play at the Nike event because he's proud of his heritage and he's one of the biggest artists we have in the country – for me to be able to say that he's my brother is a good feeling.
As someone who works to create opportunities for others, how important is it to get artists paid and give them platforms?
Kenny Allstar: It’s crucial. Going back to growing up in South London in a deprived area – this shit is like a dream to us. We grow up walking by big retailers wanting to one day to be able to afford these trainers. That’s just the first bit of the dream. We don’t ever think about, ‘Could I ever work with Nike?’ I never, ever thought in my career that I would work with Nike – it seemed too far-fetched. To be in that moment and say, ‘Cool, me and the station I love are about to go into a huge venue together’. It was sick. This needs to happen more; we need more events like this so the young people that dream have something to achieve. It comes back to my platforms – there are MCs now who pick up a pen and write a lyric hoping to get a Mad About Bars or a Fire In The Booth and that’s the whole point of it. So when Nike does something like this it shows that there should be more events like it. What I saw that day inspired me personally, and I’m sure it inspired other young people to sing, or DJ or MC or become a young sportsperson. It was great. We need more moments like it. They don’t realise how things like that can change people’s lives and career paths.