As a 12-year-old at a gig in Dublin, the Irish rapper was plucked from a crowd by Pharrell. It was an early step in the journey that has just seen him release his debut album, writes Ed Power.
When he was 12 years old, Rejjie Snow’s life changed forever. At a concert in Dublin, Pharrell Williams plucked this scrawny Irish kid “wearing a fitted cap and baggy hoody” from the audience, inviting him to trade rhymes over the song ‘Rockstar’ (by Pharrell’s band NERD). Surveying the crowd, basking in the white-heat of their excitement, Snow promised himself he’d be back at the Olympia one day playing his own show.
A decade and a bit on, the dream is about to come true. Next month the Drumcondra rapper will deliver a sold out concert at the same venue. He’ll be promoting just released debut, Dear Annie, a tour de force that, to sublime effect, blends hip-hop, jazz, power pop and psychedelia.
“It trips me out to know I’ll be playing there,” says the 24-year-old, from New York, where he is promoting Dear Annie to the international media (he’s been in NPR and feted by tastemaker publications The Fader and Pitchfork). “I’m not really nervous. I knew I was gonna do it. I just didn’t think it would happen so soon.”
Snow’s real name is Alex Anyaebunam. His father is Nigerian, his mother of Irish-Jamaican background. In Ireland none of this is a big deal. Overseas – in the race-obsessed United States especially – a black Irishman is more than many can get their heads around.
That’s a double-edged state of affairs, so far as Snow is concerned. It’s good that other young black Irish people have a role-model. At the same time, he’s fed up having to constantly explain to Americans that, yes, Irish people aren’t uniformly red-haired and freckled.
“It shouldn’t be a weird thing. It does get old sometimes. Back in Dublin I never really stopped to consider it. It was only when I went to America that it became this whole thing. I never thought about it. But now it’s crept in, so that it informs the music and stuff.”
Snow is a supple rapper, though his lyrics can veer from profound to juvenile. What’s most impressive about his work, and Dear Annie in particular, is the rejection of the braggadocio that for decades served constituted the lingua franca of hip hop. “I really want to be explore my own identity,” he says.
“It can be hard to be an individual in the rap game. There are so many similarities between different artist. I’m inspired by rock as well as rap — and by jazz an drop. I try to have all genres in there.”
Dear Annie is a break-up album, addressed at least in part to a paramour from whom he separated when he moved to Paris (he has lived all over, from Brooklyn to London to Dublin). What’s striking is the
absence of self-pity. Rather, Snow takes an unflinching look at himself and, it is clear, doesn’t necessarily like the person staring back.
Off-setting the gloom is the music — warm, burbling, dappled in sunshine. Snow may be the first Irish rapper — though he prefers to think of himself as producer and songwriter — to command a global stage. Yet Dear Annie’s most impressive achievement may be that it’s an uplifting rumination on heartbreak.
“I really want to be explore my own identity. It can be hard to be an individual in the rap game. There are so many similarities between different artist. I’m inspired by rock as well as rap — and by jazz. I try to have all genres in there.”
The soul-baring had to be worked at, he says. Leaving it all hang out, emotionally speaking, didn’t come
naturally. He was assisted hugely by producer and collaborator Rahki, best known for working with Kendrick Lamar.
Snow met him through 300 Entertainment, his US label and home to hip-hop a-listers Migos.
“It’s hard for me to say things personally most times,” says Snow. “You don’t know who it’s reaching. That can be kind of weird. With the record it happened organically — it’s cool.”
He’s a natural wandering spirit. In his teens, he won a soccer scholarship to Florida (playing with St Kevin’s in Dublin he had been a team-mate of future Ireland international Robbie Brady) and later enrolled at an art-school in Savannah, Georgia.
Snow dropped out after a year, returning to Dublin where he plugged into the city’s rap scene.
On the strength of his iTunes chart topping debut EP Rejovich he was invited to tour with Madonna, an experience that understandably frizzed his circuits a bit.
“I was playing to 15,000 people,” he told me in 2016. “It wasn’t easy — I was on a ramp going into the crowd, so I was definitely outside my comfort zone. You make the best of it and put it down as an
experience. I didn’t meet Madonna — but I’m told she caught some of the set.”
Snow’s performance with Pharrell is usually cited as the future rapper’s origin story. Yet if anything made him want to be a musician it was falling in, a little later, with Dublin’s graffiti scene. He became an ardent ‘tagger’ — a passion that opened his horizons and taught him that he didn’t need anyone’s permission to chase his destiny. He could seize it for himself.
“It was really inspiring. Seeing the art other people were doing, the expression, it was so important. What I learned is you can go against the grain, you can be fearless. There were a few scrapes as a graffiti artist. It could be dangerous — but nothing too crazy. Those were the best years of my life for sure.”
You’d imagine there are plenty more good ones ahead.
Dear Annie is out now. Rejjie Snow plays the Olympia, Dublin, March 12.
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Spekulativ Fiktion: This Cork-based rapper builds on the baroque sensibility of artists such as MF Doom and Shabazz Palaces, with lyrics delivered in spring in Leeside cadences . He ’s recently teamed up with The Stargazers for a revamped version of their ‘Mercier Park’ track, complete with a rap on Cork City FC.
Hare Squead: More r’n’b than rap, this Tallaght troupe have blazed a trail in the Dublin scene and brought international attention to the Irish urban music.
Jafaris: Sublime soul pop with rap overtones from a Dubliner whose other claim to attention was his starring role as a young musician in John Carney’s Sing Street film. Their ‘If You Love Me’ track was one of the best Irish pop singles of 2017.