Last month, a double-decker bus set out from Highbury, the North London neighborhood where Little Simz grew up, and snaked its way through the city, picking up fans of the young rapper along the way. Its final destination: Somerset House, the neoclassical building in the center of the city that served as the venue for Simz’s Grey Area album release party. Once the domain of queen consort Anne of Denmark (King James I’s wife) in the 17th century, Somerset House now functions as an artistic and cultural hub for major photography exhibitions and music programming, curated by major figures of the U.K. underground.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Simz, who was born Simbiatu Ajikawo, chose the esteemed venue to celebrate Grey Area, her third official studio album that she’s now touring with, including a second set at Coachella this weekend. But the unique multimedia event also helped highlight a lesser-known fact about the artist: that in addition to being one of Great Britain’s exciting rap talents, Simz has a burgeoning photography practice. Her black-and-white snapshots, which formed the artwork for each of the album’s singles, were displayed on easels around the room.
In spite of her age of 25 years, to describe Simz as prolific still feels like an understatement. She started self-releasing mixtapes when she was just 15, and before she released her 2015 debut album, A Curious Tale of Trials and Persons, she already had four mixtapes and five EPs under her belt.
Despite this sustained output, Simz explains that she still felt an urge to creatively push herself. Two years ago, she began to take photos as a way to catalogue her life on tour. At first, she immediately deleted ones that she didn’t like, but has become increasingly at ease with the whole process. “I stopped feeling the need to validate myself or get that instant gratification of ‘have I got the shot?’ and just focus on taking more pictures and getting better,” she says.
As Simz grew more confident wielding the camera, she thought it would be a fun challenge to shoot all of the art for her new album herself. For the first single, “Offence,” Simz captured four children, all of whom are family friends from Highbury, smiling and screaming in camo-print army vests. “I wanted them to have an expression that basically said, ‘Can you hear me?’” Simz says of the attention-grabbing image. “It was important for me to have it be young women because I feel like they’re the next generation. We need to listen to them, really.”
All of the images were shot in London, which is central to all of Simz’s work. Grey Area itself was entirely produced by Simz’s childhood friend, Inflo. For “Selfish,” Simz shot a stunning portrait of her longtime friend, Black Panther actress Letitia Wright. “We’re both kind of living out our dreams and doing what we love,” says Simz. “I think we deal with a lot of the same things, and with all of those hands coming from different directions, grabbing onto her and just capturing that expression on her face that suggests that she’s not paying any mind to it.” Another photograph depicts a boy on a bicycle while a girl balances on the back pegs, her hands wrapped around him. “Those are two of my old school friends. I’ve known them for years,” Simz says. “It represents my childhood growing up in London, with the whole school uniform, riding around on pedal bikes—it’s just very nostalgic to me and represents a certain time in my life.”