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Joseph Kojo is never far from a change of scenery. As the renaissance chameleon continues to chew and spit out a resuscitated post-Covid environment, Iona Fazer gets to grips with the vocal acrobat as he heads into a new era.
Lounging on the sun-kissed grass of Stanley Park, I laugh as KOJ recounts an attempt to leave a Liverpool match while on crutches. He points to the mountainous Anfield Stadium behind as he describes the perilous trip downstairs towards the exit. “All the way to the 96th minute, you just see Suarez score making it 2-2. My crutches went in the air,” he narrates with playful gestures.
It’s therefore somewhat bewildering to hear he’s now a newly converted Everton fan. But much like his music career, Koj is a rapper who’s constantly evolving. He has no fear of change – however significant it might appear to others.
Formerly known as ‘Wavy Joe’ due to knocking around Wavertree all his life, the Anfield emcee Joseph Kojo has cultivated a new era of artistry under the moniker of Koj. As part of networks Wavy Gang and Grime of the Earth (GOTE), the Greenbank-born rapper has made notable appearances on Red Bull Music’s Grime Clash quarter final and, more recently, BBC Three’s Rap Trip: Underground Scenes Uncovered. Not solely turning heads in Liverpool, his vocal acrobatics have been called upon by Manchester’s The Mouse Outfit for his latest high-profile collaboration on Didgeridoo.
Koj’s current work is a manifestation of the life and sound of Liverpool. With the idiolect of a young Black man, he twists language to create extraordinary connotations, referring to money as “bread” or “GWOP”. His sound is one full of poise and intensity. It’s like listening to a clock ticking over silence, pensive, considered, then a white flash of energy erupts from the scene. Beats run alongside lyrics that are laid down like commandments. Lows and highs, thick and thin – Koj raps with acrobatic verve and flexibility.
The first time I met Koj was in 2016 at a photoshoot for GOTE’s new T-shirt collection. At that point he was about to head off to New Zealand to become a kids’ football coach. Though the coaching sadly fell through, the trip became heavily influenced by older rapper Resk, who introduced him to the concept of OzMOB.
Now some years on, OzMOB names the umbrella of individuals uniting alongside Koj with the artistic mission to create a new type of sound, expressive of the collaboration with the producers. There’s conviction in Koj’s voice as he speaks of OzMOB being about “trusting in oneself – working on the flow and the repeat of energy that bounces between us. This is working more than anything I’ve tried before.”
Koj begins to reflect on his experiences of the past year while I pick at some blades of grass beneath my feet. “I am in the business of looking after myself right now. I’m ready for all the experiences again,” he says, “but not only has it been a while, it’s been different, hasn’t it? We’ve been alone or in small groups. I can’t complain about it. I think it’s been testing, but it’s been good to have time to work on what I want to have going on.”
Back in 2020, Koj was interviewed by The Rap Game UK contestants, FOS and Ransom as part of BBC Three’s Rap Trip, which uncovered the UK’s underground scene focusing on Liverpool rap, drill and trap. Introduced by GOTE’s Gully Man Dred as one of the “freshest new guys coming through”, the short documentary captures a telling moment from Koj.
“I’m only 22 but I feel like I’ve lived at least 35 years,” he says as he meanders around L8. “I lost my mum when I was six and I’ve been living through some shit, you know what I mean? So, I am a real product of my environment, I’m really out here.”
Koj’s experiences from a young age, and as Wavy Joe, are something he’s had to deal with on top of the struggles that so many young Black males in Liverpool are plagued with: the perpetual fear of legal jeopardy. More evident in his earlier lyrics under the alias Wavy Joe, he describes life experiences dominated by police chases and dodging prison.
Koj used to collaborate with other rappers, such as Wavy Gang member Rico Don, who in contrast is more guttural and off-centre. On Set Back, one of their songs released earlier this year, Koj reminds us of his journey: “I grew up in darkness, I’m living in light. I’m tryna get it regardless, I put in so much work, but the risk and return got me back where I started.”
On his new track, Busy, Koj uses his bars to reminisce about him and his girlfriend at the time. Being chased by the police and having to “change up script”, he recalls being arrested along with his friend and then clarifies: “But still I’m out here with packs and a whip. I don’t wanna’ do it but it’s gotta’ get done”. The track features samples that act like warning signs, an eerie feeling of impending doom over the pace of ticking clock; reflecting the fact that Koj has recognised that it’s time to change.
Now working a job alongside colleagues who he describes as being supportive of his music, Koj is often accompanied by his girlfriend, Kate Hillion, who is also the talent behind the cover art for all his single releases following Blue Notes. “Kate is smashing the artwork, coming with newer concepts and variety… I think it’s just the tip of the iceberg at the moment,” he commends.
Koj’s past year has been one of physical ascent. After the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, he found himself feeling angry and cut deep. Looking for a way to turn the energy into positive outcomes, he sought advice from a friend who suggested doing a marathon to raise money for charity.
It was an idea which began as creating a beacon for everyone who wanted to contribute in some way but didn’t know how. His involvement led to helping establish anEQUALrace, an organisation with the aim of using sport to promote equality. This created a running club which included the members of OzMOB. “It was so inspirational to have those people there every week,” Koj says, “it gave me a new outlook on things, I thought everything moving forwards we do it with a level head.”
For Koj, collaboration has been the key to success in his solo work. “Honesty is what I find the most important thing. If we’re gonna’ talk about doing this thing I’ve got to know if it’s secretly rubbish, otherwise what’s the point?”
Key players in OzMOB have been instrumental in his development. Beige, a budding London rapper/producer, started off running event nights called Soundsystem4 in Handyman’s Brewery on Smithdown Road with Tomas Brown, who’s also spearheading OzMOB and sits next to Koj on the grass. “I do my thing,” he starts, “but there behind the scenes is where we’re pushing it to the right ear, to people who might be able to push it to somewhere else.”
Released just a year ago and produced by Jakebob, debut single Blue Notes marked something of a new era in his life. “A tune like Blue Notes came out of my experiences over the last few years,” he notes. “I had to put it into words for stress relief and that was like a transition into the now.” The track was followed up quickly with features on Capital Xtra via Rob Bruce’s First Play in the UK, 1Xtra’s playlist via BBC Introducing Merseyside and Mixtape Madness’ Suburban Spotlight playlist.
It’s clear that Koj has started settling down and is considering the meaning of his life. It’s relatable in the sense that we all try out things that are negative when we are young and learn that not everyone who surrounds us are good role models. “I was OT with a fidgety dude”, as he says in Didgeridoo. Hearing it first from Koj, “OT” is short for “out there” and has since frequented my vocabulary, such is his influence and quotability.
Since I first met him in 2016, I have known Koj to have the power to impact people – easy to spot in a crowd and with a personality that shines brighter than most. Since then, Koj has always been smiling; he was never dismissive and forever courteous, but yet I found him hard to read. Now it feels as though the struggles were all underneath that, the pain was and is evident, but for the first time it really feels like the healing process has begun.
Lockdown has meant replacing the audience with friends and family, and Koj has flourished as a part of OzMOB. The sun is shining bright over our faces and he tips his hat over his eyes. “In the first place I was always performing for myself,” he says with a philosophical air. “But I think a bit too much. I’ve managed to put a spin on it where I can kind of make it more palatable.”
You could describe Koj’s approach to music as a chance encounter as, like many of us, he found himself with free time to spend in lockdown. But crossing paths with influential characters means it’s been far from sluggish. Now, with restrictions easing, it seems there’s more potential for the outlining future prospects. “I’m looking to do more, my fire is lit for that,” he responds as he details plans for merchandise and music videos which are starting to get in motion.
The encouragement he gets is from OzMOB telling him that there are no restrictions, believing that there is more than one tunnel to travel down and keeping it broad spread. “I didn’t know I could rap on beats like this, I didn’t even know that those types of beats existed,” Koj admits matter-of-factly. Sitting directly in line with a tree behind him in the distance, I see the spindled arms of twigs growing as if from either side of his head as he talks of branching out into a new sound; his own expansion into this unknown area of music like those newly forming arms of a tree.
“My new sound moving forwards is more a product of what’s going on now. People will be able to tell the difference,” he says with a conviction characteristic of his music and everything that bears the OzMOB imprint. “The knowing of self-worth, the belief of what we are doing,” he exhorts. There’s so much conviction in his voice, I imagine travelling with him through a desert of music and him being unscathed by the wasteland, certain that the oasis ahead is real.
Gwop is available now.