London. The mid noughties. A young Joshua Idehen finishes his shift as a bartender in the West End and goes home. As usual, he turned on the TV and flicked to Channel U, known for tracing the start of the UK grime scene and platforming early talent such as N-Dubz, Tinie Tempah, Skepta and Giggs. That night, at 3am, Idehen saw the music video for Dizzee Rascal’s track Vexed and was instantly absorbed by it. “It inspired me so much that I ended up writing a poem about an altercation I had seen around my ends, Hackney, at the time”, Idehen remembers. A university teacher that Idehen showed the poem to insisted the young creative perform it, so he did. People liked it. Idehen set up his own poetry night and mingled with other burgeoning poets in the London scene, most notably, spoken word artist and rapper, Scroobius Pip. It was the first time that Idehen had seen poetry mixed with music. A fire was lit.
In 2011, Idehen began working with South London-based garage/dubstep production group, LV, who were seeking poets to work with. Together, they recorded the poem Idehen had written inspired by Vexed. It was picked up by Martin Clark of Keysound Recordings and would later form part of an album, Routes. “Martin asked, ‘Would you like to release an album? Do you have enough material?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, sure, I have enough material’. I had no material. So that was a real panic moment”, Idehen recalls, laughing at the memory. “All my verses are cut into little snippets and couplets and phrases that go here and there. And that’s not because it was a creative choice, it’s because I had written so much rambling stuff, that the best way they could make up for it was to take it, edit it down to its core essentials, take out the bits that were clever or cool, and then rebuild the album from that”, he confesses. A lust for music and the creative process had been lit within Idehen. He was truly hooked.
After that, Idehen formed the band Benin City, named after his hometown in Nigeria. The trio released the album Fires in the Park in 2013, which Idehen still calls one of his “proudest moments” to date. The band’s were signed by Moshi Moshi Records for a second album, Last Night, released in 2018. The album saw Benin City play at SXSW and support Portugal, The Man in the same year. The band continued to share music until 2021, when Idehen began his solo project.
Always cooking, during his time in Benin City, Idehen made another LV album, Islands, in 2014. He also happened to find himself exploring outside of spoken word, singing for the first time on a more R&B-leaning track. After meeting keyboardist Andy, the pair decided to start a band, Hugh, which ran for six years. Idehen’s intensely collaborative and curious nature saw him work with saxophonist Shabaka Hutchins on two of his projects – jazz group, Sons of Kemet, and jazz-rock band, The Comet is Coming.
In 2019, Idehen met Manchester saxophonist Alabaster DePlume. Already a fan of DePlume’s work, Idehen decided to add another string to his bow, and the pair formed Calabashed and made an EP. “It was meant to be a six piece live band with a harp and a bassist and a tape recorder guy”, Idehen enthuses. “[The EP] was going to be something that we would perform live and that’s how we were going to get the band out there. The EP was just our calling card, except we released it in 2020 during the pandemic, so we didn’t get to tour it, unfortunately”.
“I’ve been blessed that 95% of all my collaborations have been defined by, Do I like it? Do I like the person? Daedelus, did I like them? Yes, of course, I did. So boom, done it. Shabaka [Hutchins], first time I heard Sons of Kemet, I was like, Are you dumb? Of course I’m working on this! All the people who I’ve worked with, it’s always been, I listened to the music, and I liked the music”, Idehen explains.
Up to Speed
It seems that one of the most obvious collaborations for Idehen would be London-based electronic producer and musician, Fred again.., another prolific collaborator. At the mere mention of Fred’s name, Idehen begins to gush about his love for the artist.
“He makes dance music I adore and it’s dance music I actually listen to when I’m writing in my own stuff, because the way he makes the music, it fits perfectly with when I want to explore. I like to write to a certain tempo and a certain style and a certain cadence. And when you have an artist who makes music like that, that’s very pumping and driving, and it’s very, very positive, it means rather than me trying to worry about how my words fit on a track, I can start worrying about what I want to talk about. I spend less time worrying about the technical stuff, like rhyme and flow. I can just let the music just take me wherever; just engage with my feelings. And his music does that for me”.
“I can imagine going absolutely mad on stage performing to his tracks. Let’s make it happen!” Idehen shouts with enthusiasm. “Manifest it! We have said it; we are building it, so he must come”.
In 2019, one of the most seminal moments in Idehen’s personal life took place. While on tour with Benin City in 2019, dancing at a club in Stockholm one night, Idehen met his current partner. After a long distance relationship on and off, he decided to spend the pandemic in Stockholm, where he now lives permanently. The pair also share a 16 month old daughter, Birdsong, whom Idehen holds throughout our conversation.
Although Sweden did not go into lockdown like many other countries around the world, Idehen still found himself thrown into depression towards the end of 2020, spurred on by “The failure of my previous marriage and Brexit, Trump, the state of the world, and all of that”. In 2021, as the depression lifted, Idehen began to channel his emotions into creativity once more.
“The world is in a terrible place and I’m an artist, what is my part of that?” Idehen pondered to himself. “What is my purpose in all of this? If the one thing I can do is make music, who am I speaking to? Why am I speaking to them? Is it for myself? Is this what I want to do? I had been through my share of shit, but I wanted to make it into a bop. I wanted to find the joy in the sadness that I found. Tease the joy out, find the silver linings. And just try and bring some more light into it”.
Love at First Beat
So where does one go to seek joy? Dance music is certainly a good place to start. “That was always the music I wanted to make. I’m a huge house fan”, Idehen says. To begin his foray, Idehen dug into the work of Rival Consoles, Julio Bashmore and John Hopkins for inspiration, and when ready, linked up with Swedish producer Ludvic Parment, aka Saturday, Monday. The pair had worked together on Benin City’s last EP, so Idehen reached out, aiming to make house music with spoken word. It was love at first beat. Both fathers with limited amounts of time, Parment and Idehen raced against the clock to get the project off the ground, making about 15 tracks overall.
At the beginning of November, Idehen released his Hold Up Your Chin EP. The life-affirming record contains three original tracks and three remixes of track one, Don’t You Give Up On Me, from the likes of Jordan Stephens, Lazy Habits, Scrimshire and United Freedom Collective. The track itself, “Has been the biggest confidence boost to my life thus far”, Idehen gushes. “Everybody who has heard that track has just been so warm and kind towards it”. Idehen talks of a moving fan experience during a recent support slot for Jacob Banks. A woman attending the show who had been suffering suicidal thoughts messaged Idehen to say that the music and the poetry he had performed had inspired her so much that she had gone home after the show to listen to his music and cry. “You can’t buy that kind of response. I’ve been making music for a fucking long time and that is the core, the mission statement of what I’ve been trying to do with this music”, Idehen attests.
Shoulder to Shoulder
However, it is the EP’s second track, I’ve Got You Every Step of the Way that resonates with Idehen the most. It was written for the writer Leone Ross, Idehen’s university professor and the godmother of his daughter. “She was one of those people who stood by my side at a point when I was at my darkest”, he tells me. One of the first tracks he wrote for the EP, Idehen recalls listening to Parment’s beat and the lyrics pouring out of him in a mere five minutes.
“Hold tight them last ones in the room
Shoulder to shoulder, even on zoom
Hold tight them real anchors
that one in your life you can bank on
them 247 mask off ones”
From I’ve Got You Every Step of the Way by Joshua Idehen
“I’ve been most happy throughout the entire process of working with it, whether it was compiling the voices for the choir, writing the verses, watching everything go from something I wrote in my kitchen”, he says.
Ways of Healing
Although Idehen did not set out with a concept in mind for the EP, he soon found one as he began writing it. “All the other projects I’ve worked with, I barely even stick to a genre. But with this project, at the very beginning, I said, Okay, I want this project to be positive, I want this project to be an avenue for me to wash all the negativity out of my negativity and see the goodness in it. That was the energy I wanted to come into it with. I knew I wanted to do spoken word. I knew that I wanted to work with dance, whether it be garage or gospel house. When I first heard what became Don’t Give Up On Me, I decided to only look at everything positively”.
Seems easier said than done, so Idehen looked inside himself for the answer. “You’ve been through a lot of trouble, so now you’re beginning the process of healing, the ways and how’s of healing”. And so that was where he began. “That was my mission statement to myself. So if I wrote anything that I felt didn’t fit with that, I would push that towards the side for the project. I knew I had parameters, so I followed those”.
“The ways and hows of healing
Asked me how I’m feeling?
Said I’m fine
Say I’m great
Smiles in place
The mask is peeling”
From ‘Don’t You Give Up On Me’ by Joshua Idehen
Parenthood in Music
While finding his voice on a solo project, Idehen also has the task of balancing fatherhood with his music career. How does he do it? “See, the problem with that question you asked is that you assumed there is a balance to be found?” he laughs. Idehen credits his supportive partner for enabling him to pursue something as close to balance as possible.
With his Hold Up Your Chin EP out in the world, Idehen is now working on another project with Parment, who, as a father himself, understands the constraints on their time and the importance of making creative moments count. “I know for a fact that if I didn’t have Birdsong, I would literally be wasting time with low self esteem, or playing video games, or just going on walks or watching a whole bunch of movies”, Idehen says. “So having her actually makes the time a bit more precious, and makes it more focused. If I go down to the local gallery to write, I know that I have five hours and it has to count. I spend a lot of time just thinking about what I want to write before I actually write it, and I have to make sure that everything is somewhat geared toward what I’m working on. I think it [fatherhood] gives you a better focus. I’m an easily distracted person. I like bright shiny things, especially if they’re on a screen”.
Creating Moments of Community
Whilst Idehen is working on a smaller scale on this eponymous project than he is used to doing collaboratively, he has still found a way to create a community of creatives. “I see every other person’s part – we’ve created a moment of community that exists in three minutes’ worth of joy. I am always chasing the idea of community and belonging. It is something that I feel gives me purpose”
“Every time I hear my music, I always remember where it came from. I remember how it started. I love listening to the choir because it’s other people, it’s not me and I’m like, Oh my god, I wrote those words, but it’s somebody else making that sound. It is good to feel part of something. To be part of something. With this music, it feels like the closest I have gotten to making something that is as close to how I intended it”.
Idehen credits his partnership with Parment as a key source of that sentiment. For the first time in a long time, Idehen has been able to focus solely on the words, relinquishing sonic control to Parment. “We give each other advice or we make suggestions, but we understand each person’s remit. He understands exactly what I’m looking for, and I understand exactly what he’s looking for in terms of spoken word. Like, that’s exactly how I envisioned this when it was nothing. That is a really fulfilling place to be, regardless of how the music is appreciated”.
What Makes You Feel Happy
Speaking of feedback on the project, despite plays from Jamz Supernova and press support, it seems Idehen is in a place of acceptance, peaceful in the knowledge that he created exactly what he wanted, just for himself. “After all these years of making music, I wanted to make spoken word and house and I did it and it came out very nice. I know that people like it. I don’t have to worry about audience perceptions too much”, he explains.
Crucially, the most important thing is, how does Idehen’s new music make him feel? “It makes me feel happy. All my music has made me feel happy, but with this one, it makes me feel whole. It makes me feel like everything makes sense”.