LIVE: Mykki Blanco and Little Simz - 6 Music Festival, St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 01/04/2022 1

LIVE: Mykki Blanco and Little Simz – 6 Music Festival, St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 01/04/2022

Love is in the air in the brutalist labyrinth of St David’s Hall tonight—and it so easily might have never been. There I was, enjoying Obongjayar’s outstanding set at Y Plas, when there’s a ping from Bill Cummings. He’s indisposed, and do I want to pretend to be him and go to Little Simz instead? Oh yes, dear editor, my captain, yes, I do. So, I mooch across town, give the wrong name, and take my seat in the gods with the rest of the imposters. No one knows, but I’m actually a couple of children stood on each other’s shoulders under a trench coat.


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We’re just in time for Mykki Blanco, who is absolutely not what I expected. I’m not exactly clear in my mind about who I thought Mykki Blanco was, but I’d a vague idea that they might be a bit more towards the Throbbing Gristle end of pop-as-performance-art. As it is, Blanco has got a tiny Welsh t-shirt on, barefoot, shimmying about in a pair of sparkly trousers and seems quite preoccupied with matters of the heart. So wholesome that they ammend a lyric to ‘motherlovers’ and distribute flowers to the front rows.

There’s little in the way of percussion. It’s there, of course, but very discreet, coming and going at precise, synth-wavey moments. This is a good, good thing for a rapper because in dispensing with this supposedly vital ingredient of hip-hop, Blanco keeps bringing everything back to the rhythms and cadences of their writing and leaving their voice to hold the beat while the live band and backing singers do their thing around them.

Cardiff! We are falling in love with you!

Clearly in awe of their musicians, Blanco drops to their knees before them during the set-opening ‘Free Ride’, clearly thrilled to bits to be sharing the stage with such a great band. Two of the most thrilling moments of the set bookend the song ‘Want From Me’. One of the backing singers, Leon Jacques, drops Nina Simone’s ‘Feeling Good’*, which leads into a swaggering piano and psychedelic flute around which Blanco riffs about whatever it is they’re into and seals the deal via a call out to ‘WAP’ that segues into Orsino’s ‘If music be the food of love’ speech from Twelfth Night. These mutated elements from high and low culture are hard to resist. It’s seriously playful and playfully serious, a performance that goes beyond mere camp (and what else is camp but a knowing tap on the bars of the cage?) and into a search for authenticity.

There is, unexpectedly, quite a lot of rather jazzy flute and clarinet in Mykki Blanco’s set, which gives the whole thing a somewhat fetching dash of Dorothy Ashby. Chamber rap anyone?

Blanco gets us singing along to ‘Patriarchy Ain’t the End of Me’ and bares their soul on ‘Trust a Little Bit’. There’s just the right amount of musical theatre going on, flashes of narrative, characters coming and going, masks put on and abandoned, hints of a wider tale you want to know more of. The songs flit between high school, summer romances and the ins and outs of getting paid for your hustle, always coming back to an ever-optimistic quest for love.

But you already know all this, having just watched it at home, yeah? Throughout the weekend, I can’t shake the question: in what sense are we truly at a festival here? For one thing, the ticketing put a few noses out of joint in Cardiff. It’s pricey, and the tix went on sale very quickly after the festival was announced, and a lot of people missed out, people on low incomes or with shifty WiFi or jobs that don’t involve sitting at a computer doing fuck all. I certainly didn’t have my shit together to buy a ticket and wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t earning one with a review. So far, so festival maybe, but there’s a feeling in some quarters that the BBC could have done better and found a way of doing this in a less gentrified fashion. But not only that, but they’ve also eschewed the usual wrist-band-that-gets-you-into-all-the-gigs arrangement. If you’re going to St David’s tonight, then that’s it: you’re going to St David’s and if you want to sneak out and watch Panic Shack for a bit, or nick over to Caroline Street for your chips, there’s no readmission. Do you suspect that we’ve been suckered into playing the role of a TV studio audience, and paying for the pleasure, while the true festival experience is happening in a kitchen in Slough?

Well, not if Mykki Blanco and the crowd here can help it. Peering down from my eyrie on the balcony, I can confirm that the house is on its feet. Everyone is dancing. No one told us to do that. Just sort of happened. We’ve entered the simulacrum and are having a good time about it. Plus, there’s the slightly weird experience of watching these gigs again on the iPlayer before writing the review. It sounds a bit shit on the telly, but there is the advantage that you can see all the stuff on stage from close up, edited together like a film, and as we all know, this makes the dream we call life look a bit more real. It’s the same show, yet not the same show. I’m fairly certain that the show I saw was better. If you’re streaming the TV version and thinking that was it, then well it wasn’t. No disrespect to Slough and its kitchens, but it was better here in Cardiff being unwitting dupes of the society of the spectacle in a big theatre with a banging PA.

Because what you won’t know from the telly is that Blanco can connect with you. From the front row to the back, they absolutely draw you into their world. There’s a lot of talk about how, as a queer rapper, Blanco’s blazed a trail for others to follow, but left themself in danger of becoming one of those seminal figures who never got the recognition they deserved. But nearing middle age can be a good thing, and the more recent material, particularly ‘Trust a Little Bit’ and the new single with Michael Stipe, ‘Family Ties’, presented at the end of the set as an all too brief spoken-word piece, give us a glimpse of the mature artist they’re in the process of becoming. Wise, gentle and self-possessed, but with an acutely honed edge, Mykki Blanco is a true original and a class act easily capable of making a big space like St David’s a small space where they’re talking to you and you alone. Keep watching, because their best is clearly to come.

Did I mention I was here to see Little Simz? Turns out everyone is here to see Little Simz. From the first big, cinematic chords of ‘Introvert’, she’s got this place eating out of the palm of her hand. Everyone is up and dancing, everyone is into this, and this is Little Simz’s night. Musically, a Little Simz show is like being hit by wave after wave of all that is good about Black music. Again, like Blanco, she relies on a live band rather than the usual patchwork of samples. Not that there’s anything wrong with a bit of sampling, but in both cases, the interaction with the musicians keeps the material away from hip-hop’s occasional propensity toward navel-gazing.

Indeed, with her introverted schtick, Simz could easily find herself slipping off the tightrope drawn between the inner monologue and the public persona. However, there’s a difference between introversion and self-absorption—what goes on inside is also what’s going on outside. Just her opening lyrical salvo takes us through violence, religion, bereavement, the pressures of career. There’s a lot stewing in all of us, and the paradox is that most of our inner world is out there, outside, happening and happening and happening. And she says she’s not political. Uh-huh.

A cunningly deployed sample of Smokey Robinson, chonky rhythms, soul melodrama—it’s less a gig than a celebratory fever dream. ‘I Love You, I Hate You’, an intensely personal missive aimed at an absent father leads us into a couple of darker, grungier tunes from Grey Area. It relentlessly sweeps you along and whenever you think you know where you are, she finds something new to bite you with and pull you back under—or there’ll be some twist aside from one of the musicians, a swell or a sharp descent, an orchestral boom, clatter or sudden electronic flicker of eternity.

In ‘Boss’ the defensive machismo of the successful rapper is armoured in the melancholia of techno. Stabbing strings lash out into the Woah-woah-woahs of ‘Standing Ovation’, the vocal sample a spectral force that swirls around the theatre like incense. The climactic verse burns through a gallery of inspirational figures, ‘The elder sisters, the tribal mantras/the Jazz players, holistic doctors/spiritual teachers, doers, and the doulas’, breathless, on and on, culminating in the final, grandly sinister image of, ‘the overachievers in the shadow of the gatekeepers’, and you can feel a great shiver go through the crowd. We’re in the presence of something magic.

Then a couple of tunes from her lockdown EP Drop 6. ‘one life, might live’ is an exhilarating duet with a funky, solo bass and an irrepressibly swaggering, bumper-sticker of a chorus, topped off with the triumphant, syncopated diffidence of ‘might bang, might not’. The over-excitement crashes into jaded paranoia about halfway through ‘Rollin Stone’. There’s something in the atmosphere reminiscent of Midge Ure’s Mittel European playboy of ‘Vienna’ era Ultravox, drenched in reverberating minor chords, overstimulated by foreign food and ennui, and in need of a bit of a lie down in a dark room.

I feel it too Simz, I really do. It can all be a bit much.

Protect My Energy’ is absolute genius. A disco banger about not picking up the phone for a while. If you’re wondering what us introverts get up to when you’re not around, here’s the truth: we’re actually dancing around having a great old time without you, just on the inside. It’s such a witty pop moment that Simz might be the Pet Shop Boys in disguise.

As it goes, there’s a mental health professional of my acquaintance who doesn’t have any truck with the whole introvert/extrovert thing. She reckons that introversion is actually the baseline for human personality and that all you extroverts are in fact a bit damaged and deadened by the continuous noise of modern life and that’s why you need to keep the chatter up. You’d sit quietly too if only you could. Or as Little Simz puts it, ‘I got problems/but I’m not fuckin’ weak’.

Part of the attraction of live music has always been the fact that I can leave the house and go somewhere I don’t have to talk to anyone. In fact, I’m here tonight on my own and would probably run a mile if I encountered any of my friends. Just not in the mood right now. At the end of ‘Protect My Energy’, Simz makes a short speech thanking the audience for bearing with her attempt at being a singer, for letting her create a space where she feels free to leave the comfort zone of rap and do something a bit different. It’s heartwarming, and although she shows great humility tonight, there’s no need to crave our indulgence. The honour of being invited into the mind of Little Simz—no small talk, no pressure–is all ours.

Because what a lot of energy there is to protect, what a lot is going on here. The third act takes in tales of pirate radio stations and the inspiration she feels toward her cousin, Little Q, who returned unbowed from a dark, dark place. There’s a double shot of African rhythms. First, Obongjayar joins her, fresh from his earlier set, in his purple velvet suit and shades for ‘Point and Kill’. The man really does have a terrific voice, husky and melancholic, but here and now infused with a lilting irony that makes a plain dismissal of casual violence. Then, ‘Fear No Man’ invokes the shade of Fela Kuti, and of ancestral song, makes Little Simz a giant.

She plays out on ‘Woman’, appropriately enough still going from zero to one hundred and leaving just the dust behind. The last time I saw a rap show that was this exciting, this multi-layered and felt as groundbreaking as this, I was watching Public Enemy in about 1991, she’s that good. It’s always extremely gratifying to turn up late to the party and find that everything you’ve heard is true. Little Simz played a hell of a set tonight, cerebral and funky, savage and sensitive, a poet who can weave the deeply personal with the massively public, all the while remaining composed and unassuming. I’m not even aware that she broke a sweat, for all the intensity and passion of her performance. Pure magic.

* ‘Feeling Good’ is a Nina Simone song. No correspondence will be entered into on this topic. 

Images from BBC

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.