Photography: Corbyn John / corbyn_john

Conscious, Christian or gospel rap – call it what you will. Joshua Ilesanmi’s honesty and openness is fed directly through the line during our phone call, illustrating clearly that there’s more to his music than any one category or style can contain. Delving deep into his faith and purpose as a rapper – not to mention an upcoming slew of releases – he walks me through the busy year ahead of him.

His most recent release, the heartfelt Right Time, was released in December 2021 and is the first in a series of singles which he is preparing to release every month up until at least halfway through this year. The track depicts the tensions of a relationship and, as Josh says with a discernible grin, “It was fact but now it’s fiction. My girlfriend actually broke up with me [in November]. I was thinking that I didn’t want to drop the track, but I put so much effort into it I needed to release it and get it out anyway.” Right now, he’s in the midst of his creative perfectionism. “I’ve wrote a lot and planned everything but I’m just tweaking bits of certain tracks. Some things are not fully recorded yet, but everything is kind of planned out until around mid-2022.”

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Originally from Nigeria, Josh moved to Liverpool aged three and has been in Liverpool almost all his life. “To be fair,” he says, “I can’t really remember much from when I was in Nigeria. So, my influences have just mainly come from growing up really, hearing different things and also being exposed to lots of different types of music.” Of those various types, hip hop became part of his life as a teen: “Secondary school, it must have been, like, year nine or year 10.”

Now aged 22 and armed with fierce creative productivity, the self-branded conscious rapper reveals a rare moral integrity when it comes to his musical approach. “I’ve noticed that I’m able to help people or speak to people more by just talking about life. Like when I released the track Special, I was talking about doubts, worries and different things that everybody faces day to day. The response to that track was just so good. Those reactions are what give purpose to the music as well. It’s just so fulfilling to be able to help people. Me being able to do that for people, yeah, that’s just huge.”

The terms ‘conscious’ or ‘alternative’ rap are modern phenomena that undermine the existence of conscious or meaningful lyrics in some of hip-hop’s earliest and most iconic joints. From as early as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s The Message, hip-hop has served as a folk culture that unites and empowers people. The categorisations are misleading and, Illy1 considers, unnecessary. “In terms of making music, this is just life music. I’m talking about life and the way we live, how I’m feeling, what’s going through my head, all of these things. It’s just life music.”

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Showing such personal honesty and introspection has led to his music being mistakenly labelled Christian, or gospel, rap at times. Illy1’s faith is important to him but it’s not the sole focus of his music. “The way I approach it, it’s like I’m talking from my perspective about my life and my faith is part of my life, so it influences the way I write and the way I talk about different topics.” He focusses on themes that cross borders of faith. “I want to say things that everyone can relate to. So, it’s like, you don’t have to have a relationship with God to listen to what I’m rapping about.”

“You don’t have to have a relationship with God to listen to what I’m rapping about”

Vague answers evade links between him and any specific producer. Though when it comes to rappers he admires, he gets specific. “Top three for sure – Santan Dave, Potter Paper, Ghetts. Potter Paper has influenced me so much with his raw emotion. And Dave is such a clever writer.” Talking of writing, the question of any hip-hop head is always the eternal balance: do you prioritise the message or the rhyme? At this, Illy1 laughs. “Erm… I’ll find a way, you know? The rhyme and the message. I’ll find a way.” And, listening to his track Little Things after our talk is over, it’s hard not to believe he’ll do just that.

Potential and Pep Talk’s are available on the 18th February and the 18th March respectively.

@illy1music

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