FACT Rated is our series digging into the sounds and stories of the most vital breaking artists around right now. This week, Will Pritchard speaks to Octavian, the South London-via-France MC shaking up UK rap having graduated from prestigious performing arts centre the BRIT School while homeless.
Must-hear: ‘Party Here’
For fans of: Denzel Himself, 808INK
There’s a good reason why rising MC Octavian’s sound is so hard to pin down. “I’m not really from anywhere, you know what I mean?” he asks, in the same gravelly tone that decorates his half-sung raps. Aged 21, the artist – real name Octavian Godji – is being tipped for greatness in 2018 after a handful of thrilling tracks blending trap, housey 4/4 kicks and leftfield hip-hop. But getting to this point hasn’t been easy.
Octavian was born in France, but his father passed away when he was just a toddler. His mother, originally from the Ivory Coast, then relocated to Camberwell, a suburb in south east London. Octavian’s relationship with his mum frayed as he passed into adolescence – “I was a bad kid,” he says, “robbing and doing stupid shit” – and after he was excluded from school in London, she sent him back to France to attend private school for two years.
“I fucking hated it, it was shit – it was so shit,” he says. “It was just proper suppressed. There was no creativity: you go to school, you come home, that’s it. For me, I clocked that you can’t listen all your life. I don’t think life works like that. You have to find your own way.” Having decided he’d had enough, Octavian moved back to London and to his mum. From there, things got worse, and he soon left home.
Octavian coasted between places, sofa-surfing and sleeping rough. “I had some people whose houses I slept in, and most of the time it was just a case of finding places to stay,” he explains. “But sometimes you’d be out and there’d be nowhere to go. You’d be ringing your friends and there’d be no one there.” This was, he says, all part of discovering his own path in life.
Today, he’s been without a fixed address for the best part of six years. In that time, however, he’s managed to complete a community arts course at The BRIT School – a prestigious performing arts college, better known as a factory for churning out pop stars like Jessie J and Adele than for nurturing genre-blending MCs like Octavian – release a 10-track mixtape, and, in the past two months, sign a deal with Sony subsidiary Black Butter, also home to J Hus, Goldlink, Wiley and DJ Khaled, among others.
Applying to the BRIT School – which is free, but notoriously tough to get into – was an opportunity for Octavian to escape the shaky situation he found himself in and a chance to focus his naturally optimistic mindset. “I was a positive yute,” he says. “You couldn’t be negative. If you were negative where I was growing up, you would just die. I’d still be out in the cold now, negative. That mindset would get me nowhere.”
Joining the school was a culture shock, but one that he reflects upon now as instrumental in his learning how to adapt to new crowds. “People you meet there are so much different than in south London. They’ve grown up always having everything and you start putting yourself into that mentality, because you have to be that way with them.” Arriving to classes presentably and punctually meant his living situation went largely unnoticed – though he suspects this was a case of The BRIT School turning a blind eye, wary that acknowledging his homelessness might lumber them with additional responsibilities.
Since graduating, Octavian’s been working non-stop on developing his sound and signature throaty delivery. The deal with Black Butter came off the back of the silky ‘Party Here’, a bonafide sleeper hit that, the rapper says, had labels clamoring for his signature. Talking to him now, in a swanky docklands apartment provided by the label, he sounds relieved. “Through my past experiences, I feel like I can connect with lots of different kinds of people,” he says, “because I had to. It means I can make a lot of different kinds of music.” He reflects on his life as an outsider, both in the literal sense of homelessness and as existing outside of the socio-cultural homogeneity of the BRIT School. It’s had an outsize influence on his music – helping him view the world as a smaller place, and fueling his ambitions to make music that’s “for everyone.”
Octavian describes himself as both a rapper and a singer and it’s arguably the way he shifts so effortlessly between the two registers that makes his sound so captivating. The same could be said of his contemporaries – artists such as 808INK, Abra Cadabra, Yxng Bane and others – but Octavian’s beats, most of which he has a hand in producing himself, help to set him apart from the pack. Catchy and experimental, they eschew traditional song structures, deploying kooky, James Blake-esque synths and exploring unusual rhythmic territory.
Already in the pipeline for 2018 is a neon video for ‘100 Degrees’ that follows on directly from ‘Party Here’, before an EP arrives later in the spring. For now though, he’s enjoying having a roof over his head and thinking about how to break the news to his mum that, in his own words, he’s made it.
Will Pritchard is a freelance writer. You can find him on Twitter.