Guest of the Month: Love Ssega
As self-producing artist and polymath Love Ssega releases his Musicians in Residence project ‘The China Tapes’ he talks to us about lockdown, Black Lives Matter, his collaboration with groundbreaking Vogue photographer Misan Harriman and a new project with the legendary Brian Eno.
Tell us who you are and where did your passion for music begin?
I’m Love Ssega. I’m from South London, Lewisham. My passion for music when I was a kid came from my parents music collection – my mum and dad had different tastes. Then going to school in South London was quite an exciting time for early grime and also at that time my sister was listening to New York hip hop and the like…
Growing up I didn’t study music at GCSE or anything, although I did have instrument lessons outside of school, but going to University and just being in a different place was a chance to have some fun with different people and hear what their experiences were musically.
So music has always been in my life. Having a passion for it and the chance to actually do it as a profession is amazing. I never thought that would happen.
So who are your influences and how have they influenced you?
I would say James Brown. My dad was a big James Brown fan. Seeing a Black band leader and the showmanship was just exciting and electrifying! Also when you look at what went on around that time when tracks like, “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud” were released, you had the protest movement, Civil Rights movement, Martin Luther King, and the Blaxploitation films. Also there was Muhammad Ali going to rumble in the jungle, you had the African liberation and independence and breaking out of colonialism – so that type of music, was just powerful and affirmative of identity and that was amazing! A big influence on me.
At University I performed covers at open mic nights and was more listening to songwriters and soul singers like Aretha, songwriters like Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. However, if I was out with my friends in my late teens- early twenties, we’d listen to European music like French touch music like Justice at Banger Records and stuff like that.
Then from a performance point of view, it is funk and of course Michael Jackson when you see visually the MTV side of things. I’ve always been fascinated with different artists if they’re saying something, presenting it artistically or just on stage.
How did Clean Bandit start?
Clean Bandit came together while I was at University. In my first year I didn’t want to pay to get into the end of year Ball, so I set up a funk band to perform there. I got my friend Jack Patterson to play keys and I put together a seven-piece band. After my second year, Jack and Grace Chatto who had a string quartet, said, “Do you want to form a band?”
From there I was setting out how to structure the songs and coming up with ideas and lyrics and stuff like that. We were trying things with vocals and sampling a recording of Grace’s string quartet (and Jack was learning how to use Ableton) and we started to make electronic/ classical music. We just wanted to see how far it could go, have fun and do something completely experimental and it kind of just snowballed.
What made you want to put music to one side and concentrate on your studies?
At the time of Clean Bandit, we were managing everything ourselves – doing all the bookings, writing the songs, producing everything, shooting the videos. But for me, it was a bit mad as Jack and Grace had left university and I was still doing a PHD as well boxing for the university and in an Opera that went to Edinburgh Festival.
My routine was lab in the week, go to London, do a performance, come back to box, then go back to London, then come back and so it was all becoming a bit mad. I knew I needed to finish my PHD.
We’d all put so much work into the band and so I said, “you guys continue” and I thought maybe they could get another singer and I could keep writing songs, but I didn’t, as I really needed to focus. From a personal point of view, it was like my little rebellion to be a young Black man from South London, doing a PHD. I didn’t know too many from my area who’d gone on to Cambridge and I don’t know many who had done a PHD. Given I was in that position, it was so important for me to get this qualification and to provide inspiration to other people.
Has Chemical Engineering or even boxing informed your work as a musician?
Well, one thing is it’s less scary being onstage when there is no one’s there to punch you in the face! Because the first time I got in the boxing ring it was quite an interesting experience. You’re essentially getting beaten up in public.
From the engineering side of things, I like people who do different things. For example I like Donald Glover – he’s got his film thing, Atlanta, and then he’s got his Childish Gambino thing, and then he’s acting in Lion King and he’s doing all this other stuff. Then you have the likes of Brian May from Queen – he went and did his PHD in physics after he made his millions…
I believe, if you make music that’s honest and true to yourself, then everybody else can then figure out what the stereotypes are.
Tell us about how the PPL Momentum Fund helped you?
The Momentum Music fund was really, really big for me because that helped put out my second E.P. ‘Emancipation’, to do my own thing and create this new world. Having gone on tour and done things like Glastonbury with Clean Bandit, it doesn’t mean that if you then switch up the whole thing that people are going to love you, because they might have just loved you in that one band. It’s the Geri Halliwell/ Spice Girls thing – Geri leaves the Spice Girls and then, it’s not quite the same, you know.
I didn’t know whether that would happen. But to get the stamp of approval from PRS Foundation for what I was doing was great. The Momentum Music Fund, literally gave me the freedom to make videos and be really experimental. It was a big pat on the back. Even when I spoke to different engineers and mastering engineers and stuff and I said I got Momentum funding, they’re like, ‘oh, this shows there is support behind it’. So it’s not just about the money, it was the kudos from it and for my collaborators it meant they knew that the music was going to be coming out as well.
I think one of the biggest things for the music industry is, that the PRS Foundation support really helps the whole infrastructure get moving and the music can go out to the world.
So you also had PRS Foundation and British Council Musicians in Residence China support and you’ve just released the ‘China Tapes’. Can you tell us a bit about the Musicians Residence and how that inspired you and helped your career?
We’re lucky in this country to have an amazing team of people at PRS Foundation, as following the Momentum Music Fund support they kept a look out on my career. They liked what I was doing and nominated me for the Musician in Residence China programme with the British Council.
I’d gone and performed by myself solo in South Korea and with Clean Bandit in Japan, and they had seen I’d gone to Asia and I guess they could see from my background that I like different cultures. So that was a great opportunity to then spend some time, collaborate and soak up the Chinese culture. I got to perform as well because my hosts were a record label and promoters, Modern Sky who run one of the biggest independent festivals in China. I don’t know where else you could get that opportunity.
I’ve made all the music in lock down here. I’ve had the time to actually take in everything that I’ve seen and digest it. And with all the videos I made as well, I had time to really figure out what story I wanted to put out there and pull it together. I ended up with ‘The China Tapes’.
The PRS Foundation will support you as an artist, as an individual or band, and trust you to produce what you’re going to produce. And that’s the biggest thing. It was a trust, to send me over there for six weeks and to pay for some basic Mandarin lessons as well, and to be with non English speakers (except for my host).
It was like, ‘cool, you’re going to come up with something and then we’re going to help push whatever you come up with’. So you don’t feel like you’re indebted or burdened by them saying, ‘oh, you’ve got to make something amazing’. I think that’s why you get the best from it. Because it’s no pressure. It’s just faith and confidence.
And so you’ve touched on it a little bit here. But obviously, it’s been a very strange year. How has the pandemic affected you as an artist? And what have you been doing during lockdown?
Well, firstly, I had my E.P. Celebration which was meant to come out in, beginning to middle of the year. And then I was meant to start my U.K. touring off the back of the E.P. So when lockdown happened, I was actually meant to film the videos and the content for that. I’ve not said this anywhere, but I was meant to film that in Colombia, but just got caught up in the whole lockdown thing.
So I had to rethink the whole visual and think do you even put it out with all these things getting cancelled? And then as it got harsher and harsher, you kind of realise this is going to roll on for a while, it’s serious. Then it was figuring out what to do.
When I realised all the big massive people stopped spending lots of money, and weren’t putting out albums, I said, look, let me put out mine so then at least people can listen to it. Then found out (and because I self-produced, I could do everything at home), I can do everything. I had to work remotely, finish off some of the mixing and the mastering remotely. People who have been self-sufficient and doing things themselves have been able to continue, whereas other people who have had this big massive machine and everything else, they’ve been stuck. I was able to find that I could continue where some of these other people can’t. Which was surprising. I found off the back of that E.P. people were listening more because they were in lockdown and actually hearing what I was saying and getting interested.
One of the songs ‘Find Another Way’ came out at the time of Black Lives Matter. I normally make my videos kind of obscure, like oblique. If you listen to the lyrics, you can figure out what I’m saying. I was like, let me try go to the protests in London, get some footage there, and then just make it a bit more direct, because I think it’s needed after the killing of George Floyd.
When I got the footage, when I looked at it, it really showed how united London was and how young the crowd was. Actually, it was like teenage – and all different genders, races. So it showed people in London, this is how we reacted to what was going on in America (and not forgetting what’s happening here). We had music just to document a moment in time.
Then I was fortunate to reach out to Misan Harriman, a very kind photographer I know. Because he was taking footage, and a lot of photos. I asked if he would you be kind enough to let me use some of the images for our video? And he said, yep, but not this batch. When I got them they were amazing. Then he goes on to shoot the Vogue front cover with Adwoa Aboah and Marcus Rashford! The first Black man to shoot the front cover of the September issue of Vogue, and he did the Vogue coverage of Black Lives Matter. So it was fantastic. Just a blessing to reach out.
Which is what’s been happening a lot in lockdown, people have been reaching out in different forms. For him to be kind enough to let me use some of his images, whilst he’s absolutely blowing up because of all the stuff that he’s been doing – at that time he’d been on BBC News for his lockdown photography – then to get on to Vogue level, that was massive. And the reaction for the Find Another Way for the video and everything has been really strong.
It goes to show with lockdown that we don’t know what’s happening, but as an artist, if you can, get the art out there. People are listening, especially now. Marcus Rashford talking about the free school meals, people are listening to people with things to say – rather than where it’s like ‘I’m rich and I’m going on holiday’ when no-one else can go on holidays, so that’s a bit of a slap in the face. We’re struggling with our jobs. We’re struggling with this and that. COVID has decimated our community. Don’t get me started on the Conservative government.
How can we ‘Find Another Way’? What are the barriers to career progression for black artists, for example? And have you personally come across any of those barriers?
I think in the UK and I can only speak for the UK, the big problem is Black artists are pigeonholed. Grime was popular. So, to be a Black artist, you’ve got to kind of be Grime or Drill. But then we don’t see the breadth of Black artists or Black men because we’re still stereotyped by the media. If you then just look at America, there’s a difference even when you think about Black soul singers, how many could you say there are in the UK? If this was in America, you could say there is Frank Ocean, there’s Usher there’s Miguel, there’s John Legend, and those are four off the top of my head and they’re completely different. And they got different lanes and different things. If that was here, you would struggle to even mention a handful. And it’s like what type of music are we allowed to have supported and pushed?
I think it requires a bit of a rethink from the top. It requires a bit more bravery just to say, look, in the same way I can count how many white guys playing the guitar and singing a certain type of song are on one stage. We don’t see that many black guys play the guitar and sing a certain type of song. So to say that there isn’t a problem – there has to be a you know, there kind of has to be a problem there. So it takes some bravery just to say, look, we’re going to support this person, all these different artists, and if they don’t sell well, don’t just drop them straight away, there might be a problem, it might need more work just to support it, it might require more heavy lifting, you know. Just to give it more chances. So if it’s down in the site, don’t just drop them when you haven’t marketed them properly, because you haven’t got that many Black people in the offices. If you look at Hip Hop or quote-unquote-urban music, which is Black music, it’s the biggest selling thing. But then how many people do you have in the offices? Are you going to get the honest thing or, are you going to get the honest representation or the marketing in the right way?
And it is to our detriment, because, yes, we are Black but we’re also British and we want to do the best for the country here. And the talent is here. You see it. You see the people here are super talented. And Britain is a very exciting place. It’s multicultural, especially where I’m from in London, and we need to push these similarities, but to know that they’re similarities, we need to hear the different voices.
I can’t put it all on the music industry, because we live in a toxic environment. For example even as we see Marcus Rashford score a goal for Manchester United in the Champions League and he’s still getting abuse, for doing his day job right. As a Black man, you can’t just do your day job. Like Raheem Sterling was called a thug and this and that, even though he’s doing stuff for his mum and his community and everything like that. It’s a very toxic environment, with the newspapers.
And I’ve got to commend PRS Foundation because you look at the different Black artists that they support and it’s across the UK jazz, this Drill artist etc, you know, and it’s women and non-binary. If when you look at that and then you look at, let’s say the makeup of certain label, it’s not as mixed. So there is an issue and if they don’t want to say it, then they are fooling themselves. So just look at it and be honest and say, does this look funny that Black music is doing very well and you don’t have Black people and men and women in your office? You know, it’s as simple as that. But then once you see it, then you can say, okay, cool, we can push forward.
On the flip side, what is encouraging is a lot of artists staying independent and realising you can do it yourself and you don’t need to wait for the system. You know, I think I’m of the opinion we don’t need to destroy a system that’s there. But you can change the system.
Going back, can we talk a little about COVID? Can you talk a little bit about how musicians can adapt their plans to survive moving?
I think it’s terrible. The amount of government support has been absolutely atrocious. It’s really bad… I was on the self-employed scheme, but basically got 50 pounds from the self-employed scheme. The point is, I’m a business. When you hear my records they’ve been mastered and they’ve been mixed, that’s all coming from me. Every single music video you see, that comes from me. It’s me putting my money that I make from being here and performing, back. I put as much as possible back into my own art. And I’ve been doing that for a number of years. So that’s me believing in my art. So for people to say, oh, you know, you should have made more money….
So what? We should just settle on the money and not pay session musicians, mix engineers, artists, photographers and everything else. That’s where my money’s going. It’s not going to the Cayman Islands. You have to put money back in your thing to grow. If you design a scheme where it’s based on the profits, it doesn’t work. You know, that doesn’t work, because in the same way how other companies work, they have to invest. You have a small shop, you’ve got to then invest to get a bigger shop and so on and so forth. Its woeful we’re told we have to retrain to cyber.
It’s very difficult if you want to be a musician like myself who believes in paying other musicians to work with and tour with. I think some people think musicians are just having a jolly, going down the pub. But then when you say, ‘look, we’re business people too, and we’re trying to do something to support culture’, they would see the support’s been really bad. And it’s tragic. Fortunately I can write and I can record. But then what about the people who work front of house? What about the people in the venues who are still paying rent? What about the people, you know, who drive in the tour vans? They forget about the grassroots, the infrastructure… I’ve been supported by music, press, all these small venues. People supported me and we’ve grown. And these people have just been smashed just because they’ve got no money and no support. And when we come out the other side, what are we going to be listening to, you know?
On a more positive note, I do think it’s a chance – and the reason I start with the heavier stuff is because people are like ‘you got plenty of time to make music’. And I have been making music, I’ve put out 18 tracks in this past six months. I’ve been busy. But then, you know, it’s not enough to not acknowledge the difficult things like the mental health side of it. But the good thing is, if people haven’t been touring, its a chance to try and build up your skills, like learn how to record yourself. Whereas before you might be going to the studio, try and learn how to do that. Try and learn how to mix. Try and get your production. Maybe spend some time learning how to do Photoshop so you can make your assets and do your social media campaigns and maybe see it as a chance to experiment where you spend a bit less, put out the stuff and then just see whether people like it or not, because you’re not gonna be losing money on a massive tour or making merch for something which then you’re going to make a massive loss on. Just try and see what you can do creatively. And ignore like charts or streams. It doesn’t make a difference. Like it doesn’t make a difference. Go back to being an artist and say or even just take some time and say, look, this is what I think is important and this is a positive thing. Like before, I would have been dashing around here there and everywhere. Whereas it did give me time to say, look, let me finish off that China music. And this is the type of music I wanna talk about and these are the issues that I want to talk about.
Like, for instance, climate justice, because that’s the big thing which I’m now trying to put into my music. And I just got a commission from Julie’s Bicycle, Artsadmin and Season for Change, for a project next year where, again, it’s using music as activism in the same way like how Marvin Gaye and Sly and the Family Stone, loads of different people that I loved, how they used it at that time, when there was civil rights, Vietnam War and nuclear disarmament.
So now it’s time to say, OK, cool, let’s see, how can we as artists do a better job? And this is directly to artists. Yeah. Do a better job to try and promote these issues rather than maybe making the cheap hits that would have got streams and made us money.
There is one shout out, so in lockdown I’ve been involved with Earthpercent, it’s a soon to launch Climate Justice and music organisation spearheaded by Brian Eno and others across the music industry. So it’s been fun. My one Lockdown Zoom and then seeing well, a legendary producer who’s really funny and really passionate about stuff, being like ‘how would you like to come on the committee and stuff?’ So that’s been inspiring.