Wesley Joseph is the whole package. The songwriter, producer, and director’s exacting eye for detail has won him critical acclaim and enduring buzz within London’s music scene, but he’s not one to soak in the moment, for him, it’s always about the next step. When I speak to Wesley, he’s tired. He tells me that being in the midst of a project involves gruelling hours, and multiple whiteboards upon which he jots down 4 am thoughts. “It’s part of the process,” he shrugs.
With one album under his belt, 2021’s ULTRAMARINE, the Walsall native is at the point in every young artist’s career where they either graduate to the next level or don’t, and he’s determined to be the former. Inspired by the likes of Donald Glover, Kendrick Lamar, and Frank Ocean, Wesley doesn’t want to be labelled, so he maps out his moves with unwavering precision. “I’ve studied all this shit, I watch everyone and I know how perception works,” he tells me. “There’ll be so many boxes you can put me in by the end of it that really there’ll be nothing you can say. It’s about wholeheartedly owning each step so they can’t keep up with where they put you.”
Growing up in the West Midlands, Wesley was a founding member of the hip hop collective OG Horse, which included Jorja Smith. Then, in 2016, he moved to London to study film, which deeply influenced his approach to music. His latest release ‘Cold Summer’ was as much about the accompanying music video as it was about the track. In it, Wesley once again demonstrated his ability to conjure up soulful, cinematic universes, full of unexpected reference points, and darker, thematic undercurrents.
Here, we caught up with the musician about music videos, his 360-degree practice, and why he doesn’t want to be labelled as a rapper…
Congrats on ‘Cold Summer’. How does it feel getting some new stuff out?
It feels like time. To be honest, I wanted to put it out earlier, but I’m glad because we do everything with cause. I’m itching to let people see the next steps and stages of my potential. I feel like the first campaign was hugely driven on belief fuel and we had to turn water into wine in lots of situations, whereas with this campaign, I feel like I’ve grown enough and have the artillery to do exactly what I want to. ‘Cold Summer’ is the first example of that. It’s not just me talking about an idea and being like, “please someone believe in me”. Nah, I’ve done this once, twice, three times and people understand the prospects of it finally.
You’re not just a musician, you studied film too. It seems like the two go together for you and share a sort of symbiotic relationship.
Yeah, in my head, they’re all the same thing. I couldn’t make music without the films and I couldn’t make films without the music. I know they are technically different things but I feel the strength that I have as an artist is that they’re all expressed in unison at once. So yeah, when I make music, I think of colours, and when I make films, I think of tunes. It’s all one big recycled mess in my head that has the same face. That’s why I hate it when people call me a rapper, because I write songs, compose, produce and I probably sing more than I rap.
It seems like everything’s super well thought out. Are you very aware of wanting to build a persona or identity within the music industry?
Yeah, I’m super aware of everything that we do and how I want to be perceived. I’m aware of what I want to represent in pop culture, and I’m aware of how the things I appreciate in art need to be embodied in what I do. Every campaign is just me trying to execute that with what we have and I feel like in this project, everything is super cinematic, vibrant, brash, unapologetic. It’s fearless. This time, I don’t want to hear any songs that sound like anyone else’s, I don’t even want to hear beats that sound like other people’s beats. I want everything to have a personality and feel that is timeless in a sense.
You said you didn’t want to be called a rapper — there’s a tendency to categorise musicians in that way, isn’t there? What kind of label do you think would suit you best?
Probably just an artist or a director. An artist who directs. I hate the stigma behind what it is to be a rapper. I appreciate and love rap music but to say that as the first thing out of all these really intricate skills doesn’t make sense to me.
There’s definitely a race element to it. You take a Black boy who raps, say only 25 per cent of the time, but because he’s Black, he’s immediately classed as “a rapper”.
Yeah, 100 per cent. I feel like people love putting things into boxes, but it’s really damaging when it’s based on how you look or are perceived. On a superficial level, you’re put into a box, which means that all the people that would actually like your music don’t hear it because it’s being pushed to a certain demographic only. It’s like if I’m put on some Grime or hardcore rap playlist, all those people would listen to songs like ‘Patience’ or ‘Bloom’ and be like what the fuck is this? There are a lot of Black artists that make folk music or pop music or whatever and they just get thrown into Neo-Soul or Urban. ‘Cold Summer’ is a rap song 100 per cent. Ok cool. You can call me a rapper for this moment, but watch what happens next. It’s a chameleon technique. There are so many boxes you can put on me by the end of it, holistically there’s nothing you can say. I’ve studied this shit, I watch everyone, I watch how perception works. It’s just wholeheartedly owning each step so they can’t keep up with where they put you.
You love a big, proper, big-budget music video. There’s not a lot of emphasis on them like there used to be in the 90s and early 00s. Why is having sick music videos so important to you?
Our budgets weren’t always that big, but the actual thought and care levels stayed the same. There’s facilitation now, whereas before there was resilience, we did crazy shit to make crazy things happen with not much money. I guess the way I see music videos is that every time we make one, I’m kind of immortalised. It’s like when you watch a David Bowie video or Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’. When that person’s gone a kid will see it and be moved by it. Why would you not put everything into that? It’s literally bigger than yourself. It’s a very powerful thing in terms of your mark as a human being while you’re here. The moment I realised that I was like, okay, every music video is gonna be iconic simply because of the fact that film immortalises the idea of the art in the most tangible, beautiful way.
It’s sad they’re not treated with as much respect and importance generally.
Yeah, I wish it was like it used to be. I get it, it’s the economical nature of the beast. More artists are being signed than ever, it’s kind of like, yo, let’s just flood the whole world with content, but to me, music videos aren’t content. Content is such a hollow term. The way I see them is as timeless things that will last forever. I came to this realisation in my first project, someone was like ‘What if no one sees it? You’ve spent over a year on this vid’. I was like, it doesn’t matter because it lasts forever. If no one sees it in the next 10 years, I’m not going to stop.
You kind of grew up around music, there was OG Horse with Jorja Smith, and your parents were also in a band with her parents. Did getting into music yourself feel inevitable?
Because my dad played music around the house 24/7, it would make it seem like it was a sure thing. But I feel like a lot of people grow up around music. I think the thing that remains consistent is me having the urge to make and be moved by something. I don’t know if it was written in stone, all I can say is that every single part of my existence has been based on following urges that I’ve had out of nowhere. I could have just easily not made music and just done film or been a painter. It just so happened to be music that I picked because it moved me the most, I guess. It’s also the only one that I can secretly do film with too. Music is super freeing and floaty, that’s the reward you get. Whereas film is a hard grind but you make a whole universe tangible, you can get lost in it physically.
So you went from that small, intimate collective to more mainstream success. Young artists often feel a big pressure to succeed especially when it comes to social media, do you feel that?
It still feels like I’m nowhere near where I actually want to be. And social media is just a tool that can suck the joy and care out of things as well. You can choose to live for it and let it give you fast food gratification. Ultimately, in my limited experience of seeing the internet grow, I’ve understood that people that don’t put real work in always plateau super early and then it’s just a game of faking and trying to keep up this idea of yourself, which I’m not invested in at all. So I don’t really care about it, I use it as a tool but I’m not trying to necessarily put time into playing the game because I don’t need to. When the time is right to let people see, that’ll be enough. I’m going to use and engage with social media, but I’m not going to do something I wouldn’t do naturally as a person.
I agree. How will you know if you’ve made it?
If I was to sell out a worldwide tour, then I would know.
Dream person to collaborate with?
This changes every week. It’s between Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean. Probably.
Who are your top three artists like that you consistently go back to?
Kanye West, Frank Ocean, so many, it’s hard. I want to say Kendrick [Lamar] but then I could also say Jai Paul or Bon Iver or Flying Lotus. I don’t want to say just rappers because I’ve listened to so many different types of music, but if you were to look at my life, and the amount I’ve listened to things, it would be Kanye, Kendrick and probably Frank.
What’s next? What’s your 2022 shaping up like?
I’m just trying to finish this project right now, I’m deeply in the process of that. Then I’ll do some shows and some festivals. I want to extend that side of things and get the live show sounding godly, because I haven’t really done that before. I guess by the end of the year, I’m just trying to be double as big as I am now and have the foundations of a cool fan base. I guess I just want to be a reference point for anyone trying to do shit differently.
What does music mean to you?
I would say music is like religion, as deep as it sounds. I’m not necessarily religious but I believe in something. I believe in higher powers, I believe in feelings that are so powerful and poignant that it feels like you’re levitating or you’re doing something bigger than yourself. I feel like that’s what music is, it’s a freeing expression that allows you to connect with something bigger than yourself.