On the Rise: Alicai Harley | Interview

“Bruv. Alicia Harley is better than everyone man, I don’t care. She approaches the riddim like some dancehall veteran with 20 years experience who’s had four clashes at Sting and never took a L…”

Dressed in a see-through plastic jacket and skyscraper heels, Alicai Harley reads out the Tweet from rapper Bonkaz at 100mph. “It’s happening now!…” she beams, scrolling through the hundreds of notifications on her feed. “I don’t wanna ignore people… I wanna reply to everyone, to thank them all. But sometimes the Twitter mentions go on for a while!”

The hype is well deserved. Alicai’s tunes knit together the hip-swivelling, syncopated rhythms of dancehall with the glittery vocals and earworm choruses of chart-topping pop. Bonkaz isn’t the only big name who’s got her back: in January, she dropped the Toddla T collaboration “Instruction (Gallong Girl)” – sure to be tearing up sound systems this carnival – and Kojo Funds has just jumped on a remix of her single “Rushing”. “The Kojo thing is crazy,” she says. “It’s not just about the remix – it’s also the fact that I was on a tour with him. He’s such a dope person, such a lovely person. Honestly, I’ve supported other artists but he was the best, in terms of how he treated the supporting acts. Making sure I was good, coming down to my dressing room to say hi, to check I was cool to go on. He was the first person who’d said ‘I wanna do something’ and I was like ‘yeah, let’s do something!’. And then he came to Jamaica to film the video! – it’s a lot.”

In person, Alicai is all bounce: wide-eyed with the news of her endorsement, and ordering a glass of wine at 5pm to celebrate. We talk about her roots, her having spent the first five years of her life living in Kingston, Jamaica. She surprises her mum all the time with what she can remember. “Yeah, when I’m saying stuff [about that time in my life] she’s like ‘what?!’ I remember my dad used to put me on his lap in the car and we used to go get jerk together. I remember when I moved from my auntie’s house to my mum’s brother’s house – which he had with his wife, Auntie Pat.”

Alicai’s mum had relocated to the UK to help support her family, and Auntie Pat became a real rock for Alicai growing up. “I used to call her Mummy No 2,” she laughs. “And one weekend after staying over at her house I was like, ‘I don’t wanna go home, I wanna stay here’. Auntie called my mum and was like ‘She’s refused to go home’. And mum asked her how she’d feel about me staying and she said yes. So… Auntie Pat took me on.” When Alicai was eventually reunited with her mum in London, she brought Mummy No 2 with her. “She’s still here! We moved around a lot… I need to go see her soon. She hasn’t had no kids … so I like to think that I’m, like, actually her child.”

Once she’d settled in the city, it took Alicai a whopping 17 years to go back and visit her family, as the Home Office kept her stranded in the UK. “Because I was Jamaican nationality, I was waiting so many years. I’m a Londoner but I didn’t wanna risk going back and them stopping me returning. Going back was 100% strange…A very emotional visit. ” Now she’s got her right to relocate, Alicai’s been racking up stamps in her passport. “I’m taking bare flights!” she laughs. “I’ve been back twice already.” I ask her about her most memorable trip so far. “Y’know what? I really enjoyed when I went to Israel, and going to Jerusalem. That was very deep for us, very spiritual. I was there with my two mangers and my tour manager, a really close friend of mine. It just felt like… You read the bible, you get told the stories, but then – oh my gosh, you’re in Jerusalem. It’s like, what? We’re where?”

When Alicai needs strength or support, she turns to religion. Wary of how people may see her from the outside – with the sound and aesthetic of a party girl – she’s think not everyone would expect her to be as devoted as she is. “I think if some people hear the way I talk, the conversations that I have, the stuff I know about religion… they’d ask me ‘how can you be a musician and do X on stage?’ or whatever. And for a long time I was battling with faith.” Now her belief in God is the foundation that helps her weather the more challenging aspects of her job. We talk briefly about the potential for beef in rap music and its sister genres – Alicai herself is a rapper as well as a singer and songwriter – and she explains how her belief helps her to act with humanity. “My religion tells me no to all of that,” she insists. “Wanting someone else to not be as successful as you… I’m totally against all of it. It takes people like me, to come out and say ‘this person’s hard’, to say the positive stuff, rather than coming out when it’s time to chat rubbish under something on social media. I feel my role is as a leader – to say, that’s not the right thing to do, when everyone else is being vindictive.”

“And if it’s a situation where someone’s putting that on me,” she says, “I will literally start praying there and then.” Alicai’s particularly keen to raise up other women who’re making similar moves to her. “A lot of the females who are on the rise or whatever, they’ve been through a lot already, whether that’s in the industry or elsewhere. And there’s this idea that you gotta take her down to be there. What?! That’s a bit selfish – so her family should starve?” It’s that classic bullshit notion of there not being ‘enough room at the top’, we agree: that there’s only a very limited number of spots in the upper echelons of the music industry for female artists. “The good thing is, at the moment, in America, it’s happening. I feel like the change is coming – it’s coming for us. The woman power is … is quite nice, y’know?”

One of the things that stands out about Alicai’s music is the big-hearted romance of it. “Gold” is about falling hard for a guy who beats out all other competition; “Killah” is a seduction anthem with big Kevin Lyttle vibes. Even “Rushing” – a song that’s technically about missing an ex – focuses on the indulgent fantasty of how a relationship used to be, rather than mourning a loss. “It’s just me keeping it real – a lot of girls wouldn’t come out and say ‘I was really into this guy, I was sprung on him’. I’m saying, ‘I was rushing for his love, I was calling him every single day’. ‘Cause that’s my character with every single person I’ve been with – it’s like I’ve been busy all my life, and I still find time to run down a man’s phone.” I mention that I’ve put the loved-up banger “Proper Paper” on several playlists for crushes. “Ahhh shit! I love that. It’s a romantic tune! Some people miss it… So much girls think it’s about money. I’m like, ‘Girl, listen to the verse, it’s not about money’. And then they’re like ‘Ohhh, that makes sense! It makes me feel in here! I love that.”

Over the last two years, dancehall has become the blueprint for pop music, with everyone from ginger overlord Ed Sheeran to squeaky clean tween crooner Shawn Mendes making bank on those trademark marimbas and hulky basslines. I ask Alicai how she feels about so many – primarily white – artists reaping rewards from Jamaica’s biggest musical export. “It’s funny, ’cause I think people expect me to hate ‘the fakes’ because I was born in Jamaica,” she says. “But no. Not at all. I feel like dancehall is a genre, just like reggae is a genre, like pop is a genre. I’d be irritated if I decided I wanted to do country music, and someone was telling me no. If anything, I’m happy someone as dope as Ed Sheeran is loving and embracing dancehall – as long as you point it out for what it is.” On that note, it’s mainly the erasure of the genre on Spotify that pisses her off. “Like, when they put it in the ‘tropical’ section instead of dancehall? Come on, call it what it is. Kinda similar to Lil Nas, really. It’s country – call it what it is. I definitely want my Jamaicans to be shelling.”

Alicai’s debut EP, The Red Room Intro, is slated for release imminently and she’s extra hype for it. I feel like I’m working my booty – my arse – off,” she giggles. “I’m really happy about this body of work – it’s fun, it’s vibey.” Always keen to let fate and faith carve out her path, she doesn’t want to trip up by moving too fast, despite the current pushing her forward. “I’m supposed to be exactly where I am right now,” she smiles. “And the more days go past, the more I appreciate what’s happening. So when I get to that stage of ‘the sky’s the limit’, I’m gonna be like … ‘Yo! I appreciate all of this.’ I’m building. That’s God’s timing.”

Alicai’s single “Rushing” featuring Kojo Funds is out now



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