the queer grime artist changing the scene
Karnage Kills is unequivocally femme and fearless.
Karnage Kills via Instagram
To celebrate the launch of Maison Margiela’s Mutiny fragrance, we’re spotlighting the voices and talents of bold iconoclasts. Through their creative endeavours and by speaking out on the issues that matter to them, this group are challenging archaic norms and exploring diverse concepts of identity.
For the past two years, queer grime artist Karnage Kills has been walking into rooms full of people that might fear him. But this London-hailing star isn’t a victim, nor does he ever want to be seen as such. He might be a solitary gay voice in a game dominated by heterosexual artists, but instead of ruminating on the battles he’s facing, he’s spinning his scene out of control by being unequivocally femme and fearless.
The poppy beats and cadence both feel familiar, but it’s hard to ignore that Karnage is saying things nobody has really said in that space before. Catchy rhymes about gay sex and sugar daddies are hardly commonplace in grime music, but with this guy paving a new path, its future might feel more provocative and inclusive than ever before.
In a genre that’s already pushing our socio-political boundaries, wouldn’t it be cool if it had a queer mainstream voice to make it even more progressive too? With Karnage, that might be possible. In this conversation with i-D, the 21-year-old star on the rise talks to us about the freeing experience of coming out, the mantra he lives by, and how putting a middle finger up to conformity is the best chance he’s got at shattering the mainstream.
Hi Karnage! I read somewhere that when you were younger you spent a long time suppressing your queer identity. At what point did you learn to say ‘fuck it’?
I grew up in Tottenham and my family has a lot of masculine men in it, so I did have to act a certain way growing up, but my mother made me a headstrong person. I decided I didn’t have to be like that anymore, so, when I left school, that pushed me to be who I wanted to be. I waited so that once I’d left, nobody could say anything to me!
Now you’re out, where did you feel the most free?
I feel free all the time! I get to be myself all the time. Doing music and meeting different people, I’ve learned that sometimes people can change the way they are depending on their setting, but I just try my best to always be myself and not let anybody influence my behaviour or my decisions. Creatively though, I feel most free on stage. It’s just a different feeling all together. It reminds me why I do what I do.
There's a double standard in play when it comes to grime: straight men are encouraged to be as explicit as they like about sexuality, whereas whenever queer people weigh in, people don’t want to hear about it, right?
Exactly! I’ve heard people say that nobody wants to hear about two men having sex, but then you hear straight guys [talk about their stuff], it’s crazy! For me, it was like nobody could ever tell me what I couldn’t do. I enjoy having sex and I like talking about it. And you’re gonna listen! And people love it because that’s what’s authentic to me.
I guess your existence in that heated space as a queer person is a proud example of how you’re a subversive artist.
See, I want to allow queer people to feel involved in grime, but also I want straight people to realise that queer people exist. That involves me being in a scenario with straight men and being queer, and telling them about queer issues and queer people. [Me being in those hetero-dominant spaces] is always more uncomfortable for them, because I’m so content with myself! People will go off what they’re taught at first though, and black men are taught to fear gay people. I think once people get to know me, they warm to me and open up to our culture, and the people too.
What’s been the most exhilarating moment of your career so far?
I’ve had a lot of amazing things happen to me: getting to be in the studio with Nadia Rose, who I’ve looked up to for so long; getting a management deal; performing live -- I’ve loved having those opportunities, but I think I’m still waiting for the real jaw-dropping moment.
What’s the mantra that you’re sticking by to find it?
Keep on pushing and don’t get complacent. I don’t think about [my successes] too much. I just put it to rest and move on. As soon as you start sitting back, you think that you don’t need to do anything else. Don’t address the success at first: just keep going until you can’t not see it.
So what’s the last thing you’d ever want to do to yourself in order to make it big in grime?
Change, but I know I’d never do that. It’s just not in my character. I feel the pressure to change, though -- always. If you want to be successful in this space you’re going to have to be a certain kind of person, but that’s never been an option for me. I’m not, and I couldn’t be if I tried.