Egyptian-Irish artist Malik Polo talks to VIPER about his pillars for success and how his upbringing, travelling, friends, family and perspective on life have inspired his music…
When we spoke by phone in the last days of June, the South East London-dwelling artist was making his way through the bustling London underground to get to a studio session. When the rising artist arrived at the comfort and safety of his destination, I immediately heard his voice relax in a space he truly felt at home; a self-made world where he expresses life’s ups and downs through music.
The title of Malik’s latest release, ‘Abundance’, is apt. Malik envisions a future filled with cascading abundance, determined to achieve more and do better in everything he does. The track is the second single released ahead of his upcoming EP ‘Echo Chambers’, released yesterday. ‘Abundance’ is an amplification of Malik’s introspective side. The song highlights how personal and social changes are ongoing, the record points to the Londoner’s vision of the past, present and future while outlining his foundations for success through three simple yet often convoluted necessities; love, happiness and money. Having written the track in November 2019 he placed it on the back burner and all but forgot about it. However, as lockdown came around, he returned to the track and found it to be more meaningful than ever. “It really put me on the verge of tears when I heard it again during lockdown. I felt like how could a song I made a while ago really mean so much?” he admits.
Malik may desire abundance, but there’s also a quiet distinction to his ambition. Through the juvenile playfulness he portrays in his videos, Malik exudes a certain poise that comes from the unique confluence of environment and craft. Since his 2019 debut album, ‘Jomo’,the rapper, songwriter, producer and label owner has created a steadily growing fanbase across the world. He delivers his bars with conviction and finesse, often laid over beats that are produced by close friends who share a similar vision when it comes to their art. The effect can be something that sounds like it could only happen naturally, nothing forced, yet sonically arresting.
Malik spent a part of his childhood in Dubai, the city best known for its luxury cars, expensive shopping malls and towering skyscrapers. He describes his experience living there like living in a bubble, “It’s a whole different world out there. I grew up with people who were born billionaires.” While he found space to grow into himself there, he also contended the idea that having money could correspond to happiness. “Sure, it’s cool to have money, you can do a lot to help people with it, which is why I want to have it personally. But at the same time, I also understand that it’s not everything and you need to have some love and happiness as well,” he says. Despite this contrasting upbringing to what many of us have experienced, he reminds us not to forget that behind the golden curtain of luxury living there are equally many young people who have constructed their own multiverses of creativity and art.
He left Dubai for England when he was 16 years old and unbeknownst to him this part of his life would shape his mentality in such a way that ensured he was destined to stand out as an artist. His upbringing established an eclectic ethos in Malik, as we spoke about his musical influences he cites Bob Marley and Cat Stevens to have had a particularly lasting impact. The significance of these artists is multifaceted as not only have they been a means to calm his mind as he went on to navigate adult life, but he also acknowledges the way in which they shaped his family. “Bob Marley basically taught my Egyptian family English. My dad was a Rasta, so there was a lot of that during my childhood. We also listened to Cat Stevens, because my dad then became a Muslim and when he converted he was into Cat Stevens for a bit.”
Now living in London, Malik is grateful to have seen so much of the world already. He describes his relationship to travelling saying, “It is so important to understand where you are in the world and to know more of the world outside than what you’ve experienced. To know what impact you can have on the world. So yes, I’m on travelling anytime, anywhere I’m there, book me!”
For Polo, making music is not a way of making ends meet but more a means to collect pieces of himself and express them through art, finding new ways to display them. “I feel like my music is my art, my baby. I don’t want to ever be in a position where I’m forcing something just for money.” He also feels that key to making good music is to work with people you trust, people who can align with your mentality in terms of ethos. Working alongside friends is one of many joys that Malik has discovered in his music career so far. “Working with friends is the biggest blessing ever because you’re both doing something you love,” he says, “I can produce, mix, master and write a whole track. But I just enjoy the process with other people way more, it’s so much more fun. It makes you feel like you just have someone backing it as well, you’re just not alone in it.”
Malik has spent the better part of the pandemic working on his latest EP in the UK after returning from a stint in the Middle East for a few months. The EP was brought to fruition with the help of his go-to producer Ibn Itaka. The 23-year-old has five solo singles and an album to his name so far and they all exemplify his light-hearted approach to living in a city that can be all too consuming at times, battling the never-ending rat race. His verses often unfold to be a speculative take on his own experiences in life, as if he were observing them from the perspective of his older self, a projection into his future mindset and how he will perceive his encounters and accomplishments so far.
First off, congratulations on your new EP ‘Echo Chambers’! Your single ‘Abundance’ has a really interesting narrative flow, it seems more reflective than some of your previous tracks. What was the reasoning behind this?
Being broke in lockdown, it was tough as a musician. The fact of being broke and reassessing money and value and yeah, just kind of had to restructure my priorities and what I considered important. Setting boundaries of what’s good for you and what’s good for other people.
Boundaries are always important. You talk about love, happiness and money, which seem to be kind of a perfect recipe for an abundant career as the song suggests. Would you describe those things to be your pillars for success?
Yeah, 100%. I grew up around a lot of money, so I wanted love more. I wasn’t really focused on money and stuff, then I understood that money does sometimes lead to happiness so I started focusing on that a little bit more. Now I feel like whatever you want, get it. It’s not everything, not everyone needs money, not everyone needs love. Don’t be ashamed to say, “look, I need the money.” “I need to get paid,” or to tell your friends that you’re not happy or whatever else it might be.
Sometimes you need one more than the other. You also mentioned in passing that you wrote the lyrics for ‘Abundance’ a couple of years ago, it’s interesting how it’s still relevant during lockdown.
Yes! I wrote them in November 2019 and then I really thought, “ah I don’t even think this is gonna make the cut for ‘Echo Chambers’. Then this year, being broke over lockdown I heard it again and I thought “This is so relevant.” I mean, I guess it’s a good thing right now, you want to be making music that lasts forever. This feeling, like the feeling of being broke or not feeling loved or feeling sad, is something everyone goes through. But during lockdown it really pushed me to finish the song and release it.
It sounds like it exaggerated those feelings…
It really put me on the verge of tears when I heard it again during lockdown. I felt like how could a song I made a while ago really mean so much? You know, a lot of death was going on during lockdown, which led to a lot of reflection.
It’s certainly more introspective like you say. Whereas ‘Change’ is a contrast, the video shows you enjoying London with two mates, just having fun. Is this an accurate representation of your approach to life in a city that can prove to be quite tough to live in?
Definitely man. Yeah, sometimes you just have to have a good time.
You took inspiration from the film La Haine in the visuals, was there any particular reason for that? Was that your choice or more the director?
It was more the director’s at first but I mean, we came up with the idea together. My mate Flora, she came to me originally with the idea and we executed it. I’ve been a fan of that film for a few years, t just made perfect sense and the two guys in this video, they’re my best friends. It’s not like we were trying to force anything. People are laughing because they were like, “it’s odd it’s like the English La Haine.” We didn’t try too hard, we do live similar lives to those characters, so it was cool that Flora noticed that.
You also mentioned that you grew up around money, in what way has that impacted your music would you say?
Well, I spent quite a bit of my childhood in Dubai and that’s the money that I was referring to. It’s a whole different world out there. I grew up with people who are born billionaires. These are people I’m still in contact with but I started to see how that didn’t make them happy and I kind of grew up with that mentality as well, that money doesn’t make you happy because all of these people who are billionaires around me are miserable. Sure, it’s cool to have money, you can do a lot to help people with it, which is why I want to have it personally. At the same time, I also understand that it’s not everything and you need to have some love and happiness as well. But definitely get that money so you can help people, that’s how I look at it.
What was sort of the first piece of music you heard and felt like you really connected with?
Definitely Bob Marley. My dad was a Rasta, so there was a lot of that during my childhood so there’s a lot of Bob playing. Cat Stevens, because my dad then became a Muslim so he converted and he was into Cat Stevens for a bit.
I like that… Would you consider those artists to be music heroes from your childhood?
Yeah definitely man, definitely. They calm me down.
I think Bob Marley and Cat Stevens could calm anyone down.
Oh, yeah, no question. Bob Marley basically taught my Egyptian family English, I’m not even English, but they just learnt it through listening.
Are there any particular genres that you go to when you need a little motivation or inspiration that’s like that?
I have some Palestinian friends and they’ve shown me some Arabic Disco. That stuff really inspires me. There’s a lot of Arabic Disco actually, it’s just not what you see here, in the Western world. You don’t hear about it. Again, there’s inspiration from a lot of my friends actually. A lot of my friends are musicians and they put me onto some really cool new stuff.
You seem to have been able to experience a lot of different countries in your life, even from what I can see in your videos. What’s your favourite thing about seeing or experiencing those new cultures?
I mean, you go to a new place and it’s new vibes, right? You really get a new vibe everywhere you go and the energy from people, the architecture, all of that. You suck it in and try and make stuff and produce something and reflect. Because you know when you’re away from home that’s the best place to reflect, get away from the status quo. Away from everything so you can look from the outside. Yeah, definitely travelling is my favourite thing other than music because I could go anywhere with just £50 and I know I’ll be fine, I’ll sleep on a beach if need be. But inspiration from travelling is definitely unbeatable.
I agree, I think it helps you grow as a person in ways that things like academic education just cannot achieve.
Yeah, definitely, it’s great growth. It is so important to understand where you are in the world and to know more of the world outside than what you’ve experienced. To know what impact you can have on the world. So yes, I’m on travelling anytime, anywhere I’m there, book me!
Just to be able to feel free to travel even if you leave with nothing in your pockets; pick up and go anywhere.
There’s love, there’s love in the world.
You’ve talked about your childhood in Dubai and how that’s influenced your music. How do you find reflecting on those experiences?
It’s a whole bubble there [Dubai]. It’s something else, it’s a very safe place. There’s a little scene going on over there as well. A lot of the world isn’t even tuned in to what’s going on in Dubai in terms of music, arts and culture. I’m proud to have grown up there. Like I said, it’s taught me a lot about money and currency and what that actually is.
Am I right in thinking you started your own label recently?
Yeah! Started my own label, YoutDem Records.
Has that changed how you perceive the music industry at all, being on the other side of things?
Definitely, a lot of my close friends have started their own labels too. They told me this is the way forward and they gave me some advice, they all said starting your own label is the beginning of your route to success which is essentially my exit plan. It takes the pressure off my music, that way I’m not just reliant on making money off my music. I’m not in a rush to make money off my own music, I can just work within the industry and do things that I truly enjoy within music, but not necessarily feel pressure to make money off my stuff. I feel like my music is my art, my baby. I don’t want to ever be in a position where I’m forcing something just for money. I haven’t got a big roster, got around three other artists and I’m just helping them produce and helping them release their music properly. Everything I’ve learned in the industry I just try and teach them as well. Free game for my people.
Would you say it gives you a bit more confidence or another level of understanding with what you’re doing within music as well?
For sure, it’s a community, we’re a crew. Us being so tight helps because now we all push each other and motivate each other to do better and be better. There is a sense of community as well within the label.
You’re heading to the studio now, would you usually arrive at the studio with an idea in your head already? Or do you feel it out when you’re there, see what’s happening, what the vibe is?
Usually I’ve got to get inspired by something. For example, if something happens in my life where I realise it has affected me emotionally or in some sort of way… I just head to the studio and start practising something, maybe start to write or create a beat. It’s usually as soon as something happens I suppose, I really only write when something happens in my life that inspires me and motivates me to want to do better. Maybe something that makes me hurt like breaking up with my girl. Whatever it is, whatever real-life inspiration I can take away from, that’s the process.
Do you often produce your own beats? Or do you prefer working with other people?
Yeah, I definitely enjoy working with other people. I mean, I can produce, mix, master, write a whole track. But I just enjoy the process with other people way more, it’s so much more fun. It makes you feel like you just have someone backing it as well, you’re just not alone in it. It’s cool doing stuff by yourself, I have tracks that’s just me but I do enjoy collaborative way more.
So what do you think helps to create that perfect track with someone? Is it a feeling of trust or commonality?
Yeah, definitely got to have a bit of both. You’ve got the trust, to be able to trust that they’re going to deliver and that you’re going to deliver and you also got to be on the same wave, the same understanding of what’s what. For me, personally, as well there’s the whole thing of morals – we have to be on the same page with what we believe in, not in everything but on a moral level, I think that’s important as well. I don’t care how talented you are, we gotta vibe naturally.
100%. You’ve got to have that connection to be able to create something that feels like a real collaboration.
Yeah, I’ve never really made a song with someone that’s not my friend as well.
Does working with friends add that bit of essence or extra something to your music?
Yeah working with friends is the biggest blessing ever because you’re both doing something you love. You don’t have to try too hard, just create a cool vibe. The best music comes out that way because you build this foundation of friendship like you said, through trust and commonality. The stronger the friendship, the better the song. For example, I have a friend that I’ve known for years and we both make music but we only made a song together recently, after years of knowing each other. It’s so good because we understand each other so well now. We never forced making music together straight away, we kind of just let it happen. The best songs come out like that.