Jazz/Hip Hop artist Barney Artist is on an upward trajectory. Stepping on to the UK music scene in 2014, Barney has consistently raised the bar with his unique sound. With 5 projects to his name including his latest project Lofi Lockdown: The Re-Issue, Barney shows no signs of slowing down. In this conversation, we discuss his Ugandan background, his latest body of work, and his recent partnership with Reebok for its Club C Legacy Revenge SS21 campaign, all while reflecting on his growth as an artist and his definition of success.
How did the name Barney Artist come about?
I wish I had a cool story. You know how some people say “Yeah I was running from the police and a helicopter came” but I don’t. My name is Barney. Back in the day, I don’t know if you remember on Twitter musicians used to have the word ‘artist’ at the end of their name and so, I did that, and it kind of stuck. Obviously, if you type ‘Barney’ into YouTube, what comes up? The purple dinosaur, right? So, Barney Artist helps to separate me from that. As I’ve been doing this for a while, the ‘Artist’ thing is more so like the artistry of what I’m doing and the ‘Barney’ bit- my mum, little sisters, and friends all call me Barney so, it’s kind of like being accountable for anything I say or do- it’s a real reflection of me. It’s a way to get to know me on a personal level.
So, Barney is your full name and not a nickname?
My name is Barnabas and I’m from East (London) so you can imagine how people used to mock my name in school. So, Barney was the shorter version of it. Everyone calls me Barney.
Touching on what you just said about being from East London, what was it like growing up in East London?
I grew up in East Ham and then moved to Forest Gate when I was 14. East (London) is such a melting pot- especially on the outskirts as East Ham is quite close to Essex. It’s a lot of different cultures, a lot of music, a lot of food. It is quite a poor area but, I suppose we made up for that with community and growing and stuff. I had a great childhood. I think it was a lot of learning lessons, a lot of trying to figure out where I fit in. Being a black man in general, especially in those areas comes with a lot of peer pressure and getting mixed with the wrong crowd. It’s kind of just about figuring out that I was a good boy and should keep being a good boy.
Touching on what you said about staying away from the wrong people, what did you do to make sure you didn’t get involved with the wrong people? Was it playing sports? Was it actually deciding that you wanted to make music? Or was it just staying away completely?
I’m really fortunate. My best friend is a guy I met when I was 3 years old, his name is Alfa (goes by the name Alfa Mist) and he started playing piano at 17. He started making these jazzy instrumentals and I just started rapping. When I first started, I was awful and I was awful for a very long time. That really did help me as I loved the idea of telling stories and kind of focusing on that. I think in terms of avoiding the wrong crowd, it’s easy to demonize these boys and what they’re getting involved with but, I felt like it could just be bad decisions. The person at the end of your street might be getting involved in something and feels like he has to figure it out. For me, I definitely dibbled and dabbled in that life but I never found peace in it. It was definitely having Alfa and having music that helped me stay away.
I found out that you’re Ugandan and I’ve seen that you represent that in your work from time to time as well. Why is that so important for you to do?
Great question! I think the older I get, the more I realize that I have an affinity to where I’m from. For me, in school, being African wasn’t cool and I remember what that felt like. Everyone was Jamaican. As I’m getting older, I’m really into my roots, where I’m from, and what that means but also hopefully inspiring some other kids that might be Ugandan. They might look up and think “That guy is doing what I’m doing! That’s really cool!” I get a lot of messages from people who find out I’m Ugandan saying “Oh my God, I’m Ugandan!” I put up my Ugandan flag when I do shows, it’s always at the back where the decks are. It’s a great way to pay homage to my parents, my grandparents, and my family as a whole. I’m proud of it!
As a Black Brit, I feel like our experience is so unique because some people might not think we are British but, when you go back home, you’re not Nigerian or you’re not Ugandan enough. So how have you managed to embrace your culture? I’m guessing one of the ways must have been through the music and food but, how did you navigate that by yourself and come to the decision that you really wanted to stay in touch with your culture?
I think being a part of the diaspora is quite an interesting experience in general and I think that it’s a cocktail of things. The way that I speak and the way that I act, London is a massive part of that but also, my heritage is a massive part of that. When it comes to food and all that stuff, you navigate it by a lot of the time finding other people that are a similar way to that. Alfa (Mist)- the friend I was telling you about- is Ugandan. My other friend George the Poet is Ugandan too. So, all these people that I’m meeting are Ugandan. Daniel Kaluuya is Ugandan. It kind of builds this identity, you want to know more about it because you want to understand what makes you tick, why do you have certain inclinations. I think it’s more so that. The more you know about your past, the more you’re able to know about your future.
Definitely! So, moving onto the music side of things, are there any African artists you see yourself linking up with?
That’s a good question! I think if I do link up with an African artist, it would have to be me going humbly in the sense of me trying to learn. I feel like (in the best way possible) being a part of the diaspora and being from London, you don’t want to appropriate what they’re doing, you want to give it the respect it is due. In the same way, if someone came and just started dabbling in rap music or dabbling in Jazz/rap music, I might feel a certain way. If I do connect with someone, I wouldn’t want it to be gimmicky. I would want it to be a real, authentic thing. I’m definitely open to looking and working but, I would have to go there and connect on a proper level for it to work.
Do you listen to any African artists at all?
Yeah, I do! It’s the obvious ones, you know the artists that cross over here. I think that’s where I need to do more homework. To find out the niche artists bubbling underground but, I suppose a lot of the time in Africa especially, the live shows, the circuits, the physical is still quite big over there so, artists that are probably popping in Uganda I might not know specifically because it’s not translating as quickly. Places like Nigeria and Ghana are savvier with it and they’re linking up with people. So, that’s why you’re hearing a Burna or a Wiz or Davido because they’re out there. On my side, I need to kind of be underground and just figure out what artists are out there.
When did music come into the picture for you?
My mum played music in the house. What I realize when other artists answer this question they say “Yeah my mum was playing Nas and Erykah Badu in the house and it was so deep.” No, not for me. We were listening to S Club 7, Shania Twain, ABBA- that was what I was on. My favorite rapper was Will Smith, I absolutely loved him. That was my entry into music. I never really had the passion to become a rapper or a musician because it wasn’t really what I saw myself doing. I was more interested in Drama and stuff like that. Music was just for me to listen to. In the East, Grime was popping off. I tried Grime and was dreadful at it! Alfa started playing piano and I find out about this Jazz thing. I went back and looked at past artists and that’s kind of what shaped my musical journey.
Talking about your influences, who influenced your sound early on?
I have five artists that I hope you’ll be able to hear within my music: Tribe Called Quest, The Roots, Ghost Poet, Kano, and Kendrick Lamar. Those are the five I look to all for different reasons. All of them have an element of storytelling. With The Roots, it’s the instrumentation, it’s the music and the vibe. With Tribe (Called Quest) it’s obviously the vibe, the cadences, the flows. Kano is from East Ham. His storytelling has been a part of my life for a very long time. With Ghost Poet, it’s the singing and melancholic vibe and with Kendrick, obviously, it’s Kendrick Lamar. Those are the five artists that I am very influenced by and hopefully, you can see that in my music.
I definitely hear the influence! Your music is a cool blend of Jazz and nostalgic 90s Hip Hop. Who inspired your sound and has anyone in particular inspired your songwriting?
I think writing is really interesting and it’s something I kind of pride myself on. I really enjoy the idea of it and not just in its musical form. I love the idea of scripts and TV shows and all that stuff so it ranges. I think Kendrick is someone that I really took to. I remember first hearing Kendrick Lamar and thinking “Oh my God! What is he doing?” It was the idea of dropping gems in things and going back to listen to it again and trying to figure out what things mean. I remember playing To Pimp A Butterfly for the first time and having no clue what was happening but loving it. There’s a guy called Ramy Youssef who is a TV show writer and I love that. I love how Donald Glover (Childish Gambino) writes his shows. I am fascinated with words. You know, how do you curve words? How do you make words feel and sound? What kind of emotions do they make the audience feel when they hear it? That’s what inspires my writing.
So, I want to talk about one of your songs in particular. I went back, listened to your music, and tried to take everything in. One of the songs that really stand out to me every time I listen to it is Pure Silence from your Bikes Are Bikes EP which is a very heartfelt song. How did you feel about being so open and transparent? Were you afraid to be transparent?
I’m never worried because I always forget that people are going to hear it. Sometimes I don’t know how I feel and I could write and then I go “Oh, that’s how I feel. I didn’t even realize I felt that way.” Sometimes, it just kind of comes out and you realize how you actually feel about a situation. That was what happened with Pure Silence. I was able to draw from an experience and make it into music. It’s not necessarily an “I’m going to write about this thing that’s happening right now” sometimes, the pen flows and the emotions come out.
With some of the artists I’ve spoken to, they say it is one thing to write and record a song but then it’s another thing to perform it live because all of those emotions hit you at once. Has that ever happened to you with any song you’ve performed?
As you probably can gather, I’m quite emotional and one of the good things about the kind of relationship I have with fans and audiences is the fact that I never lie. My worst fear is that I’m walking down Forest Gate high street, on my way to buy plum tomatoes for my mum and someone goes “You’re that gangster rapper that said you’re going to kill everyone. Why are you buying plum tomatoes?” I want to be able to walk, have people know who I am and not have to worry about lying. Even with the live shows, it’s very much an honest and open space. I see the fans in the crowd as my friends. So yeah, I do get emotional at shows and stuff but, I think it’s to hopefully touch someone in the crowd and hope they resonate with what I’m saying.
I think it is so important for artists to be transparent because they are humans too and people tend to forget that.
100%. I worked in retail for a very long time and I was doing that while making music. People would come in and recognize me but, it wouldn’t be awkward because I was telling everyone on social media that I was working in retail. I don’t shy away from it. I’m very honest and open so there are no surprises. That is the kind of connection you want with people because everyone is a human being at the end of the day.
2020 was a really successful year for you. Congratulations on all of your success! Along with releasing Dark & Cold and Hilary, your album Lofi Lockdown: The Re-Issue came out in August. What is that album about for anyone who hasn’t heard it yet?
It’s basically a mixtape. Lockdown happened and I got a microphone. I’ve never recorded myself before either. I made the whole project in 7 days. It is basically a snapshot of what was going on with me and how I was feeling during the first lockdown. There was no real pressure and that’s kind of what it was about.
You said you recorded the project in a week. How did this project come together so quickly especially when you had features and, what was the creative process like for that?
It was insane. It was not only me doing that, it was also me adjusting to lockdown. It’s mad when I think about last year and how there are chunks of time I don’t even remember. It was definitely insane. It was me sleeping really late, waking up really early, getting things sent to me, and figuring out how to mix and master. I mixed and mastered this project by myself. I watched a lot of YouTube tutorials so I could learn how to do it. An artist didn’t like the way they sounded on a song so I had to go back and change it. It was hectic but amazing at the same time. It was such a freeing experience.
Going through your albums and EPs through the years, it’s very clear that you’ve grown as an artist. Where were you mentally when you recorded Bespoke and what’s changed now after dropping Lofi Lockdown?
When I recorded Bespoke, I was just starting University. I dropped out after a year though. I definitely didn’t understand music too well, I was quite insecure about music. I didn’t really know who I was specifically yet. I was just trying to figure it out, I was really young. Lofi Lockdown is kind of like the fully formed Barney. It is me painting a picture, it’s very artistic and free. It’s a representation of seeing all the skillsets that I’ve learned along the way. I think the main difference is growth.
So, you’ve dropped 5 projects in your career so far. In this market (UK), it doesn’t seem like projects are as appreciated. Sometimes, artists might not feel like they want to drop projects anymore or they just want to drop a string of singles instead. How have you stayed motivated to drop projects continuously over the years?
I think it’s just in my system, to be honest. I’m an album artist, I like making bodies of work and I like how that feels. I just don’t know any different.
You’re partnering with Reebok on their Club C Legacy Revenge Spring/Summer 21 campaign. How did this partnership come about?
They reached out! They said they liked what I stand for and what I’m about. They give artists the opportunity to speak out about their ups and downs and how hectic life can be. I think they just resonated with me. I’ve been a big fan of Reebok for a very long time you know, I had the Reebok Classics. Being one of the faces for this trainer is a very big deal for me. My mum is very excited and she thinks she’s getting free trainers!
Something that I’ve noticed about Reebok is that they are a brand known for staying true to what they know while staying really current, trendy, and being able to stay in tune with what’s going on in the culture too. Was it important for you to partner with a brand that aligns with your values and who you are?
100%. The audience can tell when it is not authentic. You have to have some sort of level of respect there because people can see when there’s no respect. I think with Reebok especially, the way they approached us, the way they explained what they wanted us to do and how they wanted the film to really resonate with everything I was doing brand-wise was really special. It is super important to have those ethics when it comes to working with companies. I’m really excited about this.
You touched on the fact that you worked in a 9-5 and having to balance both music and work. This legacy campaign is about writing your legacy. As you are part of this campaign, what does legacy mean to you?
My aim is, someone is going to ask you what you did today and you’re going to tell them that you spoke to me. That person may then ask you what I’m like and you say “Oh, he’s lovely!” That’s what I think for me is a big deal. Legacy is what people remember you for and what you stand for. Even if you’re not around, people have the same opinion about you. I think my legacy is all about being open and honest, caring about people, and propelling that forward. That’s what legacy is to me.
How have you been able to find calm in all of the chaos? Working retail at one point to making music at night, after your shifts. How have you been able to do both of those things while trying to focus on building your legacy?
I think I had to come to terms with the idea of success and that a lot of the time people perceive success from what they see on social media. For me, success is being able to eat food, having a roof over my head, and being able to do what I love- that is my success. Once I let go of the tropes and idealistic versions of success, things started to happen for me. I don’t separate myself from things. I’m a human being at the end of the day and I think me working retail and me rapping is still all me. I think that’s where I find peace and comfort to know that I’m not just a rapper, I am a human being that happens to do these things. That really helped my mindset and focus.
You said social media can sometimes make you want what someone else has. As much as you said you had to look away from it, that can be very hard especially as an artist. Seeing a new artist come into the game and all of a sudden, they are the biggest star can really affect your confidence. How did you manage that, encourage yourself to keep going, and to stay focused on your journey?
I think it’s exactly what you’ve said especially because I’ve been doing this for a while now. I’ve had friends that have been successful and are massive. I’ve seen the downside to that and how cruel things can be. I think understanding that it’s all smoke and mirrors is really important. I don’t really want that; I don’t want to necessarily be the biggest thing ever. Also, when someone comes into the game and they skyrocket, it is only one way after that. They plummet and I don’t want to plummet. That’s what kept me going. When I was younger, it was difficult to look around and see what other people were doing. That’s no longer a thing, I’m 29 and I have been doing this for a while now. I’ve seen people come and go but, by the grace of God, I’ve been able to keep going.
Clearly, it’s working because Reebok reached out to you so, you are definitely doing something right! Looking back on your journey, how would you define your success so far?
I have fan-like tendencies. I am the guy in the front row of a concert, screaming every lyric to an artists’ songs. I’m so happy that I have a fan base that cares about me and that we have a really good relationship. I also understand that if they are excited about anything I do, we have a connection. I’ve always wanted to have that relationship with a fan base. I always said that if I was to ever have fans, I would know how to treat them. It is really exciting to me that I have that. They want to hear the music and come to the shows- that’s great for me! That’s my idea of success. Also, my mum is proud. She gets things wrong sometimes too. I had a show at the O2 Islington and my mum told everyone that she works with that I was performing at the O2 arena! She’s a massive supporter and that’s what I like to see.
I think that’s the aim for most people- doing what you love and living off it. Your latest single Hilary features Samm Henshaw and RESPONS. How did this collaboration come about?
RESPONS actually reached out to me and was like “Hey, I’ve got this song with me and Samm (Henshaw).” I’m really cool with Samm, I supported him at his London show a couple of years ago and that was great. It was really easy and it was during lockdown. I recorded myself and sent it in. It was a really lovely, organic collaboration with talented guys. It’s a nice feel-good song to end the last year.
You’ve got the Reebok partnership coming up, you’ve got your album Lofi Lockdown: The Re-Issue which I’m sure you’re still pushing and you’ve got Hilary out too. What should we look forward to from you this year?
I have a new single out called Blowin’ Steam from a new project that I worked on during lockdown. Loads more music and loads of cool things like podcasts and writing. Just more of the same! Also, live shows! I can’t wait to perform in front of people again. It’s been over a year. That’s what people can expect from me. Just more vibes! Hopefully, we will be in the sun and not locked up again!