Photographer Toby Coulson and stylist Alexandra Bickerdike spotlight the DJs, rappers, and broadcasters reimagining their practice amid pandemic
This year has forced us to rethink many of the demands of ordinary life as the spread of COVID halts marketplaces around the world, leaving us to consider who and what is “essential work.” It’s hard not to wonder: what, then, is “non-essential” work? Photographer Toby Coulson and stylist Alexandra Bickerdike cast nine London musicians and visual artists, all of whom have had to rethink, renew, and reify their practice. Their persistence and dedication to their craft, amidst global pestilence, is also a reminder: art and culture are essential.
Writer and recording artist John Glacier records music that emanates rainbows of emotions. Currently working on a debut solo project with London-based producer Vegyn, Glacier found pandemic befitting of her mercurial personality. “Honestly, there isn’t much I’ve had to adapt to, as I’ve always been a person who is very much in their own bubble and seldom works with others outside of the present,” she tells Document. “I’m terms of my creative process, I wouldn’t say much has changed, apart from how I decide to share my energy.”
Inspired by ‘70s jazz and West African sounds, London-based Sheila Maurice-Grey, a.k.a. Ms Maurice, infuses questions of identity and Blackness into her manifold artistic practices; she is a trumpeter, vocalist, and visual artist. A bandleader and jazz musician, Ms Maurice’s exploits have led her to perform with Solange and feature on British rapper Little Simz’s latest album. The pandemic, for her, has been marked by both positive and negative adaptations. “Gradually I started to get work but different types of work, some really fun things—livestream shows, starring in a Hollywood film.” Her advice on getting by? “Don’t be afraid to think outside the box. Don’t feel you have to do things the way you used to. Be willing to push yourself and challenge yourself in whatever way that means.”
Peter deGraft-Johnson is a writer, broadcaster, and hip-hop artist known as The Repeat Beat Poet. He is also an emcee with hip-hop label and jam night Imaginary Millions, a vocalist in cinematic jazz band Silvertongue, and host of the monthly spoken word radio show #TheRepeatBeatBroadcast on Threads Radio, as well as the Lunar Poetry Podcast, which is archived in the British Library. DeGraft-Johnson, whose income was partly dependent on live performances before the pandemic, has pivoted to online workshops and performances to help plug financial gaps in isolation. “I’ve leant back into my love for radio. It’s far from new, but throwing myself back into broadcasting and podcasting has been vital to maintaining connections with my audiences—reaching out to fellow Essex residents, to UK Poetry and hip-hop heads, and even the Ghanaian diaspora,” deGraft-Johnson says. Advice he would give to creatives who feel lost amidst global pandemic? “Redefine ‘greatness’ for yourself, in your own terms, outside of dominant cultures.”
Natty Wylah is a versatile rapper whose flow fluctuates from impassioned lyrical assaults to calming whispers. Social issues, identity, and ambition are recurring themes in the North West London rapper’s lyrics, and this is especially true amid pandemic. “This whole situation has boiled to the surface many existing problems with our planet, and accelerated new ways of existence that were bubbling over into society pre-pandemic,” he tells Document. While COVID has demolished the live show scene, Wylah is optimistically obdurate. “On a music front I’ve been working on becoming more autonomous as an artist—playing piano and writing the music as well as the lyrics,” he says. “The loss of our venues has been devastating, as connecting with people—whether through my music or meeting other people at different gigs—is integral to me as a social creature. We’re gonna have to find new ways to make it happen. Take it underground!”
Together, Evangeline Ling and David Wrench are musical duo Audiobooks, whose songs are (in their own words): “discombobulating observations over discomfiting oscillations.” Their melodies are synth-y, dance floor hits reminiscent of ‘80s French discotheque. For Audiobooks, pandemic has been a catalyst for innovation. “Lockdown started just as we were finishing off a body of work. It was 90% complete,” Wrench tells Document. “We had to find ways of working remotely. There were lines to replace in songs—songs that had been recorded on expensive microphones, but now the only way of replacing stuff was for Evangeline to sing into her iPhone and for me to figure [out] a way of [making] it sounding good.” For Ling, pandemic has slowed things down, offering a chance for reflection. “My life feels pretty similar to how it was,” she says. “I’ve always been a house mouse.” One thing she’s learned in isolation? “To live in the moment and be happy with your own company.”
With local radio stations locking up during COVID, music producer and radio host Leila Samir has had to record each radio show from home. “It’s different in a way because I’ve been used to recording live on the radio, and when that element is stripped off it isn’t the same. I am sure there are some ways to do it [effectively] live from home but I am too technologically inept,” Samir tells Document. Last year she released her debut EP No Music, traveling to her hometown to sample traditional Arabic wedding music into her elusive mixture of jazz, electronic, and post-punk. Social media has allowed Samir to stay connected, but she advises, “Remain in contact with the people you love and inspire you. Know you’re not alone, we are in this together and we’ll come out stronger.”
Born in Paris and raised in Brussels, Eden B is a DJ and producer influenced by hip hop. Eden B’s sets are defined by the high energy and obstreperous drum breaks of trap music. During the pandemic, Eden B has placed more emphasis on producing. “This isolated time has taken a toll on my DJing career, but as a producer it has given me way more time to work on my projects,” he tells Document of turning to social media to disseminate new music and mixes. “People need care and art needs people, especially in times of crisis!”
Connie Constance is an indie-rock renegade hailing from Watford. At the start of the year she released a new track “Monty Python” along with the news that she was launching her own record label, Jump The Fence. Constance soon followed that up with “James,” an anti-drug song that was accompanied by a self-directed video masterpiece, a new single “Costa del Margate” and her new EP The Butterfly Club. For Constance, a bright spot in this year’s turmoil has been a reinvigorated relationship with her craft. “Music has become more solitary, like how it was in the beginning for me,” she tells Document. “At the start, I found it hard to write. I just didn’t find anything inspiring. But now that I can see my friends and create new memories, all the stories I want to tell have come rushing back, and I guess I have more free time to write them down.” With fresh inspiration has come a spiritual renewal catalyzed by patience. “We are in a parallel universe,” she says. “The system tripped and switched us into another dimension…My advice would be to turn off your phone and meditate until further instructions.”
For experimental hip-hop artist Brian Nasty, COVID has greatly disrupted his process. “I don’t think I have adapted very well at all,” he says. “What I do is very community-based, it’s never been just about me but about everybody who’s able to make it down on a show night. And obviously there aren’t any of those.” Nasty, who raps and sings over self-produced dreamy synth pop tunes, has taken solace in his fans and prioritizing life’s demands. “There’s never any rush to put anything out despite how quickly you may think the industry is moving,” he tells Document. “If your supporters really support you, they’ll go wherever you take them. There’s many things going on in the world and it’s okay to tend to those you care about first.”
Talent Peter deGraft-Johnson, Ms Maurice, Leila Samir, Brian Nasty, Connie Constance, John Glacier, Natty Wylah, Audiobooks, Eden B. Hair Tommy Taylor. Make-up Andrea Gomez Anzola using Deciem. Casting Finnegan Travers. Stylist Assistants Hannah Reed, Mariya Bondareva, Stephanie Brown.