Get To Know Remi Kolawole, The Melbourne Rapper Who Is Leading By Positive Example

“People can’t feel exactly what you’ve been through, but what they can feel is the reality in what you say.”

So many of us are scared of change and we often get complacent — because stability is comfortable. But not for Aussie music artist, Remi Kolawole. Raised in Melbourne, the 28-year-old is all about forward momentum, acting as a constant catalyst for change throughout all of his endeavours — from championing diversity in his unapologetic lyrics, to his multi-disciplinary approach to creativity, and recently running a workshop for young people at Melbourne’s Real Youth Music Studios (RYMS), run by Drummond Youth Services in collaboration with Nike.

Their partnership, as part of the brand’s ALL FOR 1 campaign, is “the perfect situation,” says REMI, because of their mutual focus on community and driving change. With Nike’s own ethos of evolution and empowerment, and it’s iconic Air Force 1 serving as inspiration — Remi is joined by other Australian artists including singer/producer/DJ/radio-host Kristy Lee Peters and rapper Baker Boy, in the RYMS workshop series to teach local youth how to harness their own creativity.

It all adds up solidly in more than one way: Nike with RYMS, both harnessing hard work and a real feeling of getting through this life together. And Remi with the young creatives attending the workshops, who he sees himself as a creative mentor for — the one he wishes he had from a young age. And to capture just a bit of the magic, we sent Freya Esders — a long-time Oyster contributor (and major source of inspo!) — along to Remi’s recent RYMS workshop to get the good word on collaborating for change and setting people up for the success they’re willing to push for.

Alexandra Weiss: Hi Remi! Tell me, where did you grow up and where do you live now?
Remi Kolawole: I grew up in Southeast Melbourne, but for the last couple of years I’ve been living in the West, between Brunswick West and Ascot Vale.

And how would you describe what it is that you do?
I like to say I am an artist because I’m trying to do as many things as I can. I’ve been doing it for, like, 9 years now and I have no plan on stopping.

Do you think the idea of home — and community — have more to do with the place or the people? And when do you feel most at home?
For me, and definitely in the Australian context, I’d have to say people — it’s how you connect with each other. It doesn’t feel like proximity has much to do with community, because you can live close together and never see each other, or live far apart and see each other all the time. It’s easy to live in an isolated world. If we’re talking about how I feel at home — to be honest, I have to feel at home within myself. As a musician, and a person of colour, there are so many things about my life that I have to be comfortable about myself, regardless of anyone else.

Is there a good music scene where you are now?
Yeah, I mean, Melbourne is really blessed to have a lot of amazing musicians, and a lot of people that interact with each other.

How do you think your sense of home, and your sense of belonging, has grown and changed since working in the music industry?
I’ve learned to value the people in my life more and I’ve learned to love the people that hold me down. It’s hard to describe what a sense of belonging means to me because I don’t really want to belong to anyone or anything. I am trying to create places where I feel at home in many different ways, to be free in myself and my artistry.

It’s a balance — you don’t want to feel like you’re being held back by anything, but you also want to feel like you’re a part of something.
I definitely feel that way. I feel connected to music, you know, I feel connected to people… but I don’t really feel like I belong anywhere. But that idea of belonging — of being a part of something — I feel like that’s an eternal search. Especially when we’re talking about creativity, because what you’re a part of can change at any moment — the people in your life can change at any moment, your community can change at any moment. So, it’s a strange one for me. Maybe I haven’t found proper belonging yet.

"That idea of belonging — of being a part of something — I feel like that’s an eternal search."

Can you tell me about your work with Nike and ‘All For 1’and RYMS? How did the partnership begin?
We actually worked separately to begin with. I’d already been going into RYMS, which is a local community program I was invited to by my good friend. They have a program where young people can just show up and create. At that time, they were doing mostly hip-hop, a bit of rap, a bit of singing, a bit of poetry, a bit of beat-making, and they wanted me to come and just talk to the participants. I’ve always loved being around young people, so I was excited, but apprehensive as well, because they have nothing to fake, so they’ll tell you what and who you are within seconds. But we got cool pretty fast and it was awesome for me. Around the same time, Nike expressed interest in doing more with the community together. Within a few months, they had initiated a partnership with RYMS, through which myself and a bunch of other Australian artists could create workshops and different experiences for young people to feel out different parts of the industry or find different parts of themselves. It’s been a lot of fun.

Do you have any personal guidelines or beliefs behind the community work you’re doing?
One of the key things for me is that the community is actually at the centre. It’s vital, especially when we’re working with young people — that we’re listening to them and what their needs are. That’s what’s great about RYMS — they’re are all choosing to go to this program. My role there is as a guest, and if they feel like I can support them in any way, or that they need me in any way, then I’ll be there. As soon as it feels like it’s not right anymore, then I’m out. Nike has a similar mindset, which is great. We’re doing this over the course of a month, and we’re going to learn throughout the process. As long as intentions are pure, we are willing to listen, and we always have the community at the centre of what we are doing — we’re going to do an amazing job. And that’s what it’s felt like so far with RYMS and Nike.

It sounds like what’s important to you is that it feels natural or organic — that you’re the right person to be doing this job. Is there anything about the RYMS community you relate to from your own childhood, particularly from the perspective of music?
I relate to them because growing up, I was creative. The difference is, I didn’t have any creative outlets and I didn’t see any other people around me doing anything creative. So, if I can give that to anybody, that is something I will always try to do. And that’s also why this RYMS and Nike partnership is really the perfect situation.

KLP and Baker Boy are also participating in the workshops. What do each of you bring to the program?
Together with Nike, we’ve devised workshops that represent things that are real to us. Baker Boy is specifically talking about language, because maintaining traditional culture and holding onto traditional languages is very important. KLP is coming through to do songwriting in her workshop. And for me, I was just trying to show them as much as I could in a short amount of time about the industry, and all the different facets of it. We’ve had all types of creatives get involved, from stylists to songwriters… most importantly, people who really represent themselves in their work.

"One of the key things for me is that the community is actually at the centre. It's vital."

What’s the best piece of advice or most important thing you’ve taught young people through the workshop?
I haven’t taught this yet, and I think it’s something I’m trying to instil over time, but the lesson I really hope they can take away from the program is that there are two main things that I think people get from creativity: sense of self and style, and that you can escape. What the young people actually get out of it, though, is what they get out of it. We can never really control what a young person is going through during the day, what they might have been going through before they walked up to the program, how they may feel, what happened at school, what happened at home. What we — being myself, Nike and a bunch of local musicians — are all trying to do right now is just create the best opportunity for them to learn something, or take something, and get some value from it. Whether or not we achieve that, we’ll see. But that’s the intention.

What about you? What have you learned from the RYMS participants?
I have learned not to assume anything and always listen to what’s going on. With young people, you always want them to express themselves — whether they’re comfortable or uncomfortable — because they are probably the most in tune with what’s going on. So, if they seem upset, don’t just shrug it off like they don’t know what they’re talking about. They may not have the language yet to say what’s making them feel uncomfortable, but they are right and as the adult in the room, you need to listen and try to figure that out.

Looking specifically at Nike and the Air Force 1 as a symbol for hard work, what does hard work look like, and more importantly, feel like for you?
Hard work is when you’ve got no energy, you’re tired, and you know the only way to win is to keep moving and be consistent. So, you pick yourself up, outta all of that tiredness and do what you need to do.

What in the industry right now inspires you to keep pushing like that?
The people around me, and myself, and excitement in my own creativity. The older I get, the less I care, and I think that’s key for making the best art, or art that’s truest to you — caring less about how things are received. One thing I really miss is creativity for the sake of creativity, because that’s kind of how we all started. We just loved music, or we loved making art, or we loved making pictures, or whatever it was, and we did that, and when we added the industry and money to it, we got lost. Then, when we got older, we realise we just gotta pair the two.

What drives you to keep creating?
What drives me is the fact that I know if I worry about what people think, or how things are received, I’ll go insane. One of the biggest inspirations I have in my life right now is Missy Elliott. I’ve been going back through her discography, and Missy is the embodiment to me, of feeling. She’s in the music, she’s there, it’s about the sounds, it’s about her attitude, and who she is at her essence, at her most vulnerable. And it doesn’t even need to be incredibly descriptive — you don’t even need to understand what she’s saying. I mean, she literally flipped a whole hook backwards and we were all singing it like it was words! That’s the kind of creativity that inspires me, and just getting freaky with it, getting weird with it, and just doing it to do it.

"When it comes to rap, you gotta use your own stories and your own storytelling."

To that end, what are your rules for navigating the industry? Or, at least, how do you move throughout it?
By making sure that I involve my people whenever I can, always keeping my people centred and doing them right, and that I’m being transparent the way that I hope everyone else will be about money, about experience, about where I hope things will end up, and what people will need. It’s cool, because I’ve been able to exercise that too, through the RYMS program — just being able to bring onboard people that I love, and people that I think will be beneficial for the young people. But I also think it’s beneficial for them, as well, because they can see themselves in these young people. I’ve had people coming through and just sitting with me, and even if they didn’t take anything from it in the moment, just being able to reflect on that and see, ‘Oh damn, I did that,’ or ‘I can do that,’ and ‘That woman looks like me,’ you know what I mean?

In relation to your career, what’s the thing that scares you the most?
I think the thing that scares me the most is that I’ll lose myself and who I am in my soul, and the things that I care about. It’s quite easy to get derailed. Creatives are very sensitive people and they feel quite deeply —that’s why they can often tell the stories of the whole world in a couple of words. But that’s also why they are prone to getting lost, so I just hope that’s not me. I just hope I can continue to be the person that I am.

What subjects or themes do you find yourself returning to most often?
When it comes to rap, you gotta use your own stories and your own storytelling. But the beauty of rap is it’s also how people interpret these stories and a lot of the time it’s the people who aren’t being heard that are hearing themselves in your music and that’s what we all gravitate towards. People can’t feel exactly what you’ve been through, but what they can feel is the reality in what you say, and the depth in it.

Are you a writer who writes because you know what works and know what’s going to sound good to other people, or do you write because you have to — because it’s how you process your experiences? And what does making art do for you?
I would hope I’m the latter — that I’m someone who’s writing because I need to. But also, I can’t deny that as we get older, things start to change, and once you have an audience, and a better understanding of what people might think and how they might feel, you definitely start to cater to them a bit more. But also, the nature of the music that we make is that it doesn’t sound like anything that’s in the mainstream, so there’s only ever a certain amount of relatability I’m ever going to be able to put in as far as, you know, trending music or trending sounds and things like that. For me, writing really tells me where I’m at, especially when you’re writing from your own experiences. You can spend a week, a month, a year writing about the same thing over and over again because you’re caught up. It keeps you in touch with yourself — it’s like a neurotic meditation [laughs].

"People can’t feel exactly what you’ve been through, but what they can feel is the reality in what you say."

What do you hope people will take away from your music?
I hope they take something for themselves. I also hope they take the message of never assuming you know what someone else goes through, based on who they are or where they’re from. I think so many times, just because of the location of people, we can start to think certain things, But there are a lot of different people here with a lot of different, amazing views, and a lot of stories to tell that speak to the whole world. If I can begin to be that — even if I’m just someone who’s kicking down a few doors for someone more powerful to come through and tell more stories, then I’m happy.

What do you think is the best work you’ve ever made?
I think my best work is still yet to come.

Stills and motion: Freya Esders
Produced by Oyster in collaboration with Nike