Union Interview: Musician and LSE Sociology Student Franklyn Addo

Morwenna Jones 2 May 2014

Franklyn Addo is rapper and a third year sociology student at the London School of Economics and co-founder of the publication thisis2020.com.  He famously turned down a place at Cambridge in 2011 and will be releasing a new EP soon.

Despite having just left the chamber spell-bound with a performance of one of his songs, Franklyn Addo humbly accepts my praise as I greet him afterwards.  He, along with the other speakers has just managed to successfully convince the audience that rap-music deserves greater exploration.   “There was a problem with its framing in the first place” he says sincerely, “I’m glad just we recognised the intrinsic values of both and the values of teaching them alongside one another”. 

As Addo continues, it’s clear that he practises what he preaches and that he has a deep appreciation for both.  “Funnily enough, my love for literature came well before even my acknowledgement of rap” he tells me.  “I was just a fan of the English language.  Then, as I got older, I started appreciating music a bit more.  I realised that all of the literary devices that appeared in the books I was reading were translated into music.  At about 15, everyone was rapping or doing some sort of rapping about all sorts of nonsense but for me it just stuck.  I really embraced it as a way to express myself creatively”. 

He still writer fiction and articles and he doesn’t see these forms as at odds with the rap music he was creating in his late teens.  His closing speech, just five minutes before our interview, saw him quote a line from his 2010 song ‘William Wordsworth’, “Me and Shakespeare, we’re kind of alike”. “I hope it’s not seen as arrogant, me comparing myself to one of the greats”, he jokes nervously when I ask him about the lyrics.  “I don’t think, when I wrote it, that it was necessarily about me as a person.  It was more about me as representative of rappers and drawing a parallel between what we do, as rappers, and people like Shakespeare, revered by writers and poets.   I was just saying that rappers are like poets really”.

Addo was only 17 when he wrote the song.  He tells me how he’d just finished his GCSEs and was reading Macbeth and Othello.   “I just thought rappers and poets are like so why not?” His casual attitude disguising one of his principle concerns: education. 

Listening to him speak in the chamber, or converse with me now, it’s hard to imagine him as a trouble-making boy at school in Hackney.  “I could very easily have been expelled from school because I wasn’t the best-behaved child at one point”, he admits.  The fact that he wasn’t, he believes, is why he is where he is today.  “I may have just given up on it all and decided ‘I’m going to go down the park and rebel’.  I know that’s a very crude caricature of what happens but there’s truth in it” he concedes. 

Unsurprisingly, his experience has made him feel that our education system lets down those who are most vulnerable, something he believes is part of a wider social issues.   He talks about misbehaviour in schools.  “Me acting up a bit warrants expulsion somehow, but I think that sends a child even further in the opposite direction.  It’s about empathy but also about race and class”. 

Now, as an undergraduate and veteran of the rap-world, these problems account for the negative image of rap-music in the wider world.  “In a capitalist society in which there are issues like race and class, the more problematic subsidiaries of rap are the ones that are projected most” he explains.  The versions that aren’t making real criticisms of our experiences but that are promulgating negative stereotypes, fallacies and stories that aren’t productive to anyone and are in fact damaging to us as a culture.  That’s what’s propelled to the masses’.

This tendency for more aggressive and frequently misogynistic strains of rap music to be reported in the media, is sadly something he thinks damages rap's public image.  “Say I can secure a million pound contract if I talk about some guns, which is more likely than if I talk about something like learning”, he thoughtfully points out, “then there’s an internal conflict about whether I should conform.  I’d rather not do music than sell out”

“I’ve been quite disillusioned with the prospect rap presents of inciting real social change.  I know it’s possible but we need to ask how practical that is”, he continues.  This isn’t the only thing that’s changed in his outlook.  I ask how he feels, re-reading his article in the Guardian from 2011 entitled ‘Why I turned down a place at Cambridge’ in which he argues that Cambridge is ‘meritocratic’ and ‘non-discriminatory’.  He makes a face.  “I look back on that and cringe, I can’t believe I was so naïve, but I guess I was young and impressionable.” 

He describes how he recently read a story about him in which the write, a fan of his, criticised his youthful outlook on discrimination and meritocracies.  After reading the piece, Addo contacted the writer to thank him and inform him of his new perspective.  Modestly, he acknowledges that his opinion has developed significantly.  “My view has changed a lot, clear from the way that I speak.  Now, I understand the discrimination that some people face.”

He smiles genuinely and I regret that I’m down to my last question.  After all, there’s so much more to ask him, about his involvement in the website thisis2020.com, his work as a journalist and, of course, more about his music.  I take a deep breath. 

“If you could be any mythological creature, what would you be?”

He pauses for thought for the first time in our interview.  “Are sphinxes mythological?” He asks me.  I nod.  “Yeah then, a sphinx.  They’re like a more reified version of a lion.”

You can watch Franklyn's rap 'William Wordsworth' on Youtube here.