Warm and bubbly by nature, the first thing you notice about Alicai Harley beyond her bold fashion choices, is the singer’s infectious personality; something that is easily identifiable within her work.
While many may recognise her as a prominent name within UK Dancehall, what is less known perhaps is the fact that she began her journey as a teen rapper on London’s open mic circuit.
After spending several developing her craft as both a singer and rapper Alicai released breakout single Gold in 2017. What started out as a social media challenge to sharpen her writing skills and boost her online presence would go on to spark the moment that altered the trajectory of her career leading to the signing with Polydor/Brukout Records, a video on MTV, and a steady rise to the forefront of the UK Dancehall scene.
Fast-forwarding to the present the singer has exchanged her iconic pink hair for luscious black waves, with this new chapter in her journey speaking to Alicai’s artistic growth and transition into womanhood.
As someone who has always straddled two worlds, a tight knitted Dancehall community within the British Isles and the support of her countrymen back home in Jamaica – her debut EP – aptly titled Yard Gyal Inna Britain beautifully captures the British experience from the lense of the African-Caribbean diaspora.
Finally, ready to share that story with the world and Alicai sat down for a conversation with 1883 to reflect on her journey so far and what this new era holds for the future.
While you’ve been making music for a very long time, many would consider Gold to be your breakout single. At the time of writing it, did you have any idea it would be as big as it was?
(pause) Yes…it was so crazy! I remember after I’d written it, I was sitting downstairs in my living room and it was just me and God having a moment, just giving God thanks. I’d seen it in my head, I had a real moment where my eyes were closed and I’m seeing myself performing…I get a lot of these moments. This was before I had even recorded it. In that moment I wouldn’t say I knew how big it was going to be or how well it was going to do, but I knew it was going to be the record to take me into that transition I need to go into. [I knew] It would introduce me to so many people and open up so many doors. So, I just ran with it and kept God in everything I was doing.
I also wanted to talk about shooting Naah Done in Jamaica. What was it like having the opportunity to back home and create that video?
That was the first time I’d been back to Jamaica in 17 years. That was the most impactful, nerve-wracking moment. It was a really emotional moment. I shared it online, but I don’t think everyone understood how emotional it was being that we’d migrated – me and my mum – when I was five. I couldn’t go back home because of immigration. You could go back and then you’d be stuck there after being here for how many years trying to create a better life. It’s a constant thing that people who migrate to a different country have…that frustration. My dad had passed, and my grandparents had passed, and I couldn’t go back for the funerals. It was a build-up of so many emotions. Even though I was grateful I got a chance to go back to shoot this video, I didn’t even say this to anyone at the time, it weighed heavy on me because I got to shoot the video, but I didn’t get to go back for my dad’s funeral. So, it was a really emotional time.
Part of the connection to the country is obviously your heritage but as you’ve just mentioned also your father. Does it feel like you get to bring a piece of him with you on the journey by incorporating elements of home within your work?
100%. I remember when I decided on changing my name to Alicai Harley and making sure I kept my father’s last name. That was a vital part of it…the Harley. I carry my father. Going back to what we were talking about I feel like every time I’m there [in Jamaica] and I’m doing radio interviews and speak to my sister and we have those conversations about Dad I feel like I’ve made him proud.
There is another video I want to get into before we discuss the EP which is, Proper Paper. Specifically, that semi-viral moment pre-release when everyone thought you got married. I bet that was fun to watch unfold?
(Laughs) It was sooo fun to watch and let me tell you why. I said “God I’m not lying. I’m not going to tell everyone I’m married and then say it was a joke”. So, what I did was tell my friends that “I am going to post this picture saying thank you to everyone and you leave the rest up to you.” And that was it. I think it started with just three of them commenting saying congratulations and from there it was like a domino effect. it’s like marketing genius…somebody give me a job!
Okay so let’s get to the reason that we’re actually here your debut EP. It’s been 4 years since your breakout single and clearly something you’ve taken your time to release. What’s been going through your mind as you’ve been putting it together and What about now makes you feel like you’re finally ready to share it with the world?
The time that the EP is coming out is God’s will. So many times, the EP was finished and ready to go out and it was just not his will. I guess he’s just there doing and undoing stuff in the background and I just had to say, “Let your will be done”. In terms of the process, it’s been a journey creating a body of work because you know this is what you’ve consciously created and there’s so much pressure that comes with that. It’s so hard to narrow down songs. In terms of the end result…beautiful. I don’t regret how long it took because I feel like it’s a timeless body of work that I am going to be proud of forever and that’s what I really wanted.
There’s a single on the EP with an Ashanti sample called I Just Wanna Know which sees you dabble in R&B an area which maybe people didn’t expect you to venture off into, I’d love to hear more about that?
This is the thing, my love for R&B is probably the first love. it was my first love in music. Before rap before anything else it was Destiny’s Child. They were giving me life. I can confidently say that I really do enjoy writing R&B music. I was always listening to Dancehall when I was younger but in terms of what I was writing it was R&B music. It’s the easiest thing for me to do, it’s what comes naturally.
One thing about you is that you’re going to serve us a stunning visual with incredible styling which is definitely the case here- where does the inspiration come from?
First of all, I’d say Dancehall queen – as in the real Dancehall queen Carlene Smith The Jamaican era of full-on 90s Dancehall. I think It’s an era I’ll always be in love with. Just the look of the 80s and 90s in Jamaica, how people dressed to go to dances and parties is something I’ve always been in love with, which is something I definitely embrace in my look and my style. And everything else I just see things and I play around with. My stylist Guido Ghatti be putting me in some crazy stuff too and we just go with it.
Will there be any accompanying visuals for the EP?
Yes! On the visuals for the next single I worked with Rebekah Bird who I also worked with for I Just Wanna know. Amazing amazing director. Our chemistry is phenomenal, and I feel like you really get to see that in this video. You get me and you get the fun vibe. This video is going to make people feel joy and that’s what I live for, to put joy in everyone’s hearts.
The EP cover art is a remake of Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman, which I know is going to make a lot of people feel very nostalgic. What was your reason for doing this and what does that book mean to you?
I felt like when I was growing up so many of the odds were against me, but that book always stuck with me. It touches on sexism with her not being able to be Peter Pan because she was girl and racism, with one of her classmates saying she couldn’t be Peter Pan because she was black. After reading the book I felt so empowered even until today that book often comes back to me. I remember when Gold first popped off people always used to say “You’re so talented…it’s a shame you won’t get to x point because you’re a Black girl”. Because of my faith when people speak [negatively] on my life I kind of draw the line and say, “We’re not having this conversation anymore”. I’m here to make a change so I use that book to remind me that there are no chains on my feet – the sky is the limit! The talent is what is going to see me through, like in the book, she was the best Peter Pan.
I knew that the cover had to be me. I had to put myself in the perspective of Grace. What I want people to take away from the EP is that a lot of us are Grace.
I saw that you actually got a chance to meet Mary Hoffman, what was that experience like?
I met her two years ago. She came down on world book day which was dope and there’s a whole interview where we interview each other, and I got to understand why she created the book as well and tell her how grateful I was that she created the book. She touched a lot of people. I feel like we need more books like that. I hope my kids and kids in the future get more books like that where they’re able to see a Black girl on the cover often and getting to see messages like that especially at a time like this. The way it was done was amazing too. There’s a lesson for everyone in books like these. It’s a book for everyone.
Before we go, you’ve got to tell me about this rock song you hope to one day write?
You know what’s crazy if I ever do it, I think it will be Gospel Rock. In all honesty, I don’t ever stop myself from doing any genre. I remember I had the cheek to say I wouldn’t do a Soca song back in the day and then Naah Done happened which is clearly influenced by Soca, so I had to eat my words. So, I don’t like putting a cap on anything. I would love to write a rock song. It’s definitely something that’s on my list. Can you imagine being able to do it and to execute it well? I’ve got to do my research on the genre first, but this is a challenge, I’d love to do it.
Alicai’s debut EP ‘Yard Gyal Inna Britain’ it out now
interview by Ray Sang