From Instagram to Reality TV and Parliament – Could Cassie Rytz Be The Crossover Female Grime Artist We’ve Been Waiting For?
Interview and words: Reshma Madhi
Photography: Joyal Antony Dominic
Stylist: Milam Hinyu & Chaniel Abwola
Art Director: Daniella D'aiuto
18 year-old Cassie Rytz is worth paying attention to. Just two years ago, she was a school kid freestyling on her Instagram account before her straight-to-point lyrical style and fiery delivery was getting picked up by Reprezent Radio and Rinse FM. Not long after she was taking part in BBC 1Xtra Sessions with DJ/Producer Sir Spyro. More recently, Cassie grabbed the spotlight when she took part in BBC Three scripted documentary series Gal Dem Sugar, which followed five young MCs as they attempted to break into the industry and shone a spotlight on the struggles female grime artists face.
She is also involved in the Girls of Grime collective, started by East Londoner Shakira Walters, which aims to provide a platform for women in music and has also spoken before Parliament on supporting young people in local communities. With influences of bashment and dancehall in her sound, it’s clear that Cassie says it how it is and is bold in her ambitions, not just for herself but also to help influence positive changes for others. Her recently released single ‘Shell’ has had great reception, reflecting the growing acclaim she is already receiving for her raw talent and meaningful lyrics. More recently, she released the track ‘5 Hours of Doom’, which she got to showcase at her festival debut in Germany, where she got to perform alongside artists like Skepta and Yxng Bane at The Splash! Festival.
Reform the Funk had a chance to catch up with her during a photoshoot, where she spoke as frankly in person as she does when freestyling, about where she’s at both personally and professionally.
She’s recently got into a new relationship and feels this has helped anchor her during what is becoming an increasingly busy work schedule. Cassie feels she’s in a better place in her love life, having expressed how she has been mistreated by previous partners in her music. She’s confident it won’t be the case this time round. “It feels different now. To the point that it scares me. I knew he was a nice guy as there ain’t no one else treating me how he would. I’m so lucky we met. It’s still a bit scary and different though.” She admits the relationship might even be influencing her music. “The other day in the studio, all I could think of was words related to him.” She joked that she would probably be bringing out love songs. Could some of that fiery spitting mellow out in future tracks?
Her back story is that of the school kid that didn’t feel they fitted in. Cassie wasn’t academic, was being bullied and also mistreated by a boy. She channelled that anger and hurt into grime and in turn, social media became the outlet to showcase it. As a teen, she mostly listened to mainstream music or grew up listening to what her family played at home – reggae, Jamaican songs, church music and only accessed grime through what her older brother would play (she didn’t have a computer growing up, so only got a chance to listen to underground sounds when her brother showed her tracks on his phone). “I tried to write songs at the time, then thought, no, I need to rap. The stuff that came out was harsh stuff. I wasn’t trying to hurt, or I was, but not literally. I was just saying those things and in order to big myself up because I knew I’m nice and the shit, not to be big headed but I’m trying to prove that.” So far, her self-assurance hasn’t been wrong. Grime helped Cassie find her voice and Instagram became a successful platform for this, with her freestyle challenges gaining hundreds of views. It was about her own experiences and pain but in turn it was also a story for others going through similar things – a show of support for fellow young women
She reflects on how back at school, she was hanging around with those she thought were friends but weren’t really and how she felt she had to change her behaviour to fit in with them. She left school at 16 to go to college, where she began mixing with a new crowd. “It was a better vibe. I was so shy, so new to it but my confidence blossomed and it was the best experience ever.” It was also a contact at college that led to her opportunity to speak before Parliament, where she stood up on how things are in London, knife crime, the lack of opportunities for younger people, which might instigate the reason why they do these violent things. “They are angry and feel like there are no options. A lot turn to music even though they might not want to. They do it because what else is there? There are ways to get to the top but they don’t know how or where to go.” “I was talking about ways to help, why they are shutting down youth clubs. I was one of the youngest there and spoke on school and mental hospitals – how people are treated in there, how many black people are in those, how schools could be changed.”
“For a lot of people its mental home, jail or death. For a lot of black people that live in terrible circumstances, it’s just about seeing how we can change that and how the next generation can have a better life.” It’s a personal topic for her – both her brother and mother have been institutionalised. It was an emotional, scary and overwhelming experience to speak in front of MPs. “I had a chance to say what I had to say in front of people that really needed to hear it.” That drive to be a strong spokesperson was there from a young age. She remembers how as a youngster, she would sit with her grandmother to watch the news, speaking out loud about how if she was in power, what she would do to change things. Her grandmother would express how she wanted to see her there one day. Did she feel she was able to change things that day in Parliament? She may be young but Cassie ain’t naïve or afraid to challenge the perceptions of politicians. “One MP shook my hand. That was it. I wasn’t expecting them to say anything to be honest. I don’t think they get it unfortunately. Most of them are older, so when they talk about the impact of social media, yes it does impact young people but it can also help.” “In my situation, especially if you want to be an artist, if you don’t have support, attention from family, nowhere to turn to, social media can help but it just depends how you use it. When MPs say, oh this is why they aren’t talking to their families but sometimes it’s actually the other way around, they go on social media because their family isn’t around to talk to.” “No one is really focusing on what the kids want or are looking for; they don’t really want to listen to them at all. Even that day, I had a chance to explain it, which was cool. I knew it was a great opportunity but at the same time I know they don’t really care. They don’t know this stuff is happening. There were people there that had been stabbed.”
She is equally as grateful for the opportunity that Gal Dem Sugar provided as well as its limitations. The scripted reality series followed the same format as shows like The Only Way is Essex and Made in Chelsea but rather than content filled with posing in bars and vapid arguments, it was about the struggles that five female MCs faced. The artists also produced a podcast together – which can be listened to separately on BBC Sounds – where they discuss topics like how to change the gender gap in grime. The show was a nice attempt at drawing attention to women’s struggle in a male dominated, misogynistic industry, although perhaps conflicts with the fact it uses a format very much associated with light entertainment and trivial reality TV – when in fact the young MCs featured are clearly ambitious, talented and genuinely want to make positive changes. “It is scripted but when you watch it back, we were able to show our real-life situations and how people really think about how women are treated in grime and the music industry.”
She’s become known for her trademark headscarf and can see how, like other artists, there is a sense she has to portray a certain image. She doesn’t wear the headscarf at home, when she is with friends or her partner. “I do feel I have to have it on in public. I only started wearing it while I was growing my hair out but my team have said to give people a chance to get used to it before I stop wearing and I was like okay. So, I’m keeping up this look until I make a transition as an artist. I do want to try something new though as I’m tired of the headscarf.” While we await her next transition as an artist, the grime scene continues to surge and Cassie sees how it’s getting a lot more respect in the industry. “Mainstream music I feel has a bit of competition now. Artists can do more explicit stuff now. They can speak their mind and end up on TV. I feel grime and the urban community are able to help themselves.”
It’s well known that Cassie’s music is strongly influenced by a dancehall vibe and she’s spoken often about one of her favourite artists – Spice. “I love her. She says what she wants, has a bold personality, is very strong, has been through a lot and risen to the top. She dominates because of how she is.” As for females in grime being recognised, it is starting to be a topic increasingly discussed and there has been some glimmers of hope with crossover artists like Stefflon Don. Cassie sees how there is still a way to go yet however. “As a black woman in grime, it can be very exhausting when we spit and try to say our story. It’s not going to be taken as seriously. ‘Oh, she’s just moaning, ranting again as a black woman, she belongs back in the kitchen’.”
Cassie recalls being at an event where there was one girl, who was the photographer. “I was joking, saying, go on spit. She was like no. She was softly spoken and felt pretty intimidated. Are we meant to feel this way in a room full of mainly male grime artists?” She’s aware that there is something about being the only female, especially being a black female but can’t quite put her finger on it. A bit like how she knows there are certain artists that are underrated or how there can certain opportunities like being a BBC documentary or speaking at Parliament – there are certain platforms that she has been able to access but she is aware that its not quite comfortable yet; there are still inequalities and injustices. Despite the drawbacks, Cassie is feeling positive for women thanks to platforms like Girls of Grime, which have encouraged women to come out, spit, express their sexuality and do what they want to do, which didn’t happen before. “When I was 16 it was very rare to see this, so things have taken a great turn now – women are showing off what they can do.”
“There is still a way to go – line ups need to be better, less stupid like just one female as that’s not equal. Back in the day it would be one female and bare man that’s not equal. You need to mix it up. You cannot just be like one girl. If mandem can deliver, so can these women, straight as that. Tired of seeing that and then saying they being equal. That’s why girls end up competing against each other.” Cassie is adamant it’s about equality not just women – she wants events to be equal and mixed. “Girls of grime isn’t just for women – its also for men to spit, to support, to be involved. It’s just a platform to make it easier for women, and a brand. There are so many great women out there that can be on line ups, win awards and do well but we being held back for whatever reason.” She cites Little Simz as an underrated female artist. “She deserves so much more. She doesn’t rap like a girl; she says it how it is and a lot of people don’t like it I don’t think. They want to hear ‘fucking bitches this’ but she can talk, really talk.”
Cassie is brutally honest and powerful in her passion for these issues – music, how black women (and women) are portrayed and pressured to be. Equally so in her music. “I’ve never written songs not from a genuine place, that I’ve never loved.” Like her idol Spice, she is a future force to be reckoned with – strong, bold, being her genuine self and with clear ambitions. With it though, there is a depth to her views as reflected in her lyrics and passionate feeling she injects impressively into her spits. She clearly wants to smash her way through a few glass ceilings (long awaited) and its exciting to see how her talent and views are already being recognised and respected. Let’s watch and see where she goes.