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Words by Isabel van ZellerPhotography by Lottie Bea Spencer
Listen to James's poem
THE ENLIGHTENED ONE
Hailing from South London, James Massiah is a voice to be reckoned with. Primarily a poet, he’s also a musician, a DJ, a producer, a philosopher, a messenger of truth. His honest, many times brutal portrayals of London and all its unforgiving glory, has gained him a legion of admirers and followers, including London’s prominent designer Grace Wales Bonner, who invited him to present an evening of readings at her recent exhibition at the Serpentine.
It’s hard to keep up with this enlightened polymath as he spreads his message, both in the physical and digital realms: he’s worked on projects with the BBC and the Guardian, read his poetry at places like the ICA, Tate Modern, South Bank Centre and the houses of Parliament, and has been commissioned to write a piece for Prince Charles’ 70th birthday and for the opening of London Fashion Week. He also hosts his own NTS show, launched a book, and has recently released his project Optimism 101: an 11-track mixtape that you can watch, read and listen to.
James’ list of achievements goes on and on, but the essence here is: he is giving new life to a forgotten art, by combining music and words and experience, and feeling, and sex and life and death. He creates his own rules within traditional rules to talk about uncivilized, uncomfortable, uneasy realities in an utmost graceful manner with a charming, cheeky grin that suggests he knows something that you don’t.
James wears the Elliot in Marmalade
TURNING PAIN INTO FULFILMENT
His work, as he describes it, is “Funky, fast, fluid, fun and fucked up yet formulaic – it’s like EE Cummings and Ayn Rand and Roald Dahl and Iceberg Slim and Dizzee Rascal and David Byrne and Caleb Followill and William Shakespeare and Playboi Carti and Gertrude Stein and Allen Ginsberg and Ella Rimmer and Sean Mahoney and Isabel Yon and Wiley and Lord Tusk and Klein and Slick Rick and George Orwell and Karl Lagerfeld and Lord Henry Wotton and Tempman and Nadsat all rolled into one”.
Inspired by “frustration, struggle, beauty, hardship, ecstasy, tragedy”, James writes about pain as a way to deal with it, by turning a negative emotion into a form of fulfilment: “I wrote a lot of the poems from Euthanasia Party and Optimism 101 when faced with some personal struggles. In many ways the writing process aids the healing and helps one to process data and deal with some of the difficulties being faced. It's as if the pain becomes a catalyst for action and movement in the direction of an optimistic ideal”, he explains. That notion explains the concept behind his latest album: “The mission was to "write me happy", using the poetic process as a means of liberating oneself from that which is causing one to fill unhappy or ill at ease.”
FREEDOM, SAFETY AND HOPE
The key word here is ‘liberating’: like any form of creative expression, to voice out your emotions to an audience must be a mad, adrenaline-inducing experience. What else gives a man of such bravado like James Massiah a rush? “Partying, romance, discovery, money, cycling - feeling my body in motion when doing those things or experiencing the anxiety or fear that comes with any of those such as being alone with someone new or riding at top speed through traffic knowing you could come off at any moment or feeling your heart racing and about to burst through your chest - it's as if one could say they feel most alive when at the edge of being dead.”
And in counterpart, what makes him feel safe? “Being with friends and family, knowing you've got access to a support network, deterministic thinking, having extra tools in the arsenal — all in the sense that whatever you are worried about what might happen to you is in some way staved off or ameliorated in some way.”
A self-proclaimed nihilist, determinist, egoist and aeist (his own philosophy, meaning amoral egoism) James has stated he is no activist. Yet, whether it’s in his self-interest or not, the truth of the matter is, James is doing good by giving voice to sufferings and realities that many can relate to, and in doing so, he gives us all hope that we are not moving towards a completely soulless future.
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