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.
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.”