"What matters most is how well you walk through the fire." Of the immeasurable bars that prolific novelist Charles Bukowski penned throughout the course of his storied legacy, that one in particular could have been written with Nolay, an impassioned grime emcee from the UK, specifically in mind.
Although her story is glittered with some of life's most intense, heart-wrenching and challenging setbacks — overcoming a rough childhood strained by her father's schizophrenia, battling grips of addiction, and combating her own inner demons and surviving a horrific near-death car accident in 2016 — Nolay has not only been through hell and back, but she's also been an inspiring open book throughout it all, detailing her experiences honestly through her music over the past decade and counting.
With her talents on the mic a consistent and paramount lifeline throughout her anything-but-scripted journey, one can't help but have a strong reaction to learn that after months of writing, recording and promoting her latest album, This Woman, the audio files were lost beyond restoration days before the project was set to drop in conjunction with Women's History Month and International Women's Day.
While such an unforeseeable situation is enough to lead anyone to an utter breakdown paralyzed by grief, shock and anger, Nolay took a deep breath and re-recorded each of the project's 10 tracks in a matter of five hours without missing a beat. Her refusal to let something like a hard drive corrupting at the worst imaginable time speaks as much to her warrior spirit as it does her stubbornness; there was simply no way she was going to let herself or any of her fans down.
Now that the project has officially arrived, it's clear why Nolay wasn't willing to compromise the release date despite losing all of the originally recorded material. This Woman is simultaneously her opus packed full of unapologetic anthems to empower women and a refreshing reminder that she's just getting started.
Each track flaunts a feminist anthem in their own right. There’s a complexity behind her quick-witted lyricism that demands respect while also raising the bar for other rappers, proving that one doesn't have to sacrifice clever and catchy songwriting in order to get a conscious message across. While she is a tried-and-true grime emcee at her core, Nolay's production choices allow her breathing room to tactfully switch up her flow, with the album's fiery, attention-stealing opener, "This Way," a wise contrast to the minimalist soundscape allowing her voice to take center stage on her personal open letter "Note to Self."
With "P.U.S.S.Y.," "Sitting with the Kings," "Run Me Down" and "Dancing With the Devil" all emerging as the album's most important topics of discussion, including addressing equality, domestic violence and the divine power that comes with sexuality, the UK-born-and-bred emcee captivates listeners to hang on to her every word as she walks us through the less-glamorous-but-very-real topics relating to the female perspective and experience.
As a key figure integral to the ever-expanding grime movement, Nolay is well on her way towards becoming a prodigious icon in her own right, all without compromising being a feminist in order to be a rapper.
BET.com recently spoke to Nolay from across seas to celebrate her latest accomplishment.
You've really created an album to be proud of. How do you think you'll feel in five years from now looking back at this very release and moment?
Knowing the kind of person that I am, I'll probably listen to this in five years and hate it. [Laughs] That's only because I'm constantly growing as a lyricist and as an artist and as a woman as a whole, and I'm pretty hard on myself. I think that I'm my own worst critic when it comes to my music. But at the same time in the aspect of how it feels and how I felt in this moment I'll definitely look back and think to myself, “Wow, that was an incredible moment for me.”
With everything that you've been through, how have you managed to find strength to reinvent yourself and keep fighting through the fire?
I feel like it was a natural thing for me to do. After the car accident, it's almost like I was born again. After that, I got to a point where I looked at myself and I thought to myself, like, “Wow, you could be dead but you're still here.” I told myself, “You literally need to not hold back on anything you want to do now. You're here for a reason so embrace that.”
I wouldn't say so much as I've recreated myself entirely, I'd say that it's always been there, but at the same time I've probably been a bit scared to kind of take it there. Although I'm quite fiery, I've always been quite reserved at the same time, especially when it comes to talking about sex, my sexuality and all the rest of it. After the car accident and thinking about everything that's gone on, I just thought to myself, “f**k it.” You can't be the best artist you can possibly be by caring what people think of you. Recovering from the accident enabled me to be the best that I can be right now.
What do you hope men (and women) get out of this album?
I feel like it's for all of them. In my head, I haven't really thought to myself, “Well, this is to show males, this is to show females.” I've just thought, this is to prove to myself, first and foremost, that I've got the ability to be greater that what I've been showing.
In regard to the men listening, I feel like if you're a mature man, and you have a realistic approach and outlook on life, you will understand, as well as know, that women do go through these things that I'm talking about. So for the guys that know that that's what happens to women, I'd like them to walk away thinking, “I'm glad Nolay raised these issues because she's right.” To the men that would probably be sexist or misogynistic, I couldn't really give a damn what they walk away feeling about it. You know, it's not for you.
In regard to women, I want them to walk away feeling how I feel when I listen to a Beyoncé album or when I listen to something by a strong female. I want them to feel empowered. I might jump out of the bed in the morning when I'm playing something by Beyoncé and I'll feel ready for the day, ready for anything. That's how I want women to feel when they play my music.
How did the interlude for "P.U.S.S.Y." come about?
I literally typed in "the power of p***y" on YouTube and all these videos came up, with many guys talking absolute rubbish about how they can't help but be drawn to a woman because of her anatomy. I found it all quite derogatory, to be honest. But then I came across this fierce lady who had an afro and was smoking and she just breaks it all down and is so powerful. She talks about how she believes that men shouldn't be pimping women and so on. I just thought it was absolutely brilliant when I listened to her speak and I said, you know what, she said it better than I ever could, so I wanted to include it on the album.
What has the reception been like following the "Dancing With the Devil" music video?
It's been amazing. I was doing a series of videos, which I'm still collecting because I want to release them as one big awareness video. Previously, I asked a couple of females to do videos of their experiences and following that, other females that I hadn't reached out to started stepping forward saying, 'Can I make a video too?' I also received videos from males as well, males that have suffered domestic violence. And even from some of the abusers, which was pretty shocking for me, to be quite honest.
I've also had emails from charities and universities that want me to come down and speak. As it stands, we're planning a lot of stuff behind the scenes for me to continue advocating and raising awareness of domestic violence. I think it's better to speak to people while they're still young because they're quite impressionable. If you catch kids while they're still young, maybe you can help change their train of thought and how they look at abuse, because they've been desensitized to violence from the beginning. I'm also currently working on a documentary about domestic violence.
What can we look forward to next?
You can look out for me in your city! They always say that America is the hardest market to break and my biggest dream is to take on America. I came up on East Coast hip-hop, especially Biggie, so I'm ready! I'd love for Nas or Jay Z to know who I am one day. To have them be like, 'Oh my God, lad, have you heard of that rapper Nolay? She's amazing, lad." That would be a dream come true.
(Photo: Tyler Jones Talent Manager X Brand Strategist)