Photography: Betsy Johnson & Luke Nugget
“I’m super vulnerable in some songs and in some I’m super defiant.”
One of the most striking things about Lava La Rue’s video for her recent single ‘Burn’ is the polarity between its playful energy and lyrics of political oppression. The West London rapper/singer details a revolution that’s “unelectable” with “demoralisation, predictable” but she’s going to learn how to fight the system anyway. “No human born a Conservative / Just a greedy method of conserving quid”, she raps elsewhere in breathy spoken-word as the camera cuts between her performing in inner-city estates, dancing at flat parties, and rapping outside a Costcutter.
“I’m so sick of songs that are politically-fuelled and have this darkness to them,” the 21-year-old says over the phone. “I had written the lyrics – and they’re really heavy, really political – and when I was showing them to other people they were like, ‘Ah, you need like a really heavy beat and an abstract, Björk-esque video or something.’ I thought, ‘No. I want it to be loud. I want to dance around, I want it to be more towards being empowering and exciting.’”
Empowerment is at the centre of what Lava La Rue does. The artist, whose stage persona is an anagram of her real name, Ava Laurel, addresses injustices in songs that are invariably warm in tone. Her creations are 90s-inspired R&B and rap ditties – flecked with jazz, dancehall and dub – that embolden listeners through love and comfort. On ‘Widdit’, an old school hip-hop jam lifted from her excellent 2018 EP Letra, Laurel raps: “Let’s unify, terminate the haters like we pesticide / So we can keep the vibe / No negativity.” ‘Touch My Mind’, meanwhile, hears Laurel ponder the proliferation of Black Mirror-style surveillance.
If ‘Burn’ is about “uniting through love – platonic love”, Laurel explains, then she’s certainly practising what she preaches. The soloist is a member of NiNE8, a 15-strong underground collective of musicians, artists, producers and designers in West London with a DIY ethos (Biig Piig is among its members). The creative group showcased their work at 2018 Men’s Fashion Week and hosted a Tate Late.
Laurel also runs Hydration Studio, an independent label based within her local queer community. “It’s like a safe space in a studio where female MCs or queer or non-binary can just come and make shit,” she says. “Because, honestly, when you get a studio in London and you’re trying to make stuff that’s within the hip-hop umbrella, you’re surrounded by a lot of toxic masculinity in guys. Hydration is where people can talk about their narratives. It’s really fun and just wholesome.”
“I’m so sick of songs that are politically-fuelled and have this darkness to them.”
Much of Laurel’s shrewd character can be attributed to growing up on a council estate sandwiched between rich and poor in Ladbroke Grove. “The contrast when you walk down the street is literally insane – to the point where sometimes I’m walking down Ladbroke Grove and I’m like, ‘I don’t know if you’re genuinely, like, a crackhead or if you’re, like, just a really extravagant, super rich person that dresses absolutely crazy,’” she says.
Working-class communities in Greater London are “more segregated” than where she’s from. “With the inner-city ones, it’s all kind of mixed up; it’s almost impossible not to mix [with other classes].” Indeed, growing up, Laurel was friends with children of wealthy people – often being invited on fancy holidays – but she was also pals with kids of her background. “I think having that dual perspective gives you a really well-rounded view of society and how it runs. That’s really affected what I preach about in my music,” she says.
Moving ahead, what can listeners expect when her new mixtape, Stitches drops this month? “It’s showing more sides of me: more of my capabilities. I’ve been a lot more hands-on with the production, playing guitar and bass,” she says. “I’m super vulnerable in some songs and in some I’m super defiant.” West London dub has been “part of the sound that has inspired me” but she adds that the sonic palette is broader this time around. “It’s sounds and samples from the city I’m living in every day. It’s like getting audio extracts from diary entries.” Reader, we can’t wait.
Stitches is released independently in June
See the video for ‘Burn’ here: