When Shunaji finished her breakout single, ‘Nighthawks’, she didn’t want to release it. “I was really self-conscious,” she tells me in the café of London’s Horniman Museum, an echoey glasshouse in Forest Hill. Having worked for two years as an acclaimed producer, emcee, and songwriter, the 25-year old artist had never sung on any of her own recordings before.
“I thought, ‘This sounds horrible. I can’t sing, what am I doing? I should have just rapped.’” She laughs. “I like to challenge myself, though. I think that’s part of growth.”
Shunaji has come a long way from singing in her high school choir and playing around with cracked production software. In 2017, she was part of Future Bubblers, a talent discovery project developed by Brownswood Recordings. The year after that, the Roundhouse chose her to be one of their resident artists.
This summer Shunaji has already performed at an impressive spate of festivals, including The Great Escape, Love Supreme, and Glastonbury. “I think that [‘Nighthawks’] opened the next stage in my career as an artist, because I was trying to experiment with different approaches and learn new skills. It was terrifying, but good.”
Her willingness to push new frontiers may be what has made Shunaji something of a Renaissance woman. Her unique sound blends seemingly disparate musical genres, hip-hop and rap-rock melding with neo-soul and 70s-era Italian balladry. She lists her influences for me: Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Nirvana, The Black-Eyed Peas, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Questlove, A Tribe Called Quest, Mina, Patty Pravo. “This is always the hardest question!” her eyes flash with laughter, “I also used to listen to folk. I liked Fleet Foxes. You listen, and then you learn about what you like, and you bring that into something new.”
‘Nighthawks’ is very evidently a product of this process. Shunaji’s vocals move between sultry and spitting bars, proving she is both a soulful songstress and a sharp, nimble rapper in equal measure. For Shunaji, one way of creatively establishing these different musical identities is the use of her alter egos. “I think a lot of hip-hop artists like Makaveli, Roman Zolanski, Slim Shady, Tony Starks have these different personas that they go into. It allows us to be creative, achieve different types of deliveries in our rap, and evoke comedic elements too. So, there’s a bit of acting involved.”
“Hip-hop and rap can be a lot about performance. ‘Nighthawks’ was partly Princess Solo coming out. She’s my more introspective side. Then there’s Yagalle Molasse, which I guess is my identity as a singer. Sick Ranchez represents the rap element of what I do. These alter egos are all different facets of who I am as an artist, but they come together as Shunaji.”
In the music video for ‘Nighthawks’, Shunaji sings alone under a spotlight in a red evening dress. She moves to a warmly lit recording studio, and wanders through dark, neon-tinged passages, meeting doppelgängers of herself along the way. The visuals for ‘Nighthawks’, she tells me, were first inspired by Edward Hopper’s painting of the same name: “It was that image of a woman and a man in a bar, at night, on the corner of a road. And she’s dressed in red. There are so many things you can assume about what they’re doing, where they were before, and where they’re going after. The painting is all about capturing that moment.”
Director and screenwriter Guen Murroni also had a major role in producing the video. “Guen helped me with all those visuals. We had Lynch films in mind, a very noir thriller-like feel. It came together nicely with the idea of split identity, dissociation and the concept of the double: what you want versus what you need, ambivalent in that sense.”
The song itself draws from Shunaji’s personal life, and reflects an emotionally complicated time for the artist. “I used to be really infatuated with somebody. It didn’t happen, but not just that. It was this kind of power play that was happening, and I realised that, so I used it in my lyrics. When I say: ‘I would try something so refined/To help me clear my mind’, that’s about aspiring to be with somebody, or to have them want you back. It’s trying to get their attention and their love to feel aligned with someone that you admire. Dissociation becomes part of trying to be different from who you really are, just so they desire you back.”
“In time, I started learning about who this person really was without the infatuation-side of it, and then I felt like it was their turn to be denied my presence. I experienced the plot twist of being desired by somebody, initially wanting them very much, but then realising who they are, and withdrawing from that connection.” Shunaji gazes ahead as she mentally sorts through these themes. It makes sense, I think, that a polymath musician would set out to address such complex subject matter.
“Nighthawks is a song about loss, infatuation, love and lust, and figuring out what’s next, whilst loving yourself amongst everything, really.” Only Shunaji could do it all at once.
Words/Interview by Jenna Mahale
Photography by Agnessa Dale