Words by Sam Butler
Images by Yael Malka
It is an uncharacteristically bright October afternoon when Michael Bonema sits down in a café outside a North London recording studio. Squinting into the sunlight, the prodigious young rapper, who goes by MIKE, appreciates the warmth as we take the opportunity to sit outside, remarking that “this is the first sun we’ve had since we’ve been out here.” He’s been in London for seven days, this first week of a temporary relocation to the U.K. while he works on his two upcoming projects, BLACK SOAP and RENAISSANCE MAN.
I’m pleasantly surprised to find that he’s accompanied by Steven Traynor, a good friend of BRICK (who shot the Dreamville Records feature in Edition 04). The two friends practise their best English accents as they pour out their cups of tea – “Nice cuppa tea mate”, “Nice one bruv, nice one”. I have to say that MIKE’s impersonation is the more accomplished, and with good reason, having spent the final years of primary school living in Essex after moving from his native Philadelphia with his mother and sister. When MIKE made the move back Stateside in 2010, his mother stayed out, unable to return to the U.S.A. due to visa complications, and this trip to London is the first time they have seen each other in six years.
When I ask for his feelings on the reunion, he is stumped for the only time in our interview. “I’ve been trying to put that shit into words, how it feels inside, but it just doesn’t work. Being away from someone who took care of you for so long is some crazy shit, it’s one of those things where we have to rebuild.” He views the situation with a maturity well beyond his years, recognising that both have grown to be different people and have a “lot to learn” about the other. Standing at a towering height, MIKE has also grown a couple of feet since their last meeting, and he tells me “when I was a young’un, I used to rest my head on my mom’s belly. I was thinking about if I should still do that now, but she’d probably like ‘Yo, get your big ass head off of me!’” He’s excited about the prospect of taking the next few months to properly reconnect, acknowledging that “it’s not only time that will rebuild that shit, but a lot of things that come from within, like love, and having a healthy mindset.”
Despite the distance that has been between them, MIKE’s mom has been following his exploits in New York, an unfailing source of encouragement and motivation left on each social media post. “She would post ‘May God bless your hustle’ on my Instagram photos a lot, which is where I got the name for my project from.” On MAY GOD BLESS YOUR HUSTLE, MIKE displays his supreme storytelling ability across 16 tracks, each laced with cutting details of his everyday life that make his struggles instantly relatable, such as the couplet from the album’s opening track: “Moving stunned and alone, there's one percent on my phone / I should use it to call Mama, tell her I wish she was home.”
The photoshoot that accompanies this feature took place back in New York before MIKE’s departure. In the images of MIKE’s apartment, I was drawn to the “May God Bless Your Hustle” artwork hung above his bed, imagining it to be gift from his mom. He tells me it was actually made by a woman named Mercedes, who was a profound help to him in those tough years separated from his mom. “She really took care of me at a time I really needed that motherly love and shit. That’s really one of the best women in my life.” I also ask about the “Michael” name badge stuck on the wall, anticipating a philosophical answer explaining it as a reminder to stay true to his identity. “Nah, we just ordered mad chicken and fries, and they had that sticker on the bag.” It’s a response that reminds me that despite his relaxed world-wise demeanour, MIKE has barely turned 19 years old.
If he displays a wisdom and perception far beyond his years, it’s likely due to the fact that the constant change and re-settlement of his youth means he has learned more about himself and his place in the world than most people three times his age. “We used to move around OD, and whenever you move you have to make a whole new set of friends”, not an easy task when he was so different to his English classmates. “It creates a barrier, like ‘who the fuck is this kid?’ Before I moved to England I was an outgoing child, but it definitely made me more of an introvert.” As the constant flux of his young life took its toll, MIKE says he “lost motivation” for school and found solace in the company of his own thoughts. “I lived in Hornchurch, there was this big ass field called Wittering Walk. I would just go there and think a lot, take walks and shit.”
It was also around this time that MIKE began pursuing an interest in music, after seeing his older sister watching Channel U, a seminal TV platform for grime in the late 2000’s. I ask if he remembers the first video he saw on the channel, I’m told that he “hates telling this story”, but confesses that “it was low key a white rapper who got me into it. I can’t even remember his name, but he was going crazy bro. I heard that and was like ‘I’m gonna have to start barrin’ up!’” Explaining how soaking up the sounds of Giggs, Skepta and Chipmunk provided the first steps of his musical education, before moving on to Lil Wayne and Drake when he moved back to the U.S., he finally adds “I fuck with N-Dubz though, still!”
The move back to Philadelphia came in 2010, living there with his dad for four years before they relocated to New York, where long working days meant they didn’t often spend time together. While a lot of young adults craving attention would see this as an opportunity to act out and place the blame with the parents, MIKE was typically considerate of the situation, as he tells me “I’m a black kid in America, so I know what my dad has to go through to put food on the table for our family. I understood why he wasn’t able to be there 100%.”
Having already amassed enough life experience to fill a career’s worth of records by the end of his teens, MIKE intends to use his upcoming project to process his journey so far and share more of his story through the abstract lens of a concept album. He talks of weaving his own experiences into a “weird alternate fantasy” – “I’ll refer to my mom as the Queen of England, things like that.” His new work will form two interconnected releases, BLACK SOAP and RENAISSANCE MAN. BLACK SOAP will arrive first, and be a representation of “melanin, rich nutrients, soul – all the things you need to become a RENAISSANCE MAN.” Both records will be released by LEX Records, which means he is now a labelmate of his idol, DOOM.
When I ask how it feel to be on the same team as the masked MC, MIKE tells me “It’s crazy. That shit is wild as fuck. You know, I started rapping because of that weird white dude on Channel U, but DOOM taught me how to actually rap. He’s really the G.O.A.T.” He credits the study of DOOM’s rhymes with developing his writing style, moving beyond penning generic rap bars to exploring the “detailed and developed shit” that is now such a signature of his sound. He recalls reciting a particularly insightful and intricate song for his cousin, who counselled him to dumb down his raps if he wanted anyone to listen. MIKE’s response was resolute. “I was like ‘Dude, get the fuck out of here. I’m finna run it how I run it.” He acknowledges that this confidence in staying true to his voice came from DOOM, saying “he taught me to build my own style. I didn’t have to be like anyone else.”
He talks about learning to channel his feelings into more introspective and emotional writing, opposed to his early method of translating his anger into writing “really aggressive, violent shit”, a process which he now recognises was “not very healthy.” I’m struck by the similarity with Earl Sweatshirt in this songwriting progression, and knowing that the two are close friends and mutual fans, I hesitate before making the comparison, knowing it is one he must have heard countless times before. “That’s big brother for real, he’s mad inspiring. The only thing that stresses me out is people asking about Thebe off bat, and not taking the time to get to know me and appreciate what I’m doing.” When I point out that he seems to be in a pretty good spot, he firmly agrees, emphasising the pleasure of creative freedom, sticking to his own lane and not automatically following the latest trends in the culture. “There’s definitely two sides to hip-hop, and I’m blessed to be in the camp I’m in. In another world I could be having to rock skinny jeans, leather jackets and a Goyard purse. That’s not really me, though.”
MIKE is comfortable in his own lane, one that he has forged with the support of his group of friends from New York who form a crew called sLUms. Many of them come from a similar family situation to MIKE, teenaged nomads who have congregated together to support each other in the most literal sense. “There’s days where I might make a couple of dollars, but another friend of mine might not have anything so I’ll get food for them, and there’s days where I don’t have shit, and they would feed me.” I’m reminded of the proverb “It takes a village to raise a child”, except here are children who formed their own village and in the process have raised each other. The significance of their bond is not lost on MIKE. He describes the house where he lives with two other sLUms members, Darryl and King, as the “family home”. It’s the spot where everyone assembles to craft beats, record songs, and chill together.
Before leaving for London, MIKE put on a farewell show for his friends and family in New York to express his gratitude for their support. “I let them know the reason I’m able to go back to England and see my Moms is because of y’all.” Talking about it now, he expands on the idea, saying “All of this shit is possible because we were able to give each other opportunities, because of community and love. That shit really means a lot.” Small shows such as that one, taking place in art galleries and house parties, are what excites the performer in MIKE and he’s keen to establish a run of similar events in London over the time that he’s here. As thoughtful and reverent as ever, he plans to take a few weeks to survey the scene, “respecting what’s already been built” before deciding “what space we can operate in without interrupting what anyone else has going on. I feel like all that matters OD, respecting what has already been planted here.” His support of his contemporaries extends to those he has yet to meet, or even know of. He sees the opportunity in every day he spends in London to learn as much as he can about the way that young creatives are operating out here, so that he can “share the knowledge with everyone back in New York.”
As the conversation moves on to his ambitions for the new year, it’s characteristic of him that he replies in the plural, focussing not on individual goals but on the success of all around him. “We’re trying to build, trying to own property, trying to tap into everything, bring that shit back to the community and have that shit flourish.” He also concedes that he has a more personal objective, admitting that “low key, I just want to help my mom. Even if it’s just getting her a little car or something, just make life easier for her.” After an hour spent in his company, I shouldn’t be surprised to hear such a response.
As the remains of our tea turn cold and the sun submits to the incoming clouds, I ask about his plans for the coming week. Between recording and label meetings, his most important appointments are at his mother’s dinner table, where she has been “cooking some very blessed meals.” Having missed out on six years of home cooking, he has some catching up to do. We went to my aunt’s crib, she made all the fire Jamaican food. My uncle got everyone hella drunk off red wine, he was turning up! I been here a week so far. It’s been a good ass week.”