Everything Bemz does is driven by one thought: “For every pound I spend on music, I take that away from my daughter’s mouth. So I need to make sure that every pound I invest brings me back two.” The Glasgow-based rapper has had a fire lit within him, the flames stoked by an entrepreneurial instinct and a desire to carve a legacy for both himself and his community. But the road to Bemz, aka Jubemi Iyiku, being hailed as BBC Introducing Scottish Act of the Year 2022 has been a complicated one, paved as much with loss and disadvantage as with blessings. They say it takes 10,000 hours to master an art, but when it comes to recognition? Try a decade.
Born to a Nigerian family with six siblings, Iyiku spent much of his youth on South London council estates. The untimely loss of his mother meant that his father had to shoulder twice the responsibility to make ends meet. “London was a mad place to grow up,” Iyiku recalls. “I lost my older brother when he got stabbed and killed, but that was just the lifestyle — that’s just how London was. I guess you could say I was going down a bad path, but my dad clocked it early on, and he was like, ‘Little man, you’ve got to go’.”
A 14-year-old Iyiku was sent to live with his aunt in the unlikely coastal town of Stranraer in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland. “I know, it sounds like something from Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” he jokes. But being one of only two Black people in his entire school was a different kind of lesson in survival to what they teach on the streets of London. “I went from being one of many to living in an environment that wasn’t really made for someone like me.”
The isolation that defined his adolescence, alongside being cast adrift from his roots and dealing with the loss of his brother, drove him towards music — the only way he could feel a connection to what he’d lost. He remembered how he would MC with his sibling in his bedroom; even now, he can still recite the bars they’d spit back and forth.
His first official EP, ‘Life’, presented a socially conscious rapper striving to make amends despite the unfair cards he’d been dealt — chasing a better life with music as his vehicle. It was intended to be a full body of work, until the engineer’s hard drive crashed. All that remained were the songs ‘Track 1’, ‘Track 2’ and ‘Track 3’, which now define the project, Iyiku deliberately leaving the titles incomplete. Nevertheless, ‘Life’ was a statement of intent from an artist with a clear aptitude for poetry and language. Iyiku’s razor-sharp delivery over a spectrum of experimental beats showed he could easily keep pace with his London counterparts.
However, still feeling uncertain of his voice and direction as an artist, and with his first project blighted by bad luck, Iyiku withdrew from music for two years. “I pissed around, doing nothing, just being a bum,” he recalls. “I didn’t produce, didn’t go to the studio — nothing.” He strayed from his relationship with his God, and with his art, but in 2020 he started to work on his first mixtape ‘Saint of Lost Causes’. “That was the rebirth of who I am,” he tells us. Iyiku stretched his arms a little wider, dabbling beyond grime in R&B and Afrobeats, weighting the darkness equally with light. “It was the first time I felt like an artist, rather than just someone who makes music.”
'One thing I clocked about this game is that no one really wants to take a chance on you. No one wants to take that initial risk, so guess what we’re going to do? We’re going to take that risk for them'
Iyiku describes being a rapper in Scotland as an “anomaly” — and a successful rapper? Well, they’re almost unheard of. While the country has incubated original, convention-defying talent such as Ransom FA, CHLOBOCOP and the Best of British award-winning MC Nova, their success has been against the odds. “The infrastructure isn’t really there,” Iyiku points out. “And that’s because it’s fairly new, in general. We’ve not really paved any paths in terms of tapping into the actual industry, whereas the indie boys, the techno boys and that, there have been so many of them who have made it. I guess I’m at the point where it’s my turn to shine, innit? So I need to try to use that to break that mould and create a path for the younger generations to follow. It’s growing, it’s growing,” he assures us. “But it needs more love, care and support. Hopefully I can make a change in that.”
Crucially, ‘Saint of Lost Causes’ defined an era of Iyiku’s life in which he discovered he would be a father. His daughter, Nova, is a year and a half now; like all fathers, he’s startled by how fast she’s grown, how that tiny thing has already learned to walk. “This shit is bigger than me now,” he says. “I just want to make something that is sustainable and lasting for my daughter.”
In 2021, Iyiku shifted gears: he released his most evolved project yet, ‘M4’, on which, at 26-years-old and from the vantage point of a father, he wrestled with his demons, his spirituality and his renewed drive to succeed. He also laid the foundations for his promotions company of the same name, intended to equalise the playing field for creatives in Scotland who struggle to gain the visibility and development they deserve. “I live by the motto: ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’,” explains Iyiku. “When I was that young boy in Stranraer and nobody would book me for shows, guess what I done? I put on my own fucking shows. When no label wanted to sign me, guess what I done? I signed myself. When I couldn’t get any clothing brand deals from anybody, guess what I done? I made my own clothes.” And when it came time for his debut headline show in Glasgow, guess what? It sold out.
While still in its infancy, M4 has already benefited young people by providing them with opportunities and connecting them with others who can further their careers. “It’s about elevating people when nobody else will,” Iyiku says. “Because one thing I clocked about this game is that no one really wants to take a chance on you. Nobody wants to stick their neck out, because they wait for someone else to do it. No one wants to take that initial risk, so guess what we’re going to do? We’re going to take that risk for them.”
Iyiku’s success has been hard-won, but when it comes to his progression, we’re barely past the opening credits. “No rest. Head down. Just keep grinding and grinding” is the plan, says the rapper, who released his latest single ‘Zidane’ last month. “It’s crazy how everything pans out and leads you to where you need to be at the right time.”