This is ‘Fire in the Boots’ – a new content series in partnership with adidas Football – where VERSUS takes the UK’s most talented artists out of the studio and onto the pitch, exploring their passion for football and how it inspired them to be the MCs, producers, or DJs they are today. Football and music own the streets, and this series will find out how and why the two fields share so much in common by talking to the creatives who represent this cultural crossover. This time out, we put pro baller by day and MC by night, Kamakaze, through his paces.
No one represents the unique connection between grime and football better than Kamakaze. While a long list of MCs are demonstrating their love of the game by dropping bars in tribute to their favourite baller or wearing drippy new jerseys in their music videos, Kamakaze is turning the dreams of many into his own reality, living a double life as a pro footballer by day, and a lyrically-untouchable grime artist by night.
One of the most underrated MCs in the scene right now, Leicester’s Kamakaze is better known to fans of clubs including Luton Town and Dagenham & Redbridge as Matthew Robinson – a 25-year-old central midfielder with almost 200 professional appearances to his name, after coming through his hometown club’s academy alongside Premier League winners like Jeffrey Schlupp. In between tearing it up on the pitch, Kamakaze has dropped hard projects like ‘Royal Blud 2’ and ‘Facts Not Fiction’, and shut down freestyles with Big Zuu and Charlie Sloth, racking up millions of plays.
The feelings between athletes and music artists usually run somewhere between admiration and envy: “we want to be them, and they want to be us”. Kamakaze is probably the only rapper/baller in the country who can see things from both sides.
We took Kamakaze back to the pitch and kitted him out in the cold new adidas X 19 ‘Hardwired’ boots, before chopping it up about the challenges of simultaneously balancing careers as an MC and pro baller, the similarities between the two industries, and why football is essential for health and happiness.
Kamakaze is wearing the new adidas X 19 boot, part of adidas Football's new Hardwired pack, which is available now at adidas.com.
VERSUS: You started at Leicester City as a kid and you’re still playing professionally now – was there ever a time in your life when you didn’t play football?
Kamakaze: I’ve always wanted to play football. I first signed to play for Leicester when I was seven and I got released when I was 12, basically for being too slow and not wanting to play at centre back – I always fancied myself as a central midfielder. After that, there was a point where I was playing Sunday League between the ages of 12 to 15, before I signed a second time for Leicester on a scholarship.
The only time I ever came close to quitting was when I didn’t get offered a professional contract at Leicester. I lost myself for a little bit because it was a big part of my identity, I was from Leicester and I played for Leicester – it was a huge thing for a young kid like me at the time, and I felt there was an element of injustice to it. It was the first time in my life when there was a decision in someone else’s hands that changed my life and that happens a lot in football – decisions are made for you, not with you…but that’s something you come to accept as you get older.
What is it about playing that you’ve always loved so much? How do you feel with the ball at your feet?
Happiness more than anything. I feel privileged to be in a position where I do something that I enjoy and makes me happy – that’s a feeling that any footballer or MC should share. Being on the pitch also just feels like freedom, it takes you away from whatever stresses you’ve got going on elsewhere in your life and it’s a release.
If you had to make a player profile for yourself, what does that look like? What’s your style of play?
I’m a central midfielder but I need to add goals to my game! I’m very hard-working and I always back my teammates. Because of my position and how passionate I am about the team, I do sometimes see myself as the glue holding it all together – that’s on and off the pitch. I always like to think about my teammates as people, asking them how they are and about their life off the pitch because that’s just as important. I try to be there for people.
“Having two creative outlets that I’m so passionate about means I’ve always got balance in my life.”
How big has been football been between you and your friends? Has it been something that’s bonded you with other people?
My friends liked football but they weren’t good enough to be involved with it in the way that I was – we did used to go and play a lot of five-a-side at weekends but my friends aren’t players at all, not on my level. One thing that did bring us together – and not just in my friendship group, but the whole city – was when Leicester won the league. It was a beautiful thing to witness – for those few days and the weeks that followed, the city was like a Utopia. Nothing brought the vibe down, everyone shared the positive energy.
I think football is very unique in its ability to build bridges between people like that…
It bridges every gap between every person if you open your heart to it. Every country takes part in it so there’s national pride involved, and right the way down to local communities a lower non-league side doing well can bring you and your neighbours together.
How important do you think football is for you personally, in terms of your overall mental health and wellbeing?
The big thing for me – especially with music as well – they both keep me very balanced. I find that if one isn’t going so well, I’ve got the other to find solace and comfort in. If I’m having a bad time on the pitch for any reason, I can get into the studio and release energy there and feel better about myself…and it works the other way round, too. I think having two creative outlets that I’m so passionate about means I’ve always got balance in my life.
“I knew some people wouldn’t like that I was doing grime at the same time as playing.”
Most people might know you as a grime MC first and foremost. As someone with a foot in both camps, where do you see the similarities between football and music?
I’ve always said that they’re like for like in so many senses. The kids who rap in their bedroom are the kids who go and play five-a-side every week, an artist with an opening slot at a show might be equivalent to a young baller on trial somewhere, and once you touch the main stage it’s like someone getting a first pro contract – it’s your chance to shine! You look at the elite in music and you can see the levels – it’s the same for football. There are so many equivalents. If you’re a rapper and you drop a banger on the streets, a track the roads love…that’s almost like getting an international call up or something. Any rapper will tell you that once you have a song that connects with the streets, you’re representing them from that point on in the same way a footballer would represent their club or country on the world stage.
And I think football clubs work a bit like record labels. They can be a driving force behind someone’s career but on the other side, they can be brutal. If you have a bad album in music or a bad season in football, the people above might make a decision you don’t like and you’re on your own. The structure of both industries are very, very similar.
The pressure to perform is also extremely similar in both football and music – you’ve got to be on it and deliver your absolute best to a passionate live crowd. How do you deal with that?
The main difference between the two is the audience. Fans at a football club are very loyal towards their club, and you have to rate them for that, but they’re not necessarily as loyal to the players – and nor should they be if a player isn’t performing or doing his job. Whereas with music if you’re doing a headline show and people are already there for you, they’re a bit more forgiving. I think in music, your fans will pretty much always love you for the stuff you’ve made and how you’ve made them feel at various points in their lives.
All that said, I generally don’t get nervous before a show or a game. I did back in the day but I always found it can be settled so easily, after you make that first pass or spit the first bar of the first tune. After that, it’s all muscle memory and things you’ve done time and time before.
How hard has it been to balance your music career with your football career?
I’ve been rapping since I was about 11 but it was more of a release from football, it was to take away stress and express how I felt – I saw rapping and writing bars almost like having a diary. I felt like I needed to draw a line between the two when football became a career. If you look at the biggest players today, their personal lives are as well known as their professional lives, which isn’t always fair – there’s probably no other profession on this planet where people are scrutinised as much as pro footballers. I knew some people wouldn’t like that I was doing grime at the same time as playing.
At an old club of mine there was a small group of fans who abused me because they knew about my music and they didn’t think I was focused on football, and when they saw their team not doing well I was a bit of a scapegoat – and with the unfair image that rap music gets, relating to violence, crime, or whatever…I was called a ‘wannabe gangster’, a ‘wannabe badboy’, all that negative stuff. I was only 19 or 20 at the time and it was a lot to take, so I made the decision to separate the two areas of my life, but I got loads of support from my teammates and my club. More recently, it’s been great to see football really embracing culture and it’s encouraging for everyone in both sport and music.
“Rappers and footballers are highly skilled, so there’s a shared respect there in terms of ability.”
What do you think has changed?
It’s difficult to put it down to just one thing, it’s more of a total shift in mindset – I think football has needed to catch up with music in terms of who was sitting trends and influencing the next generation, which is why we’re now seeing players being around rappers, artists helping launch kits, and MCs being vocal about who they support. Football and music have always been together – it’s a very obvious connection – and now is the right time for them to be proud about their relationship with each other.
There’s a very obvious football influence in grime and UK rap at the moment, which is something we’re able to see with your work as well…
I’ve always said it – footballers want to be rappers and rappers want to be footballers, or at least the next best thing! They want that association with the game. And both rappers and footballers are highly skilled, so there’s a shared respect there in terms of ability – the similarities between the two are recognised by both sides.
And why do you think football lyrics in grime and UK rap always hit different?
I think it’s a good reference point for everyday life as a young person. The point of music is that it’s relatable – and if a fan supports a certain club or likes a particular player, then they hear a bar about that club or player in a song, it’s gonna bang!
“You definitely need to feel the best version of yourself every time you’re on the pitch.”
How important is it for you to look good out on the pitch, in terms of the boots you play in and the kit you wear?
It’s important in anything you do and football is no different, especially something where you’re so on show and so active! The level of performance you need to hit in football is no joke, so you definitely need to feel the best version of yourself every time you’re on the pitch.
How did you rate the new Hardwired X 19 on pitch today?
They’re comfy man – lightweight, that was the main thing I noticed. The closer you can get to not feeling like you’re wearing a boot and it’s just an extension of your foot, the better. It’s also got a nice bit of stretch if you’ve got a club foot like me! I’m rating them.
Are you big into football jersey culture, too?
Yeah, definitely. As we said earlier, football and music go hand-in-hand right now and one reason for that is the style element. Over in the States, artists have always worn sports jerseys to rep their cities and now we’re seeing the same thing in the UK. Whether it’s a hometown kit or a stylish European jersey – something like the new Juventus one – they look hard.
adidas have partnered with Leicester City for the last couple of years and their kits this season are cold. Are you rating them?
The pink away kit is hard! It’s a big statement and it works, it looks nice. Leicester is a bold club, especially since winning the league, in terms of how they approach things. They’re pushing young talent hard at the minute and they’re not afraid to be the front runners in something. I think the pink kit is reflective of that and it’s reflective of the city too – it’s young, diverse and very forward thinking.
Kamakaze is wearing the new adidas X 19+ boot, part of adidas Football’s new Hardwired pack, which is available now at adidas.com.
Photography by Elliot Simpson.