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Introducing: The Joys and Trials of Joy Crookes

Alice Manning introduces the music of South Londoner Joy Crookes, a politically astute young artist who shows that it’s possible to enjoy yourself and still care deeply about the problems the world faces.

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Image Credit: Maya Farlow

Joy Crookes is a 21-year-old singer-songwriter based in South London. A promising newcomer, she was nominated for the BBC’s Sound of 2020. The music she writes is emphatic about social issues, and personal identity as it exists both within and without the confines of a relationship.

Singing and writing from an early age, Crookes began her career by covering the likes of Ray Charles and Bob Dylan on YouTube, as well as uploading original material. My own discovery of Joy Crookes came at the perfect time, as I came across her during the tedium of early lockdown when I was searching for something more interesting than my usual YouTube recommendations.

What immediately struck me about Crookes is how integral her heritage is to her music and identity. As a South Londoner of Bangladeshi-Irish descent, Crookes’ cultural background is intrinsically linked to her personal stand against racism, and particularly how it intersects with sexism. She is unafraid to confront the prejudices that exist in today’s society and uses her platform to tackle them head-on. Early single “Power” sees a teenage Crookes dare the unnamed (male) addressee to “tell my mummy that she’s pretty / melanin is not your enemy”.

That last statement found its way onto a t-shirt designed by Crookes’ partner, made available for purchase with all profits going to Black Lives Matter UK. Crookes herself is a keen social activist, being present and vocal at recent BLM protests. Her social media posts have addressed an often under-discussed or un-noted side to racial privilege: colourism, the practice that occurs amongst some lighter-skinned black and South Asian communities of perceiving darker-skinned black people as “dirty” or “less desirable”. During the period of protests in the early summer, Crookes was honest about the need for fellow South Asians to identify such racism within their own families and wider social circles.

However, Crookes’ music also highlights the “joys” of home and the strong sense of belonging she feels. “London Mine” is an ode to multicultural London– not tourist-trapping Covent Garden markets and Thames cruises, but “Bangla noise on Brick Lane” and “Orange haze from street lights”. Furthermore, Crookes’ London is personified, becoming larger than life, and worth every minute: “I’m never gonna give you up / even if I’m hopeless”. Her music addresses the specific lived experience of herself and members of her community, with nostalgic images of “creamy legs in London air / our hands are up but we still care” (“For A Minute”). Her songs stress that it’s possible to enjoy yourself and still care deeply about the problems the world faces: a message which couldn’t be more appropriate for our times.

When I first listened to Crookes’ latest single “Anyone But Me”, I found it jarring because of the experiences she relates in the song. I came to appreciate the lyrics as Crookes describes what is so often left to the imagination – the struggle for selfhood and independence from intrusive thoughts. It gives voice to those dealing with anxiety; she sings of being “Puzzled with doubt, I'm my closest enemy / It's like this girl is squatting in my identity” with effortless zeal, demonstrating the innovative wordplay that so often punctuates her music. It is one of few songs I know of that delves into the games we play with our mind so explicitly.

Crookes’ “othering” of her mind outlines her ongoing battle for self-actualization and independence. The struggles she faces are often a case of “me, myself and I”, rather than being held back or hurt by a man. The breezy single “Two Nights” sees the singer sweep through South London streets, “contemplating the wastemen I’m dating / and should I cut it out?”. Her music travels in real time, through physical space and through her thought processes.

Due to the pandemic, the future for new musicians remains uncertain as opportunities for exposure have evaporated. Social distancing prevents many of the live gigs that emerging artists often rely on, whilst the usual promotional events such as TV appearances and music videos have either been cancelled or produced remotely. But, with any luck, Joy Crookes will continue to brighten and enlighten lives with her music during the world’s “Darkest Hour”.

Find Joy Crookes on Instagram at @joycrookes, and listen to her music here.

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