* Warning – this article contains an account of disordered eating
“I’m super exhaustingly deep,” says Che Lingo, smiling. “But I’m learning to know when to just go with it.” The south London rapper has been talking for almost an hour and could probably keep going for a while. This is a man who has a lot to get off his chest.
Having risen to prominence with the release of debut album The Worst Generation through Idris Elba‘s record label in 2020, his lyrics dealt with themes of anxiety and loss, masculinity, the treatment of black people in society, and the impact growing up on one of the capital’s deprived estates has had on his life.
My Block, a song written about his friend Julian Cole, who was left paralysed and brain damaged at 19 after being arrested following a “scuffle” with officers and door staff outside a nightclub in 2013, became part of the soundtrack to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Now, he is back with Coming Up For Air, which is just as personal, exploring a period during the pandemic in which he battled grief, injury and bulimia. It is rare for a man in the public eye to discuss a problem like this, even more so in the world of rap. He says he understands it is a subject that could draw “ridicule and criticism – even hate”, but it’s an issue he wants to be open about.
Lingo, who keeps his real name private, tells Sky News his looks and weight have always been a subject of inner turmoil; at school, he was bullied for being chubby so as a teenager he threw himself into boxing and working out, becoming “super disciplined” to change the reflection he hated in the mirror.
Stuck indoors when the pandemic hit, he put on weight. And then, playing basketball one day after lockdown lifted, he ruptured his Achilles tendon and was left wearing an orthopaedic boot for six months.
“I was far from obese but a lot bigger than I wanted and I was very uncomfortable in my skin,” he says. “It affected me badly… I didn’t know if was going to be able to use my leg in the same way again, ever, because it’s such a volatile injury. Everywhere I went I was sweating because the boot was so heavy. It was really mentally exhausting as well as physically exhausting.
‘I won’t ever shy away from talking about it’
“I was eating and eating and eating. I was eating and feeling super guilty. That’s the process: you eat, you feel guilty, then you purge, and feel guilty for purging. [I was] hurting my insides. It can kill you if you abuse it too much. I knew it was a problem when I realised nobody could stop me from doing it when I felt the urge.”
Eventually, Lingo told some family members and close friends. “And I put it on the album,” he says, smiling. “From then it was like, okay, this feels better now. And I won’t ever shy away from talking about things in real life that I’ve put on my projects.”
According to eating disorder charities, about 25% of those who suffer are male. Lingo hopes he can help others, particularly men who might be suffering in silence.
“You still struggle with it, every now and again,” he says. “Certain things never go away. At the same time you learn how to manage… it’s something I’m now more prepared to deal with. In the same way, I want the album to make people feel like, yeah, you will sink again at some point, but you might be more prepared to deal with it after you listen to me talk about it.”
The call from Idris Elba
Lingo was raised by his grandmother on his mother’s side. Having written songs since primary school – “I always knew I was good, from the reactions I’d get in the playground” – he started performing in youth clubs as a teenager, graduating to talent shows, building a fanbase online. “I just wanted to be heard,” he says. “I found something I felt was valuable and I wanted to share it with people.”
Getting signed by Elba, who founded the 7Wallace label, was a huge moment. “I was never really one to be starstruck,” he says. “I’ve got family in the early So Solid [Crew] era, so I was always around them.” But he admired Elba’s talent and work ethic, and being able to earn a living through his music – and help support his family – was empowering.
“It’s also a massive responsibility. You almost feel obligated to continue to seek stimulation and live life and figure out ways to say things that are important. If you’re that type of artist, which I believe I am. But yeah, it was a big moment.”
Rather than offer advice, Elba told Lingo to keep doing exactly what he was doing. His son was a fan, he told the rapper, and he had been listening himself for months. “Before we got working on the first album, we had a phone call and he was like, ‘I think you’re a genius, I think what you do is amazing, and I’m just happy you’ve trusted us with the next leg of your career’.”
Releasing The Worst Generation felt almost trivial, he says, as people were dying during the pandemic. But he realised many related to his lyrics, that this wasn’t just his story. The album is a telling of his environment, “growing up as a young black youth in south London and how that affected me; not going down the route of being a product of said environment, which is the majority of people”.
He is tired of stereotypes. The majority of black people living on estates such as the one he grew up on aren’t involved in crime, or “things based on survival that people would consider negative”, he says. “Most are regular people wanting to get on with their day. I wanted to make sure that not only did I get to tell my story, but I got to tell the story of millions and millions of young black youths that come out of south and southwest London”.
‘He was 19, a semi-pro footballer, a sports science student’
Taking down police brutality in My Block allowed Lingo to vent his anger about what happened to his friend Julian, whose broken neck was only discovered after he had been taken to a police station, rather than a hospital.
Three police officers falsely claimed he had been able to walk to the police van – but CCTV and witnesses proved otherwise. The officers were not accused of causing the injuries, police said, but were later found guilty of gross misconduct and sacked. Following the hearing in 2018, Bedfordshire Police said the officers were in no way to blame for Mr Cole’s “catastrophic” injuries but apologised for their conduct following the incident, saying honesty and integrity were “vital” in policing.
“He was 19, a semi-pro footballer, a sports science student,” Lingo says now. “By the time he reached the police station, his neck was broken and he was paralysed. And three policemen lied about their involvement. Why is nobody in jail? Why is nobody being convicted? Why is the government not paying compensation for his potential, the stress that’s come to his family, and the fact his life will be changed forever?”
The song became part of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. While it was written before the death of George Floyd, the rapper says he realised what it meant to people at that time. “There’s a lot of focus on my community and the people that come from it and I felt it was important to try and be a voice for that, or at least get my frustrations off about what I was observing.”
‘I’m still unpacking lots of issues’
Lingo is intensely passionate and deeply thoughtful, slipping into rapping lyrics several times to illustrate a point (sometimes so fluently it’s not always obvious), and fastidiously explaining the meaning behind his songs. He sees his music as therapy. “People don’t really get an opportunity to process what happens in their environment as much as maybe an artist might do. Because you have to sit down and write songs about the things that happen to you, whereas other people might have to pay to talk about them.”
However, he admits he struggles with some of the side-effects of success. “I’m still unpacking all the reasons why I need this attention. I’m still unpacking how I felt like I got lost and then I found myself. I’m still unpacking the idea of when the bulimia decided to rear its head. I’m still unpacking, like, why I feel I need to be at the forefront of this kind of cycle of media and attention and all of the toxic parts of it?”
Ultimately, he says he can’t not do it. In Heart Race, he raps about anxiety, and caring too much. “‘How do we start addressing the trauma the world taught us/ whilst maintaining this sh*t that we need to bring to the table?’ Because it’s all happening at one time. You’ve seen the wars and you’ve done what you can, everybody scrambles to support what they can when they can, and that’s a beautiful thing. But what’s going on in your life as well? What wars are you fighting by yourself?”
Lingo has received several messages from fans, he says, telling him his music has helped them. “I’ve read these things deeply and respectfully… [they’re saying] ‘I felt suicidal at this point of my life and this song really brought me out of that’. Or, ‘this song helped me finish my dissertation and I’ve put you in the credits’. That’s one of the most positive effects you can have on somebody, you’ve made them want to keep living. I’m forever grateful to them for being that vulnerable with me.”
‘Che Lingo-ing’ Freddie Mercury and Queen
The final song on Coming Up For Air is My Radio, a track which samples Freddie Mercury‘s vocals from Queen‘s Radio Gaga. Lingo was picked by drummer Roger Taylor to reinterpret the band’s classic hit and he transformed the track into a song about his grandmother on his father’s side, who died towards the start of the pandemic.
“I was like, I don’t want it to sound anything like the original track. I want to ‘Che Lingo’ this song,” he says. “I started overthinking it, but then was like, this isn’t why they picked me. They picked me to do what I do, and I did that. My grandma would’ve loved it.”
Che Lingo’s Coming Up For Air is out now