Writer Sadie Barnett / Photographer Connor Pope
On Wednesday 2 November, Digbeth’s Mama Roux’s is full-to-bursting for South London native Ayrtn. The aptly named Most Awesome Tour Ever marks his first ever show in Birmingham. I can tell from the line outside this visit is overdue.
As a South Londoner myself, it’s easy to feel protective of artists like Ayrtn; his debut album Flight07 provided a soundtrack for my teenage years, with a uniquely atmospheric production style setting him apart from many contemporary UK rappers. However, this protectiveness quickly turns into nostalgia as I look at the fairly young and very energetic crowd entering the venue, and find myself ready to experience a taste of home here in Digbeth.
For an audience this excitable, the wait for Ayrtn to perform is a masterclass in suspense. Although doors are at 7pm, it isn’t until 8:15pm that the first of three support acts takes to the stage.
First up is London DJ, Sanasesh. She’s cool and collected as she approaches the decks, unphased by the rapidly gathering crowd. She blends seamlessly from jungle classics to UK gems. There are a few songs that don’t quite land, but before I can tut at the crowd for not listening to Nia Archives, another classic inevitably begins playing.
By the end of her set, the crowd is singing along, and as she fades down the vocals for ‘N*ggas in Paris’ the audience is ready to fill in the gaps for her. As a warm-up act, she has done her job perfectly. The crowd is boiling over.
I hear the shouts from a boy behind me: “She’s hard man!”
I leave to put my jacket down just before the end of Sanasesh’s set – it’s clear that heavy layers aren’t going to work in this throng of people – and so I miss the beginning of BXKS. This rising star hails from Luton, and her ‘alternative grime’ style is an exciting one, heavy production mixes with soft-spoken vocals that I would file next to Lex Amor.
When I return, I hear her before I see her, and for a split second I am confused by the intensity of the sound coming from the tiny figure onstage. Although dwarfed by a huge hat and sunglasses, BXKS still makes her presence known, challenging the audience to engage with her. She says as much, proclaiming “Oh, you don’t know this one”, before launching into rapid bars.
It is clear by the end of her set, as the audience are swaying their arms and chanting along to the lyrics “to the left, the right”, she has, indeed, made herself known.
The audience is now raring to go, a fact understood by final support act – Birmingham native DJ, Keyrah, whose set consists exclusively of hype-up songs. Keyrah knows how to work a Birmingham crowd, and cheers are heard as she asks if we want to hear more UK tunes.
Photographer Connor and I exchange surprised smiles as several mosh pits begin to break out in the crowd. I seldom see energy levels this elated before the main act arrives. The crowd sings along to each song Keyrah plays, and as ‘Greaze Mode’ comes on, people raise gun fingers to the ceiling as if Skepta himself is in the room.
However, even Keyrah’s extremely skillful Brummie set is not enough to abate the mounting tension of Ayrtn’s absence. I hear frustrated cries: “How much support does this man need?”, and I’m inclined to agree. As refreshing as it is to see a UK rap act preceded by three extremely talented women, I am getting impatient.
Suddenly, the stage goes quiet. A member of the tour makes a slight blunder as she addresses the room and tells the crowd that Ayrtn is so excited to be “in Manchester”.
A collective murmuring starts up, the sting of betrayal rippling through the audience, really, Manchester?
However, as Ayrtn finally steps to the stage he’s quick to set the record straight. He excitedly shouts ‘0121’ out to the crowd, and we are assured that he is pleased to be here.
“This is my first time in Birmingham!” he shouts. “0121” is mixed with other 4-syllable chants as we shout “Large up Ayrtn”’ and “I’m so awesome” – referencing the Too Awesome EP for which this tour is named.
Ayrtn grins at his warm welcome, pleased to have so successfully built-up his entrance. He insists we flash our phone torches for his first song, so it’s a rave-like experience as his producer tag plays – “Young Whoppa on Your Blocka and I got the Choppa” – a refrain that was eagerly finished by the audience before Ayrtn himself could even get to the end of it. And every single flashing light surges forward.
Ayrtn opens with 2018 classic ‘COSY’, and the audience finally releases its built-up energy. As the lyrics “Ayrtn why you so certi?” are screamed by both Ayrtn and the audience, I join the crowd of people reaching forwards, banging heads, rapping along. It is a moment of pure joy for everyone involved.
As Ayrtn continues, there’s not a single song that doesn’t have at least half of the audience scrambling to try and match his precise flow. Crowd favorites include ‘BLACK CAT’ and ‘ALONE’, both of which cause mosh pits to reopen, as well as ‘SOUTH,’ an ode to South London that is juxtaposed with more chants of “0121”.
Finally, Ayrtn gets to the fast-paced banger that propelled him into the mainstream back in 2018, ‘EDGAR DAVIDS’. It’s impossible not to sing and dance along to, a fact that is demonstrated by each and every member of the audience.
This gig was a treat to experience, a testament not only to the talented performers but to the power of an engaged crowd, who receive an unprecedented encore. As he finally leaves the stage, wishing “big love” to Birmingham, I can only hope that he makes a second visit.
For more from Ayrtn go to: www.open.spotify.com/artist/6bI4QlfGPaqabHlHwcXLg3
For more from Mama Roux’s go to: www.mamarouxs.co.uk