Loyle Carner’s Sold Out ‘Hugo’ Tour At O2 Academy Featuring Activist Athian Akec 08/03/23

Writer Jasmine Khan / Photographer Andrew Roberts

It’s snowing and Loyle Carner’s in Brum town.

After a 20 minute wait for a photo pass, myself and photographer Andrew Roberts finally come through for Carner’s sold out album tour – Hugo – ready to get stuck in and deathly afraid of the notorious O2 bar prices.

It’s expectedly very busy and the playlist is popping, but I’m worried I won’t be able to see from back here. I’ve missed the first support, Walsall’s own Wesley Joseph, because of the weather and I don’t want to miss the main event.

The crowd chants “where are you” which is a bit ridiculous because it’s half an hour before Carner’s meant to come on, then I glimpse him between bopping heads and the lights come up – the people in the front must’ve seen him arrive on stage.

Donning a post-box-red hoodie, Loyle Carner is at home straight away on this Birmingham stage. He takes his place in the spotlight, hands wrapped purposefully round the mic, hood up, the rest of the band bathed in rays of crimson light.

Loyle Carner starts with a firm attitude, forcefully spitting the opener, rolling his shoulders back in time with the heavy drum kick beat and tambourine. “The sound’s pretty amazing” someone shouts to their mate over Carner’s powerful entrance, then they loudly whisper “it’s the best sound I’ve heard at the O2”.

Carner’s second track ‘Plastic’ features on Hugo and ends with a saucy brass element. “My name is Loyal Carner” he states with his chest at the end of the track, and rightly so.

On ‘Georgetown’, another release from Hugo, Carner’s rhythm and flow is slick and bouncy hip hop. He knows how to control the crowd, moving us with his raised palm up and down.

“Black like the key on the piano, white like the key on the piano”; it’s a dense and gritty track, Carner’s spitting his well known truth about culture and his mixed-race experience.

“Is a half cast symphony” he shouts at the end, commandeering John Agard’s final line.

As I rise onto my toes I can see Carner’s hood is down and he’s walking the length of the stage, grooving and stepping.

Suddenly he stands still and delivers ‘Polyfilla’ Hugo’s penultimate track. “When I was younger, yo, I wanted to be famous. Now I’m older, yo, I wish I was nameless” he raps, mixing the struggles of success with his ongoing narrative about his struggle with systematic anti-blackness.

“The world’s aimless, no one gives a fuck… getting stuck for a couple bucks.”

Then, “peace peace peace peace” he says slowly over and over again fading out, the longing hanging in his voice until the track is done.

The next track is a rendition of ‘Desoleil’ which delves into the jazz elements of Carner’s genre blending sound. I can’t see a live sax (although there is a trumpet and maybe my ears off) but the sample isn’t lacking as the producer reaches across a range of sounds complementing the live guitar.

“I’ve been coming to Birmingham for ten years, I always come here, I always play here” says Carner, and he receives love in abundance back before shouting out Tom Misch and kicking off ‘Angel’.

Carner gets us clapping, as we mimic his movements there are rumbles of excitement from the audience. It’s ‘Damselfly’ and we sing along to the chorus: “I was too young for you”. Carner pauses and we heartily fill in the gaps: “south side”, “trap lines”, “cloud nine”.

Then a turn; heavier vibes welcome us back and electric, synthetic twists swim over the deeper elements of the beat, the live bass pulling its weight, picking the strings with a relaxed but focused energy. The sound stretches and refracts, swelling, then it’s pulled away and the top melody carry us into the next track,

“I’ve got some beautiful, wonderful news, I’m a father now. That changed my life, that saved my life… this next song is dedicated to my son.”

Carner’s tribute is emotional and raw: bathed in blue light he’s owning the space on the stage and the trumpet begins melodically behind him, taking up more and more of the venue, the drums now skitting around the main beat.

This next one mentions Loyal Carner’s south London roots “where the monsters lived”, ‘Blood On My Nikes’ speaking specifically on the multitude of terrifying realities which evolve from knife crime impacting young black boys in the inner city.

It’s got meaning that comes from lived experience and you can feel it as Carner spits from the back of his throat. Then, Athian Akec, a former youth Labour MP, steps forward and speaks over the pulled back main sound.

“The impact of knife crime on individuals in undeniable, and while politicians want to police their way out of the knife crime epidemic it is simply not possible.

“We must focus on the root causes of knife crime: poverty, inequality, austerity and a lack of opportunity.

“We must petition the government to put reason over rhetoric.”

On the back of Akec’s t-shirt its says: ‘Boris failed a generation.`

Carner thanks and praises Azec: ”You can either be relevant or revolutionary’ and we chose revolutionary still” he says. It’s really something to see an artist platform a genuine activist.

‘Still’ is the track Carner says he was most afraid to put out into the world, talking about his personal difficulties with mental health and fearing crying in front of his “homies”. The next one goes out Jorja Smith. I scream, of course he’s going to honour Jorja and ‘Loose Ends’ whilst he’s in Brum.

The atmosphere’s mellow as he leans soulfully into the track, softly rapping “I’ve got a lot of love, a lot of loose ends” over the catchy beat and tinkering snare. As Loyal Carner continues to flow acapella his poetic talents shine through. It’s faultless.

Then the main rhythm comes back in. The colliding live and pre-recorded sounds melt over each other. This next one hits hard regardless, and it’s even better live. “They ask why every song’s the fucking same and I say it’s ‘cos ain’t nothing changed.”

“It’s cos ain’t nothing changed.”

Carner calls out each band member by name, then says “My name is Loylel Carner, take these words and go forwards, go forwards, go forwards”. He wipes the sweat from his face with his hands. The message is clear.

The lights dim so just in case we’re about to lose him we shout out for more and Carner’s nowhere near done, maintaining his unwavering high energy for the duration of his set.

He stands under a spotlight and starts a story: “when I was 25 I found out I was going to be a father and I called my dad… he just hung up the phone.” He goes on to explain that his dad called him back apologising, explaining that he hadn’t grown up with the tools to be a supportive father, but offered to teach Carner to drive in a rickety old Polo.

“He grew up as a black man in south London in a care home,” says Carner, understanding the hardship of his father’s life. Then he thanks his mother and grandmother for teaching him how to be a father. “I forgave my father” and “dedicated this album to him, Hugo,” finishes Carner.

“I forgive you, I forgive you, I forgive you, after everything you’ve been through.”

Not to flex my own daddy issues but this one lets loose a range of emotions: sadness, reflection, gratitude, understanding. “I’m better when I’m with you… ‘cos’ earth’s evil.

“Still I’m lucky though that we talk, I forgive you,” raps Carner.

The lights come up and we protest en masse. “You want one more?!” he shouts in reply.

He finishes on a fan favourite, ‘Ottolenghi’, the crowd singing and dancing along, those in the stall rising out of their seats.

“Leave the bullshit in yesterday.”

The end of Carner’s set receives an infinitely well-deserved standing ovation.

“Can I tell you a poem before I leave?”

Loyle Carner speaks of the fear he feels for his younger brother, his love and concern for his abilities as a father and the safety of his son. Although not every member of the audience appreciates Carner’s persistent vulnerability; some fans have mocked the more serious political moments of this set and again someone is mocking this last poem.

I leave with endless gratitude for Carner – he had me in my feelings on more than one occasion and the live performance brings something the recorded songs never could – but I also see why more and more black fans struggle with the en mass attendance of white people at black artists’ shows.

If you’re going to make jokes while the man you came to see talks about generational trauma caused by anti-blackness and his ongoing mental health struggles, then I don’t think you deserve to take up a space at his sold out show.

Loyal Carner @ O2 Academy 08.03.23 / Andrew Roberts

For more from Loyle Carner go to: www.oylecarner.com

For more from Wesley Joseph: www.wesley-joseph.com
To see Athian Akec’s original speech at the House of Commons in full go to: www.youtube.com/watch?v=fs5InICm3Kk 

For more from O2 Academy Birmingham go to: www.academymusicgroup.com/o2academybirmingham