A New Emperor Of London
For four years Octavian was one of the thousands of ‘hidden homeless’ who live on the streets, floors and sofas of this city. Now he’s all anyone can talk about.
When the British rapper Octavian was 14-years-old, he had an argument with his mother. It was one of many that would boil up between the two, but this one was serious. He’d packed a bag. He was leaving. As he walked out the door of the council flat he lived in with his brother and two sisters, his mother screamed, “You’re either going to prison, or you’re going to be big!” It was the first time she’d ever said anything like that. It sounded weird.
The air was cold and it poured with rain as he dragged a huge suitcase out onto the street; a gangly looking fourteen year old boy with a very adult looking item of luggage. “Fuck me,” he thought, “where the fuck do I go now?” Octavian would remain homeless on and off for over four years.
Each year around 86,000 young people in the UK approach their local authority because they are homeless or at risk of it. Some of them will end up on the streets. Others, known as the ‘hidden homeless’, will sleep on sofas, floors, night buses, or with strangers. A percentage will rebuild their lives, but many will end up as statistics on a charity report, floating and suffering through a system that isn’t set up to help them.
Every so often, there’s an anomaly: a young person who will manage to manifest their destiny from the unlikeliest of positions. Which is why I’m sat on an uncomfortable plastic din-
ing chair in a modern flat in Woolwich Arsenal, deepest East London—where the roads are busy, the pavements are empty, and endless hoardings around towering building sites implore you to consider luxury new properties—preparing to interview the hyped rapper, and no longer home-
Octavian reclines on the sofa and eats grapes, surrounded by his loyal subjects: Cillian (his manager), Armin (his video director), and a few other members of his crew, Essie Gang. Everyone is smoking cigarettes. The video for Travis Scott’s “Stop Trying to Be God” is playing loudly on a smart TV in the centre of the room. We all watch as Scott shepherds a flock of helpless sheep down an inner city block—the connotations are obvious. Octavian makes approving noises. The smell of smoke combines with the loud music and the daylight outside to give the flat the distinct air of a house party that’s gone on a little too long.
Octavian for Notion 81
In fact, Octavian is eating a lot of fruit. Blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries jettison into his mouth, followed by long glugs of Tropicana smooth. The man is a fruit machine. For the last four days he’s been in Ibiza, performing as part of a BBC Radio 1 event—now he’s trying to urgently detox ahead of a party later with the British house duo Gorgon City.
Out in Ibiza, Annie Mac introduced Octavian onstage as “one of the most exciting rappers in the UK, I think he’s absolutely incredible.” He met Mark Ronson there too. “You’re Octavian,” said Ronson, “I hear you’ve signed to Black Butter Records.” It surprised Octavian, but not that much. Everyone seems to know his name these days, ever since the release of his
breakthrough single, “Party Here”.
You’ve probably heard it by now, a narrative coming of age rap track with a spiralling house music breakdown and a sentiment that embodies the phrase: bless up. In January, Drake posted a video of him singing it at the Golden Globes after party. Among his friends, Octavian now counts the artistic director of Louis Vuitton menswear, Virgil Abloh, who had the song recommended to him by the BBC Radio 1 DJ Benji B. Abloh made contact with Octavian and offered to help out “in any way possible.”
In June, Octavian was employed as a catwalk model for Abloh’s debut Louis Vuitton fashion show in the Palais-Royale gardens of Paris. Down a rainbow-lit runway under the cover of trees, he strutted in white sunglasses, a pristine white overcoat and white trousers past the front row audience of Kanye West, Kim Kardashian, Travis Scott and Kylie Jenner.
Octavian is tall and thin, with a diamond shaped jawline and a small cross tattooed under his right eye. He has a low, raspy voice, a gentle stare, and a big grin that transforms his face and
reveals a mouth full of white and gold. We sit on the unmade bed in his very minimal and neutral bedroom. The rain of a grey afternoon splashes against the window, and Octavian lights another cigarette. As we talk about his life, his hands chop excitedly through the air. When he’s going to make a really key point he pounds them into the mattress, causing his phone to pop up like fresh toast. When he’s thinking about an answer, he says “fuuuuuuuckiiiiiing” for 2-3 seconds.
“Small… A fuuuuuuuckiiiiiing block”— that’s how he describes where he grew up. He was born in France, but raised in a poor area of South East London. From a young age he was introduced to the idea of people having more than him. In one direction, he had the comfortable middle and upper middle class prosperity of Camberwell and West Dulwich, and in the other he had the violence, guns and drugs of mid-2000s Peckham (a very different place to the cocktail bars and sourdough pizza shops of today) where a bloody warfare raged on the streets between rival gangs the Peckham Boys and the Ghetto Boys. (In February 2007, there were three murders in five days in Peckham.) “I rap ‘cause I’m from no silence, just sirens and the guns and violence,” goes the hook on Octavian’s “Party Here”.