When RuPaul’s Drag Race first announced that it was launching a UK edition, I was ecstatic. Although the US seasons have always been in their own right culturally iconic and high-key entertaining. I have to admit that I was thrilled at the prospect of getting to watch the quintessential British humour play out in the workroom. I live for the sarcasm, what can I say?
Now, four seasons down, it’s clear to see that, while all talented, some queens have made more of an impact than others. And one queen who’s definitely made their mark is London-based performer Tia Kofi.
Having been in the drag game for more than a hot minute, Tia became one of the fans’ favourites of RuPaul’s Drag Race season two and since having left the show, they’ve become a tour de force. SCREENSHOT was recently lucky enough to sit down with the entertainer and while they beat their face in preparation for a big night, we chatted about all things music, Eurovision, and—you guessed it—drag.
To kick things off, I wanted to learn more about Tia’s involvement with Youth Music’s Give a Gig Week—an annual week-long event which features a series of fundraising concerts and aims to raise money to support grassroots music projects to stay open and continue helping young people to begin careers within the industry.
Having spoken with former Rizzle Kicks artist Jordan Stephens about his own involvement with the charity, I was interested to learn more about how Tia first came across the non-profit organisation.
According to the performer, they’d first heard about Youth Music through a friend and were immediately interested in becoming involved somehow due to the fact they’d always dreamed of being able to record music and had never imagined they’d be able to. Helping a charity showcase extraordinary talent and provide opportunities for people was something Tia felt very passionate about.
The drag queen recalled: “I used to write songs when I was younger and I’d think ‘Oh, I really want to be in a pop group or something’ but I just never thought I’d be able to do it. But then I started performing drag in a three-piece group, which was my dream because we got to sing pop songs in front of audiences.”
It’s evident that song-writing was a massive outlet for Tia, and while they’d always hoped it would be a part of their future career, they never thought anyone would want to actually enjoy or listen to their music. Drag Race’s national stage might’ve been a launching platform, but it also gave Tia greater confidence to pursue a dream they’d held onto for a long time.
The 32-year-old explained: “Our season of Drag Race picked up a lot more than maybe people were even expecting. So that was very wild and overwhelming. And at times, you make questionable decisions in your life (I am talking about dating). But you know, it’s been amazing. I absolutely can’t complain about anything, because the platform and opportunities that have come from it are things that I never really dreamt that I’d be able to do. It’s just been really incredible.”
Speaking about some of the inspiration behind their songs, I was eager to learn more about how they view their own music. Tia released nine singles over the past two years, performed in the West End and at the end of 2022 had amassed over 963,000 streams on Spotify spanning across 165 countries. Safe to say, they’ve had a pretty busy 24 months.
“I’ve always loved the music of the 80s and that kind of sound and so I like to refer to a lot of my music as dark disco house. A lot of people view it as this really up-tempo and super fun dance music but when you listen to the actual lyrics, it’s maybe not the most uplifting,” the performer mused.
For Tia, one of the most gratifying things has not only been getting the opportunity to perform, but also to go and visit their local LGBTQIA+ venue and realise that the owners are casually playing their music. And, in terms of people maybe misunderstanding the inspo and thought behind a song, it’s not something that particularly bothers them—if anything, it’s something they love about the craft. “That’s the beauty of creativity. An artist can paint a portrait with all the intention in the world, but people might receive it differently and that’s a really special thing.”
One of the most exciting aspects of Tia’s career is their involvement with potentially the most iconic entertainment event of all time: Eurovision.
This year’s annual European celebration will be held in Liverpool and Tia will have a front row seat to all of the action, particularly considering the fact that she’s become the BBC’s go-to Eurovision spokesperson after getting involved with a lot of the coverage and promo for the past two years.
Lest we forget their iconic appearance on The Bridge of Lies recently where they showed off some seriously impressive knowledge about the song contest.
According to the entertainer, they’ve always been obsessed with the event, noting: “It’s one of my favourite things because in the same way that Youth Music is great and creating projects which will bring people together and provide people with opportunities, Eurovision was literally created following World War II and served as a means to bring Europe back together. So, the idea that music can heal and bring people together like that has always fascinated me.”
With this in mind, Tia is thrilled the UK are finally starting to take the competition seriously and is definitely excited to see how this year’s pick Mae Muller will fare at the highly anticipated event.
In 2021, Tia featured in a Netflix documentary which captured the reality of being a drag artist, and the ways in which drag culture has shifted in the UK—from niche nightclubs, to mass content drivers.
In Be Here, Be Queer, Tia revisits their old university theatre in Nottingham and, as some trips down memory lane can be, they found it really “bittersweet.” They explained: “I had always performed at school so going into a wider community at university, particularly at a time when it was very undiverse as a group of people, was difficult. And by the end of it, I actually didn’t end up performing a lot. There just weren’t a lot of opportunities.”
Tia went on to recall how they primarily participated in the tech and stage management aspects of the theatre and even remembered a situation where they auditioned for a show and was told by someone in the theatre, “oh, you were the best one, you should play this part. But you’d be playing Meg’s brother, and she’s white, so you can’t do it.”
For someone so creative and so enthusiastic to participate, Tia found it incredibly frustrating that the theatre was clearly more concerned with backwards realism, than showcasing someone who’d put their heart and soul into the performance. “No one actually thinks they’re sitting in the living room. We were just 18, 19, and 20-year-olds pissing around and pretending this is real,” the performer noted.
For Tia, drag was an incredibly valuable avenue for expression and acceptance—and it existed within a world far more diverse than they’d previously operated in. “I think everyone who goes into drag is doing it as an outlet. That’s the main thing: it’s a creative outlet for so many marginalised groups, and anyone who wants to participate in it can do so.”
Something I felt was important to touch upon in my conversation with Tia was their thoughts on the recent anti-drag bills appearing across the US. And what’s become clearer and clearer over the past year or so, is that Republican lawmakers are piece by piece stripping back the rights and freedoms of LGBTQIA+ individuals in an unprecedented manner.
By using sensationalised buzz phrases like “the protection of children” and “sexualised performances,” right-wing politicians are succeeding in making the world a far more dangerous place for anyone who refuses to conform to their heteronormative and cisgender standards.
As Tia sees it, “this entire thing is a scapegoat.” “I think people need to realise that this is not just one issue. At the moment, everything is focused on drag and drag queen story hour, but there are bills that are coming into play where they want to devolve power back to states about how they issue marriage licences, which they can only do because the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in the first place,” the performer stated.
They continued on to finally note: “So while it might sound like an insane leap, the fact that abortion rights were thrown out has the direct potential to lead to states individually having the right to decide whether or not two men can get married or even if there can be interracial couples. Right wing politics might, at the moment, sound like they’re just targeting drag queens, but that’s truly not what it’s about. It’s about being able to target and reduce the rights of everyone.”
If you were a British teenager growing up in the 2010s, you’ll know how important the music scene was at that time. And, if you were a UK-based youth who loved cheeky lyrics and an unbeatable bop, you knew who Rizzle Kicks was. Composed of friends Jordan Stephens and Harley Sylvester, the hip hop duo from Brighton became a force to be reckoned with, and created tunes like ‘Skip to the Good bit’ and ‘That’s Classic’ which helped shape our childhoods.
Fast forward to 2023, and while Rizzle Kicks may no longer be, Stephens is still a massive part of British culture. So, to learn more about his current and future projects—particularly his role in charity Youth Music’s iconic Give a Gig Week—SCREENSHOT sat down with the talented artist and, despite some initial wobbly technical difficulties, had a fascinating conversation about Stephens’ insight into the music industry and the importance of self-care.
Before we dove into Stephens’ past experience in the music industry, I wanted to learn more about the show he is currently preparing for. Youth Music is a national charity whose efforts are geared specifically towards helping young people break into the music scene. Each year, the organisation hosts a highly anticipated week-long event, and this year, Stephens’ performance is one of the main events.
According to the charity, Give a Gig Week represents a series of fundraising concerts aiming to raise money to support grassroots music projects to stay open and continue helping young people to begin careers within the industry.
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So far, Youth Music has distributed an additional £650,000 worth of funding to help with the survival of music projects nationwide, as they struggle to cover increased costs of staff wages, utilities and overheads.
When I asked Stephens how he first became involved with the charity, he recalled how when he was a teenager and making music, he would “enter every single music competition.” Expanding, the artist joked: “In fact, it didn’t even have to be about music, I would enter any competition because in my mind, competitions were this beautiful opportunity to win something and then worst case scenario, nothing happened.”
And it turns out that Youth Music held one of those events and, performing a very early version of what became ‘Down With the Trumpets’, Stephens clinched the top trophy. Moving forward, the musician kept connected to the charity and, as Youth Music representatives, Rizzle Kicks performed its first ever show at the Underage Festival in London.
I was also keen to learn more about how Stephens has found re-entering the music space as a solo artist. Rizzle Kicks faded out in 2016, and although people were initially devastated to lose the dynamic duo, fans soon rejoiced as both Stephens and Sylvester went on to release solo music.
Speaking with Stephens about how he’s navigated this different journey, he confessed: “I’ve been a tiny bit hesitant with shows on my solo stuff, only because I’ve been so busy with other things and so I haven’t focused too much on getting together with a band.”
Nevertheless, the 31-year-old has always been “compelled” to make music, and it’s not something he was ready to give up—he just needed to re-evaluate some things. Stephens explained: “My expectations of music have obviously changed. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realised the height and speed that we reached as Rizzle Kicks. And I completely understand why we decided to stop because, listen, some people aren’t built for this.”
He continued: “Some people are already ready-made. I don’t know, maybe it’s because they’ve got a different circle of people around them. But at the time, we were young men, we were sensitive and I was a very self-destructive person. I’ve seen many, multiple victims of that kind of level of exposure and I just didn’t want to be dead, basically.”
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Stephens went on to touch upon how even though the career goals he’d set himself as a teenager, he was able to achieve with Rizzle Kicks, the intense nature of the journey led him to a difficult place. During the height of their success, the duo scored three UK top 10 singles and had performed at Wembley Arena. Oh, and to top it all off, their album Stereo Typical went platinum in 2012.
At the time though, Stephens never gave himself time to take credit and appreciate all he’d achieved. Now however, he can look back on it, recognise the fact that he reached that point of success, and move forward. As the artist explained to me, he loves trying out new kinds of music and was even referred to as “genre fluid” by a friend.
One of the topics we also touched upon during our conversation was the viral nature of musicians on TikTok. Artists can now upload a song on social media, and if the algorithm decides it’s a bop, the clip can go viral and subsequently, their music career can explode in ways that never would’ve been possible previously. This also means that personality is now considered far more important in the industry than it ever was before.
And while of course there are artists who both capitalise on social media and are incredibly talented and worthy of their success, there are others who manage to ride the wave while not actually being that invested in having a long-standing career in music. This, in turn, can also lead to some incredibly gifted musicians being passed over for the influencer creators who bring in the numbers.
“I understood the music industry as a space where you’d go and find introverted people or musicians who didn’t necessarily know how to communicate and people would market them and then they would come and show you the genius,” Stephens noted.
While music might’ve been Stephens’ first love, he’s now also ventured down a slightly different avenue—writing a children’s book. The Missing Piece is a story about family, determination, and finding yourself.
Chatting with the artist about the inspiration behind the 2022 book, Stephens revealed that while he’d had the initial idea for the story for some time, it wasn’t until he sat down to read his friend’s kid a book that the pieces fully came together—no pun intended.
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Stephens continued, explaining how the book represented “a moment of reflection” in regard to how he’d been so concerned with the rat race of life, he’d forgotten to sit back and admire the picture he’d created.
The entire writing process however wasn’t exactly smooth sailing. It allegedly took the musician three years to finally finish the project. However, once it was officially published (and illustrated by creative genius Beth Suzanna) the book was warmly received and praised for its fresh depiction of family relations.
When you consider the book’s moral message, a love letter begins to appear—one that’s clearly dedicated to the grandparents of the world. Stephens spoke at length with me about how his grandparents were always such an essential part of his life, particularly his Caribbean grandma. He noted how, for so many children, grandparents can be a calming and patient presence in their lives. They’re a bit “cheeky” and “silly,” and they love unconditionally.
Moreover, COVID-19 truly highlighted the fact that society doesn’t care for their elders properly, with care homes accounting for 16 per cent of all deaths since the pandemic began. Stephens expressed how he hopes that in the future we can move from a “hyper individualistic society” to one where we have greater respect for the older generation, and promote balanced respect rather than generational divide.
In terms of other projects, I also wanted to question Stephens if he has plans on pursuing more acting roles. While most people will have heard of the artist’s role of Elliot in fan-favourite LGBTQIA+ dramedy Feel Good, it should be noted that Stephens has been acting for some time now.
As he sees it, he’s been “falling forward” when it comes to his acting career, and while he loves acting and the ways in which it allows you to meet new people, travel and experience new things—it’s not something he could do full time.
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The singer explained: “I think acting, of all the careers I’ve done, is by far the most heartbreaking and most, most treacherous. I do not envy actors, I would much rather try and make it as a musician. With music, if I felt like something was against me, I can go and make another song. Whereas with acting, you can pull your heart into a job and it can lead to maybe getting called back four or so times, and then you could end up losing it to another person. It’s just heartbreaking.”
In 2016, Stephens collaborated with the NHS and YMCA to spearhead a campaign named #IAMWHOLE. The project, which has fronted numerous extension events such as the Music 4 Mental Health event and the WHOLE Truth podcast, is dedicated towards promoting anti-stigma regarding mental health—particularly in young people.
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This is just one example of how Stephens has put himself at the forefront of the fight for greater awareness and information regarding mental health. And, with men’s mental health specifically, the artist felt it was necessary for him to share his own struggles, explaining to me: “I feel as though it’s in my nature to think ‘How can I tell other people about this experience that I’ve gone through myself?’”
On top of this, Stephens has his very own perspective on ways in which men can potentially re-evaluate their mindsets. He went on to state: “I believe that everybody has masculine and feminine energies, whatever that might mean, but the person inside of them has to be balanced. I grew up around a bunch of women and I’m definitely flawed, I’ve got loads of regrets and I’ve made loads of mistakes. But for me, actually, recently, getting in touch with my masculine side was really important. I’ve seen a lot of beautiful men around me falter or find themselves feeling alone and overworked.”
The musician continued, delving further into how men are the ones best suited to approach and converse about the problem of men’s mental health, and impressing the fact that vulnerability is the only way we can reach greater transparency regarding how young boys or men feel about themselves.
To wrap up our chat, I wanted to get Stephens’ best nugget of advice, particularly for any young people wanting to get a start in the music industry. And, naturally, he did not disappoint.
“I mean, it’s difficult, because I don’t know how it would feel to hear what I’m about to say in my early twenties, especially because I was absolute chaos [then]. But, what I feel compelled to encourage is just for young people to understand that ultimately, their relationship with self is more important than anything else.”
Stephens continued: “When it comes down to it, I think self-care and valuing yourself is so beneficial for those people around you and something you need to survive in an industry as violent as the music industry is.”
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“One of the harshest pieces of advice that I ever received—but most useful to me—was the fact that no one is gonna save you. And that killed me. It saved me, because saving yourself is the best feeling in the world, but be prepared to take care of yourself. That’s what I want to say. Be prepared to take care of yourself.”