Kano: “I’m a storyteller at heart.”

Get a sneak peak of our cover story with Kano, where he sits down with HUNGER to chat starting out, 'Top Boy' and never straying from his roots. 
  • PhotographerRankin
  • WriterNessa Humayun

Kane Robinson likes to fly under the radar somewhat. On the day of his HUNGER shoot, the artist, better known as Kano, makes such little fanfare that it proves difficult to pin down exactly where he is at any given moment. He is quiet and reserved, barely looking at image selects, but is quick to break into a smile when earned. What lingers is a quiet confidence and gravitas that must come from decades of hard graft and success. He is, after all, a patriarch of the creative scene in London today – someone who has been writing and rewriting what it means to be a modern-day Brit with real-life problems since the age of 16.

Kano was born in Newham, east London, to Jamaican parents and a family that had an open-door policy. “We were really in it together,” he tells me after the shoot, propped up against a white wall at his home. “Being part of a Black family in a white area like Canning Town meant that all of the Black families had to latch onto each other. Our friends became family.” His musical peers, too, became like blood relations. Alongside his longtime collaborator and friend Ghetts, a teenage Kano joined the NASTY Crew, which had a popular show on pirate radio stations across east London. It provided a springboard for the careers of contemporaries like Dizzee Rascal and Wiley, as well as Kano’s own: he released his first album, Home Sweet Home, which went gold in the UK, at 20.

Respected for his intricate wordplay, eviscerating takedowns of UK politics and a hometown pride that runs as a thorough-line in his work, at 39, Kano is regarded as the elder statesman of grime, instrumental as he was for making the genre international. Made in the Manor, released in 2016 and on which he reflects on the halcyon days of life in Canning Town, earned him best album award at the Mobos and a Mercury Prize nomination. Three years later, the MC wielded his lyricism with scathing accuracy on his sixth studio album, Hoodies All Summer, spitting bars about hypocritical politicians who use populist rhetoric, the rampant gentrification of “undesirable” areas of east London and knife crime. It was accompanied by a 18-minute short, Trouble, which follows a promising teenage boy, Nate (Kyran Taylor), who dreams of becoming a musician but is stabbed and killed in broad daylight, his friends looking on, when he pops to the shop for his mother. Nate could be your son, your brother, your cousin, your uncle, your friend, Kano tells us. The album earned him his second Mercury nomination.

Throughout this, there was Top Boy, Ronan Bennett’s television drama about life on the estates of east London. Airing intermittently from 2011 until last year, Kano played Sully – a drug dealer as ruthless and violent as he is complex. He had never acted before and initially turned the role down before a lull in his music career led him to reconsider. It was undoubtedly the right decision, even as he tells me that he still doesn’t have a love for acting.

As we speak, Kano remains unfazed and even nonchalant about his success. Top Boy is said to have changed the face of British television for ever, but the show – as well as his other accolades – have never brought him too far from his roots. As he once rapped: “You can take the kid out the ends, but you can’t take the ends out the kid.”

This excerpt was taken from HUNGER Issue 31: The Dreamers. Full story is available in stores worldwide now. 

  • StylistTaylor Basset
  • Hair StylistJhamal John using WAHL
  • GroomerLauraine Bailey at Evolved Artists using THE ORGANIC PHARMACY, PAT MCGRATH LABS and THIS HAIR OF MINE
  • Photographer's AssistantsMarcus Lister, Harrison Phillips
  • Stylist's AssistantsHarry Langford
  • Fashion InternsBrandon Oukacha, Vandana Dargani
  • ProducerSarah Stanbury
  • Production Co-ordinatorAbby Rothwell
  • RetouchingTrue Black Studio