Manga Saint Hilare. Photo: @hortonxadam.
Annique Simpson 23rd Mar 2022

Manga Saint Hilare: 'If you can do it all yourself, you can’t be stopped'

After nearly 20 years in the game, Manga Saint Hilare has earned a reputation as one of grime's most gifted MCs. A member of Roll Deep as a teenager, today he is thriving as a self-managed, self-releasing artist...

Mention Manga Saint Hilare to any serious grime music fan, and you’ll likely witness the biggest grin emerge on their face.

After nearly 20 years in the game, his widespread reputation as one of the genre’s most gifted MCs is well earned.

Manga got his big break as a teenage member of Roll Deep, most notably appearing on their 2005 underground classic When I’m ‘Ere.

Under Relentless Records, the grime collective crossed over to the mainstream, racking up a silver certified debut album, a MOBO Award nomination and two No.1 singles by 2010.

“We spent the most time at the top of the UK singles chart than any other act in 2010. A lot of people don’t know that,” Manga recalls.

He started experimenting with his own sound that year, dropping Obzokey Wranglings, his first solo project as an independent artist.

A few under-the-radar releases followed but it wasn’t until 2017 that Manga found himself back under grime’s spotlight. His album Outbursts From The Outskirts was praised by connoisseurs of the genre for its conceptual lyrics, inspired features and top-notch production by emerging beatmaker Lewi B.

Recently, Manga’s work has garnered even more industry attention. Considered one of the best grime projects in 2020, his ultra-introspective album Make It Out Alive, secured him interviews with The Guardian and GRM Daily and a Best Grime Act nomination at the 2020 MOBO Awards.

Pretty impressive considering Manga is mostly a one-man team. Two years ago, he outsourced his music publishing to Metropolis Music and signed a distribution deal with The Orchard, but everything else, from PR to event production, social media to partnerships to merch – Manga manages it all.

 

How does your life as an independent artist compare to your experience signed to Relentless?

When Roll Deep was popping, everyone was falling over themselves to help us as soon as we entered the label’s building. A lot of dinners, VIP entry to clubs, bare free stuff. I didn’t get much because I wasn’t on the big songs so I wasn’t a priority for the label. I was on the outskirts but I could see what was going on.

When the number ones weren’t flowing, it was a different building. We stopped getting invited to the building. It became emails or phone calls. We went from having a booking agency who did everything for us to doing it all ourselves. It’s work and when the work is done, the labels move on. It’s just life.

The best thing about being independent is that there’s no red tape. I haven’t got to explain myself six times. If I wake up and record a song, when I send it to Orchard they don’t tell me anything. It’s not hard to manage myself. I just talk about myself in the third person in my emails!

The flipside of that is it’s all on me. There are things that I don’t know or keep up with which is why I’m building my team. Now my publisher is pitching my music out there. I wouldn’t even know where to start with that. Before I was just making the best music I could and hoping people would take a chance on me. I’ve done a lot and stretched my resources to the point that I’m not sure what else I can do on my own. If I was signed, I could get help with PR. Then I could really where I can take this music ting.

Manga Saint Hilare. Photo: @hortonxadam.

It feels like independent artists are having a ‘moment’ right now, especially in the UK charts. Why do you think this is?

Because it can be done so much easier now. Back in the day, you had to press CDs and have a proper distribution network. You just couldn’t get your music into HMV. Now you publish your tracks on Ditto or Tunecore and anyone in the world can listen to your music whenever they want if they care enough. People wouldn’t have heard my music otherwise because I’ve never had a record deal or lots of money to put my music out.

Also, I think people are starting to see major label deals as pointless. They’d rather get a distributor deal and promote themselves. That way you get to keep more control and have less red tape to deal with.

You got D-Block Europe and AJ Tracey selling out Alexandra Palace on their own. That couldn’t happen before. We [Roll Deep] had to open for 50 Cent and Snoop Dogg to do a venue like that. Now the power is with the people. And other people can see how it’s done and do it their way.


You were recently nominated for your first MOBO award as a solo artist. How important is mainstream industry recognition to you?

It’s definitely important. People pretend that it doesn’t matter but it does. It shows that you don’t have to be signed to a label to make an impact. There are loads of songs made by unsigned artists that are super culturally relevant to UK listeners.

I didn’t even know I was up for a MOBO. My friend DJ Target read out my nomination on Twitter – that’s how I found out. It’s mad because I didn’t think I was on their radar. I haven’t sold a lot of music. I don’t stream the most. I don’t have crazy hits. To me, it means people are listening to my music. My music touched someone. I really wanted to win it. I wanted to show people that you don’t have to be bait. Just do good work and it’ll be rewarded. I thought I had a chance because the other nominees weren’t pushing for the public vote. But I didn’t win. I’m going to go for it every year.


Do you think we’re seeing the end of major label dominance?

Major labels will be fine. People still want to sign with them and a lot of the distributors are owned by them. If I sign to a distribution company attached to a major label, the company gives me a little money and the major label gets access to my data. They can see how I’m performing and adjust accordingly.

Majors also make a lot of money off artists’ back catalogues. Think about how much music released by the majors over the years. They made money when we bought CDs back in the day. Now when you remember the song and you stream it, they get money too. Also, a lot of their artists never had anything in their contract about streaming royalties so the labels are getting up on that money. I recently got money from an old Roll Deep album streaming. It wasn’t a lot but it’s something.

At All Times (feat. Izzie Gibbs) from Manga Saint Hilare's MOBO nominated album Make It Out Alive

You dabble in the visual arts. How did you get into it?

I loved art before I got into music, especially comics and manga (although that’s not how I got my name). I actually went to uni to study it but ended up dropping out. When my music picked up, I moved away from drawing completely.

One day I was bored and just got my iPad and started drawing again. I was rubbish at first but now I’m getting into it. Now I draw every day. I like drawing people from radio and video sets – the fashion, the poses. I love capturing my culture and music. I don’t sell bare prints but my versions of my music covers do well.

I’ve started making NFTs, although I don’t know a lot about them. It’s a whole culture, like cryptocurrency. You can buy it and have it there or you can do your research and really deal in it. I prefer physical art – it’s more valuable to me and much easier to understand.


You talk openly about your emotions and mental health in your music. How much of that is linked to your music career?

I’ve felt down at times. Everyone does. The world tells us we’re meant to have this and that and when you don’t achieve it, it’s tough. But with independent artists it’s loud. If I release a song on the same day as someone and my numbers are worse, everyone can see it.

I was working in the stock room once to fund my music. I picked the job so people wouldn’t see me but my manager would still send me to work with customers. That was stressful. I’ve had venues turn me down because they didn’t think I had enough followers. But my followers buy tickets and merchandise. Other artists with more followers couldn’t sell out a show.

That’s why I stay focused on my thing. I can’t give myself a MOBO award or put myself on the Wireless line up but I can release my music, sell my merchandise and engage with people who care about my art. That I can control.

I think there should be mental health support provided to independent artists. But we’re not a collective so who would organise it for us? Who would pay for it? Actually, I think distributors should pay for it because they make money off of us. Yes, that would be the best thing.


What advice would you give emerging, unsigned artists?

Learn more. You can go on YouTube and find out everything you’ve ever wanted to know. When I wanted to make a filter for my Instagram to promote Make It Out Alive, I spent two days researching on YouTube and then I did it. That’s all I do. I come up with something I want to do, sit on YouTube and learn, and then I put my spin on it.

As an independent artist, it’s so important that you’re able to do things for yourself. Say I want to get a song done and I have to wait for studio time, wait for artwork, wait for my video, wait for my manager to upload my song… I’m waiting on too many people. If you can do it all yourself, you can’t be stopped. Music moves fast – this is how you keep up.

Annique Simpson

Annique Simpson is a freelance journalist with a special interest in musicians and industry experts who do things differently. She's had her work published in PRS Music's M Magazine, Gal Dem, and Black Ballad. She also writes music-inspired episodes for the Cancelled podcast by Broccoli Productions/Sony Music. When she's not writing about music, you can usually find her playing the piano, practising her DJ skills or doing karaoke (badly). She lives in London and occasionally on Twitter.