Streetsnaps: Femi Koleoso

The drummer behind Gorillaz and Ezra Collective touches upon what keeps him going.

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Femi Koleoso is not your average drummer. Known for his work with Gorillaz and Ezra Collective, the Nigerian-British virtuoso has been steadily shaking up London’s jazz scene with sounds that have reverberated across the pond.

In New York for the last leg of Gorillaz’s world tour, Koleoso says he’s simply “happy to be here.” Such gratitude and delight burn brightly in his ensemble, with his vintage silk Gucci jacket making a statement. Initially owned by Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn, the head-turning piece had been eyed by Koleoso throughout the tour. “Damon looked like such a G wearing it,” he recounts.

It wasn’t until the band was in Rio de Janeiro that he managed to get his hands on the jacket. Koleoso had only intended to try it on, but the duo changed their minds once it was zipped up. “Damon told me ‘‘I’m too honest to take it back,’” Koleoso mentions gleefully. “He said ‘it looks better on you than it does on me. You have to keep it.’”

For Koleoso, inheriting the jacket felt like Albarn was passing the torch. Not many artists have the opportunity to share center stage with legends who have lit the path, so wearing this symbol of mentorship has been a proud reminder of all the personal and professional strides he’s made.

“There are so many incredible faces I get to play with every day [as part of Gorillaz]. I also get to channel my cartoon Russel Hobbs which has been fun.”

As an integral part of Gorillaz’s live band since 2020, Koleoso knows he’s become a better musician. “It’s beautiful,” he notes. “There are so many incredible faces I get to play with every day. I also get to channel my cartoon Russel Hobbs which has been fun.” On this year’s tour alone, Koleoso has joined forces with veterans like De La Soul and Bootie Brown from Pharcyde as well as stars like Tame Impala, Thundercat, and Little Simz.

Jazz greats such as Art Blakey and Max Roach have been lifelong inspirations for Koleoso ever since he discovered his love for the drums at the age of three. More contemporary influences include Chris Dave, who’s played for D’Angelo and Robert Glasper, and Questlove — whom he admires for his drum recording methods. His all-time favorite, though, is the late Tony Allen, the drummer for Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti. “Uncle Tony shaped the foundation of the sound I was trying to create,” he shares.

These constant sources of inspiration have set Koleoso up for success and his Nicholas Daley ‘Reggae Klub’ tee is another reminder of that. The piece, released for the designer’s Spring/Summer 2019 collection, has sentimental value as proceeds went to a youth club called Tomorrow’s Warriors that teaches young kids how to play jazz. It was at this exact organization where Koleoso and his brother TJ, who plays the bass, met the rest of the Ezra Collective members: keyboardist Joe Armon-Jones, trumpeter Ife Ogunjobi, and saxophonist James Mollison.

“I’m taking so many of the wonderful things from Gorillaz and applying them [to Ezra Collective].”

Talent was then nurtured by the five-piece band who found its groove by fusing Afrobeats, grime, hip-hop, jungle, R&B, and soul into a genre-defying sound that redefined London’s jazz renaissance. The quintet’s debut album, 2019’s You Can’t Steal My Joy cemented their status as ones to watch and featured London stalwarts like Jorja Smith, Loyle Carner, and Kokoroko.

“Ezra Collective is both something I’m a part of and is also mine,” says Koleoso. “I’m taking so many of the wonderful things from Gorillaz and applying them [to Ezra Collective].” The band’s sophomore album, Where I’m Meant To Be, is set to release very soon and has been described as a celebration of life.

“It’s definitely written for album lovers rather than playlist lovers. I’ve got respect for both but this is a record where you play Track 1 and let us take you on a journey,” says Koleoso. “In my head, the best way it sounds is we start in Africa with Afrobeats, take a plane over to Cuba where there are still Yoruba people there, through America, Europe, then outer space.” With so many sounds flowing, it’s clear that Ezra Collective wants to touch as many people as possible.

So, how does he balance it all? “It’s about being intentional with your priorities,” Koleoso shares. “I carefully weigh out what I feel my energy and spirit are attached to. I don’t say yes to every gig especially if I can’t spiritually lock it in. Otherwise, I’d do a disservice to everyone.”

Where I’m Meant To Be will drop on November 4 via all streaming platforms.

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