Central Cee, the UK’s biggest rap star: ‘I have survivor’s guilt. I don’t feel I deserve this

He’s gone from dealing drugs to having No 1 hits and vying with Harry Styles for Brit awards. As he gears up for his first US gig in New York, he explains his conflicted morality – and £3m house

Central Cee as he takes on one of American hip-hop’s rites of passage: a show in New York City’s Irving Plaza. The London rapper’s first two mixtapes – Wild West, from 2021, and 23, from 2022 – debuted at No 2 and No 1 in the UK, and he was nominated for British artist of the year at this year’s Brits alongside Harry Styles and Stormzy. Cee specialises in expressive streams of consciousness that contain a matrix of paradoxes – romantic and realist, hard and unguarded, nostalgic and present – and, crucially, he’s boyband-pretty. But while he has been a UK sensation for some time, this is his first concert in the US.

Help is on hand from the biggest rapper in the world, Drake, who sent his own tour technician to make sure Cee has a smooth stint on the road. “Drake said: ‘Take care of him,’” the roadie says before the show, acknowledging the difficulties Cee faces. “In America, getting into UK hip-hop is tough, unless you’re really into it.” But the 24-year-old has made short work of any obstacles thus far; Cee refers to his music as “ignorantly conscious”, and that clashing dichotomy is what has made it so infectious.

In the hours before Cee goes on, his team preps the backstage ambience to his liking, which includes a few unusual items for a rapper, most notably a Diptyque scented candle. (He loves candles.) Reclining on the sofa in a Yankees fitted cap, a puffer jacket and grey sweatpants, he does a lot of talking with his hands, one of which is filled with overlapping script tattoos and the number 23 across his ring and little fingers. Removing his coat reveals a bulky, diamond-studded chain that says Live Yours. “I read the comments [online], but only because I’m stable enough,” he says at one point. “What they say matters, but it doesn’t really mean nothing to my ego. Music is not my life. I’ve recorded one song this year; we’re nearly three months in.”

Born Oakley Neil HT Caesar-Su to an Irish mother and a Guyanese father, Cee was raised in Shepherd’s Bush, west London. He says his mother’s parents were well off and that she went to boarding school, but she met Cee’s dad, a hustler, when she was 15, and started a relationship, rebelling against her parents’ wishes. The wealth she had once known quickly ran dry. “There’s people who grew up on the same roads and have flown straight, but me, I was distracted by the hardship,” Cee says. “I could see everything negative in front of me. And that’s what led me to rap.” He picked up writing poetry aged eight from his mum, prompted by his desire for the things he didn’t have: a phone, a bike, clothes. He remembers when £10,000 was a lifetime goal.

He compares his approach with that of the Louisiana rapper NBA YoungBoy. “There’s a lot of people that will testify that he’s shit because there’s no science to his thing, musically. What I think sells is his personality and his vulnerability in the music,” he says, having an epiphany. “Actually, that probably influenced me a lot.” Even through a muted delivery, he can convey many things concurrently. “When I rap, I’m in a neutral mood and I can relate to everything, every emotion that I’ve ever felt.”

There is a moral panic surrounding drill music around the world: some see it as an accelerant to violence. Cee won’t defend it from the pearl-clutchers, but he does laud its liberatory power for those that make it. “I’m super aware of the blessing this is having on my little community,” he says. “Just me succeeding is opening many doors, many more opportunities for good for the people that’s around. It trickles down.”

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