The soulful south Londoner on the rise and set on making gospel cool again.

South London soul singer Samm Henshaw yellow denim jacket

Jordy Bikila

South London soul singer Samm Henshaw yellow denim jacket
Jordy Bikila

Right now, Samm Henshaw is chin-down, attempting to turn the underside of his arm up to face me. He’s showing off a tattoo: specifically a small inking of a cartoon bear riding a bicycle underneath a thought bubble which reads: “this is weird.” It’s pretty random as tattoos go, but somehow suits the south London native, whose sunny soulful sound emits the kind of joy you would probably get from, well, seeing a tattoo of a bear riding a bike.

British-Nigerian Henshaw – full name Iniabasi Samuel Henshaw – hasn’t been doing the rounds for long, but has already been endorsed fervently by Pharrell, and worked and toured with the likes of Chance the Rapper, James Bay, Rag’n’Bone Man and Maverick Sabre. Oh, and he’s also just been named one of YouTube Music Ones To Watch. No small feat by any standard.

With his roots deeply embedded in gospel (he still performs at his local church where his father is a reverend), his speciality is warming, soulful pop, infiltrated with the singer’s throaty John Legend-style husk. The result is energetic, feel-good bops, accompanied with cheeky, nostalgic visuals – you know, the kind that plaster a smile to the face.

We caught up with the singer at the YouTube Space London for a live recording, and talked gospel music, Kanye, and of course, weird tattoos…

How did you get into music?
Music has always been in my life. I actually studied it at uni, which I regret as it does take the joy out of it a little bit. In fact, I think trying to take anything creative and turn it into a syllabus – you just can’t do it. But I met my manager at uni and actually started working on my first EP with my housemates there. And then I was always playing at church.

Is it true that your dad is a reverend?
Yes. Gospel was always in the house when I was growing up as I’m from a Christian background. Because of this, me and my friends didn’t know what a studio album sounded like for years, because most of the albums we grew up with were gospel albums.

What were your favourites?
The Rebirth of Kirk Franklin. I think that was a mixture of studio and live actually. That was incredible.

What do you think are the key differences between a studio and gospel album?
I think studio albums limit what you do a lot, but it’s understandable if you want to get on the radio. But then with a live setting, you can end up giving away too much of what you can do. I think the main difference is everything is a little more watered down in a studio setting.

What inspires your music?
Life experiences, the things that I’ve seen in myself or what’s going on in my life. I’m always just trying to tap into those things. There are some songs I’ve written that are about my relationships with my dad, mum, sisters, friends, girlfriends – stuff like that.

What made you want to strip back “Church” and perform it with a 6-piece gospel choir?
I like live music. I love the organic side and instruments.

How do you think your Nigerian heritage influences your music?
It’s my life. I’ve never known anything different. It’s my upbringing, so it goes into my music.

Your music is really happy and uptempo. How do you want people to feel after they’ve listened to you?
For me, I wanted to marry the juxtaposition of things sounding happy and uptempo, but also actually being able to say something. I remember Kanye used to do it, when you listen to his earlier records. I recently now am hearing the things that he was saying, songs that used to make me so happy, and then you realise he’s talking about real stuff. For me, that’s what I wanted to do. Grab these nice, warm sounds and really talk about something.

South London soul singer Samm Henshaw YouTube performance

YouTube Music / Dan Wong

South London soul singer Samm Henshaw YouTube performance
YouTube Music / Dan Wong

How do you feel about Kanye now?
I don’t pay too much attention to what he’s doing. I mean there’s things that he’s said that have definitely hurt people, but I don’t feel like that’s his intention. But who knows what’s going on in his mind. Hope he’s all right.

Who are your musical heroes?
Kanye. Mostly because of production and the stuff he worked on before his own album. I love the Common album, Be, and the early John Legend Get Lifted album – which I thought was wicked. Also Lauryn Hill.

How did it feel to be named one of YouTube Music Ones to Watch?
That was dope. So cool.

Have you expected to get where you are? Are you surprised at all?
I’m just making music and enjoying it. I’m very surprised. Like I properly started in the music industry 3 or 4 years ago, so for me to even be at the stage where people are recognising me… I went away and didn’t even put out music for two years as well!

What were you doing?
Living life, working on the music. Because I’d been touring for so long, I didn’t realise how many experiences I’d missed out in my life.

What have friends and family feedback been like?
They’re really good at keeping me grounded, like I don’t even think my mum knows what being one of YouTube Music Ones To Watch means – I genuinely think she doesn’t care. My mum tries to act supportive but I’ve kind of got to push her. I didn’t have a job a couple of years ago! So she’s supportive in her own special way. My dad’s more the one who cheers me on. My sisters are cool about it. With my little sister, it makes me like a million times cooler to her. Big brother points.

What would you do if you weren’t able to make music?
I’ve always been into writing stories. So I probably would have ended up scriptwriting for films, or creating a book.

South London soul singer Samm Henshaw YouTube live performance
South London soul singer Samm Henshaw YouTube gospel live choir
South London soul singer Samm Henshaw YouTube live performance
YouTube Music / Dan Wong
South London soul singer Samm Henshaw YouTube gospel live choir

Do you prefer the energy of touring or more stripped-back sets?
Touring, easily. I was brought up on live stuff. I still play at church every Sunday. I’m used to energy.

If you could go back in time and make any song, what would it be?
“Can You Stand the Rain” by New Edition.

Karaoke song of choice?
I’ve actually never done karaoke before. The closest thing I’ve come to is singing on the tour bus with the boys whilst someone’s got their phone plugged in. But it would be “Living on a Prayer” by Bon Jovi, that’s a big tune.

Tell us something surprising about you?
I have 6 tattoos.

What’s the weirdest one?
They’re all weird. With my first tattoo, I honestly got it because I wanted to know what one would feel like. I was like, just do a circle. This is another weird one. A bear on a bike with a thought bubble thinking “this is weird.” That one can get the crown for the weirdest tattoo.

What’s next for you?
There’s a lot of cool stuff that I can’t actually say just yet. Hopefully an album!

Maybelle Morgan