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How This Artist's EP Pays Homage To A Beloved Children's Picture Book

As a Jamaican immigrant moving to the UK, Alicai Harley found herself reflected in Mary Hoffman's Amazing Grace.

Like many young Black girls raised in the UK, Alicai Harley longed to see herself represented in the books and toys around her. Moving from Kingston, Jamaica to Peckham when she was just five years old, Alicai felt widely unseen — until she found the children's picture book Amazing Grace. Nineteen years later, Alicai celebrates this moment with an homage to the book's illustration on the cover of her debut EP.

Blazing onto the UK music scene with her single "Gold" in 2017, Alicai Harley has thrived in the growing British Dancehall space. Almost 3 million streams and several incandescent songs later, the 24-year-old has released her first full body of work; Red Room Intro (Yard Gyal Inna Britain), an EP in the making since 2018. With star-studded features such as Stefflon Don on "No Drama" and South London MC Nadia Rose and Nigerian Afrobeats star Moelogo on "No Rampin," the long-awaited EP offers an enjoyable listen to quench her fans' thirst.

Speaking to BuzzFeed, Alicai recalls the moment she decided to pay homage to Amazing Grace with the EP's cover, laughing that she "just remembered the book out of nowhere."

"I always wanted my first EP cover to mean something," she explains. "I didn't just want the EP to be me sonically, but all over. Amazing Grace was my favourite book, and the first I saw with a Black girl on it. Maybe there were others, but I definitely didn't see them."

Alicai emphasises that it wasn't just about seeing herself physically reflected in Amazing Grace, but rather the empowering story showing Black girls can reach any heights they wish to that was important.

One of the first major UK-based stories focusing on a non-white child, Mary Hoffman's 1991 novel has been exalted, and holds a special place in the memories of '90s kids. The book follows Grace, a young Black girl in love with the art of storytelling. From The Jungle Book’s Mowgli to Anansi the Spider, readers learn of Grace's limitless aspirations as she confidently emulates well-known protagonists, regardless of whether their identities match hers. It was from Grace's tales, Alicai says, that she learnt to believe in herself, "even when others attempted to persuade her otherwise."

"In the book, Grace wants to be Peter Pan and is told she can't because she's a Black girl," Alicai tells BuzzFeed. "But she doesn't care. Then with the added reassurance from her mum and grandma, she does it anyway!"

Discussing her upbringing in the UK, Alicai spoke of her struggle to navigate cultural differences when she first moved from Jamaica. "I remember being in year 2 and feeling really different," she says. "I still had my accent and I made this joke — it was a Jamaican joke — and this other little girl accused me of bullying her, like she didn't get it or understand me."

"The book gave Jamaican vibes, especially Grace's relationship with her grandma," Alicai recalls of Amazing Grace. "It made me feel accepted too."

Alicai's pride in her roots is reflected in the EP's subtitle, Yard Gyal Inna Britain. "It's an EP full of bangers," Alicai says of the project, outlining how home inspired her melodic choices. "By the end of the album you definitely feel like you've been to Jamaica."

With an Ashanti sample and an infectious vigour to remind us of when we could still hit up Shoreditch, the 10-track project is full of nostalgic blasts from the past which echo better days. "I'm really glad it came out now, with the pandemic and everything," Alicai adds. "It's so joyful, and just has great energy."

As for her advice to other little girls with big dreams, Alicai says the desire to pursue those dreams is key.

"You wouldn't have the desire for it if you couldn't do it," she says. "So do it!"

Red Room Intro (Yard Gyal Inna Britain) is now available across all streaming platforms.