“When I was younger, I thought that you could, like, infiltrate from the inside, this Babylon ting,” says psychedelic neo-soul and R’n’B superstar in the making Greentea Peng, speaking of her politically fired-up formative years as a member of the UK Youth Parliament.
The Bermondsey-born now 27-year-old’s ambition to one day become prime minister fell by the wayside after she hit a rough patch in her mid-teens.
Torn between her divorced parents’ homes in London and Hastings, bullied at school, self-confidence shattered – “I hate to make my shit sound dramatic because there’s always someone worse off,” she hastens to add – Greentea Peng lost her passion for music, dropped out of education at 17 and fell into a hedonistic and destructive party lifestyle. But don’t assume that her ambition to try and make a more harmonic world was abandoned along the way.
Her debut album Man Made was recorded at 432Hz, the fabled frequency a semitone below music industry standard which some believe to vibrate a special healing energy. “This whole experience,” she says, “this whole journey through music for me has been a healing experience.”
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It took leaving Britain to go travelling with money saved from bar tending, not knowing if she would ever return, for Greentea Peng to get a grip on her problems.
She inadvertently rekindled a love and a talent for music shaped during childhood by the influence of her theatre actor father and through singing in school and church choirs.
While working at a yoga self-help retreat in Tulum, Mexico, a life-altering thing happened. One evening, after a few fortifying tequilas, she rediscovered her voice at an open-mic session, singing Lily Allen’s Smile.
The band that night, Los Hedonistas, invited her to join on an ongoing basis, singing covers at beachfront bars and hotels; suddenly Greentea Peng was earning her living as a musician, and she hasn’t looked back.
Releasing her own music since 2018 under the name that was inspired by a box of Green Tea Seng bought at a Peruvian chemist, crossed with a British slang word for attractive, Greentea Peng’s star has been on the rise and rise.
Her performance of the Owen Cutts-produced track Downers on YouTube channel COLORS in 2019 has been viewed 11 million times.
Last year she guested on The Streets’ track I Wish You Loved You as Much As You Love Him and made her very memorable TV debut singing the smoky-sashaying HuMan in a massive fur hat on Later… With Jools Holland. The BBC’s Sound of 2021 poll of music critics and industry insiders tipping breakout names for the year ahead placed Greentea Peng fourth.
Swirling around Greentea Peng’s head and through her songs are questions of identity, place and belonging. Her parents are mixed race, both born in London. Her dad is “English-Iraqi,” she explains, her mum “Trinidadian, European, Jewish”. “It’s all mixed up,” she reflects. “But I think that’s like a lot of people these days.”
Travel is vital to her, as a means of staying mentally balanced – “It’s good for the psyche”. Greentea Peng’s life has subsequently become semi-nomadic, seeing her gather stamps on her passport (she speaks over video call from Barcelona, where she spends a lot of her time) almost as rapidly as she gathers tattoos on her body (she’s lost count of how many of them she has).
Britain will always be a home, but she finds the concept of Britishness and national identity in general as “limiting”.
She feels far more of a Londoner than she does British, particularly since Brexit laid bare the stark differences in international outlook among different regions of the UK. But her sense of personal identity is even bigger than that, transcending nations, even the planet.
“I feel more like a citizen of the Earth,” muses Greentea Peng. “And even beyond the Earth. All the borders and passports, all this shit, is just stuff created by man to prohibit, you know what I mean? Actually, in a grander scale, citizens of a cosmos is more exciting, innit?”
What The Connor Brothers say
If you believe that when Adam ate the apple in The Garden of Eden he instigated a battle between good and evil that would play out over millennia, and that this age-old war would reach its’ terrible zenith this century, when the devil invented Love Island, social media, and whatever influencers are, and it seemed all hope was lost, then you’ll have been as relieved as we were when Greentea Peng arrived on the scene and instantly evened the odds.
In a world where pretty much everyone is pretending to be someone else, Greentea Peng is entirely herself.
This article is from the exclusive Connor Brothers takeover of The Big Issue, which is out now.Get the special edition, full of custom artwork and sure to be a collector’s item, from your local vendor or from The Big Issue Shop.
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