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'I struggled before I started music': Wasps' hip hop 128kg prop

By Liam Heagney
(Photo from Shoot Music)

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Biyi Alo cracked up in a fit of laughter the other day when RugbyPass asked if the Wasps tighthead had ever been tempted to psyche out an opposing loosehead by singing some of his self-penned hip-hop tunes while their heads are locked together in a Gallagher Premiership scrum. For three years now, the Londoner has been exploring the balladeer side to his personality, but on-pitch singing is a twist he has yet to try.

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There have been distractions during the warm-ups for some home games. Wildboys, the first track on the Heartbreak 4 Brekky EP he released last year, is often part of the pre-game stadium PA playlist at the now named Coventry Building Society Arena. That for sure gives Alo “a nice little bounce in his step” as he goes through the various routines involved in getting pumped for a Wasps match.

But mind games via singing? It’s something he hasn’t auditioned yet. “No, that has never crossed my mind,” he said during a lengthy music-cum-rugby chat over Zoom with RugbyPass ahead of this Sunday’s top-flight derby match at home to Northampton. “I’m not sure what someone would do if that happened.

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Jonny Hill guests on the latest RugbyPass Offload
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Jonny Hill guests on the latest RugbyPass Offload

“When I started making music, one of my worries was that someone would use it against me as trash talk in a game but that hasn’t happened so far and I don’t think it would really affect me now. I spoke to the DoR last year [Lee Blackett] about it because he is very supportive of the music.

“He was, ‘Go and do it if it helps you. If that is where you get your release and that is a part of your personality, then go and do it and if there is anything negative said out on the pitch, you just get back at them with how good your songs are’. So he really gave me confidence that if anyone has any rubbish chat to say I can counteract that.”

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Alo making his way up the music charts is no gimmick. Not only has he got a catchy sound but his lyrics are also powerful and very personal. All the more inspiring is the backstory of how his initial foray into the business in 2018 was the invaluable stepping stone that helped him move on from a dark period of his life. On the pitch he was struggling to get a handle on pro rugby after graduating from the Saracens academy, going on to be listed as the Premiership’s heaviest player in 2017 at Worcester where he tipped the scales at a gigantic 143kgs. But away from the pitch was an even more pressing issue.

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“I struggled a little before I started music. Everything came to that point where I needed an outlet and the music came then because mental health, especially in young males and black young males in this country, is something which I am glad there has been more light shone on it recently because it is very important and sometimes it can get swept under the carpet in the world we live in, where sportsmen are these tough guys and if you are having any struggles it is, ‘Get over it’. But the effect that that has on the mind and lifestyle is massive.

“I touch upon it in my songs. It is important to understand how you feel and if you need help it is important to go and reach out and speak. It could even just be a friend, a loved one, just anybody to offload whatever emotion it could be. It could be just you have a cup of coffee and talk it out and you are fine or it could be deeper than that, but the first step is to understand how you feel and why you are feeling that and then work with that, work through it.

“I was in quite a turbulent relationship around that time and I didn’t realise it could have that much of an effect on me because I was always happy, smiley, fun, always up for anything and when I got into that relationship, it was quite a long one and it affected me a lot more than I thought. Then I had family burdens and all that stuff, so there were a whole load of factors that came together, as there is with anybody’s life, and if you have not dealt with anything before, if you don’t have examples on how to deal with it, it can take quite a toll.

“You feel like your situation is unique and you feel like nobody would ever understand what this is and you get in your own head and get embarrassed and you don’t want to share and stuff like that but talking and music definitely helped massively.”

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In turn, Alo’s music is now helping others. “There are a few things, mainly on Instagram, younger lads messaging saying they like a certain song and how it has affected them in a certain way and helped them with their own relationship struggles, helped them with family issues.

“There are a couple of people I go back and forth with and check on. When somebody messages about a song and says they really connected with it I make sure I go back and forth with them over the next few months to see if they are alright, how they are doing? Whenever I get a message from a complete stranger who says a song really resonates with them, it really makes it worthwhile.

“My sound mainly comes from the lyricism and the content of the songs. The beat changes are to appeal to different people, but the main message is always something introspective, something deep, something about feeling, about emotion, maybe relationships with friends or significant others. It always comes through in any message in the songs regardless of what the beat sounds like, so I try to keep that consistent.

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“I have written everything myself and I’d say I have developed quite a bit because in 2018 I wasn’t working with any specific producers, I was just finding beats off YouTube and hitting people up on Instagram. Now I have pretty much got a team with production and we have started putting out a couple of music videos which I didn’t even think about back then because the effort and the expertise that go into a music video is a lot. But I have progressed quite nicely. I’m putting out bodies of work with heavy visual aspects to them, so the progression is pretty evident in the quality of the sound and the visuals.”

Alo’s latest release is called Lately and his most streamed song is Good Intentions, the very first thing he wrote, but the harmonies and melodies mean that Lovebow, a song from last year’s EP, is his favourite yet. Where might it all take him in the future, who knows? “I just plan to just constantly keep making music and see where that takes me.

“With the things I am learning it is something that I want to be involved in for as long as I can because I find it great the way it connects people, the way it can be a personal outlet and the way you can just express yourself and the different sounds and the visual aspects of it, videos and all that sort of stuff. I am literally in love with the art of it. For as long as I can I am happy to make music, be involved in music, listen to music and all that sort of stuff.”

When it comes to tunes at Wasps, seemingly Jacob Umaga is always on the speaker getting “a nice balance” for the boys warming up. Their tastes are eclectic, but any Oasis song is a hit. “We have got a few northern boys that really champion that,” said Alo, who added that his rugby colleagues have been genuinely supportive of his music.

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“Surprisingly they have taken to it a lot better than I imagined. I was expecting loads of banter, but everyone is just proud to see one of their teammates actually stepping out into a field which we don’t shed much light on in the rugby world. Some people are massive Oasis fans and don’t go anywhere near hip hop but they are reciting my lyrics back to me as I walk past them at the training ground and in the club. People are very nice about it. No one has been really horrible to me.”

That is wonderful to hear given how anxious Alo was starting out. “I was the most nervous guy ever in 2018. I was a guy who was face value and would laugh off any struggles, make a joke about anything I found difficult. To then put that in a song, I was really nervous. I was like, ‘I’m a tighthead prop, do I really want to come across as this guy who has all these deep feelings?’

“But I’m really glad I did dive into that because all of my friends were so supportive, it was like a pleasant surprise and a shock that I could actually verbalise all these things I was thinking about and put them in a song. The response to it took away all of that nervousness because people could relate straight away and they were proud of me for taking that step and sharing my art and feelings with the world.”

Switching to rugby, propping has always been the thing for the 27-year-old who first played aged eleven at his grammar school. “It was mainly because my close friends were into rugby so I was if I want to keep being friends with them I had to be good at rugby… I was a very big kid. It worked for and against me at times because when you are younger you can just run through everybody but then your fitness has to get up, you can’t just keep getting bigger and bigger. I was a bit of a lump at school but it was alright, I was a friendly gentle giant.”

Size became a delicate issue, though, at Worcester. He joined them via Bedford after graduating from the Saracens academy, and it has only been at Wasps that he is now fulfilling his potential since 2019 following another Championship pitstop at Coventry. “I was quite heavy at Worcester,” Alo explained. “It was a combination of everything that was going on. My mental health wasn’t great and I wasn’t really taking myself as seriously as I should have been.

“I am really healthy now, in the best state of my life because I wasn’t in a great place then. I just ignored stuff, let stuff build and just wasn’t having the best coping mechanisms and I then had a bit of a health scare at the end of the season in 2018. After that it taught me to appreciate my life and my body a lot more, a lot better, because I started to realise you have only got one life, you have only got one body and you might as well end up being the best version of yourself.

“This pre-season just gone by was my best so far. I maybe only missed one session when I rolled my ankle. I have started to work hard and appreciate that if I am going to do rugby, if I want to succeed at it and I don’t want to let the team down, I have got to be in the best shape possible and take care of myself. That was the main driver for me in the off-season. I didn’t want to come back in bad shape and let my team down because I know this season is a big one for the club. That drove me to stay on top of everything and I have managed to get good routines, so I hopefully will stay in good shape and get better.”

The Wasps website lists Alo at 120kgs, 23kgs less than his record high at Worcester. “That would be very flattering. I’m about 128kgs now. The weight definitely helps in the dark arts of the scrum. You want to be heavy because sometimes some teams come out with nasty strategies where they try to isolate your hooker and loosehead on you, so the weight definitely does help when it comes to scrum time. I’d say I have got a good balance of it now.”

Finally to Alo’s roots. He is London born and bred but a son of Nigerian parents and he was chuffed last year when Maro Itoje selected him in a notional British Nigerian XV made up of current players in the Premiership. “That was so nice of Maro, so kind of him to include me. I’m of Nigerian heritage, I was born in West London and grew up here, but my heritage is Nigerian and it’s great to see there are so many Nigerians playing the sport in England and there are other black people playing the sport at all grades.

“Diversity in representation is massively important because as a kid or an impressionable teenager if you don’t see people like you somewhere you are going to naturally struggle to believe you are wanted there and that you can be celebrated there rather than just tolerated. That is how I see it.

“The representation we have for the younger generation is great and it gives them confidence going forward, that they can relate to it and be inspired to do whatever it is. That goes for every other walk of life, whatever you are in, whether it is acting, finance, law, whatever. If you see that one person who looks like you, you might think that is a space where I can be celebrated and it can give you that drive and energy to push on with it.”

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