When Rehan Islam was asked about his interests during a graduate interview with Goldman Sachs, he told them straight up - he likes to rap. Rather than a raised eyebrow and a quick note on his CV, the interviewer issued a challenge - show me what you can do. It worked.
“I mentioned that I rap in my first trading interview and they asked me to perform. They liked it," he says. "You may think everyone going into the City fits in a certain box, but for a banker all graduate CVs start to blend into one, and they want to see something different.”
Islam joined Goldman Sachs as an analyst in structured finance trading in 2010, and moved to a similar role at Societe Generale in 2013. But in September he quit SocGen and left banking. Now, he's not only started his own fintech company, but has also released a new rap album focused on his time on the trading floor. Islam has swapped baggy leisurewear and ostentatious jewellery for a straight grey suit and a Canary Wharf backdrop. And the album - Fire In The Belly - is an introspective look at his time during the City.
“It might seem esoteric to rap about trading and Wall Street, but it sits within the tradition of the genre," he says. "Rapping about your reality, your emotions within that reality and being introspective is what’s important. That reality can be the trading floor of an investment bank or the Queensbridge projects in New York.”
At times, Islam is rapping about the excitement of working on a trading floor:
I see plenty men that look wealthy and plenty that look with envy
and plenty that made a milly by their late twenties
High fives, cheers, boisterous sounds
Traders banging phones and kicking over tables it's loud
At other points in the album, he seems to regret his decision to go into finance:
There’s a kind of emptiness rotting my brain
And deep down in my belly I don’t feel any flames
But do I have the right to complain
I just followed the path that was placed in my way
Despite this, Islam says he's not taking a "stance" on investment banking.
"I’m just exploring how I felt and how that evolved," he says. "I used to sit behind Bloomberg screens thinking of rhymes as a way to unwind. I'm interested in the idea of using rap to explore emotions and drama in professional environments the way TV shows and movies have done. Hopefully, that’s positive for the City.”
Islam grew up in Saudi Arabia, where he says U.S. rap is very popular, but moved to the UK to attend London School of Economics (LSE) in 2005. He studied a BSc in Economics, before taking a Masters in Management and Economics there and graduating in 2009. In other words, he's the type of student that banks look to hire. Studying at LSE, you are quickly surrounded by banks' graduate recruiters, he says, and people make a decision to move into financial services without really thinking about their reasons why.
“You’re always competing for the next round in a tournament," he says. "You need to get the best grades to get into the best university, to get a top banking job and then the best title, which in trading these days means being very specialised. Add to this the bleak outlook for trading jobs and the proposition isn't as attractive. The mindsets of the artist and the entrepreneur are more attuned to learning new things, solving problems and creativity.”
Islam's reflection on life in the City should resonate with a lot of young analysts, he says.
"On one level, the music might appeal to the analyst on their commute to work wondering why they are working in investment banking. But I think it’s universal – we all chase goals, we all have to pay the bills and our work is an important factor in our emotional well-being. I’m reflecting on the ups and downs that come with it,” he says.
Now, Islam has a few ventures running - a social media marketing agency, a peer-to-peer lender - but he's also using rap for career advice. He's starting a series of talks which he says are "TED talks crossed with rap", where he performs the songs and expands on some career lessons belying the music. Right now, the target is university finance societies, but he hopes to get some City firms on board too.
Rap career advice touring investment banks? Surely this is a far cry away from the impoverished roots of the genre. But Islam disagrees.
“Rap has matured. You should be able to do well at school and university and be a professional and still relate your experiences to the music you listen to," he says. "Rap is poetry and art to me. I like the idea of playing a role - however small - in expanding its frontiers, in terms of which context it can be applied to.”