Saturday, November 07, 2020

MEET... Michael Kiwanuka

The gem of the English music scene, Michael Kiwanuka, just won this year’s Mercury Award for his third album Kiwanuka. Absolutely deserved in my opinion, I think I can reasonably describe it as a musical manifestation of his soul. And what better time to make everyone fall in love with him and his music a little bit more?

Born and raised in North London, he finished his A-levels in 2005 and went to study at the School of Media, Arts and Design at the University of Westminster. He spent a year at the Royal Academy of Music with aspirations of becoming a jazz guitarist but dropped out after having a less-than-stellar end of year report. It was, he says, a regular occurrence at this point in his life that he would quit when things got difficult, taking people’s put-downs as genuine. 

It was therefore that he found himself working as a session-guitarist for people like Chipmunk and Bashy while playing his solo stuff on the side at pub gigs and playing his first solo gig at the age of 22; a narrative I’m sure all fellow musicians will find all too familiar...

A pattern I noticed while reading up about how he got where he is now, is that he seems to be the posterchild for ‘it’ll happen when you least expect it’. He got the attention of Communion Records who released his first two EPs. He met increasing success in the UK supporting Adele in her 2011 tour and signed a deal with Polydor Records. He was included in the BBC’s Sound of 2012 poll and was named the winner, while also releasing his debut studio album Home Again, to positive reviews.

One would assume that this success would be gratifying but it had the opposite effect on Kiwanuka; he found himself doubting himself more heavily than ever before. When he was asked to feature in Kanye West’s Yeezus and felt intimidated and under pressure, rather than excited or elated. He says he was on the verge of calling it quits with music all together, but it was at this point he was willing to try anything to stay in the game.

This desperate situation is what gave us the song ‘Black Man in a White World’, recorded with a new producer Inflo. This demo is what hooked Grammy-winning producer Danger Mouse.

Black Man in a White World:

Ironically it was when he least expected it that he achieved the most success. This he attributes to his attitude towards making music, as spoken about in Guardian article written last year: ‘the benefit of nobody caring about you is you come up with your best stuff. You’re free.’ In 2016 he released his
follow-up album Love & Hate with Danger Mouse, which garnered him all the layers of success imaginable and is arguably one of the classic albums of the decade. He had already had his song ‘Cold Little Heart’ as the theme for the show Big Little Lies, but he saw his music featured in Atlanta, Empire and When They See Us; he saw prestigious artists watching him from the side of the stage at festivals; he had meetings at record labels scheduled during the day (a nod to him, that’s not easy to achieve).

Cold Little Heart:

(sorry Michael, had to include it, even though you’re bored to tears of people asking you to play it)

Even all this success didn’t necessarily boost his confidence: having only achieved this level of notoriety with producers Inflo and Danger Mouse he wondered whether it was all owed to them. I find this incredibly relatable, in fact everything about his journey through music I find relatable (well not the success, haven’t had much of that yet but you know what I mean). He had reached these extraordinary heights despite the internal struggles with anxiety and imposter syndrome. To add to that you have his feelings of being the outsider, a portion of which stems from the pronunciation of his last name (mispronounced by many in English and mispronounced by him according to his extended family in Uganda). He says this contributed massively to a sense of lack of belonging and not knowing who he was. That massive knot of negative emotion would be more than some could handle but his sheer talent and humility kept him thriving. That’s why I find it even more heart- warming and encouraging that he did find such success.

You Ain’t the Problem:

The beauty of all that emotional struggle was that he channelled it. In the creation of his masterful album Kiwanuka he spoke about it and used it as a theme. No doubt about it, the opening track of the album ‘You Ain’t the Problem’ speaks towards his final stand against these feelings of self-doubt.

He had reached a point where it was done letting negativity and self-doubt dominate his music and his life. I encourage you all to go listen to it if you haven’t yet. Shades of Donny Hathaway, Gil Scott- Heron, Marvin Gaye and many of the greats, with the beautiful vocal quality and masterful lyricism of a truly great musician? You really can’t go wrong with it.

I’m a fan Michael, I’m really a fan.

- Chloe Boehm



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