Michael Kiwanuka interview: “Young black men can easily get into quite dangerous circles – black people know what it’s like”
He’s the London singer-songwriter once lumped alongside the inoffensive likes of Mumford & Sons. But with his new, self-titled album, Michael Kiwanuka has crafted a complex and enormously ambitious soul record that nods to idols such as Gil Scott-Heron. “A lot of this album,” he says, “is about feeling confident in yourself and comfortable in your own skin”
“All my nights and all my days / I’ve been trying the wrong way”, Michael Kiwanuka sings on ‘Black Man In A White World’, the quietly subversive pop song that appeared on his stellar 2016 album ‘Love & Hate’. A beautifully restrained tale of racial prejudice and a gentle exploration of identity, it’s one of the singer-songwriter’s most distinctive and best-known tracks.
Yet, dogged by self-doubt, he’s often – somewhat surprisingly – considered cutting it from his live shows.
“There are some times where I wanna take it out the set list,” he tells NME, “because I’m worried about the reaction. If I’m playing, for example, in Indianapolis, in America, where hardly any black people listen to my music, they may not have heard that one and sometimes people get the wrong end of the stick. I’ve seen some comments online where it’s like, ‘Oh, this guy’s racist.’ But then other days I’m feeling confident and don’t care. I’ve got a good band who’ll say, ‘Why is that not in the set?’, and I’ll be like, ‘Oh, OK, I’ll put it back in’.
This is a good introduction to mild-mannered 32-year-old Michael Kiwanuka, whom NME meets in a ratty east London walk-up that turns out to be an unexpectedly lush studio, where we spend an afternoon chatting, taking photos and listening to the music of one of his heroes, Gil Scott-Heron.
Kiwanuka’s own richly rewarding music explores identity and self-knowledge with commitment and verve, but he has previously struggled to overcome a lack of confidence. The London musician’s hit debut album, ‘Home Again’, released in 2012, was a genteel folk collection that saw him filed next to the likes of Mumford & Sons. You know: easy on the ears, not likely to alarm your nan.
Yet ‘KIWANUKA’, his upcoming third record, released today (November 1), is a lush, soulful and complex statement of intent that recently received the full-five star treatment from NME.
Opener ‘You Ain’t The Problem’ is a dizzying soul number threaded with through a joyous vocal refrain (“La la la la la la la!”), the psych-influenced ‘Hero’ explores racially charged police brutality (“It’s on the news again / I guess they killed another”) and the hushed, spacious ‘Light’ conveys a blissed-out feeling of self-acceptance (“All my fears, baby, are gone gone”). This is a generously crafted tapestry of sounds that, crucially, has a massive amount to say.
It’s no accident that Michael Kiwanuka’s most assured album is self-titled, he explains: “A lot of this record is about how you get to an age where you feel confident in yourself and comfortable in your own skin. You’re not trying as hard to be accepted. The songs were feeling a bit more boisterous than the ones on my previous albums. I thought, ‘What’s a bold way to describe this album?’”
‘You Ain’t The Problem’ is a message to himself. “The first few collaborations I did [with other musicians],“ he says, “I would second-guess what I thought someone wanted me to sound like. I’d forgotten that if you’re called to do a collaboration, they want you.
“It’s like when you ask someone out and they say no, so you try to be exactly what they want you to be. You always get caught out, because you can’t help but be yourself. Eventually you speak to someone else who’s like, ‘Wow! You’re perfect!’ The more I just stayed doing me, the more it worked out.”
Back 2013, Kiwanuka received the call from one Kanye West, a musician not exactly renowned for self-doubt. Work was underway on the record that would become West’s masterful ‘Yeezus’, and Kiwanuka was summoned to Hawaii to join the ragtag gang (including Travis Scott, then a rising star, and Chicago rap don Rhymefest) kicking ideas about in a sprawling, scruffy studio.
“People were in and out 24/7,” he says, “just looking through records and finding beats. It’s a complete creative free-for-all. If you come up with an idea, you’ll go into the room and play it for everyone, and it might be cool. Kanye was so hard-working – he’d just work for like 20 hours. That’s a camp that definitely celebrates individuality.”
At that time, though, Kiwanuka was second-guessing himself. “Those first five [Kanye] albums are untouchable. It’s like – why do you want me? So it was super intimidating with all these legends are just walking around.” One day, unable to assert himself, Kiwanuka simply wandered off, leaving his guitar in the studio, and none of his material made the finished album.
“I’m a big football fan,” he says, “and that’s like getting signed by Man U or Barcelona, but you don’t make the first team. You think: what would have happened?”
With ‘KIWANUKA’, though, “the penny dropped… With ‘Love & Hate’ and ‘Home Again’ [his second album, released in 2016], I always had that imposter syndrome that someone was gonna figure me out. In the process of making this album, I got so tired of that way of thinking. I thought: ‘I’ve really got to nip that in the bud.’ You miss the best thing ever because you’re not present – you’re over-thinking.”
Much of Kiwanuka’s self-doubt, he says, stems from childhood. He and his older brother grew up in Muswell Hill, an affluent part of north London, after his mum and dad moved from Uganda.
“They knew that, especially with young black men, you can easily get into quite dangerous circles,” he says. “They were trying to avoid that so that me and my brother wouldn’t fall into a difficult crowd. Black people know what it’s like. There’s a cycle. They wanted us to go to a good school; Africans are really into education. My mum was pretty clever and she found a way out. They found a converted flat in Muswell Hill and me and my brother shared a room. My mum and dad did it all for us, really.”
The trappings of north London were no doubt beneficial (“everyone had big houses,” he says, “with two cars and a playroom as well as their own room, which means you’ve got a place to rehearse… I think people underestimate what environment does”) but left him with something of an identity crisis.
“When we went to Uganda,” he says, “I couldn’t speak the language, so people knew we were English. At the market they’d haggle you more for stuff because they’d think you’re loaded because you’re from England. But then when we were back home we were black guys, we were African, so it was like, ‘What the hell? Where am I fitting into this?’”
It didn’t help that, before the internet tore down certain social silos and streaming made genres look quaint, some people were confused that he could be a black kid who loved guitar music.
“I’m a black man and the music I make isn’t necessarily specific to who I could be typecast as,” he says. “I was into guitar and rock’n’roll music, as well as soul, jazz and ‘70s music. People were like, ‘Your music taste is crazy!’ People thought I was this crazy weird black guy from Muswell Hill that plays guitar. They assumed I was this rich kid and that I didn’t understand anything. I was always desperate to be a bit bland. I don’t know why you would want that… Maybe you just think you’re gonna have an easier life and no-one’s gonna mention things.”
As a teenager Kiwanuka – improbably, in retrospect, given the understated nature of his own work – became as a session musician for rappers such as Chipmunk, although it soon emerged that he was ill-equipped for the world of UK rap. “It wasn’t me,” he explains. “I knew that I wanted to get paid to make music and be a professional, so I had these gigs. They were great and I loved them, but I knew it just wasn’t right. There was no music out there that I would play that really represented me. I was looking for a folk-soul, ‘70s inspired artist…”
So Michael Kiwanuka became the artist that he grew up wanting to see on stage, in magazines and on TV, an act of self-creation that is the genesis of so many brilliant pop stars. Or as he puts it: “I think that a lot of creative people create stuff because there isn’t a lot that represents them, so you have to make it yourself.”
Around the time of that first album, he says, “All I had was my acoustic guitar an the thoughts in my head. The song from my first album are, in a good way, very pure and naïve and innocent. Then with ‘Love & Hate’ and ‘KIWANUKA’ you’re thrown into this juggernaut. The resources have grown.”
Those resources – bigger budgets, fancier studios – have resulted in a third album that conveys enormous ambition.
Where ‘Home Again’ was accessible and obviously designed for mainstream consumption, ‘Love & Hate’ and ‘Kiwanuka’ play with more eccentric and experimental elements: the former opens with the 10-minute ‘Cold Little Heart’ and the latter features ‘Final Days’, a melancholy neo-soul number that begins with a fabulously weird instrumental intro (a warped vocal burbles behind rolling piano and distorted percussion that rasps away like Daffy Duck).
Does he enjoying seeing what he can get away with inside the confines of an accessible record?
“Ultimately I think being subversive is one of the funnest things to do with creativity,” Kiwanuka explains. “I think that what art’s for. Even simple things – like you can have loads of colours and then one colour that pops. In a way that’s a really simple version of being subversive, to me. It’s a way of describing something that you can’t express in day-to-day life.
“That’s why I think art’s so good: it makes you tackle things that you’re probably not allowed to tackle at a dinner party. Life is very much – especially in England – stiff-upper-lip and art’s a way to just conjure something that you can just say. Good movies are like that. Paintings, fashion, photographs – whatever it is. You know when you hear a really nice upbeat song, but when you listen to it and the lyrics are so heart-breaking? They’re the best songs, and for me that’s kind of subversive.”
Kiwanuka has said in previous interviews about that teachers at school struggled to pronounce his name, another reason that his self-titled album means so much to him: “My name, for me, represents quite a lot about my background, my history. It celebrates my uniqueness and says I’m OK with being a bit different, being myself. Kiwanuka is not a common name on the UK, it’s a Ugandan name, and [the album title] is about being first-generation African.”
Raised as a Christian, he has woven religious imagery into all three of his albums (from ‘I’m Getting Ready’, taken from his first record: “Lord, I’m getting ready to believe”) but Kiwanuka is somewhat shy of the R word.
“For me religion is one of those things you’re forced to do by your parents,” he says. “Which I respect if that’s your thing, but what I’m really interested in is what I would describe as faith and a hopefulness and a reason for the spiritual things in life, the things that guide you. Those are the things that help you make music.
“Where does music come from? I’ve always thought that that stuff is crazy, beyond mankind. Music has 12 notes. For me that’s not a very big number. And yet we’ve had so much different music from the beginning of time. I just don’t understand how that can happen. Music is limitless, but you can’t touch it, so for me it’s something spiritual. That leads me to believe in God.”
Ultimately, it’s this faith that has helped Michael Kiwanuka find the strength to follow his own muse.
“That faith allows you to stay strong with the decision to write a song like ‘Black Man In A White World’,” he explains. “Even if you’re like, ‘What am I doing?’, it helps you stand out and not be so worried for acceptance because you’ve got something driving you that’s way bigger and stronger than the acceptance of, like, your buddy. It gives you strength to be unique.”