“My privacy doesn’t necessarily come from a place of being shy,” Kwaye says down the phone. “It’s more so maybe from a place of not wanting to be misunderstood. I’m very careful with my words when I’m talking in a public setting, or even talking with friends. But when it comes to music, it gives me the freedom through lyrics, melodies, and chord progression to intricately tell a personal story in the most expressive and expansive way possible.” For his forthcoming new project, the British-Zimbabwean artist has leaned into that approach and then some.
It was 2017 when Kwaye first grabbed our attention with his buoyant debut single Cool Kids. It’s the song that caught the ear of an Uber driver a few years previous while Kwaye was studying abroad in Los Angeles. The driver was a former A&R exec who put him in touch with a label head, and shortly after Kwaye found himself signing his first deal. His follow-up singles Little Ones and Sweetest Life became even more popular, amassing millions of streams and gaining him a loyal following. In 2018, a second EP – Love & Affliction – was released, but then by the end of that same year it all went quiet.
Behind the scenes, Kwaye made the decision to take some time to ask himself, “Am I in the right place? Am I on the right trajectory?” He acknowledges that everyone should take a minute to reflect and assess where their life is at in those moments. “It was very important to step back from the journey and really realign myself and ask some hard-hitting questions personally,” Kwaye says. “This is the passion, this is what I’ve chosen, this is what I’ve been blessed to do in terms of telling my story in this way – but is everything in my environment working the best for me right now to tell the story the best I can? I needed to take some time to make sure that all the energy is there, and all the right energy is forming. That was only going to benefit myself and it was only going to benefit the fans, the listeners and the people who are at the receiving end of the music.”
Not only was this time an opportunity for reflection, it resulted in a period of transition for the artist. Kwaye parted ways with his label, making the decision to go independent to gain complete freedom of how he tells his story through his next project. For those of you who have been with Kwaye from the very start of his career, you’ll also know that the sound of the new music and the tone of the narrative has more weight. As Kwaye puts it himself, he went “deep, deep, deep into the core of [himself]” to confront the more challenging thoughts and feelings that had been stowed away. It was a period of rediscovery. “I dove deeper into the core of who I am in this present time, and that involved looking beyond the pleasantries and the good vibes and the amazing extroverted, people-loving energy that I like to put out into the world,” he explains. “It meant looking beyond that into uncomfortable territory.
“It made for an honest discovery, both for myself and for the environment around us,” Kwaye adds. “A lot happened in those two years and I took a step back to really realise that. I would say those were two of the most poignant years in this generation in terms of what happened in the world. There was COVID and lockdown and even the events leading up to that with so many things happening around the globe politically and environmentally, from Australia to Brazil. So I took a step back and then I was charged by going through those unpleasant moments, and kind of figuring out who I am now. How I’ve been affected by certain things. Dealing with trauma going back. The deeper I went into myself, the more connected and empathetic I was to the world around me. It actually shook me out of a writer’s block that I was feeling towards the end of 2019 into 2020.”
This journey, Kwaye teases, forms the basis of his long-awaited next project. As last year’s single Run indicates, this is truly a new era for Kwaye in every sense. The synths are more urgent, the production is more cinematic, and the message is a battle cry for resolution and survival. As far as reintroductions go, they don’t get much more epic than this. “I say often that revolution starts within, so be present before you show up,” Kwaye says. “Run is such a monster of a production, but when you decipher through the noise and layers, there’s a really emotional and lyrical story. It’s very layered. It’s about the relationship between mothers and sons, it touches on masculinity and inner-city culture, and feelings of displacement. Trying to navigate this idea of family and duty, but being true to who you are. All of that is why I wanted to lead with it.”
For Kwaye, Run reflected his own personal process of looking inwards to better understand what he needed to say as a person and an artist at this time in his life. “There was so much noise and clutter and clouds and layers to break through,” he says. “It felt overwhelming at first. Run, as a song, probably was challenging to a lot of listeners who are used to a very different sound from me. The authenticity of the lyrics and the story I’ve got to tell is right there, but you have to challenge yourself to listen through this new sound to get to the place I am. And if you can get there, then you’re right there in the core with me and we can experience the rest of that journey together.”
When it came to the second beat of this new era, Kwaye turned to a song five years in the making. Back in 2016, a then 21-year-old Kwaye wrote Runaway; a song that explores the fear and pressure that comes with living openly as your authentic self. Years later when Kwaye was figuring out what he wanted to say for his next project, he knew he had to return to this particular track. “I needed to be who I am now to put that song out into the world,” he says. Following the grand production of first single Run, Kwaye knew that Runaway had to be stripped back to offer an intimate and more concentrated moment of vulnerability. “It’s a journey of rediscovery and it’s going through all the layers to get there,” he says. “It was important for me to show that contrast almost straight away.” Remarkably, the song remains completely unchanged from when Kwaye first wrote it. Those feelings that he had back then feel just as relevant for him now in this new chapter of his life. “The only thing I did was sing it again.”
Although the production is light, Kwaye’s soul-baring lyrics weigh heavy. In his vocals you can hear an artist who is digging into his emotions and confronting long unspoken truths. There’s a rawness rarely captured to this great effect. Naturally, the themes will resonate with LGBTQ+ listeners who have, at some point their lives, had to do some soul-searching themselves. “I hope the song is a reminder that we as humans are multifaceted beings capable of love and deep joy in light of the pain and hardship we may face in our personal experiences,” Kwaye tells me. “That song in particular encapsulates the heaviness you put on yourself to have these difficult conversations with those you love. I’d even say on that point, when you are aware enough of yourself to even contemplate having these conversations with the people that you love in your life, being aware of that is already such a feat of strength, if nothing else. To just see and acknowledge yourself is a very powerful thing.
“I always try to remind myself and remind others that the spirit of comparison is the enemy. You should never compare yourself with anyone but yourself,” Kwaye continues. “Never allow anyone or anything tell you that who you are is less than or wrong. Even if you’re trying to come to terms with who you are, trying to be at peace with who you believe you are, the simple fact that you acknowledge yourself and you are aware of yourself is a winning battle already – regardless of who may or may not agree with that.”
Kwaye is acutely aware of his fortune by having music as an outlet to be able to work through these busy, complex and sometimes confrontational thoughts and feelings. “It is cathartic,” he says. “As a musician, what else would you call music apart from it being a release or a refuge? We’re feeling things, experiencing things internally and externally, and then we are releasing that musically. It’s medicine, it’s healing, it’s storytelling, it’s totally necessary. Without some sort of release, we are alone with our experiences and we can get so heavily burdened with things that just run around in our minds without anywhere to go.” It goes without saying he’s thankful that a positive consequence of him working through his songwriting with this approach means there’s the capacity to help others too. “The blessing comes because in that release I am fortunate enough to provide a space for other people to then feel connected, feel seen, or feel heard and then they can enter into a state of release as well,” he says. “It’s a beautiful cycle of events.”
As for his new single, Kwaye wanted to flip the script and add a fresh dimension to his forthcoming project. Kindness was written to bring forward a message of positivity. But, as Kwaye explains, upbeat sentiments can fall into the trap of appearing very surface level in music. While Run and Runaway dove deep into emotion and complex conversations, Kwaye didn’t want that to be substituted out just because the message is one of joy. “Kindness has got many meanings,” he says, “but the overall idea is that simple thing that, I think in this day and age, we as human beings tend to stray away from… humans can be so quick to judge, but also be so quick to be sceptical of any kind gestures in public. I make a habit of if I’ve got something nice to say, I’ll say it to a perfect stranger.”
If you’re thinking that sounds cliché, that certainly isn’t lost on Kwaye either. “I can find that cheesy and I do find myself going, ‘Wow Kwaye, are you really that person?!’” he laughs. “But I like to give compliments if that’s the honest way that I feel. Kindness [the song] is that. Also, in the time that we as the world have experienced over the past two years, I think we’re in need of high vibrations. We are in need of positivity, and Kindness is that too. It actually came from how I feel when I’m at festivals and I go into another way of being. You’re surrounded by people where the only objective in that environment for however many days you are there, is to be the best version of yourself and meet people that are trying to be the best versions of themselves and spreading love and joy.”
Kwaye adds: “I hope it’s a song that adds depth to a positive feeling in the sense that when you listen to slower songs or sad songs, we refer to those songs as deep. I feel like it’s possible to feel that way about happy songs. It’s possible to feel that deep level of happiness and joy.” This alternative perspective on the project is a good indication for its overall feeling. “The music that is out is an indication into the variety of sonic roads that I hope to take you on,” Kwaye teases. “The journey is a beautiful one, but the music that we travel through is expansive.”
For Kwaye, this project marks a new beginning in his career. It reintroduces him as a new artist without disregarding what has come before. It’s why the time felt right to have Kwaye feature as part of our Elevate campaign; a groundbreaking collaboration between GAY TIMES and Apple Music that supports and platforms LGBTQ+ artists breaking through into the mainstream. This project is one where the artist has truly found their voice, and has been afforded the freedom to tell their story their way. “Where I might be private in the real world, in the musical world that’s where I shine through in my most authentic and honest self,” says Kwaye. “I tend to rarely have any limit on how personal I’ll go, but I give myself that safety and security knowing that I have all these expressive and creative tools to tell that honest narrative in the best way I can.”