You wouldn’t guess it from his quiet, thoughtful demeanor, but KWAYE is preparing for global domination. Drawing inspiration from everything from Michael Jackson and Toni Braxton to negro spirituals and UK garage, the London-based, Zimbabwe-born artist dropped his three-track debut Solar late July. The three-song collection fits comfortably into the pop music landscape without sounding like anything else.
KWAYE made his music video debut with the synth-heavy “Cool Kids,” a slick track with syncopated verses and a pensive hook, “We don’t have to sit in the back of the bus if we make our own rules.” He kept the momentum with “Little Ones,” a darker clip denouncing society’s need for putting people in boxes. Today, he completes the trifecta with his “Sweetest Life” video, which sees the soon-to-be star dancing through Los Angeles over the euphoric track.
Billboard is exclusively premiering his “Sweetest Life” video, and we talked to KWAYE for his first-ever interview about everything from his unique fashion to the origin of his fear of birds (hint: he was bit in a not-so-fun place) to his ultimate career goal: "I want to get to a level where my influence is enough to really showcase the beauty and the art of Africa."
What is “Sweetest Life” about?
I wrote that song in my first time in LA, my first time in the States. And I was there for a year and I wrote that song probably about halfway into that trip. There was kind of like just an excitement about being there and that really transcended into all of the songs that I was writing, but “Sweetest Life” in particular.
So that song is about the first stage of connection that you make with someone, where the excitement is high and you don't know where it's gonna go. But you're just excited to take them on that journey with you. So it's kind of, it's almost a dual meaning. It's that excitement of love in its purest form right at the beginning, but it's also really fueled by an excitement of being in LA for the first time.
Who are some of your musical influences?
My love of music really does stem across my love of music through time. Like going as far back as negro spirituals, from like “Motherless Child” or like “Rainbow Round My Shoulder” and just the depth in that music and really like transcending across all of those time periods.
We go from that into gospel. I love just the life in gospel music. And then into the ’50s, stuff like Otis Redding, Sam Cooke. Those people, those two artists specifically really talk to me. In the ’60s, with Motown. I think Motown is actually the first world of music that I fell in love with as a child. So you got The Jackson 5, Diana Ross, The Supremes. All of those kind of things.
And then, yeah, terms of vocalists, Aaron Neville, Luther Vandross, Sade, Seal. That world of like the ’80s and ’90s is really kind of prominent and really influenced me. And also UK garage is very significant. Anything Craig David, Artful Dodger, like all of those kind of artists.
I could really go on forever. MJ and D’Angelo are really two pinnacles.
When I was listening to your stuff, “Sweetest Life” especially reminds me of Michael Jackson. I definitely feel that vibe. And when I listening to “Little Ones,” your voice kept reminding me of someone -- it was driving me nuts for an entire day. I finally realized it was Toni Braxton.
Toni Braxton! Add her to my inspirations. Toni Braxton, Destiny’s Child, T-Boz from TLC. Those girls with that really soulful... [freestyles a melisma in the style of Toni Braxton]
Exactly! Your voice has that same texture as her lower range. So, you were born in Zimbabwe. How long did you live there?
I was born in Zimbabwe, and then I went to the UK briefly, but I went back and lived there for a year and a half. So officially left Zimbabwe when I was three.
My earliest memory is probably the first time I was in Zim. I was living with my grandad at the time, and it's just me and him and my grandma actually. This actually kind of transcends into like what I've got a tiny little fear of birds and a really big fear of pigeons.
My grandad had his own farm in his house, so he had ducks. I went to feed the ducklings and I was three so I wasn't thinking of how overprotective mother ducks were. So I went to put my hand close to the duckling and the mother just went crazy and chased me out of the cage. I feared for my life, I was crying. And she got me and she bit me right on the butt. It was very painful.
Ouch! Well, a strange transition here, but do you consider yourself political?
I’d say I'm engaged politically. I would say I express a lot of my views about politics through my music. I think it's important to be political in some sense because there's a lot of changes that are happening right now. Especially like what's happening in America. The thing is I could say what's happening in Charlottesville, I could say what's happening with the migration situation in Europe, and I could say what's happening with the political situations in Sudan and Zimbabwe. It's important to have some sort of engagement because the times are constantly changing. And it's important for all of us to really start trying to be aware.
One thing that kind of struck with your “Sweetest Life” video was how optimistic and happy it was. Do you see music as escapism?
Yes, I do, but that's not the only way I see music. I think music can be a form of escapism if you want it to be that. It can also be a form of education when it’s to be there. And that depends on the artist that you're listening to. Or just a way to open one’s mind.
Like if you look at “Cool Kids,” it’s about being proud of the colors that you would wear, what you would stand by. “Little Ones” acknowledges the ways in which society likes to put people in boxes on any level -- whether it’s things to do with gender, or with sexuality, or with race, with class. And even within some areas even in the music industry. Like when they try to put us into labels of genre. [The song] is really about being aware of all of those kinds of things and really standing proud in who are. Part of me might fit into these various boxes, but my complete self can never be placed into one box. There's many things that define who I am.
For "Sweetest Life,” it's more of that enjoyment and that celebration of self. So it kind of comes as a culmination of those two previous songs. In light of all of the situations, my love for myself, my internal love needs to be expressed. It's like, love on the outside starts with love on the inside. That's really, again, what “Sweetest Life” represents.
In your music videos, you have very unique style. What inspires your fashion?
At the heart of things, I’d say my fashion inspiration comes from my parents. Both my parents were in Zimbabwe until their late teens and I've got a lot of pictures of them. And their fashion is so next level. It's funny because they might not dress that way now, but they still have their own unique way about them. Back in the day, I'd be looking at pictures of my mom and my dad and I'm like, “dude, this looks like my wardrobe.”
That’s so neat. You have monochromatic outfits in each of your music videos. Is there symbolism in the color choices?
There is. So in “Cool Kids,” it’s red, in “Little Ones,” the significant part of is white, and in “Sweetest Life,” it’s blue. And that palette was like chosen intentionally. I think “Cool Kids,” with what red represents, it’s very bold, it's very powerful. And that the first video that I was ever going to put out. And that was, like, the main statement that I wanted to give out. I'm coming out in flames and the whole world's gonna get very burnt.
And then with “Little Ones,” with the message of the song, it actually starts as a growth, so that video really does start very dark and then we go through progression and by the end of it it's white. So that's symbolizing coming out to be at one with yourself and that purity. And in “Sweetest Life,” it's blue, the color of the day, the sky. It just kind of embodied that euphoria. And with red, white, and blue, that was kind of like the flag of the United Kingdom and just symbolizing with that.
The palette of the outfits and the stylistic quality of the song and the choreography of all these videos kind of encapture all these different worlds of me, just like I'm born in Zimbabwe and that comes out in the music. Raised in London, that comes out in the aesthetic, and kind of color scheme of that palette for the three songs. And yeah, so this combination of colors was very purposeful. So that's what completed this EP.
You mentioned your choreography. When did you start dancing?
To be fair, I've been dancing since I was born. And I mean that literally. My mom actually was nine months pregnant at the time of my late grandad’s funeral. We were in London because I was in the stomach. And hid her pregnancy under a bunch of coats and got on the plane, nine months pregnant. And that’s actually the reason I was born in Zimbabwe. And so the water broke and she had to jump in my uncle's car, a Mercedes. And basically, my foot came out in the car. So I came out, legs first, ready to dance. So stepping out of my mom, literally -- as weird as that visual is. So I've been dancing since birth.
Oh my god. What a story! So have you trained professionally?
No, I've never actually done professional dance classes. It's kind of really been, my dance style has been kind of influenced by the things I've seen on TV or the Internet.
I'm very heavily inspired by Michael Jackson in terms of dance and move. He was the first dancer that I gravitated to. And then my sister, who's also a dancer. And she's a professional dancer. She actually choreographed “Cool Kids.”
So where do you see yourself in five years?
One of my dreams is to go back to Zimbabwe and go back to Africa and really build that continent up through the music and really showcase the talents that really aren't showcased enough. I think there's a lot of music, a lot of art, a lot of videos, a lot of culture, that is directly inspired by the continent of Africa, especially in popular music and pop culture. But it’s not giving back to the continent. So it's kind of taken, but really not giving back in that sense.
What I really want to do is get to a level where I can showcase the positivity and the beauty of Africa and really let the world know that this is where I came from. So that's one of my many goals. But that's a significant one. I want to get to a level where my influence is enough to really showcase the beauty and the art of Africa and give it back to our continent and let it be on a scale that the world can see it.
I really want to be a real international artist. But I wouldn't put any timestamp on when that's going to happen.