Fast-rising South African rock band BLK JKS clearly knows how to make interesting music that channels the Mars Volta and more traditional sounds in equal measure.
But it also happens to know plenty of heavy hitters and tastemakers, and with their support, BLK JKS has begun to strike big-time deals without being signed to any label. The act has also just released an EP, produced by Brandon Curtis of the Secret Machines, who came to the project as a fan of the band and secured studio time for it at New York’s Electric Lady Studios. Not bad for a band that hadn’t been to the United States before last spring.
BLK JKS’ story begins with a chance meeting with uber-producer Diplo, best-known for helping break M.I.A. in the States. “Diplo was touring in South Africa, and people started telling him about the band,” BLK JKS manager Knox Robinson says. “He wound up meeting with them at the airport for half an hour and initially wanted to sign them to his label. He called me from Kenya and told me I had to check them out. While Diplo wound up moving on to other projects, I decided to come on as their manager.”
Rather than seek a traditional label deal, Robinson and the band decided to chart their own course and connect with influential media outlets, including the Fader, where Robinson was once an editor. The magazine put BLK JKS on the cover of its March issue, and the band flew to New York to play an issue release party before proceeding to Austin for South by Southwest.
Robinson says these shows were crucial not only for exposing the band to brands, but making the group comfortable with the concept of branding. The approach has paid off, guitarist Mpumi Mcata says. “Branding has been and is ace, especially if they understand the band on a personal level,” Mcata says. “It’s mutually beneficial because people can feel the sincerity or lack thereof, which is important to us. So support from such folks like Edun, Converse, Fader and certain private investors whom we’ve met on the road, especially in the U.S., are invaluable.”
Leveraging the Fader cover and the blog hype, Robinson and the band next hooked up with Edun, a clothing company created by Bono and his wife, Ali Hewson. “We gave the band blank shirts to silkscreen, and we’ve been talking about co-designing shirts,” Edun global marketing director Bridget Russo says. “We see them as a band whose star is rising, and they are perfect for our brand. Africa is sexy and modern, and these guys have such a good look.”
Robinson says the band has also attracted attention from Converse, and while the shoe company didn’t confirm anything on the record, a source says that BLK JKS is on the radar for a future project.
Robinson says the band would consider joining forces with a label, “if they bankrolled everything, which is pretty unlikely.” Mcata adds, “I guess thus far we’ve remained unsigned because we haven’t heard from a record label that shares our views, and seeing as we’re not willing to compromise as much as people who are putting in more money than spirit and energy would have us do, we’ve decided to swim our way.”