Updated: Oct 19, 2022
Kwaku Asante is as much a storyteller as he is a singer and songwriter. He draws inspiration from his musical heritage, his friendships, and the potential for love in even mundane interactions to produce R&B and soul inspired tracks, themed around companionship, masculinity, and mental health. His catalogue and co-signs are a testament to his talents. Since his debut track, co-produced by Tom Misch, Kwaku has released a stream of singles and two EPs, toured with Samm Henshaw and sold out a headline show at Jazz Cafe. On his upcoming project, Wanderlust, an EP with an album-like cohesiveness, Kwaku channels the likes of Sampha, Frank Ocean, Michael Kiwanuka and Moses Sumney. Most recently, Kwaku has released a third single from the project, ‘Wait For Me’. Chatting to Kwaku ahead of its release, it’s clear that the vulnerability and soulfulness of the track is an inherent reflection of his personality.
Hey, Kwaku. How’s it going?
All good man.
Were you born on a Wednesday, by any chance?
Yeah haha yeah yeah yeah yeah.
I mentioned to my Ghanaian friend that I would be interviewing you and she was like, he’s born on a Wednesday. It’s a cool tradition, how many options are there per day?
Only one. 7 names for boys, 7 names for girls, Monday through Sunday. Usually, you have your Christian name as your first name. And then you get your Twi name as your middle name. But I wanted it as my first name. But different tribes assign names in different ways. I’m part of the Asante tribe.
Do you have a strong attachment to your Ghanaian heritage?
Yeah 100%. The ring that I wear is from my family jeweller in Ghana. I had a few Twi words in my last EP. Before covid I used to go back as much as possible.
Were you born there?
Nah I was born in Camden. And I’ve lived in North West my whole life.
Are there any particular Ghanaian musicians who influence your music?
Well I don’t know if this counts but my grandad was a producer in Ghana and he worked with Fela Kuti-
That defo counts man!
Yeah he was like an executive producer. He worked with Quincy Jones, Fela Kuti. He had a studio in Ghana called Ambassador Recordings. He was the person who would say to my mum: “make him play piano, make him play violin”. But now, in the current day, the influence of Ghanian artists for me is more the community aspect, the collaboration, the way it’s always like a family affair. You see that with like Amaarae, Shatta Wale.
So, your grandad encouraged you to play instruments growing up, did he also encourage you to take up singing?
So, he passed away when I was like 10. Back then, I used to sing in the choir, so he loved that. But it was more so the instruments. I remember I used to play piano for him down the phone and he would get so elated. Like, I could hear him smiling down the phone. When I went to Ghana in 2017, I had the demos for ‘The Way That You Move’, ‘Worth’ and ‘Fantasy’. So, I played them for some family and one of my uncles went, “You know who your grandad was?”. See, I didn’t know the depth. My mum had mentioned he had a studio, but I didn’t know the depth. So, I was like “Yeah, he was some music man.” And they were like, “Music man?? Your grandad was…” And they just told me everything. When I was told that, and then reflected on the time I played the piano for him down the phone, and he was so happy, it made sense.
That’s so nice that you have that strong connection to your heritage. Even though he’s not with us now, it must feel like you’re channelling him.
100% it does.
So, that’s how you got into music from young. And then did you go on to study music? Because I know your dissertation was about the music industry.
I did human geography actually. But yeah, my dissertation was on the representation of gender and sexuality in black popular music. Human geography is about place and space. So I used black popular music as a space to investigate. I found a correlation between the misogyny and bravado of a song and how well it did within that space.
That really brings into light the question of correlation vs. causation. I think a lot of really ignorant people think that over masculinity and misogyny is inherent to black popular music but it’s not, that’s just what gets the plays.
Exactly, and it’s something that the industry buys into. I remember reading this paper as well, which hypothesised that the reason why over masculinity is so common in the black community is because when black people were enslaved, they were so dehumanised, that now, anything that could possibly challenge our claim to being seen as men, we dispel it. That’s why you see with homosexuality or even metro sexuality, like people wearing hoop earrings or whatever, people are quick to be like, “Na na that’s gay!”
Do you think the tides are shifting? Like, you have a Drake, who sometimes has a more sensitive angle than most modern male artists. And then there’s Frank Ocean, Tyler the Creator, Steve Lacy who actually are gay.
I feel like things are changing, but also there’s a lot of work to be done. There’s still only a couple outwardly gay male rappers. Like, there’s Isaiah Rashad…
He came out as bi recently, right?
Yeah, quite recent.
He’s one of my favourite rappers. Top 5.
Listen bro, the first time I saw him live was 2012 or 13. That year I saw him, Schoolboy Q and Little Simz all at Brixton. Oxymoron by Schoolboy Q is still one of my favourite albums.
So hard. But anyway, yeah, I would say the tide is shifting but there’s still a lot of work to be done. I remember using the example of Obama in my dissertation. Just because the president was black, doesn’t mean racism got eradicated. Just because there’s popular homosexual rappers, doesn’t mean over masculinity got eradicated.
Is sexuality quite a personal topic for you? Is it something you would say you explore in your music?
Yeah. With me, I’m a straight man. But I can exist along a spectrum. When it’s time for me to be with the mandem, I can be with the mandem. If I’m with my girl and I need to be tactile and sexual, I can. If something goes down where I need to be aggressive, we can do that too. I can wear flared jeans or a mesh top, I like fashion. The things we attach to gender and sexuality are just a social construct.
Fully. There’s so much nuance to how we interact with each other as human beings.
Of course. When I was younger, I stopped doing music for a while because I went to an all-boys secondary school where, for your voice to be heard in a room, you had to be wavy at sport. So I canned the piano and violin. Now I’m older, I realise it’s just a bunch of faff. And now it’s those same people who want to show support. So gender and sexuality, I don’t speak on it explicitly in my music but certain lyrics I say it. Like, on ‘The Way That You Move’, I say something along the lines of, I may not look like I care but I’m hurting inside. But it’s also the imagery, the photos the videos – I can wear flares with a heeled boot and a vest. And when anyone chats to me it’s like, I can have this vernacular and still present myself in that way, and you can as well bro.
I have to thank you for that because it trickles down. When culture presents men as three-dimensional human beings, it definitely has a trickle down effect.
I got a couple of my brothers wearing Birkenstocks! See one thing that I actually can’t relate to is when other guys talk about not being able to talk about their feelings. With me and my guys, transparency is key. We all need to be in that kind of environment. We need to be able to talk to people about our feelings.
It’s so nice that you have that community around you. How did you build that?
Just uni man. I basically just found people who care about me in ways that I’ve never experienced. I could be myself unapologetically and not be judged. Even with music. I remember sending my boys demos and they were straight up like, “I don’t think you should get a day job”. It was even through my friends that I met people like Tom Misch. I worked at a bar at a studio up until last year and even them, they’re like my family, they really supported me. They helped me out with studio time, equipment for videos.
It just goes to show how important community is for good art.
Trust me. Because this music thing, until you get a record deal, you need help. It’s expensive. But when people see your passion in real life, and they see it’s not just about increasing your notoriety or being an influencer, they become willing to invest. That’s where community comes from in my opinion.
That’s really nice. By the way, you had a couple shows in London recently, right? How did they go?
Yeah, on the day ‘Rhodes’ dropped I did a show at Bush Hall. That was really good because I hadn’t had a live band show for time. And then I had an acoustic show at Sketch. That was off the back of a campaign I did for Adidas and Foot Patrol. It was a bit daunting because it was with a guitarist I’d never played with before. But it was fun, good vibes.
That’s blessed. The first few singles on your Spotify all share the same album art theme. I really love the art for each, what is the story behind it and what ties those tracks together for you?
Basically, one of my best friends, T.J Agbo, he’s a multidisciplinary artist, he did those pieces. He actually did some stuff with Lewis Hamilton last year, he’s insane. So, those tracks were going to tie into an EP originally. But at that time, I didn’t want to show my face. Because you know, you look a certain way… I just wanted people to take the music as seriously as possible. Like I didn’t want to have to rely on that.
So, you didn’t want people to know that you’re good looking? “I don’t need that!”
It’s like, I wanted to show myself that I can get by on technical ability alone. So regardless of what I look like, people would dig it. My aim was to do that for a year. But then my manager was like, “Kwaku, stop”.
So, when was the first time you showed your face?
Probably like a year a later, through press releases. But that was the reason why those tracks had the cover art. And like I said, originally they were going to tie into an EP. But then I was like, I can do better than this, so I just released them as singles.
What’s your experience been of making an album this time round with Wanderlust vs. just doing EPs and singles in the past. It feels like a very cohesive album as well. It kind of reminds me of Blonde by Frank Ocean or Process by Sampha.
You know what’s so mad? It’s not actually an album, it’s an EP. I basically didn’t want to go straight into making an album without doing a project first with the number of tracks in double digits. Like, I didn’t want to go from my last EP, Honeycomb, which was 6 songs, straight into an album of 14 or so songs. There had to be an intermediary body of work. Because I had to make sure first that I could change the way I write to grab a listener’s attention for a longer amount of time. So I did want this to feel like an album. I even approached it like an album. When people listen to it, I want them to think, “If this isn’t an album, what will it be like when he does release an album?” It’s like at uni. You do all these essays and all this research to get you ready for a dissertation, which is 10,000 words. So that’s how I want to treat my album. I treat all of this like a big fat degree. But the process of making this project was longer. I finished it around 2021 November, but it took a year to make. Mainly because I suddenly had a bunch of performances to do when stuff opened after lockdown. But yeah, it was definitely a much more considered process.
There’s a strong theme of companionship throughout your music, especially on this EP. Do you place a lot of emphasis on that in your life?
More so platonically recently. But romantically as well. Those types of interactions have given me some of my best moments.
You say on ‘Molasses’, “Home is not just a place, sometimes it’s you”. Are there multiple people who feel like home to you?
Yeah, my friends. When I’m with them, it’s just bliss. Companionship is important for me because who doesn’t want someone to tell good news to? Who doesn’t want someone to appreciate and love, be that platonically or romantically? I feel like that’s all people really want.
Do you feel like the lockdowns and social media are changing that? Like, people are less focused on spending quality time with each other?
100% man. My whole thing is quality time. But sometimes people are more interested in getting a cute reel or Tik Tok. Lockdown should’ve taught us to value it more, because we don’t know what could happen tomorrow.
I genuinely feel like lockdown made people socially awkward.
It definitely did. And those were some people’s most important years. In their yard.
But it’s good that you maintained your belief in the importance of companionship. For me as well, I feel like lockdown actually really highlighted the importance of companionship.
Because life is just hard at a base. And on top of that a lot of people have issues with family, health money. And as you get older you only get more responsibility. The way I see it, if you can be a good support system for other people, they will be a good support system for you.
There’s a conversation snippet at the end of ‘AWOL’ from your last EP, which nicely summarises a couple key themes in your music. The conversation kind of talks about a right person, wrong time situation. Both those ideas are really interesting to me – both the idea of “right person” but also of “wrong time”. On the “right person” side of things, what are your thoughts on that? Do you think there’s just one or maybe a few “right people” you’re destined to meet during your life?
I don’t think there’s just one. It just takes someone who understands you and your situation, is unproblematic and is accepting and kind. Those are traits that a lot of people can have. It’s just about allocating the time to find that person.
So, do you thin, part of it is putting in the effort to find that person? Or if it’s the “right person”, it will happen naturally?
I feel like it’s a bit of both. I feel like that person comes along but for you to build upon the foundation you have with them, you have to allocate time. Like when people ask whether I’m free, technically the answer is that I’m never free, because there’s always stuff for me to do. It’s just about making that decision to allocate that quality time. Like, you can’t really control when you will meet someone. But when you do meet someone, it’s about putting in that effort to show you do really care about them. Like I say in ‘Scared’, “Stop saying words and show me that you care”.
What do you think about having to convince someone? Like, chasing someone.
There’s always a psychological thing where, if someone doesn’t show us the attention we want, for some reason we want them more.
So, do you think it’s a good thing when it’s a challenge sometimes?
Yeah? I mean, if a girl wants me to jump through hoops and do a madness, I’m just not doing it. But that being said, there’s something about showing someone what you can be for them and what you can bring to their life.
Yeah, like it allows you to demonstrate you value more. What are your thoughts on choosing to be single? Do you spend much time single?
Yeah, I’ve been single for a while. I completely understand why people choose it. I had one of the worst dating experiences. And the person apologised to me after, but I was like, the damage is done. I can understand why people might not want to go through the heartache or anguish or just waste their time. And also, because of social media, people’s perception of what it takes to have a successful relationship is skewed.
I think a lot of people also treat a relationship as a substitute for hobbies or passions.
That’s exactly how I feel.
But even if you choose singlehood, do you think being alone can get quite difficult at times? The title track on Wanderlust seems to focus on that. It’s a very beautiful, soul-bearing ballad.
100%. It’s what the project is really about. One of the definitions of wanderlust is a man who has lost himself in this restless search. Through all of these songs, I have this idea of what I want love to be. And after all of it, whether it’s me being the wrong person for someone else or them being the wrong person for me, I’m still on my J’s. And it does get lonely. My best friend has had a girlfriend for 8 years. It’s amazing, it’s what anyone would want.
When it come to the question of “right time”, that feels like it’s related to growth. Like improving yourself to the point where you can sustain another person. Do you feel like there’s something which tells you, you’re ready now? Or is it more like, you’re never truly ready?
Honestly, I have never been this busy before in my life. For me, I think the point will come where I start saying no to things. I think that’s when I’ll be ready. Right now, I’m just saying yes to everything. With me, if I can’t financially support someone enough in a relationship to take them on holiday and pay for things, I’d rather not be in one.
In ‘Rhodes’, you talk about going back to someone, revisiting something. Do you feel like that’s necessarily the same as going backwards?
After the experience I had with the person I was speaking about in ‘Rhodes’, I have to say it’s a bad thing. The song is about having really low self-esteem but knowing that this person will still take you back. Which actually led to quite a messy situation. So maybe romantically, it’s best not to revisit things. You kind of have to get to know the person all over again.
There’s this idea of mental health throughout your music. There’s a line on ‘Lucid’ off Ode EP where you say, “My silence is a cry for help”. And there’s another line off ‘Angel’ where you say, “Only you know what’s beneath this marble surface”. Do you feel like you succumb to the pressure to keep yourself bottled up sometimes?
It’s just to let people know that I’m going through it too, even if I may not look that way. At the time I wrote ‘Lucid’, there were moments where I wouldn’t talk to anyone for weeks. Lockdown meant that my twenty-day tour was cancelled. My own shows, cancelled. I was meant to play at Kew Gardens in front of 10,000 people, cancelled. There was a point where I was like, I’m not doing this no more. I don’t overshare on social media during low moments like that, but the moment I feel I can speak about it coherently, I put it in a song.
The track ‘Say Goodbye’ and the skit ‘-ve’ off Wanderlust share a similar theme of learning through pain. In ‘Say Goodbye’, you have the line “Drowned once but I learnt how to swim”. You say on ‘-ve’ that learning through pain is the best way you learn things. Do you feel like it’s the most healthy way?
The things you’re picking up on are crazy. ‘Say Goodbye’ is about the relationship I have with my dad. About how he just did wrong over and over. And one of the things that inspired Wanderlust is negative reinforcement, being given a bad example and learning from that what not to do or who not be. There are just certain feelings I would do anything in my power not to feel again. For me personally, I don’t have many great examples. So, when I see a bad example, I just think there must be a silver lining. So, I use it as a lesson.
I wanted to ask, who do you consider your inspirations? And could you answer that in both a musical sense and just in terms of your life inspirations?
So, musically you got D’Angelo, Frank Ocean, Drake, Marvin Gaye, Lauryn Hill, The Gap Band, Earth Wind and Fire, Fleetwood Mac, Johnny Mitchell. This project, Wanderlust, I was listening to a lot of Moses Sumney, Radiohead, Sampha, a bit of Brent Faiyaz.
I really hear Moses Sumney by the way. The project reminds me of his album Grae.
In terms of a life sense… just people. People fascinate me. If you mix red with blue, it will be different to if you mix red and green. I can be completely wrong for someone, but that same person can be completely right for someone else. And I just find it so inspiring. Just stories and conversation and emotions. Even the more mundane stuff. It’s all just an ongoing narration of what I experience and what I see.