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Kwabs, The Sound Of A Man Announcing Himself To The World

Kwabs opens up about his Ghanaian heritage, the exploration of dualities in 'Love + War' and the importance of being yourself.

Kwabs. Photography by Amelia Shivani Hassard.


Warming up his vocal chords is a habit that Kwabs can't quite kick. The singer floats in and out of song as we sit canal-side in Hackney waiting for our hot drinks. Short bursts of humming hint at the power in his voice but it's only later when he breaks into the hook from Joan Armatrading's "Love and Affection" that the weight and authority of Kwabs' baritone reveals his position as one of London’s top new talents.

Kwabs is short for Kwabena—the name given to a Ghanaian boy born on a Tuesday. It describes a child that is neutral in all matters and never takes sides. In his latest work Love + War, Kwabs explores this identity by evaluating both sides of binary constructs through lyrics and sounds.

"I strongly believe in the nature of it being ok to not be ok” — Kwabs

 

"There are certain songs that tap into the core message of who you are as an artist, and ‘Spirit Fade’ is one of those," says Kwabs sipping on chamomile tea a week before the second leg of his European Love and War tour. One of his favourite tracks, "Spirit Fade" is an ode to Kwabs’ past, sung over skittering beats and melancholy synths. The South London singer, whose 2012 cover of James Blake's “The Wilhelm Scream” caused ripples on Youtube and beyond, is humble and charming—his insights about life broken up by heartfelt laughter. With three EPs and a debut album under his belt, Kwabs seems unfazed by his growing international success.

"I strongly believe in the nature of it being ok to not be ok” he says about his core message. Tracks like “Spirit Fade” conjure up worlds of past pain and suffering, but there’s always an element of hope tied to the melancholy. While Kwabs' Pray For Love EP suggests an interior life colored by sadness, the determination in his voice also asserts a commitment to learning from pain and moving through it. "In my life, I've never let anyone tell me to get over anything too quickly, and that's why I'm a happy individual, because I confront things".

Photography by Amelia Shivani Hassard.

Heartbreak is also a major theme on Kwabs’ debut album Love + War, yet the 25-year-old also ventures beyond the well trodden landscape of romantic intimacy to explore the complexities of parent-child relationships. Tracks like “Father Figure” and “Fight For Love” deal with the nature of "not being able to take parental love for granted" especially as a child who has been through the care system.

Kwabena Adjepong was born and raised in London, where he lived in care from the age of 11. Though his mother is Ghanaian, he initially reconnected with his Ghanaian heritage through his foster family. Visiting Ghana first when he was 22, Kwabs was able to meet his biological family and re-establish the links that were cut when his mother moved to the UK five years before he was born.

"I'd tour in Ghana definitely, but there's a journey I have to take in that country outside of and away from my career" — Kwabs

 

He describes his first trip to Ghana as difficult but necessary and plans on returning. The calabash and Ghanaian statue in his house are symbols of a deeply personal journey and a heritage that he is still exploring. While he’s not directly influenced by the contemporary hiplife sounds of Ghana—he does know of Sarkodie though—Kwabs was intent of having syncopated drums on tracks like “Into You.” Though he's not planning a tour in Ghana yet, the singer is heading there to visit family over Christmas. "I'd tour in Ghana definitely, but there's a journey I have to take in that country outside of and away from my career," he says.

Kwabs "Fight For Love" from Love + War.

Walking along the canal and into the depths of Hackney Wick Woodland, Kwabs opens up about a real desire to explore the United States, not only to share his music with American fans who have only just got their hands on his Walk EP, but also to gain a better understanding of what life is like for people.

"I'd really like to get a sense of the racial dynamics in the States, really understand them." Race and identity politics may not be at the forefront of Kwabs' musical output but his self-assurance and commitment to his individuality are refreshingly tangible. When a fan attempted to police the singer’s identity by claiming he should represent “where he actually comes from,” Kwabs was calmly dismissive.

Photography by Amelia Shivani Hassard.

Kwabs has always been in control of his artistic direction. Three years in the making, it's clear how much his debut album Love + War means to him. In those three years, Kwabs released the EPs Pray For Love and Wrong or Right, which both flirted with minimal beats and elements of electro. In contrast, Love + War explores a more pop aesthetic, although an experimental undertone remains. "I wanted to clash the expected sound with something else, that's what really makes me tick."

“I fell apart when I couldn’t see I was cheating on me” — Kwabs

 

Sonic exploration is Kwabs' bread and butter. While studying Jazz at London's Royal College of Music, he experimented with all kinds of sounds, including being part of London Vocal Project Choir singing contemporary folk music. Kwabs nods to greats such as Sarah Vaughn and Gregory Porter as influences but he's also in tune with current innovators on the scene like rising star NAO and Australian soul man Jordan Rakei.

Photography by Amelia Shivani Hassard.

But Kwabs is careful not to let his influences overpower his sense of self. "You'd be surprised by how much stuff didn't make the cut, because it just wasn't me," he mentions. Hearing him talk, it’s obvious that Kwabs is acutely aware of the commercial aspect of his job but his love for music always comes first. A big fan of the hook on Joan Armatrading's classic "Love and Affection," Kwabs sampled it on “Father Figure”—the only sample on the entire album—and sent the track to the veteran singer to make sure she approved of how he'd used it.

Teaming up with Austrian producer Sohn on Wrong or Right EP and Dave Okumu (The Invisible) gave Kwabs a chance to play with different approaches to songwriting. "I'd not had that sort of avuncular figure in my creative life at all, it was great", says the 25-year-old of his time spent working with Okumu. That collaboration led to a stripped-down experimental version of “Lay Back.” Amidst the shifts in musical direction, the soulful texture of Kwabs' voice has been a constant. Emotive and powerful; it is the sound of a man announcing himself to the world.

Kwabs "Perfect Ruin" from Love + War.

Love + War, Wrong or Right: Kwabs' music seems to trace his exploration of dualities, a search for guiding principles through which to live life.

Kwabs is interested in the concepts of moral values and truth. He's currently reading The Poisonwood Bible, a book which explores the morality and hypocrisy of missionaries in the Congo. It doesn't take a long time to realise that Kwabs' journey so far has led to a commitment to liking himself and the music that he makes. The value he places on self love is crystal clear on “Cheating on Me,” a song he wrote about looking after yourself in order to love others fully. "I fell apart when I couldn't see I was cheating on me," he sings.

Love + War is available now, check out a new remix of "Cheating On Me" from Tom Misch and Zak Abel.

Remi Graves is a London-based writer and music geek in search of the perfect sound. Check out her monthly radio show The Two Step and follow her on Twitter for updates.

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Photo courtesy of Sam Soko.

Interview: Sam Soko is the Kenyan Director Behind Sundance Hit, 'Softie'

We meet filmmaker Sam Soko who has made a stirring documentary about the Kenyan protest leader Boniface Mwangi

Filmmaker Sam Soko didn't intend on making a documentary about Kenyan photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi.

The original idea he had was to make a manual of sorts, a short video guide, on how to protest, the do's and don't's. Soko, himself an activist artist who cut his teeth convincing friends to let him create political music videos for their apolitical songs, knew Mwangi's experience on the streets both photographing protests and staging them meant he had a lot to share with others.

But then came the blood. A thousand litres of it, to be precise. And the pigs. Dozens of them, with words like MPigs written on them. Like the graphic photos Mwangi had become known for taking—it was a sight you couldn't look away from. It was a protest Mwangi organized, in 2013, to decry corrupt members of the Kenyan parliament who had decided to increase their salaries, 2 months after taking office. And at his side, through the thick red liquid of it all, was Mwangi's wife, Njeri, ready to be arrested with him.

"Once I was witness to his relationship, I started seeing him as a family man," Soko tells OkayAfrica. "Because he's planning a protest and all, but when you look at the footage, you start seeing the kids and you start seeing Njeri. That's when it started hitting me, in the sense, that she was with him in such a crazy space."

Soko met Mwangi through the creative and activist hub he created called PAWA 254, as they became part of the groundswell demanding democratic reforms in a country still left scarred from the division sewed between Kikuyu and Luo people by British colonizers. "We had a new Constitution at the time, and there was this hope that we finally could picket without being tear-gassed or being beaten, Like, our civil liberties could be held up." Instead, the government strengthened its police force into a notorious organization condemned by human rights activists. "That's very salient in the film," says Soko. "If you see how the police dress, for instance, at the beginning, it's very different; they become more militant towards the end."

Soko's debut feature-length documentary, Softie, which became the first Kenyan film to ever premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, earlier this year, is at once a love story between Mwangi and his wife and their three children, but also between Mwangi and his beloved Kenya, under president Uhuru Kenyatta. Central to the film is the tussle between how these different loves bump up against each other: what comes first — love of country or love of family?

We spoke to the Nairobi-based director about making the film, which opens in virtual cinemas, starting this Friday, September 18th.

Boniface Mwangi with his wife Photo courtesy of Sam Soko


OA: Early on in the film, we learn how steadfast Boniface Mwangi is — he talks about being willing to die for the ideals he believes in, which made me think of Nelson Mandela and his Rivonia Treason Trial speech. Boniface is someone in the present day who still shares this belief?

When we were working on the edit, and kind of crafting and thinking about what the story was going to be, something that we found that was really, really interesting is, with a lot of the stories, like the story of Nelson Mandela, you'd never see the other side. That's something we see later, up ahead, as a retrospective. We'd hear about Martin Luther King and then we'd read about Coretta Scott in, I think, 1990, like, 'Oh, this his was her struggle.' That sort of thing. But for me, Boniface and Njeri represented a present day reality struggle that showcases what Mandela was going through, what Martin Luther was going through. That was kind of like unravelling the curtain; when you see Martin Luther marching, Coretta's at home, trying to help their kids do their homework. And this is the reality.

OA: And the film poses that question of love for your country versus love for your family, and which one should come first?

Exactly. They see it in different ways. Boniface sees it that if you improve the country, you improve the lives of those who you love. Njeri's like, you have to have your family's back first. And that means everything else comes second. And she's right; she's not wrong. And he's not wrong.

OA: The film really is privy to some really private moments in Mwangi's life — how did you gain his trust?

When we started filming the short video, he was really involved with the protests, and we started doing the protests with him. So we were—quote, unquote—in the trenches with him in the protests, and somehow that's how he kind of welcomed us to his home. When you've been with someone in the streets, and you're tear-gassed together more than once, you already have a common bond. But then I started developing a relationship with him that was beyond the streets. Just checking up on him and asking, what's going on, what's taking place? That sort of thing. I think it took a while. And I think even from Njeri, we kind of developed a kind of camaraderie that was separate from my relationship with Boniface, because I would actually be like, 'Hey, he said that, how does that make you feel?' And not necessarily on camera. But over time, he kind of accepted us to be there with a camera. At some point, I kind of felt like they were talking to me, and not necessarily the camera; like, the camera is kind of this thing that's there, but not there. That kind of trust, again, was built on a respect that I have for them and their values and what they're doing. I think that's something they saw. It made them trust me with their story and trust me with their family.

You're the director of the film, but you're also producer, writer and cinematographer. Did Boniface's own style as a photojournalist influence you in any way?

The film has more than one cinematographer, and a lot of my cinematography is within the intimate moments, because that's when they would only engage with someone they trust. But him being a photographer actually, to a point, made the work a bit hard because he's constantly looking at how you're doing it. He's in your face about the angle. He's like, 'Hey, why are you standing there, you should be there.' But in some places he did help 'cause he's been filming in the streets and filming protests for a very long time. So when you're there filming, he'll easily tell you, 'Dude, don't stand there. They're about to start tear-gassing. Go to the other side.' And it's weird, when you're on the other side and you're filming, and all of a sudden you see tear gas, you wonder, 'How the hell did he know?' You do that 234 times and you start knowing yourself, 'Oh, this is how,' and he was really helpful in that sense.

I can imagine that filming during the protests must have been one of the big challenges of making this film but what else did you struggle with? There were death threats for Mwangi, did that happen to you as well?

It's so funny, when you're filming and when you're in the protests, it's adrenaline talking. So you're not really thinking about whether you're going to be okay. This one time, I got arrested because the cop said I was a spy for the protesters. [We had everything] from cameras breaking to sound equipment messing up, but when it became a more political story, with death threats, it became scary even for editing the film. Because you don't know who's watching you. This one time, I was with him in the car, filming, and we were being followed. So we kind of had to be very careful who we are telling about the story. It was a very deep secret that we were making this film and there are people who are watching it now asking, 'How could you keep this from us from all these years?' Because we had to do that. Especially when the family was in the US. We had to do that for the sake of safety for him, Boniface, for his family but also the film team. I remember doing the pitches with different names. But then we were also lucky that we had our co-producing partner in Canada, Eye Steel Film, so they were able to house the edit there. I went to Canada to edit and that kind of also gives you a kind of freedom to think and work and create. That was the reality, and now I think we have PTSD from the film. I can't film another protest. I'm sorry. I'm out. Like, it tapped me out.

There are similarities to the Black Lives Matter protests here in the US, against police brutality and violence but the slogan takes on a different resonance in places like Kenya, where the police force is particularly heavy-handed. How do you see these protests as being similar but also different?

There are two things that you learn with the film. One, our voices can never be silenced. They will try, but I think humanity is like a pressure cooker. The more you boil us, the more you put that heat, the more explosive we become. And through people like Boniface's life, you see that there are human beings who exist, who do extraordinary things.

The other thing is the idea of activism doesn't necessarily just speak to the person who's on the street. It doesn't necessarily speak to the person who's holding the placard. An activist is someone like Njeri and her life, and her family. And Khadija [Mohamed, Mwangi's campaign manager]. She's such a strong and powerful activist in her own right. She was Boniface's campaign manager for free. The work they did was so powerful. And you have these other people in the background who are doing such incredible things. The sum total of what they've done is [to] instigate… We have an election next year, but I am so sure that we are going to have so many candidates who are going to be like, 'We want you to donate to our campaign. We have these values and beliefs; this is what we want to do.' That is how we need to go about change or add on to the conversations of change.

The same thing that's happening with the Black Lives Matters movement. Yes, there are people going to the street and we should keep going to the street. But we need to push people to engage in policy and make sure these policy changes are made.

We need to stand for what we believe in, as filmmakers in spaces where we feel oppression exists. Like the rules that have come out with the Academy Awards, these are rules that should be celebrated because they add on to that conversation of diversity and representation. All these things—that sum total—is what makes the difference. It's going beyond the streets and going beyond our Tweets, going beyond our Facebook messages, making films and sharing films. We just need to keep pumping up the volume, keeping the heat up, keep pushing. It's gonna take a while, but we'll get there.


Photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi during a protest in Nairobi, Kenya Photo courtesy of Sam Soko


That's where you as a filmmaker come in—this film was the first Kenyan film to get into Sundance, where it won a special editing prize.

There's another film I'm producing and, and, yes, I had my film at Sundance, that's great. But there's this other filmmaker who's making another film, and it's so cool, and this is the thing—we need to keep bouncing off this energy and this light and this vibe, and just keep pushing and making sure that the wheels keep turning. That's what we're all about.

How do you renew your strength, as a filmmaker but also as a Kenyan and as an African?

Being a Kenyan is hard. I think being an African is hard. Like, it's hard. There's a line I heard Boniface say once: 'I love my country, but I am afraid of my government.' But the way in which, personally, I find energy is when I meet new filmmakers, or you know, people who are like starting out and they want to make films that sound totally crazy. And they believe that they can do it. And I'm like, 'yes, yes, keep going!' We are planning to do a premiere. We have not confirmed the date yet but we're thinking it's around going to be early October in Kenya, because Kenyans haven't watched it. The government gave us an adult rating.

This is the same government that banned Wanuri Kahiu's Rafiki because of its homosexual theme…

Exactly, that's what we're getting but the lemonade that we've made out of all this is, 'Guess what? This is cinema!' We're going to take it to a cinema. People are going to come to watch it in a cinema or watch it at home or watch it in the best way possible. And the people who've watched it have appreciated it as a film and a story, and their story. They've seen a reflection of themselves. That gives me so much joy because the Kenyans who've watched it, when they give you feedback, they say, this is truth; this is our truth. And they don't see just an activist. They see a couple struggling with love. They see our history in the last 10 years. And they're like, 'What the hell, we lived this?' and they see the things that are unresolved — and many things are unresolved. Seeing that reaction gives me so much strength and hope. But it's hard. It's very hard. Because, you know, you have to wake up and see the policeman getting a bribe. And you're like, 'Homie??'


"SOFTIE" Movie Poster



Watch the trailer for Softie here.

Softie | Official Trailer | A film by Sam Soko www.youtube.com

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