Tay Iwar: Nigeria's Most Reclusive Musician Opens Up
In his most open interview ever, the Nigerian artist demystifies himself, opening up about his reclusive personality and why emotions are the biggest drivers of his art.
Tay Iwar won't touch anything that lacks a strong emotional pull. It's a driver for all the music that he makes.
He has been a satiated lover ("Satisfied"), a vulnerable sage ("Weather Song"), an existentialist thinker ("Utero"), and a straight-up loser ("Sugardaddy") across his debut album's songs. "I fell in love with you and I almost died," he sings on "Monica," the lead single off that album, Gemini.
When I ask Tay about Gemini on a hot, sweaty afternoon at his Bantu Studio in Abuja, Nigeria, he seems proud of it. Staring into the distance, he says he considers the RnB fusion record his first album which doesn't have him selling emotions to people. He is simply expressing himself now, rather than the more "packaged" offerings on his previous projects Passport (2014) and Renascentia (2016). It's huge artistic growth for a 21-year-old, one in which he is basking.
Tay, born Austin Iornongu Iwar, hated it when his father forced him to take classic piano lessons at an early age. But by the time he was 13, and midway through high school, that sentiment had become the opposite; he had fallen deeply in love with the art, making music on his computer, and teaming up with his brothers—Sute and Terna Iwar—to co-found the Bantu Collective. His first love was the guitar, but something about making music on the colourful "video game" early version of the FL Studio software got him hooked. Mastering instruments, and becoming a sound engineer gave him a high-level of understanding of music creation. At 16, he released his debut project, Passport, which became an instant niche favorite, offering him a modicum of fame and demand that surprised the artist.
Tay Iwar - SPACE (feat. Santi & Preyé) [Official Music Video] youtu.be
What makes Tay Iwar special is his dedication to perfection in song-making, as well as a rooted pursuit of originality in a market that pressures creatives into conforming for success. He's married that gift with a reclusive persona, an amalgamation that birthed a brand steeped in mystery. To be Tay is to avoid the public but offer music that reflects everyone's struggle with love, life and why earth is so damn complicated. It's a winning formula that has attracted an investment and partnership from L.A based indie label, Soulection, under which Gemini enjoyed a global release. The project is a dynamic attempt to fuse a number of genres, resulting in a collection of records that he describes as housing "RnB and Afro-fusion." At 16 songs, it's the longest, most-winding addition to an impressive catalogue. But it's arguably his most expressive, a trait he hammers on often.
When he isn't pushing his vocals on personal tracks, Tay is thriving as a producer and sound engineer, mixing and mastering music from all genres. His stellar efforts on M.I's Yung Denzl: A Study On Self-Worth, was capped off with an ethereal performance on lead single "Do You Know Who You Are?" All these he does from his Jungle studio in Abuja, a serene city he calls home, far away from Nigeria's tumultuous music hub of Lagos.
It's in this building that we sit, where he bares his soul in his most open interview yet. Growth is inevitable for him, and for the first time, he says he knows that he has to leave this city, and open himself up some more as he grows in talent and recognition. We speak about his childhood, his obsession with "feeling" through life, how Alté he is, and how he got the plug to join Soulection.
Tay Iwar. Photo provided by the artist.
On his youth and Renascentia
What was your first interaction with professional music?
I was playing classical piano because of my dad but I hated it. [The reason] why I started making my own music was because I got a laptop and I got Fruity Loops. And I didn't know that was possible. I was completely oblivious. I thought to make a song, you have to have a big studio with a mixer and stuff. And when I was making beats with my laptop, I was like yeah, this is what I'm clearly going to do for the rest of my life because it's like a game. I don't know if you've seen FL but it looks like a video game, the old ones like all the lights and all that stuff. Imagine a 13-year-old seeing that. It blew my mind, so I just kept doing that. It became my hobby, then it became my passion and now it's my job and my passion.
Are you grateful to your father for putting you on?
Of course, yeah for sure. I wouldn't be as advanced in music as I am, if not for him, if not for both of my parents. It was my mum that actually used to take me for the lessons. She used to drive me every Saturday and Sunday. But the thing is that I hated it then, so I stopped going. And I was just free falling from like JSS1 to like SS1. I now got my laptop in SS1 and it was awesome. But in between that time I was trying too many things. I used to make figurines and more with cardboard. I used to make guns with cardboard and spirit paints. I also used to make villages, small villages with like toothpick and paper. So I was doing a lot and painting, but none of them felt like making beats. And school was boring for me because you know how High School is; you just go, write notes, it wasn't enough for me. I always loved practical work, things that I had to use my hands to do, you know, not just like writing an essay to remember words. I did music in school but it wasn't really serious. I don't think Nigeria takes music as a serious topic in schools. Yeah, SS1 to SS3 we weren't allowed to do music, which is crazy.
Do you think you're a genius?
When it comes to music creation and the expression of emotion, yes. I feel like I have worked hard to be able to do that at a professional level. If professional is genius, then yeah. But the word genius is one of those words that isn't subjective but people use it in a subjective way. You might see someone that's making you feel like you're close to them or like they know what exactly is in your brain. It might not mean the person is a genius, it just means you're on the same frequency with them at that given time. But I know how to do a lot of things musically. I mix, I record, I produce, I write songs, I play instruments so it's a lot. I master songs, also.
Equestrian Love youtu.be
Were all these powers present in Renascentia?
The aim for Renascentia was really to just give the fans that I had at the time something to listen to because I was in school. I can't lie, I was stressed. I was trying to finish school work and trying to do an album at the same time. It didn't work out the way I wanted it to in terms of marketing because I just couldn't market it as well. I didn't just have the funds at the time. It was like one of those loosies. I just threw it out there to see what would happen. And good things happened. A year after the release, "Equestrian Love" got picked up by people at Ndani and that was nice. I didn't expect much from Renascentia. It blew my mind that people were actually listening to it because I literally got the cover art just a night before. I told my brother to just help me do something a night before, and dropped it without any form of marketing. I was like 'new project out guys,' on Soundcloud. It wasn't even on Apple Music at the time it was just on Soundcloud and yeah I just left it to see what it would do.
It did a lot of great things...
Yeah it did. It was me trying to make people know that I'm actually an RnB artist not whatever they were calling me at the time. But I was confused as well. Because after that happened, after the project came out, I realised that I'm not actually an RnB artist. I'm just a musician. I don't just want to make RnB for the rest of my life. It was a time of self-understanding. I was trying to understand where I would go with my music. Because with Passport, a lot of people had latched the sound of "The Box" to me and "The Box" is not exactly an RnB song it's a pop song and I was upset at the time with it. I was actually upset that people liked that song over "Spiritual."
For me "Spiritual" was the song I wanted to be known for not "The Box." But you know, that's in the past. I'm super grateful now. It changed my life. Yeah, I did Renascentia to basically try and break all of that down, to like make people forget about Passport. But that didn't work out (laughs).
Do you still operate within genres?
I do when i'm working with other artists and they find it necessary to know what they are focusing on. But with my music, I don't. I just try to express how I'm feeling at the time. I'm a producer and I'm a sound engineer and I listen to music a lot. I'm not looking for Soul or Jazz or RnB. I'm just looking for what feels good and each of those genres could feel good. So, if there's any genre I'd place myself in, I would be a pure fusion artist. But Gemini to me is an RnB and Afro-fusion album.
Tay Iwar. Photo provided by the artist.
On emotions and creativity
You talk about emotion a lot, both in creativity and in your marketing. Why?
It's because I don't know anything stronger in the world than emotions. It's literally the driving force of everything we do. Especially in a field like the music industry. You make some songs because you feel like you should express yourself and someone else would relate to your story. You feel like maybe no one is saying exactly how you feel, so you should be the one to say it. And my interaction with music has always been...I get goosebumps when I hear songs that I like, you know. I feel it physically. So, I would want to make people feel the same way, so that's just how I approach it. I feel like even without saying real words, you could tap into emotions and express it in such a way that someone could feel like you're their brother because we all experience the same things. It's just one big experience, we are all feeling the same emotions. Pain is pain, happiness is happiness, you know.
What's your best emotion?
I can't answer that (laughs). I guess its happiness but... sometimes, happiness can cloud judgement, you know. So is that like my best emotion? I don't know.
A lot people pursue it...
(cuts in)...till they die (laughs)
How would you explain anger?
Probably the same actually. Anger is happiness' brother. In a way, it's the same. Anger could drive you to be successful. Anger could be what gets you up to do something. Anger can destroy you too. You can get lost in it, you can get addicted to anger. Look at like Fela. Fela was driven by anger at some point in his career.
How about love? Love shows up a lot in your work.
Because it's the strongest emotion that I could think of. But I think the difference is that a lot of people that listen to my music think its always love for a person when a lot of times its not. I sing love songs for music. Like "Spiritual" was a love song for music. You don't want to break yourself. You don't want to take your heart to a place on its own, so you break it down. I was making a love song for music and musicians. Yeah, that's why it shows up all the time because it's the strongest emotion I know. And it's the most frequent emotion I've received. I get a lot of love from my family, my friends, it's just everywhere.
Can you remember the particular point when Gemini started?
Yes. It was with the song, "Utero" in 2014, same year I released Passport. That time, the song was just pianos, but I knew at the time that I wanted to make an album that had that song and had songs that felt the same way —that gave me goosebumps, basically. The chords gave me goosebumps. I've done music so much, I don't even think so deep about it anymore. For me, it's really just expression.
I've been in the studio almost everyday, back to back for like four years, so I'm at the level where I just really express. Gemini was just me saying I'm going to truly express how I feel on these records. Rather than make records that carry emotions, I'm actually going to express myself. With Passport and Renascentia I was trying to sell emotions. I was trying to craft a specific sound and a specific vibe. But with Gemini it was just an expression, and a lot of the songs were just spontaneous in their creation. But then it took three years to make it sound sonically how I wanted.
What does the Gemini mean to you generally?
It means finally being satisfied. Finally feeling like myself and finally feeling proud of myself. I wasn't proud of myself for a long time. I mean, I had dropped Passport and it was getting a lot of attention and all that, but I wasn't proud of the work for whatever reason. But because of Gemini, I'm proud of all the work I've done in the past. It's helped me look back and look at my history and actually understand what I've been doing from a different perspective. I feel like a listener now, rather than a creator, I feel like I can experience my music.
So, It's a victory lap of some sort?
Yeah, I would say that. It definitely is, especially for myself because being in Nigeria and being the type of artist I am, it's hard to actually not pay attention to trying to make pop songs. I'm actually doing it and it's crazy. It's actually wild, people don't do that. I can't really name so many people making RnB albums in Nigeria right now.
Do you think there is an element of luck your situation?
No, I've worked hard, I've been working hard for years. I don't really believe in luck.
You believe in action and reaction?
Yeah, action and reaction and random stuff. The world is very random. I think the random stuff is what a lot of people call luck but I think it's just random stuff. All this could have not happened, so yeah, there are times where the random stuff aligns for you; Where you've done all the hard work. When you've done your part, I feel like that's when the heavens open up and say okay, we are going to put our foot in and make things work your way because you have gathered so much momentum and energy around you to make your truth true.
Do you see Gemini, as a whole or in compartments?
I see it as a whole. It's like one song to me. But each part of the song is its own thing. The theme that ties it together is that it's my experience and its my view of my world, not the world's. It's actually a view of my world. So, that's the only theme that ties it together. but each song, each story is its own thing, its own experience.
Is there a record that you are super proud of because of it significance?
It's definitely "Utero"... it is the oldest song, and it's basically the backbone of the project in terms of vibe and being intentional with the lyrics. "Utero" is very clear. I think for the first time in all of my albums, I'm clear, very clear on what I'm talking about mostly. Passport was kind of vague, Renascentia too was kind of vague. People would kind of get the idea, but they didn't really know what I was saying. But "Utero" gave me the will to want to be clearer or just have more intent with the music.
Tay Iwar - SATISFIED (audio) youtu.be
On joining Soulection
How did you join Soulection?
It's beautiful man. It's a dream come true. You know whati is said about speaking it into existence? That's exactly what happened. I've been following Soulection for over four years, and I would always say to my brothers that 'bro, we have to work with Soulection.' They do a lot of mixes and while listening, we'd be in the middle of a mix and i'd be like 'yo, we have to work with Soulection.' I actually never did anything about that. I never like pursued it, nothing. I just kept on making music and I got a mail from the label manager saying he heard my song and he heard me on a Santi feature and that just blew my mind. I was like, this is just unreal because I haven't even tried to meet these guys, I was just saying it.. I didn't even think my sound was enough yet, that's why I hadn't reached them. Here I was thinking I have to level up, and this guy just messages me. It was mind blowing. I had to sleep. I slept, woke up, sent him an essay of my life. It was just mind blowing. That was a good thing.
So far so good?
Yea. It's the right team. And my sound is almost based on Soulection. Their motto is 'Timeless Sounds, Forgotten Gems.' It's exactly what I've tried to do all my life, bringing back forgotten gems. It definitely does feel like home. Soulection is great. They are amazing. And it's incredible how many people that they work with and people don't even know. They're so low-key.
It's really a family and like any other family, it's difficult to get in, you have to be part of the family to be in the family and I'm just just grateful. It was just random, luck, and more of the whole random thing because I didn't chase that. It just fell into my lap. And at the same time, it could have been a bad experience if my attitude was different or if they wanted something else. It could have gone so many ways, but we decided to grow slowly. It's been a year since I started talking to them and it's just now we are releasing the album. We really took our time with it. I didn't even meet them until last month when I went to London. I mastered the album there. I worked with Monte Booker who is a producer. I didn't do much recording but marketing and meetings and getting the album to the level it is now, that's what that was.
Any expectations for the performance of Gemini?
No. I'm just observing. If you carry a bird, you throw it into the sky and see what happens. I don't expect anything. Already, what I've been getting is mind-blowing to me. So I'm just grateful. The only thing I want to do right now is perform. I just want to perform the songs because live is a whole different thing.
You've been working at it?
Yeah. I want to do a show, but I can't talk about that actually. But I have a show in London on July 20.
Tay Iwar. Photo provided by the artist.
On the pressure to make Afropop
How do you deal with the pressure to do more commercial music?
I think I've just seen it as: No one knows me better than me, and if someone is telling me to do something and I don't 100% feel right about it, then I'm correct. So that's just what its been. Everyone who has told me to do Afropop, I've never really felt like that person's intentions are pure. Or that doing that would be pure in its intentions, so I just haven't. And some people would say I don't want to make money, which is just crazy. How would I spend so much time on music and not want to make money? It's stupid. There is a rush but, is there really a rush? To me I'm on a normal path but I think people are rushing or something, I don't know. It's just patience. Not a lot of people are patient. I know what it's going to make a Tiv boy singing RnB in Nigeria make money off music. I already knew that since. It's just, actually doing it is hard and that's okay. I think maybe most artists don't do the music thing because it's hard, and that's just lazy.
It's not like I've never felt pressure to do other sounds. I have. But, If I made an Afropop song, I'm not going to be satisfied with that. A lot of people would probably be satisfied with that, but my goal in music is not necessarily to make other people satisfied. It's to accurately portray myself. And I feel it's worse for an artist to sell something that isn't them, and they have the burden to keep that up just to make money. Rather than just being yourself, and waiting, and just being patient and selling your music properly. The thing with the audience here, I think RnB hasn't really done well in Nigeria here ever. Besides maybe Styl Plus, but even Styl Plus was more pop than RnB if you ask me.
A lot of people get scared when they like you as an artiste and they want to see you successful or rich or whatever. To them, in the past four years, they've only been seeing Afro-pop, so where do you fit in? That's when people think of music as bound by location rather than a universal language. Music is beyond Nigeria. It's beyond Lagos, its beyond Abuja. Its beyond any of that. I've always seen it as that and I don't think its ever going to change.
On Abuja, Bantu Collective and being considered a recluse
Why haven't you left Abuja?
Because its home. I did my secondary school here, I went to three secondary schools and they were all in Abuja. Most of the people I know in my life are here, my family is here.
You built Bantu Collective in this city. That's impressive!
Bantu inspired what is considered as what is seen as the creative scene now, and not just in Abuja, in Lagos as well. I think we were probably the first creative collective that seemed like there was a force behind it that was heading for international recognition. We inspired a lot of things going down in Abuja. Bantu as a media company has been involved with major shows that happened in Abuja that showed people that you can actually do shows in Abuja and have people come. We used to do a thing called Bantu sessions where we'd get artists in our space and do a live performance. It was really intimate with two or three instruments which was never happening in Abuja before. It's very normal in Lagos, but here people just weren't doing jam sessions. We started doing that and we started doing game nights too which was a thing that actually helped bring creatives together.
Is this obsession with your city one of the reasons why you are regarded as a recluse?
Personal life and music life is the same isn't it? People are selling their are brands now with their personalities. I think what happened is that when my music came out, I got popular in Lagos. But I was in Abuja and I was in secondary school, boarding school. So there was a huge disconnect because I didn't know anyone in Lagos even on a personal level. I didn't know anyone. I was all the way here and no one knew I was here. They thought I was in Lagos, so they just believed that I was just a guy in Lagos that didn't want to come out but had music getting popular. That's why they began to call me a recluse. But I was just here and I had to go to school for a year and that increased the recluse talk, because then I wasn't in Abuja, and I wasn't in Lagos and everyone was asking, 'okay where is this guy?' They were saying 'he is Nigeria but then he is not even here.' And from then its been like that. I've been in and out of school. But I think I'm far less of a recluse now, for sure. But at the time, I wasn't even really thinking about it. I was just like dropping songs on Soundcloud. It wasn't that deep for me. I wasn't even hearing all these stories about me being a recluse until much later when I went to Lagos and they were like 'guy where have you been?' And I'm like, 'I've been in Abuja and I wasn't a recluse here, I was producing for people every week.'
Why haven't you attempted to dispel this notion?
Because I didn't think of it as anything bad. If people are saying I like being with myself, then I don't see anything wrong with that. That just means I'm comfortable, you know? It also comes with benefits. Peace of mind. Now I tweet more and I get crazy rumors being thrown around about me. I just don't pay attention to it that much. The main thing that I pay attention to, is getting the music and the art to the highest level it can possibly be and selling that properly.
What's the highest level to you?
Self-satisfaction. I just want to be satisfied with my songs. That's the highest level. Because the songs are my experiences. Every song I do is like a sneak peek into my life. If I feel like I have represented that well and I've talked about myself or sang about myself properly then that's the highest peak on an emotional level. On the technical level, it just means being able to follow broadcasting rules and all the decibel levels that they tell you to set for streaming, radio and all that.
Why is your validation internal?
It is interesting because music is very subjective. The creation of it and the listening part. It's one of those industries where constant change, so there's no rule to anything. Someone else's rule can actually make your life worse. If you follow what someone else has done, if someone decides to model their career around mine it might mess them up. They might lose themselves or whatever. So you just have to stay true to yourself and make yourself satisfied. Be happy with whatever you are doing. That's what I've tried to do so far. Perhaps that's why I decided not to be really out there. I decided that would probably influence me. I didn't want to be influenced by judgments... I learned that you can actually do a lot with music than just make money. You can influence people to actually do things with their lives, you know. There are so many people in Nigeria that are miserable because they don't know what to do. They don't know they can do things they already have power to do. My main goal with music is just to make sure people like me, people who didn't have too many friends, understand that you could be comfortable being yourself and expressing. That's all that matters really, not anyone's judgment or whatever.
On the Alté scene
Are you a member of the Alté community?
Definitely for sure, yeah. But I feel mine is not like a brother, sister, way just because I'm not based in Lagos. Alté was born in Lagos, but it was inspired by stuff we've been doing out here. Stuff Bantu's been doing. It's been inspired by creative collectives which we started. So, in that sense, I'm definitely part of Alté, but not in a direct way, due to my location.
Why is the movement excessively criticised?
It's just natural. It's something to talk about. Alté signifies change, and Nigerians are generally hard to deal with change. And that's what's happening. The powers are changing and it's scary for some people. I think it's beautiful though. It's amazing, that's all. And it's good that people are having these conversations. I feel like the comparisons have to happen. Because people have to actually sit down and say we have this new thing and we have the old thing. Put them aside, what's different, what's similar, why are you saying this is better than this? That has to happen.
Is it due to the dominant Western influence in their art?
Nigerian music is the fusion of Western music with our sound and our afro-rhythms. That's what Nigerian music is and has always been. Because if you want to go through the details of it, then you have to go to each tribe and bring out each music they made from Nigeria. If you want to say let's make proper Nigerian sounds, you might as well go to all of the 400 tribes or whatever and get their instruments and make something. But Fela brought Jazz and Funk. There was more Western influence in Fela's music than Afro. People forget that. Highlife also, and all their instruments; they're using guitars, they are using drum sets. It's the same as when Odunsi uses the synth or drum machine but then sings in Yoruba. Its fusion.
Maybe it's the degree of fusion that is different?
It's just the style. And it's also people's expectations as well. I think because people feel like, as the Alté people we should probably do more African influence sounds. But we don't even think about that when we are making our music. We are honestly just making music. We are just being ourselves because for the longest time, artists in the industry have not been themselves. They've been chasing money, doing something else because they feel like that's what would give them money. We are just being ourselves. And it's wild to see that people would find that scary. They should just stop. Alte is here to stay. Because, just look at the artists in it. We are not trying to make temporary music, we are making timeless sounds.
Sounds that are true to you?
Yeah, Sounds that we know have been refined. We've gone through over it again and again on different levels of listening. Like, these are refined songs. We are working hard. We're not just going to a studio doing 'ah omo this one mad' and then you chuck out a hype record. These are not hype records. These are songs based on real life, based on people. They are real songs. It's just change. And its scary that things are changing, but it's inevitable and you know.