Karim Kamar: the TikTok star who gave it all up for music - ‘I had to decide, do I get the bus home or eat?’

Karim Kamar  (Ayman Chaudhry)
Karim Kamar (Ayman Chaudhry)

Even after Beyoncé inspired fans to quit their jobs in June last year with resignation banger Break My Soul, most people would still baulk at ditching a steady job for a career as a professional pianist. Particularly when the first hurdle was learning the piano itself.

But Karim Kamar is not most people, and his decision to concentrate on the instrument paid off handsomely. A decade on, he has more than 1 million followers across his social media, has performed at London’s most prestigious music venues, including Ronnie Scott’s and the Royal Albert Hall, released six albums (with another in the works), and has a monthly poetry and music residency, Out-Spoken, at the Southbank Centre.

Now 37, Kamar grew up around Catford and Bromley, but instead of moving back in with his supportive parents after leaving his job, he simply budgeted and worked very hard: “I was making very crucial decisions. Do I get the bus home, or do I have dinner? I was waking up at five in the morning every day. I was playing for eight hours a day. Because I had to make it work, didn’t I?”

The musician – who has amassed 508,000 followers on Instagram, 469,500 followers on TikTok and 10 million TikTok likes – had taken piano lessons as a child and in his early teens, he tells me when we meet in the Royal Festival Hall’s Riverside Terrace Cafe on the South Bank. Yet, he hadn’t done more than play around on the instrument for years when – five years after completing a drama degree at Liverpool Hope and while he was working in his family’s care agency – he finally decided to pick it up again.

Karim Kamar (Ayman Chaudhry)
Karim Kamar (Ayman Chaudhry)

He hadn’t pursued music earlier as there weren’t any courses available at his six-form college, and while there were music rooms at university, Kamar felt they weren’t very accessible. “People are very funny about who can play the piano and touch piano. So even though they had pianos around, I wasn’t really able to play on them.”

He set himself the challenge of learning to play all the pieces in a book called 50 Greats for the Piano book, which includes pieces by Bach, Mozart and Haydn. He bought a digital piano, and set about honing his skills, playing eight hours a day. He started teaching piano to kids, and slowly built his YouTube profile (today he has 146,000 subscribers). His dedication worked: he now writes, composes and performs his own music – as well as covers – and was picked up by record label Ostereo.

He describes his style as neo-classical music – which mixes classical with minimalism, experimental, electronica and other genres – and has been influenced by artists including Hania Rani, Ólafur Arnalds, Lang Lang and Ryuichi Sakamoto.

In the mid-2010s, as he started to grow in confidence and, “for whatever reason”, he tried out for Britain’s Got Talent. He describes his audition as “really bad”, but it was a pivotal moment, one he refers back to several times during our chat.

It made him “start looking at solo piano in a more of an intelligent, constructive way” and it was also the first time that someone drew his attention to the aesthetic combination of a black man wearing casual clothing like a hoodie playing classical music on a piano.

“I just remember the producer really being interested in the way I looked and the way I presented myself and just being like, ‘Okay, what’s the story here?’” he says. “There are going to be certain things, like the way you dress... someone’s going to look at you in a certain way and expect certain things from you.

“And especially when you compound it with classical pianos, it then breeds that kind of positive racism, I want to say, where people are like, ‘Oh, we didn’t expect you to do this, how brilliant is that?’ It’s something you can never escape from.”

Beyond the stereotypes, negative and positive, Kamar leaves an indelible impression on the audience. As author and performer Joelle Taylor, who first met Kamar at one of his early Out-Spoken nights, describes when first seeing him perform: “The room was packed and the vibe when Karim hit the stage was electric. He stopped me breathing.”

Kamar has also taken advantage of the public piano scheme Play Me, I’m Yours – which saw pianos put in public spaces, beginning in Birmingham in 2012 and was then rolled out in cities across the country and then the world. Today his most popular videos are still of him performing in public spaces: his most watched video on YouTube – where he is playing a piano in the Westfield shopping centre – has racked up 11 million views.

During his public piano sessions, dozens of busy passers-by can’t help but stop and listen to the graceful and magnetic player. He says that playing in stations, where “every eye on you is quite a hostile eye” helped build his confidence for performing in ticketed venues, “because I made 100 people stop who are trying to go to work. So then I’m sat there with 100 people who actually paid, like, what am I worried about there?”

In fact, he is such a fan of public pianos, that he thinks there should be more of them. I show him a tweet which says, “Can we stop putting pianos and organs in train stations and start putting them in schools instead?” which he seriously disagrees with. “Yes, of course, we need instruments in schools, but then you’re in a class full of 30 people, are you going to put 30 pianos in there?“ he says.

“You can have kids playing piano in schools all day, it doesn’t mean anything to them. That music doesn’t correlate to anything. They’re just like, this is something that I learned here as part of school, and then you take them out of that – and I’ve literally done it – and you place them in a situation where they see live music being played, just organically. And that’s when they’re like, ‘Oh I get it!’”

He says the way music is taught in Britain is too grade driven, and that the system is primarily set up to keep kids off the street; he believes that education on the whole needs to “revolutionise”. He continues, “What are we teaching them? Are we teaching them how to write a song? Or are we simply teaching them why Beethoven was the greatest? Because... yeah, Beethoven is great but, how relevant is it?”

Before turning to the piano, Kamar was MCing, DJing and making Garage music with his friends, dreaming of making “smash hits”. He made the shift to the piano partly because he felt that the Garage scene was getting increasingly policed. “It was completely shut down in London,” he says.

And while he was “incredibly supported” by his friends and family when he decided to pursue music – though at first “everybody says you're crazy. And that's the point” – he still wishes that there had been someone, or a better educational structure, to teach him that there was a viable career available in music.

This could be the reason that Kamar takes such care with younger people coming up in the scene; Taylor says she is “constantly inspired by his dedication to craft and learning, which is only matched by his willingness to help everyone else out around him”.

He becomes animated when talking about the young artists he has performed with, and supported, in the public spaces, such as 18-year-old singer and pianist Camden Stewart. “I met Camden a year ago... now Camden’s got 1.6 million followers on Tik Tok.” In his videos he is often joined by a range of musicians, including London singer-songwriter Kaia Laurielle, cellist Matrick Thorpe, and musician Enkay.

It’s clear that Kamar is interested in social issues beyond education, having made music with British rapper and activist Lowkey, with their song names including Ghosts of Grenfell and Terrorist?, and having performed at Radio 1Xtra’s Grenfell Session.

But unlike Lowkey, Kamar sees his activism and his solo music-making as being separate entities: “When I’m sitting here playing the piano, I’m not making a racial statement,” he says. Stereotypes are, he says, not his issue – they’re the problem of the person trying to push them onto him.

He will be “an activist outside of piano”, going on marches and talking about racism and sexism, and how they affect people’s lives. But he adds that he, “never went to the piano as activism”.

Kamar now has a multitude of projects under his belt including playing at the British Innovation Awards and the British Fashion Awards in 2019 and there are plenty more in the works. He’s filming something secret the day after we meet, has just returned from the US having played there over the holiday season, and has another album coming out in a few months. One thing is clear: quitting his job, and wholeheartedly pursuing music, was a pretty smart decision.

Karim Kamar’s latest album, Fire & Other Pieces (Ostereo), is available on all major streaming sites now; karimkamar.com