KeiyaA's lockdown listening: 'Hope for black Americans lies in the art we make'

Interview Ben Beaumont-Thomas

I’m in my apartment in New York, and I’m trying to focus on the positive side of being in isolation, which is forced introspection. I just released my album, and so I would have been forced to be introspective regardless, because after you release a body of work and it starts getting critiqued by the general public, that creates a whole lot of dysphoria about yourself. But isolation has further forced me to process it: what have I just created? I’ve also been able to practice and flex my cooking – I’ve been making a lot of stews; I roasted a big old snapper for the first time last week. It’s a lot of African and Caribbean dishes and styles: a lot of yuca.

One of the songs I’ve been listening to on repeat all year, but especially now, is Pi, off Kate Bush’s Aerial album. It’s this dance back and forth between a 6/8 post-bop almost-swing groove, and then the typical Kate Bush sound that we know: medieval pop in the 80s. She’s singing about this guy who’s obsessed with numbers, and as someone who has been diagnosed with non-neurotypical things like ADHD and depression, something about the way she’s speaking, the franticness and the rushed sense in the lyrics, really remind me of when I’m in a moment of mania or mental hyperactivity. It sounds like what it feels like when my brain is just going.

A lot of music I’ve been listening to is impressionist music, being able to capture things through sonics and not necessarily lyrics – I’ve been enthralling myself with composers and arrangers who are able to do that. This is a sonic commentary on police brutality, black children that are being murdered and hate crimes in general. The alliteration alone, to describe human life in that way, I thought was incredibly poignant. It’s 13 minutes of pain and beauty and sorrow, but also hope. The hope for black people in America lies where it always has, in the art and the work we make, and the conversations that we have, and the spirit that we embody every day.

<a href="">Transition East by Angel Bat Dawid</a>

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It’s been beautiful to see Angel Bat Dawid, an artist out of Chicago, getting her reverence, because she’s an incredible artist and composer, and so is the whole post-AACM jazz community there. This resonates with me because it reminds me of my childhood in Chicago, and a sound that is so specific to the avant-garde jazz scene there. Jazz instrumentation, but with a lot of singing, and the sound of the bass clarinet and tuba: sounds that you don’t necessarily hear in more modern jazz. Not a lot of intense, lush, chordal big band landscapes – it’s a little more broken down, more spiritual, more ritualistic. I’m in New York in isolation, and I need something that reminds me of my past – this music just sounds so much like home to me.

It’s a rollercoaster thrill-ride of sounds and sonics; I’ve listened to this song hundreds of times and I still discover new things. I don’t know if it’s specific to America, but I think that only certain people in certain packages are allowed to be deemed incredibly profound and intellectual, but also connect on a mass level. I feel like only certain black artists are given that, and they have to play jazz, instrumental or electronic music. We associate folks like Brandy [and her producers] Timbaland and Darkchild in black American hip-hop culture, but don’t necessarily always associate that culture with the intellectual. I think we’re seeing more women getting that, but there’s still proximity to whiteness and white maleness and desirability that’s involved too. It’s a long road before the Brandys and the Jazmine Sullivans of this world get the same deal.

The Wayne Shorter album Night Dreamer is a favourite of mine, and the waltzing title track is so beautiful. I’m up all the time at night – I play a lot of Animal Crossing – and so it’s a beautiful and relevant sonic allegory on playing in the darkness. At least that’s the way I interpret it.

This rapper from New York named Maassai, a friend of mine and a creative collaborator, does a music series called Construction, which alludes to black Americans as the original construction workers of the country because of the institutions we literally built. She talks a lot about claiming and taking up space, and her identity as a black artist and a black woman, and so I really love her work. She doesn’t really sound like anything else – she is a lyrically dense and very skilled MC, first and foremost, but she raps over more experimental sounding music, and dance music. It’s definitely hip-hop, but modern and super forward. She’s incredible.

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Lockdown has also revealed some darker things that I’m grateful to have revealed to me because it gives me stuff to work on. One of those is understanding how lonely I feel each day – even though I have friends and community I didn’t realise that I write a lot about loneliness and habits of self-isolation. I think it stems probably from experiences when I was a child. I started understanding what it meant to be poor, and that there was a social hierarchy, when I started doing after-school music programmes and was confronted with kids of different classes and races – and that was when I started to understand loneliness. I believe you can carry all types of things generationally too – I think it’s something that’s in my blood. But to be able to see how many people all over the world are able to resonate with my lyrics, which I think are just my thoughts that I’m pulling out of my ass, it helps me to understand that if there is an inevitable loneliness to our human existence, there’s an inevitable togetherness too.