Michael Kiwanuka's life growing up in North London and why he dropped out of Royal Academy of Music

Michael Kiwanuka performing on stage in Spain in 2022
-Credit: (Image: Mariano Regidor/Redferns)

Michael Kiwanuka will be taking to the main stage at Glastonbury this afternoon (June 29) for an hour-long set on the Pyramid Stage. The North London-born singer has released three studio albums to huge acclaim, and has been awarded the Mercury Prize for his songwriting on his third album, KIWANUKA.

Kiwanuka was born in Muswell Hill in 1987 and attended Fortismere comprehensive in the area. He immediately developed a love of music but as a child he was more interested in rock, citing Nirvana and Radiohead as big influences.

But as he grew older, he became more interested in other styles of music, and was awarded a place at the prestigious Royal Academy of Music to study jazz. Speaking to the Guardian in 2020, Kiwanuka said he dropped out after a discouraging end-of-year report, saying he was plagued by self-doubt and he tended to quit when things got difficult.

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He then became a lowly session guitarist, and would perform his own songs at pubs just as a sideline. But in 2011, everything changed for the young man.

Kiwanuka signed with Polydor, a record company, and released his debut album Home Again. But the pressure became intense, especially after Kiwanuka was invited to work with Kanye West on his Yeezus project, which he told the Guardian left him feeling 'intimidated' and 'inadequate'.

Michael Kiwanuka is an award-winning singer-songwriter from North London
Michael Kiwanuka is an award-winning singer-songwriter from North London -Credit:Jordi Vidal/Redferns

But his third album, KIWANUKA, is all about challenging that inadequacy, starting with the name of the album itself. In the Guardian, they report that at school in Muswell Hill, an overwhelmingly white area of North London, Kiwanuka would dread new teachers reading the register for the first time because he'd always have to correct them on how to pronounce his surname. The album's name is a celebration of who he is, and a belated protest at once being asked if he wanted to change his stage name to be more palatable to audiences.

But now, Kiwanuka is gearing up to play one of the biggest gigs of his career. The Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury is something many artists can only dream about, and this North London boy has now made it into the hall of fame.

He's played at The Farm before, in 2019 and 2016, but neither time has he made it to the main stage. So tonight's performance is due to be very special indeed. You can watch it on iPlayer from 5.45pm.

Got a story for us? Email anna.willis@reachplc.com.

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