Mixing bits of American R&B, UK garage and African jazz, Kwaye was one of the best surprises 2017 had to offer, offering one fleet-footed and self-assured single after another. But the 23-year-old artist, born Kwayedza Kureya, promises that fans who fell in love with his Solar EP and soul-rich singles such as “Cool Kids” and “Lost in My Boots” should prepare themselves for even more surprises as he finishes up his now hotly-awaited debut album.
“I’m always trying to push the boundaries in terms of what people have heard from me. I’ve got so many influences and inspirations that I want to get out,” he says, and then offers up some of the spices he’s been cooking with lately. “Growing up, I had listened to a lot of the Eagles, Crosby, Stills & Nash and Tracy Chapman. That’s where my heart lies, really.”
A country boy at heart, Kwaye was born in Zimbabwe to a doctor father and social worker mother, and moved when he was just 3, later living in London and the small UK town of Kent. “I’m a wandering spirit, as you call it.” Growing up, his parents were constantly playing “the Zimbabwean legend Oliver Mtukudzi,” whom Kwaye calls “my all-time inspiration for guitar,” as well as everything from Tracy Chapman’s first two records to Prince and Queen, as well as the Eagles and other country greats. “Even if you don’t live in America, you still are exposed to American culture. It’s wide and far-reaching,” he says. “I think my love for American music just stems simply from the fact that music is universal.”
As soon as he’s finished sufficiently praising American twang, he’s sure to give some love to the UK: “Garage music and artists like Craig David were coming up in London when I was six, seven years old. That was amazing. From the UK side of things, that was really my love. I think the benefit of me being youngest of four siblings is that I had three older sisters to look up to. I was always next to them in the car, and you’ve got the advantage of just absorbing this music without having to find it yourself.”
Apparently, Kwaye likes at least a little bit of everything. He even likes a little bit of heavy metal. “There’s actually a band called Saving Abel. I think they’re more of like a metal band, but soft metal,” he says. “I don’t know if people would be really surprised by this, but I loved that sort of stuff when I was in my mid-teens. It’s funny because I think I liked it more because of the melodies. Melodies are probably my favorite thing to do in music. Melodies and harmonies, I’m crazy about harmonies.”
Kwaye knew he wanted to make music after they wrote their first song at the age of 14. Ever the drifter, he moved to Los Angeles having never been to America once and not knowing anyone in the country, confident that it would eventually work out. “I just knew. You just have a feeling about going somewhere. I knew I was putting all the pieces together,” he says. “I had already been using Soundcloud. I came to LA not having a plan of sorts of how to break into the industry, but I knew that eventually I would find my way when I got here.”
He started working as soon as he arrived. He met the producer Willson and cut a demo of his single “Cool Kids,” right before he started at the University of Los Angeles-California, where he majored in African-American studies alongside a few music industry classes.
I think the most important thing you can always do no matter what is to just tell the story that’s most resonant to you at that time, and that in turn is going to make the music that’s most authentic to you.
He began his studies in the year 2014, a tumultuous time in American history, as social media helped to disseminate videos of police officers lethally attacking unarmed African-American men, leading to widespread backlash, mass protests and riots in the city of Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland. “It was emotional and surreal, and I was in the street,” he recalls. “Things were happening on such a regular basis, so what we’d find is that in class, the professor would start asking us if we’d watched the news today. We’d spend the first 10 minutes talking about actual current affairs and then it linked that into whatever topic was on for discussion in the lesson today.
"That really made it so much more immersive, and it really brought into light how, in many ways, the situations from the 30s and 60s relate to now. Of course, a lot of things have changed, but there’s a lot of things that haven’t changed,” he adds. “It inspired a lot of the music I was making when I was there and music that I’m still making now.”
Kwaye says he feels a sense of responsibility to inform his audience and comment on the state of the world. “I think the most important thing you can always do no matter what is to just tell the story that’s most resonant to you at that time, and that in turn is going to make the music that’s most authentic to you.” He’s also aware that people look to his music for release and excitement, and he says he has a secret method for combining his message with his desire to entertain.
“One thing I love doing is to use a lot of two meanings and double entendres in my music. If you really listen closely to my lyrics, especially in the music that’s going to be coming, oftentimes I might be talking about relationships with yourself or a relationship with another lover. But that might actually have a different meaning for a relationship with a system,” he says. “For example, ‘Lost in My Boots’ is talking about a relationship that is breaking down. But it’s also a true analysis of elements of the African-American experience, and being let down by the system and trying to recover from that.
"I think it’s an interesting take to talk about these global situations in a way that’s universally relatable, and I think love is a very universal feeling.”
Kwaye graduated in 2016, right around the time took an Uber ride that has become the stuff of modern legend. He played the driver a demo of “Cool Kids,” and the driver, a former A&R man, passed it along to his friend David Dann, owner of the UK label Mind of a Genius. Dann met with Kwaye and quickly signed him after hearing the demo. “That was incredible. You can’t really imagine these kinds of things,” he admits.
“I look back, and at the time it was happening I probably didn’t think it was as surreal, I guess, when I retell the story to other people and hear their reaction,” he says. “Now I can understand the thrill of it all. I think because the series of events were just happening and playing out so naturally I just kind of went with it. It was all this 'wow’ of being in America for the first time.”
He says it’s appropriate that “Cool Kids” is the song that got him his record deal, as it’s the song he made when he first came to America, and it’s inspired by the friend group that he fell in with and was inspired by. “On the surface, it’s essentially like being in this group of people, this space of friends that you’re completely comfortable with, completely yourself with, but having that feeling that you’re so much larger than the space that surrounds you,” he says. “It’s like living and breathing and being comfortable in your own skin. It really is inspired by essentially the way I look to them. I’m so inspired by them, my own friends and my family and my loved ones and how they embrace themselves and their special qualities and what makes them individuals.”
Dann says that as soon as he met Kwaye “I knew he was a force,” and says that so far fans have only heard the surface of what he is capable of. “I think Kwaye has already shown his diversity, and he’ll be labeled as a pop star one day, only because he can do such a variety of different sounds and genres. It’s really impossible to box him in even if you tried to. His album will totally reflect that.”
Kwaye says it’s too soon to say when the album will be out or give a title, but do know that he’s on the clock. “I’m working really hard to make this album a real project that I’m proud of and that really goes into very eclectic range of musical inspirations,” he says. “I wanted to be a performer from as young as six. That’s when my parents posed the classic question, 'What do you want to do when you’re older?’”
“I mean, at the time I said I wanted to be a superhero. I still want to do that.”