Ain't The Problem: Michael Kiwanuka Is Searching For Solutions

Ain't The Problem: Michael Kiwanuka Is Searching For Solutions

The story of his bold, dynamic new album...

Modern day Britain recoils in its complexity, tip-toeing into turmoil as the future bears the uncomfortable silhouette of a question mark. In a time dominated by scathing headlines, societal chaos and political anarchy, it is hard to find the beauty amidst the madness.

32 year old singer songwriter Michael Kiwanuka is unpicking the challenging times upon us in his upcoming third release ‘KIWANUKA’, a colourful collection of music that depicts how it feels to finally discover your identity, and the struggles to grasp onto it in a world that is trying so desperately to snatch it away.

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Born and raised in Muswell Hill to Ugandan parents, Kiwanuka’s introduction into music bore lickings of the North London streets he learned how to ride a bike on, the Afrobeat vinyl that circled the walls of his living room and the exemplary rock bands of the Nineties.

“I developed a thirst for music when I was twelve, and I was just mucking about on the guitar and started a band pretty quick. From that experience I just caught the bug and always wanted to be a musician since my childhood.”

I listened to a whole mix of music, a bit all over the place really, everything from The Verve, Blur, Nirvana and Pearl Jam and then as I got older, I got very jazz heavy like Miles Davis, and got into soul music in my mid-teens and that’s where I found my passion. Jazz and soul are my immediate and I really found my voice through that.”

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Beginning as a session guitarist, Kiwanuka’s solo emergence came showered in accolade, an aspect that he still finds baffling. His 2012 debut album ‘Home Again’ went gold, whilst his 2016 second release rocketed to a remarkable number one spot on the charts; however, unbeknown to his ever-growing fanbase, the artist struggled with severe self-doubt.

After his first record label suggested he conjure up a stage name to fit in better, the idea took him back to his school years that saw teachers mumble over the pronunciation, all which made him wrestle with the reality of who he actually is.

“I struggled with my identity because I feel like my music is kind of inbetween, and even the way I view culture is in the middle, so there weren't many people to borrow or copy off at the time,” Michael explains, “Sometimes I would feel lost and on my own and like I didn’t know what I was doing because I felt like I had to be part of a scene or a group, as it gives you the confidence to keep doing what you’re doing.”

He adds: “I quickly realised that it was a good thing though because having something unique that doesn’t fit in is actually a lot more fun to experience!”

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His third album is a reflection of exactly that; his namesake splashed across the cover in capitals with pride, a self-affirmation that he is his own community and his own extraordinary being. The release is undoubtedly his best yet, not only a peek into the inner workings of the man himself, but the sheer variation of instruments that combine to create a sound far bolder than he has ever dared to venture before.

“Usually I have albums that I always listen to, but when I was making this one, it wasn’t so much the case,” he insists. 

“I still listened to a lot of Nick Cave and Andre 3000, of course classic soul and exaggerated strings, but I like the confidence those two have in themselves because for their idiom of music and genre that they’re in, they would do things that may seem a bit wild in comparison to anybody else, things that are unusual and unexpected, so they really influenced me.”

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He pauses, before adding: “I would also read about people like Fred Hampton of the Black Panthers, and the artist James Baldwin, and learning about those while making the album inspired me”. 

The LP - out now - comes with equal trepidation and excitement for the musician, who still seems in shock that people want to hear what he has to say. “I feel so lucky to even still be in the mix,” he exclaims. “Third album, y’know!”

“I just want people to hear it and see what I’ve been working on. Of course you want success and hope it does well but even if somebody discovers it in five years time, I just want it out there because to me, it’s never been about selling a thousand million records, it’s all about the art!”

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Having worked alongside some of the UK’s finest exports such as Tom Misch and Lil Simz, he cites discovering his place within the scene as “exciting, as what’s happening in British music today is reflective of what’s going on, and we can all push each other to be more creative through that”, and it seems like the newly unravelled Kiwanuka is only just igniting the flame for a far more fearless future.

But what is the one thing he could wish for in a time when he has shaken off all insecurities? “Longevity. I would love to be forty five years old and putting albums out and people still wanting to hear my songs and to be playing shows, that would be amazing. That’s the number one thing I want to achieve”.

Something about Michael Kiwanuka's resolute conviction suggests it is a wish that may just come true.

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'KIWANUKA' is out now.

Words: Becca Fergus
Photography: Eleonora C. Collini

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