“When I was a kid my grandma said to me, ‘If you think the monster under your bed is coming to get you, call him out’ – so I did. And that became my way of confronting everything: I will run towards certain things instead of running away.”
South Londoner Gaika Tavares – known to most as creative polymath GAIKA – is about to release his debut album. Sitting in his near-empty Somerset House studio – sparse, he explains, because he’s been travelling so much lately – we’re discussing his willingness to face up to certain truths in his art. These truths are largely all the more striking because they’re dealing with things that most of us are too uncomfortable or scared or overwhelmed by to talk about.
“It’s not that deep,” the Brixton artist deflects initially with a laugh. “To me, it’s more terrifying to not confront the truth.”
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We’re talking about his harrowing essay from last year, The Spectacular Empire. Published by Dazed (for whom, incidentally, he is the Political Editor-At-Large), the piece was intended as an appendix to his installation of the same name, and imagined a bleak future for Britain replete with evictions and refugee camps and government-induced violence – but the sense of despair largely came from the fact that it all felt horribly possible.
“I feel like sometimes I can be too real, and it’s alienating,” he concedes, admitting that sometimes his friends can end up somewhat frustrated with his relentless “foresight”.
Indeed, the space GAIKA’s work occupies makes him something of an outlier. Over the past couple of years, the artist of Jamaican and Grenadian descent has made a name for himself as the enigmatic figure behind tainted, dark electronic sounds that throb with intense humanity – be that sex-infused, club humidity or raw, visceral dancehall-style raps about the state of London. It can be considered in a somewhat similar vein to Dean Blunt’s Babyfather, albeit dubbier and more dystopian – this is music that says something but also, inherently, music that still bangs.
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I want to make music that’s forward-thinking and that pushes things…
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He channels this, unexpectedly, via French Montana, of whom he is a big fan: “Someone asked him, ‘Is there any rap music that you don’t fuck with?’ and he said something like, ‘Yeah, just that wack shit that doesn’t bang,’” he laughs. “I want to make music that’s forward-thinking and that pushes things… but at the same time I want people to dance – I want people to enjoy it.”
All the same, GAIKA wonders aloud if his music is perhaps not quite for the typical Warp fans (the label through which he is releasing), but maybe not exactly for YG fans either. “But fair enough, so be it. This is mine. What I strive to do is make something that you have to think about, but it’s not meant to alienate you… You’re not having to sit through a seven-minute Philip Glass theme and be like, ‘I’m so much smarter than everyone because I can understand this.’ I’m anti-elitism in art, that’s nothing to do with where I’m from.”
The child of scientist parents, he speaks of a youth where, as the eldest sibling, he grappled with expectations, kidding himself into thinking he wanted to be an astronaut, an engineer, even an architect, all to resist the constant allure of music culture (he spent his late-teens running club nights, and one of his earliest memories is playing with a toy keyboard).
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Eventually he followed that musical path for real, but his upbringing is still audible in his highly technical, sculptural output: “I learnt what [science] meant before I really learnt what words mean. It’s always going to be in my work because it’s part of who I am. People say that my work is futuristic, but it’s not – that’s just what our normal is.”
And certainly, GAIKA’s astonishing first album ‘BASIC VOLUME’ – named after his late father Charlton Philip Tavares’ material sciences company – is steeped in that background. Who else could create a dissonant electronic album that channels so many facets of black music while dealing with the caustic death of his father, simultaneously considering science, religion, systemic racism and the currency of being an immigrant? With production from the likes of Jam City and SOPHIE, it’s a release that crackles almost liturgically if not cinematically with grief, passion, grace, and rage, dealing in self-described alchemical parables.
“You’re trying to turn stone into gold,” he says, fiddling with the myriad rings on his fingers, “We as immigrants more often than not are trying to better our lives by trying to be richer, trying to turn the dust that you have on your shoulder into gold for your children. The parable part is you can do so much of that at the expense of your children and at the expense of yourself – you can lose your life searching for this thing that you’re never going to get and the point of colonialism today is to make us think we’re going to get it.”
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You can lose your life searching for this thing that you’re never going to get…
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Although he hints that this is broadly the story of his father, GAIKA explains that the album doesn’t elaborate on the specifics: “That story has a life of its own,” he says, “The album is about my father and his work but it’s about my experience of it… I guess it’s about myself.”
But it’s in considering himself and his family that GAIKA’s work speaks out to a much wider audience – for those of us who are in some way displaced, the sentiments that pulse along the heady beats are more than a little familiar. Forced to fit a “good immigrant” narrative and rarely afforded the luxury of thinking of this country as home, the difficulty is emphasised, GAIKA agrees, when the spaces that people of colour have to share their art through are fundamentally white.
“Music is just the icing,” he says, but it’s still an area where people of colour are used as props, tokens, and signifiers – that the album’s opening track features the line “Naked and black in a white man’s world” feels telling of an industry that profits so heavily from black art.
For most of us in the UK, that’s just one more thing to be jaded and despondent about, but for GAIKA it’s another reason to be running towards that monster. ‘BASIC VOLUME’, then, is the South London artist’s call to arms: “We’re all just pawns on a chessboard being moved around for profit, and what I guess I’m trying to make the pawns realise is that we’ve got the power. We don’t have to play.”
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GAIKA's 'Basic Volume' is out now.
Words: Tara Joshi
Photography: Adama Jalloh
Fashion: Matthew Josephs
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