Interview curated by Linathi Makanda
On Memory, Cuisine and The Fierce Embodiment Of One’s Inner Bad B*tch
"I make the music for myself, so on days I don't necessarily feel okay, I can listen to it and remind myself, "Well, you did that, right?"
We are what we remember and often times, our perception of memory is a negative one. What if it didn't have to be that way?
Having an intimate understanding of memory, one can perceive it as a place we return to time and time again, and somewhere in the process of moving back and forth, one learns that there is very little that is actually lost. During our journey with Nigerian singer, songwriter Kah-Lo, we came to learn more about this faculty. More than anything else, that it serves as a reserve from which we can draw strength, inspiration, and so many other things.
From this, we learn that we can re-experience ourselves as we used to. Although the Nigerian artist utilizes her craft to achieve this for herself, her music also enables us to do so ourselves. Inherent in her music is an energy that guides us back to being more grounded and confident versions of ourselves.
During our conversation, the Grammy-nominated artist talks about her experience in the music industry, how their influence shaped her growth, and what she envisions for the future. We also walked along her childhood memories through Nigerian cuisine and got to understand that no matter where you go, there will always be ways in which your spirit travels back to where home is.
In childhood, there is often a tendency to gravitate toward certain interests. Share a memory from your childhood or early adulthood where you were gaining a liking for what you are doing now?
I would say the most pivotal moment was when I was eight or nine years old. When my dad came back from New York, he would bring a lot of pre-recorded American TV, like documentaries, the Grammys, and music videos, and I would watch them. I thought wow, that is so cool, since I had never seen anything like that on Nigerian TV before. And I started thinking that's what I want to do.
Tell us the influence your family had on you taking on these interests
My dad certainly had an influence since he loves music, as well as my oldest sister, who was a huge fan of the Spice Girls when I was growing up. Because of that, I also took a liking to them. Also, my older cousins listened to quite a bit of music, so I was exposed to a lot of different sounds.
What motivated you to turn your interests in the arts into an actual career?
As a kid growing up in an African household, it was always, "Oh, you want to be a singer? That’s cute” but when you get to high school, you have to choose either the sciences, arts or commerce.
That kind of became the crossroad for me and I got this sense of like, “shit is starting to get real” because I couldn't really see myself doing anything else. I loved music. I sang in the shower all the time, every day. Not only that, but I loved performing, and I loved the attention. So ultimately I was like “Hello? Why not?” and you know what? I'm at my happiest doing this.
Who are your artistic influences?
Kanye and M.I.A are definitely up there. I would say Michael Jackson because, you know, King of Pop. I would say Rihanna, too. Because she's also an immigrant, who I feel has really broken those barriers of the type of music an immigrant should be making over here. I would also say Slick Rick because his music helped me discover the pattern of rock I do right now.
In your professional life, have you developed any productive friendships that carried over into your personal life?
I'm wonderful friends with Michael Brun, who made Melanin with me. He’s very cool, and we're also neighbors, which makes it easier for us to make music together. Sophie Tucker, as well. She's one of my favorite people ever.
During your journey as an artist, what is one experience you feel has stuck with you and has helped you grow as an artist?
This might be a controversial answer, but I'm gonna say, being f*cked over. It really tests your limits, and pushes you to grow in areas you wouldn't otherwise grow in if that didn't happen. Yeah. It's messed up. But I would say that.
Describe the intention and energy you channeled during the development stages of your EP The Arrival, and how that led to the final product?
It was just back-to-back days of feeling very defeated, and I wanted to make music that would speak to me being my best self. You know, even Commandments, for example. At the time of writing the song, I was just thinking, man, this is probably what it’s like being a bad b**ch on a spiritual level. You hear this especially towards the end of the song when those chords come in.
It's a rebirth soundtrack, and that's why I also titled the project The Arrival.
With dance music being very white male dominated, I feel like a lot of my lyrics are always rearranged and kind of taken out of context. So this was the first time that I said exactly what I wanted to say, how I wanted to say it and to have the highs and lows come in when I want them to come in.
With all of your music, you bring a sense of authenticity that is lively and challenges us as your audience. Could you tell us about how important it is for you to embody the same boldness we hear in your music?
I make the music for myself, so on days I don't necessarily feel okay, I can listen to it and remind myself, "Well, you did that, right?" In helping me, it also helps a lot of other people, which is what I also love.
In what ways do you hope your audience will remember, resonate with, or take something away from you as a musician?
I hope, in general, my art makes people let loose, have a good time, feel their most confident and on top of the world. Because like I said, I write it for myself, but I love that people resonate with it. I’ve seen people use a lot of my songs for walking, doing makeup and to get ready to go out. So I feel like my songs stick with a lot of people's good memories. And I love that.
In 2016, you were nominated for a Grammy for Best Dance/Electronic Recording. How has your approach to your music changed since then, and how do you envision the future of Alternative/Electronic as a whole, especially as a black woman in the genre?
I think a lot of other artists get the opportunity to enjoy the journey, and granted, I did as well. I had a lot of SoundCloud releases, and I was on my grind, but Rinse and Repeat was the first song I had on other streaming platforms with worldwide distribution. It was the first song that I had put up professionally, so I had a lot of learning to do. In my mind, I felt that the bar had been set very high. It was so overwhelming, because I genuinely thought a Grammy nomination would be coming five to eight years into my career, and it happened the very first time.
Moving forward, I've had to really shed and redefine who I am because it was a song with a DJ. And like I said before, that's not necessarily the style with which I would make my own stuff. I spent a lot of time trying to create my own style of what music I want to release instead of saying, ‘Oh well, this is the type of music that wins Grammys, so let me gravitate towards that.’
On the future of black women in the genre, I feel we make up the bulk of the stuff that's out there, but we're not respected enough. We deserve just as much recognition in the genre because essentially, dance music started out black. It would also be fantastic to see more people like me in the audiences I play for so that we can show we make music that connects everyone.
The importance of taking care of ourselves has seen an increase in current times. Tell us what self-care looks like for you and your family?
Self-care for me is a day to myself where I get to relax if I've been travelling a lot. I do absolutely nothing. If not, I like to give myself a little mini facial with my roller out, you know? Yeah, just take care of me, and get mine. I like to do my manicures myself. I like to do my hair myself. And I like to do a lot of skin, hair, and nail things. So those kinds of things, to me, are self-care. I also like taking a break from social media and putting my phone off.
Tell us something about yourself that fans and publications wouldn’t readily guess...
I'm 5’11. A lot of people meet me, and they're like wow, you're tall. I’m borderline six feet if I wear heels.
In terms of cuisine, Nigerian has some of the most flavorful expressions. In your mind, what is the first dish that comes to mind as you reminisce about your childhood, and what emotions do you associate with it?
Rice and stew. I would say the memory I associate it with is eating it after school and not finishing it or finishing it cold.
You moved to the United States at the age of 16. Since then, how has your connection to Nigeria, its culture, and its cuisine changed or stayed the same?
Well, I would say since I've been here, I've had to get a little creative in the way I make stuff because unfortunately, there are not a lot of African markets here. When I am making 'efo', instead of using spinach since the spinach here isn't as big as it is back home, I use kale instead. So, it has been the same in that I'll never compromise on taste just because I don't have access to the ingredients.
A piece of home is always something we want to keep with us. Is there anything in your kitchen right now that reminds you of home?
It has to be Knorr Cubes.
How do you choose which artists to gravitate towards for collaborations?
I would say lyrically, I only started collaborating with people in the past year, because I'm so used to writing by myself.
With collaborations generally, I've learned over time to find the right energies and synergy. If I don't vibe with the person personally, it's very hard for me to find that common ground with them. Though rare, it does happen from time to time that someone will message me in the DMs, and we vibe immediately. When I find that, I really cherish it.
So far I love collaborating with Jin Jin, who is a very talented songwriter, and Natania, who wrote Fire with me.
What is your all-time favorite rap line?
Well, that's not very hard because I have a tattoo of it. It’s from Touch The Sky. "Till the day I die, I'm going to touch the sky."
We absolutely love Fire. Tell us about how you made that song and how it relates to where you were in your life at the time.
I like to say Kah-Lo as a concept is the inner bad b*tch I wish I was 100% of the time. I am not a bad b*tch 100% of the time, I would give it a good 75. Which is good.
So I like to write those overly confident, female powered, ‘I'm so good, and you can’t tell me sh*t” anthems and I feel like I write them best when I'm not feeling my best
You recently contributed to Angelique Kidjo’s now Grammy nominated album. Take us through that, how the body of work came about and how the process of working on it was?
That was actually an amazing opportunity, because I wrote that song for Mr Eazi, and he played it for her, and she loved it, which blew my mind because I grew up listening to her. As an African who grew up watching the Grammys, she represented us on the global stage, and that was inspiring because she looked like us. She has broken so many barriers for African artists, so I was thrilled to hear my song resonate with someone so respected by me.
This is a song I wrote quite a long time ago, and it was inspired by Salif Keita’s Africa. It was on my mind when I was writing and even when Mr Eazi ultimately heard the song I wrote, he said it reminded him of the same song. Angelique then added a verse to it and that’s how it was added to the album. The whole experience was just incredible in how it all came together.
Who would you like to collaborate with musically or in terms of production in the near future?
There's a lot. I'm literally in a space where I'm not really saying no to collaborations any more as much as I used to. But I'm really looking forward to working with, hopefully, Missy Elliot, Pharrell, Max Martin. I mean, maybe even Kanye, right?
Because monetary achievements and milestones are frequently reflected in public praise, many people mistakenly believe that those are what define success or what should be used as a measure of success in everyday life as well. What is your definition of success, and what keeps you grounded in that definition?
I would say getting to a level where I'm respected enough. Not only that, I want to be rated, and in the way I'm supposed to be. I don't like the whole concept of “underrated”. I want to be respected by my peers and seen on the same level. Granted, I’m already in a privileged position musically, because there aren’t a lot of people that get to say they make music for a living. You know, getting to do that alone in itself is already pretty crazy. So, I would say I’m already pretty successful now. Definitely, yeah. But I would say the next level would be being rated.
As an artist, you travel quite a lot for performances and appearances. Tell us about one of your best encounters experiencing another country's cuisine.
I had escargot once in Paris, and that was a strange experience for me because in Nigeria we eat big snails, so I can handle that, but these snails are tiny, so it was scary for me to eat them. My first thought was, why am I so scared when I have always had snails? It’s like my brain couldn't process it. Eventually, though, I ate it and enjoyed it.
We all have that one go-to meal or restaurant. What is yours?
Jollof rice. That is my holy grail. Word to Nigeria Jollof. It’s top of my list until I die. Gang gang
Food is also a beautiful and unique way for us to connect with each other. What role does it play in your personal relationships, and in what ways do you connect through it?
Well, my mom is the most incredible cook on this planet. I'm not just saying that ; it’s facts. I'd say that my family definitely bonds over that. Yeah. We love mom's cooking. I can say the same with my friends as well, you know, we do love to connect over restaurants, dinners, drinks or meals. And sometimes I also like to cook for my friends.
I like that food can bring people together and kind of bridge that gap, especially for people who have never experienced Nigerian culture before. That's kind of like the other door to connect with me besides the music I love
It’s your turn to cook for date night, and the theme is Modernity Meets Culture. Which traditional Nigerian dishes are you preparing and with which modern twist, and why?
That’s easy. I’ll give you a twist.
There’s this book by Lopè Ariyo titled Hibiscus and I love that book so much because it blends European dishes with Nigerian food. There's an incredible recipe in there, which is puff puff. It has hibiscus flakes, biscuit syrup, with powdered sugar. The best thing ever.
There’s also a steak in there with Nigerian spices.