KAMAU rests his body and mind at “DoloBhana,” a four bedroom Brooklyn residence that houses a makeshift studio and at least seven others who, like the musician, make art through music, the pen, the paintbrush and film. Once stepping foot into the apartment, the group’s warm welcome, the sweet smell of incense and the presence of a golden-colored Tibetan singing bowl emit a magnetic energy. Before we begin our chat, KAMAU—born Kamau Agyeman—brings out palo santo to christen the apartment, hitting every corner with good energy. Much like his tribal, multifarious sound, the wunderkind has an understanding of self that shines on his debut 2016 EP, A Gorgeous Fortune.
Since moving to New York from Prince George’s County, Md. in 2009, the 20-something has learned a bit about placement. His songs have instilled melodic vigor on video games like FIFA and Madden 2017, as well as Issa Rae’s breakout series, Insecure. At Dolobana, there are books about African spirituality paired with Clayborne Carson's Malcolm X The FBI File placed on the window sill, with plushy pillows lined up around the corners of the living space. The aesthetic shows just how much the rhythms of yesteryear and cultures of the world have influenced his bars and melodies. Like much of our conversation, KAMAU uses sophisticated and gentle metaphors that will make Wee-Bay’s jaw drop.
“A lot of the influences we used are filling because most of the time when you're hungry, you're going to fill yourself with food but if you have access to really, really good food that preserves your energy for a long time, you [gain] access to things that you can attribute to your identity,” he says. “Like rural African history. My parents think because we were raised in that scenario we were able to view everything else with the same type of appreciation, and my father loved Eastern music so were raised on not only African Music but Indian music, South American music, etc.”
“His sound is different,” actor and friend Michael Excell says from the far right of the circle. The two along with many of members of the brotherhood BiGCiTYBiGCiTY, met at Pratt Institute’s film school just years earlier. He’s also an important character in KAMAU’s visuals for A Gorgeous Fortune. “For me when I first heard his sound, he was the first person I met that wouldn't use the instruments in Garageband at all. Instead, he would use his voice to incorporate the beat. He did however, evolve to using both in his songs.”
Tracks like “Gaims” and “Jusfayu” carry double entendres that provide an outlook on relations between men and women, like the dangers we face in the name of having the upper hand on our lovers. “That’s why I added the ‘I’m gonna kill you,’ and people are like, ‘Well, maybe she shouldn’t meet up with you.’" KAMAU explains. There are subtle ways we kill flowers by pulling them out of the ground and trying to possess them. We try to possess things we like this way, we treat people the same. I don’t think there’s such thing as the complete control we seek over things, but rather, varying levels of influence. There are some things, over which, you have high levels of influence, and other situations where your level of influence is low, there is never complete control. That control is an illusion, When perceived as reality, it creates a very toxic environment.”
With every track connecting to the other—the howls and growls of wolves are deep messages throughout the project—A Gorgeous Fortune is essentially a story of the self, enriched with a keen outlook on love, race and society. With the help of in-house production company, The Invisible Firm, the visuals tell larger story of brotherhood, lust and political challenges African Americans face. The audio narrative starts with the free-wielding “Jambo,” where KAMAU transforms into Bo (played by Excell) with the help of a little Animorph magic by video’s end. Bo then finds himself in a battle for the heart of Esha (played by Candace Fong, a familiar face in many of KAMAU’s projects) against his best friend Magua (played by KAMAU’s real life brother and rapper/actor, Nk? Khélí ) in “Jusfayu.” As the dream or premonition would have it, Bo isn’t fighting anyone but himself and his own battle to steer the ship of two-way love. The series continues with “Gaims,” “BooDah” and the dynamic “FoolMoon” before turning to the challenging and emotional “PohLease.”
“It's like an extremely sudden halt to a character,” KAMAU says of the video. Bo and Magua are harassed by police officers that are more focused on feeding their primitive hunger for black agony than protecting and serving. In the end, Bo meets an unfortunate end that’s [been] seen one too many times by pedestrians live streaming and tweeting police shootings. “That's happened countless times,” he says. “Sometimes, it’s just going to the store or walking to a car. I wanted to extend it to oppression in general, but in this country right now, very, very, very frequently, African Americans are being killed by people who are supposed to protect us and that's extremely scary. It's not a black problem, it's a human problem. Humanity should not feel some type of aversion to admitting it is a human problem that happens to a specific target consistently. It's a problem, that concerns black lives.”
KAMAU’s creative journey has required him to always manifest the present and keep his artistry in top form. He’s decided to keep the particulars of his face out of the main frame (a la Sia or Daft Punk), so listeners can focus on the vision of the sound rather than his looks. “I wanted to keep the music-subject oriented,” he explains. “I can keep it artist-centered without focusing on the way I look. I think we have a certain level of vanity being raised in America because it's a roomful of mirrors. Everywhere we go, we see ourselves. We're checking reflective surfaces on cars but we're good whether we have food in our teeth or not. I’m also a middle child so I never really had too much attention. So when I get too much attention, I don’t know the effect it will have on me. So keeping everyone around in the music videos and around me is also a self-checking mechanism.”
KAMAU’s circle isn’t full of yes-men. Aside from their creative common interests, members of BiGCiTYBiGCiTY, are the type of men you want to have in your corner. KAMAU describes his family as a tribe dedicated to improving the world. “I would say of our family, I would be the diplomat, Nk? would be a warrior,” he says, as the proud dad Jewels—who visited the apartment mid-interview and blended seamlessly into the circle—plays with his adorable daughter Adi. “Nk? has a much-needed ability to show the texture of things. I can allude with words, but he is the texture. But together, because of ability, we can talk to different kinds of hearing. Mo Kheir is the chief strategist, the one who lays out the battle plans. Nk? is on the horse and Mike is the ninja. He's the silent assassin.”
Storytelling in the age of social media isn’t a lost art form. Modern musicians like Kendrick Lamar, Solange and Chance The Rapper have followed the blueprint that present the African-American experience for anyone to digest. Taking things a step further, KAMAU is interested in breaking down the negative annotations associated with the word, color and being known as “black.”
“That manifests itself into so many different things, especially when that specific group of human beings,” he says. “In Aladdin, Jafar has the darkest color palette and rides on a dark horse. Even though Ursula is pale, she has the darkest color palette in The Little Mermaid. In The Lion King, Scar is the darkest lion among the dark lions and all of their dark friends. You have language like black cats, black crows [for] bad luck, you have black eye, which isn't even black. I've had a black eye before and it's purple. Even blue. But terms like “blacklisted” and “blackballed” [exist], so why would you care about black lives? Or black people?”
“There's actually beauty in blackness,” KAMAU continues, on a roll. “In the beginning, there was void, space, blackness. Not the absence of color, but the abundance. The definition of black has changed, but we still use the old definitions. ‘Why you don't like that movie? Because it was so dark.’ Or ‘This song is really bad or dark,’ rather than heavy. What does color have to do with weight? If you're feeling down, what brings you down? Not color.”
Going deeper, KAMAU likens the notion of darkness as a comfortability to those open to exposing their ignorance. While we don’t have a fulfilling explanation as to why dreams occur, KAMAU believes our time in true solitude can unlock pleasing potential.
“When you come up in a society like that, it's easy to kill darkness. If you're raised your entire life in the church and it tells you about the darkness and then you go look in the mirror and you see darkness—that’s why you can look at a black person getting killed and it can be trending and then you can eventually go back to Worldstar. It's not coming at Worldstar, but our attention and how its capitalized on.”
He’s not alone in his theory. A 2016 study from the Columbia University and French National Institute revealed what many of us already know–59 percent of the people who share links on social media haven’t read the piece they’ve cosigned. This says a lot to our attention and how headlines have shaped the new generation (as well as the old’s) political and societal beliefs.
“We reflect the nature of what our minds have adapted,” he continues. We have to respect our ignorance with a respectful cultivation and curiosity. It's like a seed waiting to turn into everything, a magic bean that you can grow into a beanstalk and take everywhere.”
KAMAU’s fixation with colors will lend a hand to his upcoming projects—songs on the tracklist include "BuRG?ND?”, "GR?", “Go?LD”, “L?V?ND?R”—namely a cassette series known as TheKAMAU-CASSETTE: ?RTH G?LD. The project is a follow-up of sorts to this 2014 mixtape, TheKAMAU-CASSETTE. The latter featured 15 tracks with more bars than AGF and legendary beats and melodies from Timbaland to Miles Davis. KAMAU promises that ?RTH G?LD will introduce more bars with elevated production.
“I would say the biggest difference is sonically,” he explains. “A Gorgeous Fortune was vocal-based on the production side; this one a few sounds are the same but it had to do with this type of energy right here. Not being afraid of putting something into someone else's hands. The production of the majority of the project I didn't participate in. I work with No Wyld a lot but there are some tracks that are completely [them]. Moon (producer/DJ) produced the outro, which is one of my favorite ones.” The first rollout from the project is “Mint,” a love ballad featuring Talibah Safiya. Each track will represent a shade with its song title, which Mo shares will “lend itself to the performances.” KAMAU says ?RTH G?LD and another cassette project are all connected (like the Pixar universe), but easy to follow.
Falling into KAMAU’s world is as easy as hitting play to one of his tracks. It’s almost a relief to know there are artists who accept the role as such and create rather than adapt to popular trends. By challenging the listener to find meaning within self and song, KAMAU’s light shines brighter as his placement towards the top is underway.