The Ghanaian-Canadian songwriter's latest release pulls from all corners of his life
Words and interview by Boima Tucker
In our current #hashtag fueled media landscape, it is fairly hard for an up-and-coming artist to emerge outside of predetermined genre, social, or sonic signifiers. However, as an artist develops, sometimes they manage to chip away at the walls the media traps them in. With each project they are able to reinvent their aesthetic, while their work remains true to their identity as a creative person. We call these artists stars.
In Toronto-based singer-songwriter Kae Sun’s case we would have to call him a Black Star. His latest album Afriyie is a surprising and fresh addition to the global African media landscape. Tracks like “Lead Loaded Letters” stand out with their mix of heavy electronics over clunky blues guitar riffs, signaling an ability to rise above neatly laid out categories. With Afriyie, Kae Sun has managed to emerge as one of the most promising singer-songwriters in the international scene.
Like many young Canadians today, Kae Sun’s story is one of global migration. He moved from Ghana as a youth to attend university in Ontario. It was here he started pursuing music professionally, however his path to becoming a professional musician started much earlier during his childhood in Ghana. These various life experiences come through on his first full length album Lion on a Leash. The album was mostly performed by a live band with some electronic production subtly infused, we hear a distinctly rock-leaning sound with some influence of Afrobeat, reggae, and hip-hop.
An EP released two years ago called Outside the Barcode was a collection of beautifully written tunes performed on acoustic guitar and sung by Kae Sun. His emotion and sincerity as a performer really shine through on this effort. Several of the songs on that EP appear in new re-imagined form on Afriyie, allowing us, the outside observers, to see the development of his boundary pushing sound, reflecting an artistic growth and an increased access to production resources.
The question of what counts as African music is becoming more irrelevant as the rest of the globally networked world becomes more familiar. Afriyie is Ghanaian in a way that is only starting to become prevalent in our contemporary moment. It is representative of a national identity, more like the color of a passport, rather than ancestral tradition or cultural representation. It is place and time specific, and doesn’t seem weighed down by a need to play identity politics. It represents the place where the artist is at, as a culmination of life experiences, rather than a romantic obsession, or longing for the past. This is notable for an artist who has moved recently from one country in the global south, to another in the north.
Kae Sun’s absorption of influences from his adopted home is clear to me throughout the album. I hear echoes of a historically strong Torontonian electronic sound, as well as connections to other hip-hop tinged Black Canadian songwriters such as K’naan and K-os. An ability to connect with and reflect on his immediate surroundings is reflected in his artistic choices. After seeing a video in which Kae Sun covers Citizen Cope’s “Lifeline,” I was pleasantly surprised to see an immigrant artist take up the cause of local social issues. In this case, it was the eviction of a community from government subsidized housing to make way for private developers. I wanted to take an opportunity to chat with Kae Sun to tease out where he sees that his lines of influence lie.
I’m surprised at how different Afriyie is from Lion on a Leash sonically, how did you arrive at the current more electronic leaning sound via an all acoustic demo EP in Outside the Barcode?
It was always the plan to try to do more with ambient sounds and programmed parts, and you can hear it in some of the songs on Lion but you need more time and space to do that and I had a smaller budget. The EP is an exception in a way because I did that out of an urgency I was feeling with those particular songs but as far as full-length albums go I always wanted to do something a bit more conceptual so this happened at the right time.
What were your musical influences before you started making records? What are you listening to now?
I feel like my influences shifted over the period it took to complete the record but my earliest trigger was a singer from Montreal Arianne Moffat. I found it interesting how she incorporated electronic sounds and textures into her very melodic songs and then later I was going to these rocksteady and reggae nights and really got put on to some classics. Also when I was making trips to Ghana, Femi’s Day by Day was my soundtrack. These days I try to listen to anything that grabs my attention.
Your album titles intrigue me quite a bit, especially Outside the Barcode and Afriyie. Do you want to give some background to these names, and why you chose them?
Writer/Activist Arundathi Roy used the term “living outside the barcode” in reference to people in India who essentially live off the grid as a consequence of their poverty. It’s an interesting thing. It’s almost like poverty has shielded them from being exploited as a consumer base although they’re exploited in more horrible ways. I found this interesting because driving through Accra I got the same vibe in certain communities, things I didn’t notice when I was growing up. So that’s where that title comes from. Afriyie is more personal, it’s my middle name, named after my grandfather.
“Dzorwulu Junction” stands out on Afriyie. And while Kanye West claims to be a black new wave artist with his recent album, I would say that this song was more explicitly so. This style is also a reference I’ve heard in people like Spoek Mathambo who are flirting with Afro-futurism. Do you see your self as sonically connected to either of these artists?
Perhaps, but I think there’s more to it. Some artists are good at creating a conceptual context for their work and by so doing expand and/or challenge our understanding of what is possible with music, I think of Miles Davis, Prince, David Bowie, Dylan, Andre 3000 , Kanye, M.I.A. I think it’s in the breadth of the work and continuously evolving or trying to move things forward. I’m definitely partial to that approach to making music and drawing from a wide range of ideas and influences to transcend genre, transcend medium even into literature, poetry, visual art, philosophy and so on. That’s really what I’m going for. A lot of the time I find being labelled “musician” can be restricting.
What about thematically? How does your own liberationist content fit into a contemporary conversations about African liberation, Afro-futurism, New Slaves, etc?
I find it hard to look at what I’m doing from that angle, it wouldn’t work well for me. What I know is that the intent for me is always spiritual. Creative expression is my spiritual practice, that’s my worship so to speak, every idea I have regarding liberation comes from the fact that I believe God’s creative expression is love. Freedom and justice come from that love and in so far as that is not the current condition for humans artists will either create to release that tension or create to escape it.
Do you think your viewpoint on that was shaped by your moving to Canada from Ghana in your teens?
As far as my spiritual and creative identity goes, yes. That’s because I found my artistic voice in Canada, but the seeds were definitely sown in Ghana. My parents were big readers and my dad encouraged curiosity. I was memorizing MLK speeches when I was, like, 12 years old. Also, Ghana is like a Pan-Africanist outpost so you couldn’t escape the conversations about African unity and black liberation. That’s just been my outlook from the get go.
Can you tell me a little bit about what the Toronto music scene is like? Was it easy to break into? Is there a strong sense of community and local pride? How close is a Tornotonian musician to Drake?
It’s hard for me to say I don’t spend too much time in music circles, but from what I’ve seen the local scene here is very vibrant and there are tons of little communities all up to their own thing but I find that it’s sometimes too influenced by what’s going on in America. I don’t think we have a regional sound or genre or anything like that. Maybe someday. There’s a broad range of expressions though, you have kids who want to be the next Drake and others who form rock bands. It’s great.
There is definitely a Black Canadian identity. It tends to be shaped by the immigrant experience since a vast majority of Black Canadians at least in Toronto, are first generation. That is what I pick up on when I hear K’naan or K-os and it is easier for me to relate to their perspective because of my own journey but I wouldn’t say that sound represents all of Toronto not at all.
Beyond the lyrical content and liberationist themes, there is a strain of activism in your work. I came across the “Lifeline” video that was connected to a campaign to spread awareness about the eviction of residents of a public housing complex in Toronto. How did this effort come about? Are you deeply involved with activist communities in Toronto? Would you like to take this kind of work back home?
I try to find creative ways to respond to things that impact me, otherwise [I] get very down. In this instance I saw a play about the effect of the changes in the Regent Park area to the lives of long time residents. Later I heard the Citizen Cope song and I thought it really captured that spirit of endurance through unfavorable changes. I live very close to that neighborhood so I decided to cover the song and director Jassa Campbell thought it’d be effective to film a little piece focused on all the bustle and construction that was happening there, he wanted to document the rapid changes.
With the popularity of African music on the rise, especially amongst non-African musicians, are Ghanian cultural rhythms and sounds something you’d like to explore more of eventually?
Not sure really. Again my approach is more visceral so if I feel it or I’m immersed in it, it’ll come out.
Do you think about identity politics?
I wish I didn’t have to but the world won’t let me off that easily. My creative and spiritual instincts tend to be much stronger than any ties to social identity, but I can’t live in my head. I have to cross borders, take cabs, go through airport security, interact with institutions and at some point you feel that the setup is trying to show you your place or the worse — subtly silence you, then you gotta resist and affirm your humanity and it gets tiring. I try not to go on about race but at a certain point you risk insanity not saying anything about all the subtle and not so subtle racist stuff that refuses to die.
How do you feel about Ghanaian pop music getting so much attention globally in recent years?
I recall hearing hiplife on the radio for the first time when I was a kid, when the genre was being born via Reggie Rockstone, Talking Drums, and others. I feel very fortunate to have witnessed that, but back then we were still very much into hip-hop artists from the states. Now all you hear is homegrown stuff and world renowned local heroes, so even in Ghana for me there’s been a big shift, there’s more confidence and it’s very cool to witness and partake in that.
M.anifest moved back home from Minneapolis to launch a very successful career in Ghana. Do you think of doing something similar?
Yeah, nice move. No, I don’t at all. I think I’m right where I’m needed.