Singer/songwriter Kemi Ade may have the loveliest phone presence I’ve ever heard. It’s possible that it’s her British accent that makes it easy to put you in a trance. (Which is something that I immediately bring up at the start of our convo–although not in those exact words.) But to limit her charm strictly to her accent does a disservice to the refreshing energy that she gives off, her mind, and the way she seems to carry herself.
Not that it’s impossible to pin down her sound, but it can be heard in her music that Kemi’s influences stem from multiple genres. Fusing together alternative neo-soul, hip-hop, jazz, and funk among others, the need to have an ear for fresh and specific sounds is very important in order to make the song original and cohesive.
“I prefer my producers to be musicians at heart. It always works better if they play an instrument–and if they’re heavily inspired by some sort of jazz or funk era. And from there, we kind of just give ourselves freedom,” Kemi explains how she chooses the producers she works with and how they start the process. They often find themselves on the same page when making music regardless if they don’t listen to the same things.
“As long as they’re musical, I’m good,” she says taking a pause before adding, “I love fresh production. I appreciate it.”
Working on her career in music for 2-3 years, singing and writing have always been a part of her life. “At first, I thought I was going to do your traditional run of the mill R&B with the current twist and then I realized that I didn’t sound comfortable singing that stuff,” Kemi starts when asked about how she came to her sound. She admits that it’s much easier for her to write that kind of R&B than it is to sing it. “I always feel like I’m doing too much,” she laughs, “I have too much emotion or too much texture.”
In order to get to the genre she’s in now, Kemi looked at where she wanted to go and where she felt her voice fit best.
“It’s nice because everyone would normally expect me to have like some version of blonde hair, singing about something that I can’t really sing about,” she says once I note how black women are getting more acknowledgment for branching out from the expected R&B music. “The funny thing is, we’ll probably be singing about the exact same thing but we just do it differently,” she laughs. “So, I appreciate it but it’s not where I flourish.”
“Oh my gosh, I don’t write cheesy songs anymore,” Kemi laughs explaining how she’s grown as a singer. “And they’re not 100% fueled by raw emotion. I find when I write completely raw like the song never has any structure. So I’ve kind of honed my craft. I’m better at getting the point across without getting too emotional about it.”
She pauses a bit before adding, “Yeah, so it’s still relatable but it doesn’t seem too personal to me that you’re kind of intruding.”
When it comes to discussing her songwriting process she explains it as collaborative but different depending on the song. “Some of them–most of them is as the producer is producing, I write. If we have a really good connection, we can kind of tell where each of us is going to go without having to speak too much. So mines, like with lyrics and stuff, I get the melodies and lyrics at the same time. I’m quite lucky.” While explaining how the two components of her music go hand in hand when being made, she comes to the realization (through laughter) that she prefers this process because she’s impatient. At the same time, it allows them to not invest too much time into something that doesn’t end up working in the end.
I ask her how much her music is similar and different from her. “When people see me, they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re very soft spoken and free’ and all that type of stuff. But then I also have, like, an extremely ratchet side, like on the street and I just start singing, tongue out, all that type of stuff. But I have to be in the moment,” she explains, the both of us in giggles.
“It’s the aspect of being chill and kind of–because I’m the type of person that would just stare and look at the moon for like hours and just be okay. But at the same time, [my music] doesn’t have my ratchet parts, just yet,” she says like she’s playfully hinting for what could potentially be her next era.
When I express interest, she mentions how people have been rooting for her to venture to that part of her personality but that she’s not sure if we would be ready for it even though her latest single, “Honest.” does show hints through her ad-libs.
I throw in how real/relatable that urge (and often-times, need) to codeswitch is and how exciting it is getting to be seen as dynamic. “You gotta take in both sides, we’re dual people,” she adds. “We’re not just one way all the time.”
You gotta take in both sides, we’re dual people. We’re not just one way all the time.
Having written songs for other people as well, we talk about what it’s like to write songs that aren’t necessarily supposed to be a reflection of her voice. “It’s really fun, very therapeutic as well. I kind of can tell my stories and their stories through one song. So we tend to relate and then it’s like, ‘Okay, yeah what’s common between both of us that we can make other people relate to?’”
“I just wrote a song for this artist, Rebecca Garden and it’s her next single. Which I’m really happy about because it’s like your metal, 90s kind of influence R&B track. You might like it, you know?” She laughs. “And it’s literally just talking about when you like someone and you’re like, ‘I’m invested and I’m only doing this cause it’s you. So let’s just make it work.’ And we were both going through similar situations relationship-wise so we were actually just talking like, ‘We should write a song about this,’ so we did.
Delving further into the benefits of songwriting for other people, she adds, “It’s nice because it’s easier to relate to people because you have to find that thing that you connect to in their story to make it work. And because you connect to it, you kind of know everyone else will as well, so it kind of works.”
In terms of her own songwriting, she notes that she’s often caught off guard when what she typically writes about. “Every time some idiot boy hurts my feelings and I need to write about it, I’m surprised as to why I haven’t learned,” we both laugh again. “Do you know what I mean?” She continues. “It’s like, ‘This has happened again! And I’m writing about it! Okay…’”
“Or, somebody else’s personal issues I have nothing to do with but like intrigues me so much that I write about it. Those are like the most, weirdest things that I’m like, ‘Oh, okay I really did that, cool.’”
On that note, I ask about the inspiration behind her latest single, “Honest.”
I always just remember to appreciate who I am because you can choose not to like yourself, but I love me, so much. I kind of want everyone else to feel that way as well.
“I was seeing this guy last year, see I don’t learn,” she jokes. “He stopped talking to me for like a week or two weeks and I went to go see my best friend by the beach here in England.” While her friend was sure he’d call her back, Kemi already accepted that he wouldn’t and was already past caring at the point. However, as if living in a movie or tv show, not only did he call her back, but he explained the reason he ghosted her was that he was seeing someone else within a week.
As the story got more complicated, including the other girl leaving to go to Australia beforehand and the guy wanting to see what the relationship with Kemi could grow to regardless, Kemi explained that because she’s a hopeless romantic, she didn’t want to get in the way of the guys’ relationship. “Literally, you know when you’re confused?” She asks adding in hypothetical questions to the guy. “‘You basically don’t want to see me but you still want to talk to me because of a maybe? You’re not even certain?’ I was like, ‘Okay, you’re an idiot.’ So, the next day, I went into studio and wrote all about it.”
Adding to the whirlwind story, Kemi also notes that part of the fun is that “Honest.” is one of his favorite songs even though he doesn’t know it’s about him.
In addition to the content of her songs, Kemi also puts a strong focus on the covers of her music. Throughout the covers, you can see images related to royalty, deities, elevation, and peace. “My name is Nigerian from the Yoruba tribe. It means ‘God pampers me with His crown.’ So I shortened it and just took Kemi Ade and it just means, ‘Take care of my crown.’ In my whole family, all of our names have something to do with crowns and my mom really wanted something to do with royalty to be like our theme.”
“So, it kind of transpired through my music and like what kind of art I go for. So in my first project, it was all about being true to myself and being honest with that exchange and keeping that cycle of honesty going around. So in that EP cover, it’s like a circle but with the word honest going around so just keeping it continuous and how to keep that for yourself you kind of have to be elevated and peaceful. So that’s kind of what that piece meant,” she explained about her debut EP, Ownesty.
She acknowledges her cover for “Third” and which is a drawing of her face, she exclaims that she looks like a superhero with a third eye before moving to her latest songs. “They’re all just like, I like art and they’re just art in it’s purest form. So we kind of tried to make just beautiful pieces. So they kind of just ended up being sort of like collector’s items in a way. “‘Honest.’ is just like a moment of just different shapes and my little eyes just moving around and that’s just like…” She takes a pause and the adds, “You know when you’re like really honest, it’s a peaceful moment and it’s just peaceful. And then, with ‘Blurb.’ that one is literally…” She lets out a huge laugh, “I think I look bougie in that one with my little crown on my head that I got from Amazon. It’s a great moment.”
The cover for “Honest.” turns out to also be cohesive in the long run as explained by Kemi. “We wanted something abstract for this one because–it’s cool to just have a straightforward picture–but I wanted something that people could be like, ‘Wow, what is it?’” Sharing the same color scheme as “Blurb.” the cover is set in the clouds with the title in a gold-ish color swaying in the clouds. “It kind of tells a story cause the third song we’re gonna release kind of follows the story of these two as well. So the pieces of artwork go, they kind of tell a story. They kind of transpire together. I kind of think of that bigger picture, that’s what I want to do.”
Through the imagery and the sounds of her music, there’s a strong feeling of liberation and self-love which Kemi says isn’t necessarily intentional but is like a happy surprise. “The other day, I had a moment. I have these like once every 3 or 4 months where I look at myself externally and I’m like, ‘I really like who I am.’ Cause like, you have to be around yourself like your whole entire life. So I always just remember to appreciate who I am because you can choose not to like yourself, but I love me, so much,” she laughs with what sounds like a grin. “I kind of want everyone else to feel that way as well.”
She has a strong appreciation for that kind of feedback from listeners especially from those that can be so expressive with the music they listen to. “Even if it’s sad, I want you to be happy being sad, like enjoy those moments. Because not everyone cries all the time,” she explains saying how much she enjoys those moments.
In terms of music videos and incorporating visuals in that form, Kemi reveals that she’ll be releasing 2 including a previous single and one for “Honest.” which she wants to not only be really fun but filled with women.
“The response, I can’t explain it but it’s like the best high you ever get in your life. It’s like this wave of energy when people respond to you,” she says about performing. “Like, even if they’re not screaming, it’s so amazing and it just hypes me up and I just go in. Like it’s my favorite part of my music. It makes me happy. Just the way the crowd is singing your lyrics and you’re like,” she lets out a gasp, “‘Oh my gosh, you actually like it.’”
Her first instance of this was a show in Shoreditch in East London to her song “Remedy.” Stopping halfway once she realized they were singing along, Kemi shares that it was a single tear moment thinking about how her music meant enough to them that they took the time out of their day to learn the lyrics. Upcoming, Kemi has a show in North London this Wednesday, August 15th as well as a live stream performance in collaboration with Jam Supernova and Pirate Studios on the 29th.
We know we would do well in America and Eurpoe. But right now in the UK, the music is shifting. We’re kind of like in an in-between phase…
While Kemi has hopes to cross over to the states in the near future, she appreciates the influence both music scenes seem to be, to an extent, having on each other. “I have this theory, you might disagree, [but] in all other genres of music, London or the UK is quite the figurehead in all sounds–apart from country, you guys body that, 100%,” she starts. “But with rock and stuff, the greats tend to come from the UK. So, I feel like now we’ve started to focus internally on how to better ourselves without looking at you guys too much.”
“We’ve kind of made our own sound. Which I love–I still love the US stuff like H.E.R. and The Internet, but the UK stuff, the sound is so British you can’t get away from it,” Kemi explains. “So because it’s so unique, I think a lot of US people are trying to figure out how we’ve done that and I think it’s just being from the UK. Like it’s a difference, being in grey skies for about 90% of the year can definitely do something to you. Do you know what I mean?” Kemi laughs.
In terms of the “British sound” we both acknowledge the film like feeling that seems to influence it. “[Some songs] sound so English because it sounds like a film. Like I can hear it as a soundtrack. I think it’s also because a lot of us pretended like when we hear songs that we’re in the movie on the bus because we’re always on public transport. So we kinda want to make stuff that we can live our lives to. So it’s cool, it’s a nice feeling.” She adds, “And I like the fact that the American musicians are looking at us as well. It’s time for us to look at each other; because they’re good too.”
“You’ve got like the jazz and R&B artists, you got the R & R&B artists, you’ve got the afrospring lot, and then there’s like a few people that are in my era. And there’s not a lot of us.” While the group may be small by industry standards, there’s proof that their music is what people are interested in, “We know we would do well in America and Europe. But right now in the UK, the music is shifting. We’re kind of like in an in-between phase where grime and afrobashment are kinda grinding down but R&B is coming up. So it’s nice to see everyone get their shine. So soon, I’ll probably be there in America with you.”
With the hope of getting to be an influence in the industry, Kemi has her eyes set on helping open the door and redefine what it means to not only make music but be a dark-skinned, black girl making music. “If I do,” she starts before pausing and correcting herself, “When I do, it will be something more than just music. Because obviously, I’m like a brown skin, dark-skinned girl. There’s not many of us. And I want everyone to feel like, ‘Okay, you have a place.’ You don’t have to follow the literal guidelines of what music is. You can mix genres and you can make what fits you and it’s okay and you’ll be successful. I think a lot of people are scared and I want to be that face that says, ‘It’s okay, do it, you’re gonna be sick.’”
Kemi Ade’s Mini-Playlist for Readers [Listen Here]:
Special Affair – The Internet
Sober – Mahalia
I Like That – Janelle Monae
Honest – Kemi Ade
Aura – SG Lewis
Let Me In – HER
Jasmine – Jai Paul
“Honest.” is available on all streaming platforms.
(photo cred: Prexa Shrestha @Prexactly)