I recently had a conversation with future R&B star, H.E.R., and one thing that stuck with me was her opinion that, ‘this is the era of the anti-star’. Her belief that it should just be about the music, is idealistic, but definitely an ideal that we should strive for when judging a musician and an artist. Azekel seems to fall under that bracket – an anti-star that is exceptionally talented, yet despite his great vocal ability, has generally been hidden from the wider public. However this hasn’t prevented the soulful and progressive singer/producer from being noticed – the late, great Prince showed support for the beautiful ‘New Romance’, he has toured with Massive Attack after they heard his music online, and UK icons, Gorillaz, reached out to him for collaboration on their fifth studio album, ‘Humanz’, which has been certified Gold in UK. Receiving recognition from acts that are held in such high esteem globally, has been reassuring for Azekel, and validation for his eclectic style of music, which is brutally honest in its expression of his deepest thoughts. With three EPs released over the past four years, Azekel will be taking a major step, by putting out his first studio album, which will focus on the themes of family, mental health and youth. Having released the visuals to ‘Family (Chapter 1)’, a tapestry portraying a desired narrative for Azekel amongst the British black community, the compelling yet abstract storyline of the video only builds anticipation for the album. I was able to have a conversation with Azekel on a number of topics including, mental health in music, his earlier projects, the family chapter of his album, and more. Check it out below now:
TP: How did you first get into singing?
Azekel: I used to produce for other artists, and through that I started writing songs. Not everyone wanted to sing the songs I had, so I had to sing them myself. I made a couple of tunes, and friends started to push me on to release some of it.
How come people didn’t want to sing those songs?
I think they were a bit different, they weren’t really following what was in at the time. I don’t think they were bad songs, they were different, and some songs were quite honest and personal to me, so only I could sing them.
When did you realize that music was the career for you?
I guess when I received good feedback for my music, and when opportunities arose. Opening up for artists, being on radio… but yeah I think I always wanted it to be my career, especially when more opportunities came my way.
You released the ‘Circa EP’ back in 2013 and each track title includes a year in the name – what was the significance of that?
The EP was based on a collection of memories of significant points in my life. The date tags would give an idea of what year the memory came from.
In particular, the song that hit a chord with me from that project was ‘No Ordinary Love ’10’ – the ‘Fresh Prince (of Belair)’ clip that you use, where Will’s father walks out, is very impactful and in general, it must be a very sensitive topic for you to talk about… what exactly did you mean when you said ‘your dad was present, but he wasn’t present’?
I guess he was physically present in my life, but he wasn’t really present. The relationship between us wasn’t a great one when I was growing up. His understanding of a child was to be seen and not heard, and yeah, he didn’t play an active role in raising me, although he was in the household.
Has that improved over time through talking about it in your music?
Ummmm… I guess it’s better, as I’ve made an attempt to hang out with him more… I’m a dad myself now, so I want to make a real effort for him to see his grandkids.
Going on to ‘Raw, Vol. 1’ – when I heard it, I felt it was a very different sound… ‘New Romance’ is the track that has been really supported by listeners, it was even supported by Prince which is crazy… why do you think that track in particular connected, and has been so popular for you?
I guess it’s a very British sound in terms of the bass. It was inspired by British culture, and talks about romance. The theme of romance is something that everyone can relate to.
On the ‘Late Intro’, you’re said to be mysterious… do you feel that you are?
Yeah I reckon initially, I definitely was. I didn’t really perform much, I didn’t go out and network much. Yeah, so hundred percent. I didn’t intend to be mysterious, I just didn’t care too much about it… maybe it was a bit of social anxiety. But with this album, I’ve made an attempt to show my face and tell my story, which I didn’t really do in the projects before. I didn’t explicitly tell my story.
We see that on your video for ‘Family (Chapter 1)’, there was a sense of your story being told – on the album you’ve chosen three different topics – mental health, family and youth – why have you chosen those three topics in particular?
Those were three things I was going through during the making of the album and I guess they were important topics in my life at the time. I feel that I was living what I was making. I’m a family guy, and all the pressure of making the album definitely took a toll on my mental health. Youth… being young and having responsibilities as well was something I definitely wanted to talk about. So yeah, those three topics came out of me when I was making the music.
Do you feel there is enough of understanding of the pressure that artists face when making an album? I personally don’t feel there’s enough recognition of the mental health aspect of creating music… what are your thoughts?
Yeah, of course! Hundred percent, I think being an artist requires you to be so selfish, and you always are thinking about the project, and “it’s all about me me me”, so with other people in your life, that could become a bit messy and that could affect your mental health and how you see yourself. When you put your music out, you’re trying to tell your story, and be really honest, with people criticizing or have a criteria on it. And even talking about the whole different beast in itself that it can put on your mental health.
How do you feel you’re coping now?
Yeah, I feel day by day really. Making music is different because, it’s therapeutic and good for me. I think that’s one of the main reasons I make music, because I get to tell this story, so everyone can hear. Even more so I can hear it back, and I know it sounds so strange, but it’s so you can hear it back and understand because you’re hearing your own voice. But that’s really why I do it, so day by day it’s getting better. But even putting out the video was a big deal for me, just sharing myself, showing my daughter, sharing my story and my life, being honest really… that’s a big deal to me for who I am. Making the album has definitely made me stronger from that perspective.
What was your mindset behind the styling of the ‘Family (Chapter 1)’ video, did you know how you wanted to shoot it?
Yeah it was a collaboration between me and my director, West, and yeah I wanted to show a black experience which is not what we regularly see, especially in the UK. That’s kind of why we did it, I wanted to show people of colour looking regal and looking cool. And that really happened around the time of the seventies, so we made sure everyone was dressed in that attire.
What actually triggered you to write ‘Black is Beauty (Daughters)’? Is it the current political climate or is it something you’ve wanted to speak on for a while?
My daughter, who is in the video, asked me what colour she is, and I told her she’s black. She replied “no I’m brown”. And I said “no, you’re black”, (laughs), and yeah, I just wanted to be about what it means to be black and the connotations of being black. I’d ask myself “why are people called black anyway?” This made me look into the word, and the negative connotations of being black. I realized that this is what the world is going to label her, but I wanted to teach her about the connotations of the word, and how it should be positive, so she can label herself as black. This led me on to write the song as an ode and message to my daughters.
‘Don’t Wake the Babies’, is very relatable for any couple or parents with young children… was that your intention?
I hope it came across as relatable, but it was more just telling my story and that’s all I can do, tell my story. But also, in the creative industries, whether they be journalists, directors, musicians.. there’s a lot of young fathers which aren’t really shown, especially in the black community. They always show the absentee dad, so that’s why I also made it, to show the opposite of the stereotype.
‘Can We Have Fun (In This House Tonight)’, follows on from that, is that something internally you fight with, because you now have so much responsibility?
So that song was more down to the current political climate at the time. When I was making it there was so much craziness going on. Brexit, or Donald Trump…. it was also more that the world is so crazy… I’m originally from Nigeria, so I think about stuff happening in Africa, or even the modern day slavery in Libya. Sometimes you feel guilty to enjoy yourself, when you’re so blessed to have all of this (in the UK), and other parts of the world are much worse off than where you are. It’s an amazing lifestyle that we have relative to a lot of other people in the world, and not that I want to be selfish, but even if the world is crazy, everyone has the right to feel blessed and enjoy themselves. I think that’s what it is and stems from.
That’s interesting, I didn’t realize the song had that deep of a meaning… on ‘Raw Vol. 2′, you have a track called ‘Sketch Pt. 2’, where you say “if there’s a war inside, there’s a war outside”, and that line is very powerful to me… what inspired those words?
Looking at the man in the mirror. I was looking at myself and looking at my issues, and how I mess up in my life, and sometimes trying to understand why these things take place. To understand how I react to what is going on inside me, that’s how I react to it, so I guess that’s what inspired me.
You mentioned you’re Nigerian, and today especially there are a lot of influences from the Nigerian music space, for example you have artists like Wizkid and Burna Boy, and artists born here like Maleek Berry who are using that sound to great success, however your sound is completely different… what made you not want to use the sound from your roots?
I like Afrobeats, I enjoy it, and I enjoy the music of my origin…. I guess I have an affinity to do things that are more progressive and more soulful. I just think with whatever genre, whether it’s Afrobeats, Pop, Indie, Rock, you can still be soulful and progressive. In the production, in the songwriting, my style is very progressive, and I just wanted to do things differently. That’s what excites me in music, and I guess that’s why I didn’t go down that route.
You toured with Massive Attack as well, how did that collaboration come about?
They heard ‘Circa EP’, and got in contact, did a video and did some stuff with them. The track that they used, it’s a film recording, so I was quite surprised with that. Even with Gorillaz, they just heard my music online, so I managed to work with them, and helped with the album. A lot of it is just people hearing my music online.
What does it mean to you to work with legends like Gorillaz?
Yeah it was good working with them, they are definitely a progressive British act. It’s reassuring I’m doing the right thing, because you can have so many doubts when making your music. Especially with producing, you do doubt yourself, but just working with those guys and being in the room with such amazing artists, it reaffirms and reassures that I’m meant to be doing this.
When you’ve had these doubts before, what have you said to yourself to push yourself through those doubts and convince yourself you’re doing the right thing?
I guess, my faith plays a big part. End of the day its music, it’s not that deep, like there are more crazy things happening in the world, so I just look at the positives, and being grateful that I’m able to make music. I think having gratitude gets me through it.
Azekel, it’s been an absolute pleasure getting to chat to you
Thank you man
You can listen to Azekel on Spotify and Apple Music
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