Why you should care
Just listen to his music.
Off the Record: Real talk with a fresh wave of musical influencers who will be making moves onto your new playlist. Watch the rest of this OZY original series here.
When you are talking to the musician, rapper, funkmaster and beatboxer Kamau, there are no simple answers. A seemingly small question yields Zen koan-esque contemplation. Where is he from? “From is a weird word,” he begins.
Regarding the first school he attended, he launches into a soliloquy about the history of data, for some reason. “We live in an age of data, but it’s always been an age of data. Data is accumulated into forms and progress of living things…. It informs decisions on how to be more efficient.”
Kamau’s eccentricity doesn’t seem to be sidelining him. The 26-year-old may, in fact, be this generation’s next quirky artiste. His penchant for meandering conversation, regardless of the question, is reminiscent of Kanye. His sound is equally eclectic. You can hear a bit of “Chance the Rapper’s melodic rap flows, the vocal layering that Moses Sumney does so well and even D.R.A.M.’s bubbly mix of soul, R&B and pop sensibilities,” says Alex Gardner, managing editor of Pigeons & Planes, a music discovery site.
And those sounds are increasingly all over the place — later this spring, he’ll release a solo project, TheKAMAU-CASSETTE: ŭRTH GōLD, following a six-track EP, A Gorgeous Fortune, that dropped last spring. Last year he was all over the place: His track “Jusfayu” appeared on Issa Rae’s HBO show Insecure (music consulted by Beyonce’s sister, Solange), he provided the soundtrack for an Apple Watch ad and sang an explosive earworm called “The Icarus” for Nate Parker’s film The Birth of a Nation. That latter performance, says music blogger and producer Tanya Markovich, “is a piece of a rare form of art that needs a whole new dictionary created so it can be properly defined.”
The hustle would keep anyone busy, but Kamau’s absentmindedness almost seems to protect him from the madness. When I called him up for our interview, he picked up with a melodic “Hello, hello, hello, hello, hello, hello.” After my introduction, he laughed and admitted he’d forgotten that we would be speaking and suspected I was a telemarketer. (“Your number is sold to so many companies,” he reported earnestly.)
Born in D.C. and raised in Maryland, Kamau (full name: Kamau Mbonisi Kwame Agyeman) attended an Afrikan school that taught him global music and instruments like the djembe. African drum and African harp patterns, he says, influence his beatboxing now, plus some Michael Jackson, whom he imitated throughout his childhood. But Kamau’s mom’s was the first voice he ever fell in love with, he says, and dad played music at home too. As a senior in high school, he dabbled in Coldplay, Maroon 5, AC/DC and more. Most of all, he loved listening to two others who genre-bended — Lupe Fiasco and the soulful singer-rapper Lauryn Hill. You can hear it: the introspective lyrics and easy rhymes of Hill and the verbosity of Fiasco. Nowadays, Joe Pascoe, who has written and produced songs with Kamau, says Kamau’s tastes range from Bollywood music to Mulan. “He doesn’t listen to a lot of modern hip-hop or anything,” Pascoe says.
And yet he is contemporary, and sometimes political: In his last EP, Kamau populated the final song, “PohLease,” with lyrics like “Who police the police?” Other times he throws in gibberish and scat, veering far away from politics. Kamau’s hyped on a loop pedal, and he jives in the same crowded space as Anderson .Paak, Chance the Rapper and more, but Kamau has “more potential than pretty much anyone I’ve met in the music industry,” Pascoe says.
As an undergraduate at the Pratt Institute, Kamau chose to study filmmaking. In some ways, though, Kamau’s artistic awareness of film makes him … strangely neurotic in front of the camera. When on screen, Kamau insists on standing in profile — he doesn’t like when people can see his eyes. It makes him a bit like Sia, who refuses to show her face while performing. But his videos do fine, eyes or not, racking up 100,000+ views. The video for “Mint” follows a baby-faced adult who’s been sleeping on the streets. That was semi-inspired by Kamau’s early New York days, when he couch-hopped. It’s technically true, he says, but he always found a couch, even if it was challenging at times. Kamau says he’s reluctant about the comparison because “it makes me seem a lot less fortunate than I am. I don’t want to appropriate a struggle,” he says.
Now, Kamau has an apartment. The star of his videos is often Michael Excell, one of his roommates and an aspiring actor. They live in close quarters, requiring shoes off at their Brooklyn abode — the floor’s for sleeping. Kamau’s given up his bedroom space to make room for a studio. His creative collective has been a constant, he says; while he loves touring, being home allows him to build relationships with his “blood brother and water brothers” (the name he gives his closest friends).
Before performances, you won’t find Kamau smoking or drinking. Unlike most of his peers, he doesn’t drink or smoke at all. Instead, he tries to get a good night’s sleep and calms himself down through meditation. “I get kind of anxious,” he says, whether it’s before a show with Lion Babe or at SXSW. Still, his performances are picking up steam and selling out bigger venues. He may only have 300,000 monthly Spotify listeners now, but a CAA signing for touring (they also rep Ed Sheeran, A Tribe Called Quest, Blood Orange, etc.) should help with that.
As we speak, Kamau sits in his studio in his house. After the call, he’s considering working on another song. “I may just engage in some cultivation after this conversation,” he says. Then he laughs. “That rhymes!”
— Written by Libby Coleman