Australian hip hop is branching off. Since its beginnings with Bliss n Eso, Hilltop Hoods and The Herd, we’re now delving into a new, transformative sphere of the spoken word.
When I arrived at The Lansdowne to meet with Kojo, it turned out he wasn’t there, his drummer James had lost his voice and was too busy rushing to the hotel to take care of him. Upon his return, we found a spot away from the noise in the games room downstairs and I couldn’t wait to get started.
Integrating funk and jazz into an engaging new record, Citizen Kay also bears a performance style that propels his live sets above and beyond the average.
This Sydney show was the first of Citizen Kay’s headline tour. In fact it’s his first headline tour full stop. After years of touring with Illy and Ice Cube, a huge number of festival slots plus a new record deal with OneTwo, hes finally taking on the country to promote his new record Belly of the Beast.
It would appear that with so much time on the road, Kojo would be accustomed to getting onstage, but in fact taking on a solo tour has got the usually peppy performer a little bit shaky.
“Nerve wracking for one, but now I feel like we’ve gotten in the groove of playing shows at least. What is a little bit scary is how it’s a longer set and we’re playing a lot of slower new songs that we haven’t played before. So how that will translate on stage, because I’m usually someone that is really bouncy.”
And this performative confidence, while natural to him, is a skill being honed by time in the spotlight and the artists he is surrounded by. In particular Alasdair Murray, otherwise known as Illy.
“[Drummer] James watches Ben so intently when he performs, and I watch Illy so intently when he performs so we’ve definitely been taking notes… From Al specifically one of the things that has impressed me the most is his fans and supporters, he loves his fans, out of every show he takes the time to go out and meet everyone, so that really in itself shows so much love. The whole tour has been like that in general, showing love in general has been the vibe on this tour.”
But everything isn’t perfect, and while Illy might have a phenomenal setup and some of the best technical support, Kojo had to laugh as we swapped stories of some of the biggest on stage tech blunders, a recent example causing him to crack an huge smile;
“The first Illy show the fire alarm went off and they had this big intro as well, and people thought that the fire alarm was part of the intro and so as he was walking out, everyone was getting into it until people realised that it wasn’t part of the show”
So how has signing with OneTwo impacted Citizen Kay as an act, and what does being a part of a “family“, as he calls it, mean for his music? I was curious to hear whether he had felt pressure to change his sound or aesthetic based upon that of the other artists signed to OneTwo, whose full roster includes Allday, Kuren and Illy himself.
As Kojo relaxed into the conversation, the glow of pride and excitement was very clear.
“With OneTwo, no. I had been really wary of signing for a long time, especially with major label stuff. With OneTwo it’s a really like a family, and the one comment that really got me, was the talk about changing any of the sound and the direct response was ‘Why would we want to change your music? that’s why we got you on.’ That in itself has made me feel like I can just do me and be myself.”
And Belly of the Beast is an embodiment of this ethos. Revealed very quickly and without much pre-release hype, the record presented itself as organically and as confidently as Citizen Kay doesas a performer.
“With this album it was one I really wanted to take my time with, and one which I had no preconceived ideas about. It was literally waking up and going ‘this is what I feel today, and this is what I want to write about.'”
“I wrote a whole bunch of songs, somewhere between twenty and fifty songs, before I finally brought it down to the album as it is now. There were things I felt needed to be said and I didn’t feel filtered in any way. Mostly because I didn’t tell anyone that I was doing the album, I was just wanting to write…”
“It was inspiration to write, not feeling like I had to write… all the songs were written months apart, taking a break from the songs as well. I wouldn’t listen to a song for like two of three months and then I’d come back to it and look at ‘how does this make me feel now that I’m past that experience?’”
Belly of the Beast is packed with a bunch of fresh faced features, and anyone who has met Kojo would attest, this is an artist who is incredibly proud of where he’s come from, and as conversation turned to features including Georgia B, Rob Jarrah, Felix and Mondecreen, his support for hometown Canberra became even more apparent.
“One of the things I wanted to do was make sure they were all from Canberra. It was all very individual and having the songs and saying who I think would suit it, the other thing was that we could have had bigger names and stuff on it but I genuinely felt like the people who are on it did it better.”
“And they were able to really understand what the songs were about. I was able to work personally with them all, it wasn’t just sending stuff over the internet, being in the same room and working on them, which for me changes everything.”
Even beyond the vocal features of the album, Canberra managed to find its way into much of the production of Belly of the Beast.
“It was all recorded in my old studio, which was my parent’s spare bedroom. I’ve moved into another studio now, my Belly of the Beast was the last record has been done in that spare bedroom.”
“The production was done with this guy called Paddy Boomba and he’s this crazy jazz guitarist and I actually met him on an Illy tour a couple of years ago, the Swear Jar Tour, I met him on that. He had just started producing and he’s just one of those guys who picks something up and is just good at it, like annoyingly good. He’d been producing for six months and he showed me this song and it actually ended up on the album, Please Tell Me About It.”
“When he showed me I was like ‘you’ve been producing for six months?!’ and he’s just like ‘yeah’. I was listening to it being like ‘you are kidding me’, I just lost my shit running around the room shouting ‘this is so hectic, give it to me now… Paddy Boomba is the main dude and the core star of the sound of that record.”
Now there is no real way to tell, but the room was filled with comedic tension as the topic of Sydney vs. Canberra wormed its way onto the table. While he didn’t actually admit it, I could feel Kojo’s mind whirring about how to justify why Canberra fell just short when it came to eating out.
“I just discovered Spice Market..?”
This would turn out to actually be Spice Alley, Kojo continuing with a glint in his eye;
“I love food and it’s so dope, I was walking around being like ‘I want that, I want that, I want that’.”
The conversation steered onto the Night Noodle Markets and my favourite, but top secret, Chinese cold noodle restaurant. I tried to weasel out the words that Sydney had better food than Canberra, but alas the loyal Canberrian that he is, Kojo stayed true.
Given his rich and poignant backstory Citizen Kay could very easily project his music into a political sphere, and while hip hop does traverse multiple subject matters, we’re in an interesting period whereby it can sometimes feel like the genre needs to have political angles to maintain its relevance.
At this notion Kojo was quizzical, and nodded in agreement.
“For me it’s all about the music, as we have been talking about, being natural and being genuine, that’s the core of everything I do. In terms of saying something political I steer clear of socials, through my music is where I can do it. BAt the same time, I rarely do it anyway because I’m weirdly happy anyway. But I do have something to say and I don’t want to just be that person who is preaching at people all the time.”
“If you never do anything political at all then you get put in that box, and then when you do something political everyone’s like ‘what are you doing?’ and then if you are political then that’s what people want you for and nothing else. So for me it’s trying to stay out of any particular box. I’m still so new at this and I’m still learning so much”
So how would someone who hasn’t known Citizen Kay understand what his sound is reflective of? For the artist the answer was simple.
“The word is organic. When I’m on stage more often than not I forget that there are people in front of me. I’m just that dude singing in the bathroom. Being able to have fun with what you do and to embody the music, whether it’s a fun song and I just want to dance or a more serious songs not being afraid to really dive into them.”
Australia is ready for a soulful and artfully intellectual take on traditional hip hop, and Citizen Kay is grabbing this and running full steam ahead.
While it’s a hard road in front, if there is any artist who has the infectious positivity and drive to succeed, it’s Kojo Anash.
Citizen Kay still has a couple of dates to knock off on his Belly of the Beast tour, including a hometown show. Suss out the details below:
Fri 13 Oct – Rocket Bar, Adelaide
Sat 14 Oct – The Transit Bar, Canberra
Thurs 19 Oct – The Foundry, Brisbane
Fri 20 Oct – Amplifier Bar, Perth