By Taylor Smith
Name: Kaliné Akinkugbe
College: Imperial College, London; Berklee College of Music
Hometown: In between New York, London, and Lagos
Current Neighborhood: See above…
On the eve of her August 2 show at Rockwood Music Hall, Kaliné Akinkugbe held a last rehearsal at Ultra Sound Studios downtown. Her band—a bassist, guitarist, and drummer— was dressed casually, laughing and whooping like schoolboys between tracks. But the Nigerian singer-songwriter, sporting a sparkling little white dress, full makeup, and a voluminous ponytail that would have made her right at home at Studio 54, was all business.
Kaliné’s singing voice is perhaps best described as bell-like, ringing clearly over soulful, new-meets-old melodies, though a closer listen reveals many shades. After putting her smoky lower register on display in a run-through of the bluesy “I Deserve,” she fired off notes to her band on the music itself and appropriate attire for the show the next day.
Unsurprisingly, they listened, showing up to Thursday’s show in all black, while she shone in electric blue, effortlessly engaging with her increasingly tipsy audience, and infusing a cover of “One Dance” with a far more convincing tropical energy than the original artist. If there is such a thing as star quality, hers is undeniable.
Friends of Friends was recently given a small window into the performer’s background, and her ability to weave music, fashion, and business together so seamlessly is hardly a surprise.
Born and raised in Nigeria with brothers Dolapo (also known as DAP the Contract) and Akinkunle (who helped teach his talented younger siblings the mechanics of production) and parents who played them everything from Bob Marley to Led Zeppelin, there was never a question that music would form a large part of Kaliné’s life. But it was only as she completed her music degree at Berklee, after earning a high school diploma and undergraduate business management degree in London, that hobby and passion morphed into career path. From Boston, the songstress relocated to New York, and hustled to book as many gigs at as many different venues as she could. “The first few, I had like no audience,” she says, “but I slowly built up from there, got a band together, and I guess the rest is history.”
After sitting in on the tail end of her rehearsal, I got the chance to speak with the self-managed musician about her lyrics, her style, and her award show musings.
Something that’s been getting trickier and trickier for musicians these days in genre, and you wrote at one point on your blog, “Pick a genre.” How would you classify yourself?
That’s so funny, because I think the first week of my blog I wrote, “Pick a genre,” and then another week I was like, “Actually, we shouldn’t all stick to a genre.” [Laughs]. Playing devil’s advocate. But I do think that it’s good in general. The average ear, the average listener likes familiarity, so if you say to a person R&B, they know what to expect. It’s sort of like if people say, “Oh, she’s the next Corinne Bailey Rae.” You already kind of know what to expect because they’ve given that reference, so genres are good as a reference point, but I do believe that, because we’re now influenced by so many different things in our digital age, where people are trying to take ideas from Africa, or Afrobeat, and people are looking into more of the Hispanic sounds and everything; we’re just influenced by so much, so putting an artist in a box I feel is not always ideal for the artist or for the people who are coming to listen, so that’s why I’m a bit vague with my genre, I’m like, “Alternative afro-soul” whatever that means, so it’s like a fusion of different things, and of course I’m classically trained as a pianist so I have that influence there as well. I see that more and more people are trying to create their own names of genres, I guess so it’s vague enough for people to be curious about it, but on the other hand it’s a good reference point to have.
You mentioned that part of the genre issue is marketing yourself to an audience. You look awesome; how much does your look play in marketing?
Definitely a lot. Over the years I’ve realized how important it is to grow a brand and understand what branding means for promoting and marketing yourself, so I definitely go all out with choosing my outfits and how my hairstyle is, my makeup, whatever. The appearance really matters to me, as well as [that of] my band—I’m sure you heard me talking to my band members about what to wear [laughs]—so they’re not wearing anything shabby or pajamas or something like that. For me it’s a really, really major thing; I’ve even added a fashion portion to my blog, because some people forget that when you come on stage, all eyes are on you. People do not only hear music, they see music. So coming as a package also helps to get people to talk about you. If you have something that’s unique, let’s say like my big hair or the blazer and shorts that I always wear, people have a reference point to say, “Oh, the chick with the big hair that plays the piano.” You want that elevator pitch to be as small as possible for people.
And when it comes to where music meets fashion, do you have any inspirations?
Fashion—definitely Solange. But I’ve just tried to create my own thing to be honest. My staple is blazers and shorts, sometimes I switch it up and just where a nice shirt and shorts or whatever, but tailored blazers, the androgynous-type look. It’s comfortable for me.
Switching gears a bit, listening to some of your work and your rehearsal just now, a lot of your lyrics are very poetic. Can you tell me about your songwriting process?
I started off writing poetry first, when I was about eight or nine, and they slowly evolved into songs. Now, my songwriting process—it depends. Because I do production as well, sometimes I just plug in my keyboard into my laptop and just mess around with a few things on my software, come up with a beat and then write to that. Or sometimes, I’m in front of my keyboard and I have some chords and I just sing lyrics. And then other times—most times—I start off with lyrics.
Do you have a favorite track you’ve written, or any favorite lyrics?
I always go back to “Dream.” It’s actually not released, but it’s a song that talks about just, keep on dreaming no matter what happens. The sky is not the limit at all; you can really excel as long as you stay true to yourself, so that’s the message of it.
And do you draw from personal experience when writing songs?
Yeah, personal experience but also conversation, TV, books, what’s going in the news, social change.
Speaking of social change, I saw you recorded a single, “Bring Them Home,” in response to tragedy in your home country, when over 200 school girls were kidnapped in 2014. Can you tell me a bit about that experience?
Sadly, it’s going to be three years soon. I was in New York when I head about it, and all the Nigerians, we all sort of rallied together. There was a Union Square protest and we were trying to think of, “How can we help? What can we do?” It’s just such a crazy thing to have 234 plus girls gone. And I thought, “OK, let me just write a song and see what happens, if I can create awareness through that song,” and that’s how it happened. Radio stations in Nigeria picked it up and they played it; one particular station, Smooth FM, played it every day for a year. When they would play it, they would have people call in and send prayers and stuff like that. So it definitely created awareness. We still only have a handful of girls that have been found, but we’re still hopeful.
Speaking of airplay in Nigeria, do you try to cultivate your global audience alongside your audience here?
Definitely, I try to stay as relevant as possible in Lagos. I go back quite often for gigs, so that gives me the opportunity to do some promotions there or put some videos out.
You’ve come to this point on your own in such a competitive field—how do you stay motivated and set yourself apart?
It’s hard; you go through times where you’re literally like, “What am I doing? Can I do this?” But I think surrounding yourself with people who are continuously pushing barriers and breaking glass ceilings and using what they’ve got—I have a lot of friends who are in the same position, who are self-managed, and are just trying to make it work as well, who are financially limited or whatever. So friends, family, support, and just remembering—what I try to do is just always remember that I have something unique and I’m constantly trying to make that known, that I am different, that I am my own person, there’s nobody else like me, and I can’t be anybody else no matter how hard I try, so if there really only is one of me, then I have to share what I can give.
What advice would you give someone like you, who’s coming to the U.S. for the first time and trying to make it in music?
Definitely immerse yourself in the music world. People told me to go to jam sessions and everything, and I rarely did that, but even if it’s not a jam session, find events where you’re with other musicians, so you can be going to other musicians’ concerts as well. Just getting in tune with what’s out there, who’s out there, who you can collaborate with. Because we’re all sort of in the same position, all upcoming in New York. I feel that you have to sort of band together and help each other, so finding the right people. And then of course, trying to get as many gigs as possible. Build your audience, and… work odd jobs [laughs]. You have to invest in yourself, right? And invest in equipment and all this stuff. It’s expensive, but the beauty of New York is the there’s so much that you can do, whether it’s in your lane—I teach piano to little kids, and I also do music for commercials and TV shows and stuff on the side—New York has odd jobs; babysitting, whatever! And it’s all a means to an end; I’m not saying go and just do anything, but understand that music is an investment, and you’ll eventually want to go and record an EP and you’ll need seed money, things like that.
What’s the high point of your career so far?
Highest point so far I think was opening for Chaka Khan in Lagos, this was 2014. Definite high point.
What was that like?
Amazing, just awesome. For me what stood out was just being on her stage, obviously, and being able to plug in to her sound. And her sound engineers, internationally respected professionals, did our sound for us so that was very cool. Besides music, another high point would be meeting India Arie a few months ago and just having a nice conversation with her.
Cool, what did you guys talk about?
She was just talking about her own projects, and she promised to listen to my stuff. We just vibed. I just love when you have the opportunity to not just say, “Oh my god, I’m a big fan!” but more than that, and she was very encouraging.
Speaking of upcoming projects, what are you working on right now?
I’m starting work on my EP, it’s going to be a five-track EP to be released in January, and I’m very excited about that.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I’ll definitely have a few albums under my belt; I want to be a household name by then, touring much, much more, on a larger scale. I want to have had a book by then. I want to do some music children’s books, so fiction, but then also maybe an autobiography of some sort, talking about self management—hopefully I’ll have a manager by then—but just talking about the journey up until that point. Collaborations. To me success, is not about the Grammys or the Oscars and stuff, but if that is possible, absolutely [laughs]. I really, really want an Oscar for best song in a film, more so than a Grammy.
Visit Kaliné’s website for more information on past and upcoming shows.
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