Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
“I came to a place where I started to make music cathartically, and listening back to the song as if I had found a friend in my own voice.” In his West London studio, Azekel is already working on a new project before his debut album drops later in the month. Having started out as a producer, 27-year-old Azekel Adesuyi took to songwriting later. “I took the songs people didn’t want but I liked them. I started recording them and putting them online. This has kind of been an experiment.” The results of this “experiment” so far are five EPs, one Massive Attack collaboration, one global Gorillaz tour – and, soon, one album.
There’s a structure to Azekel’s creation of soulful, personal R&B. “I think everything is like mathematics, really. If someone does a different type of formula, they might do 2 plus 5 equaling 1.” As to who gets it right, one name keeps coming up: “Anderson .Paak is great, because he reminds me a lot of the old, but he feels fresh. I think in this day and age everyone’s so quick to you turning into this polished artist overnight. A lot of my musical heroes were at their best in their mid-thirties.”
Perhaps his most prescriptive insight, though, is this – passed down from an older jazz musician friend: “As a musician or artist, I believe you go through three highs. You go through imitation where you imitate artists you like. You go through innovation when you start to veer off and do different things. Then you arrive at invention when you’re in your own lane.”
The most pervasive theme in the Nigeria-born, East London-based musician’s work to date is mental health. On one EP of that title, he expands on the subject over several tracks. In ‘Hollow’, he says: “The dark’s too close to comfort / And your light is too far to hold”. When asked what sort of challenges he’s worked through, Azekel replies: “It was more about as a musician those pressures externally and internally, with other people, by yourself. I’m a father as well.” Azekel appreciates the recent influx of discussion around the topic: “It’s really good that the new generation of artists are actually talking about this in the African-Caribbean community. It’s a brave thing to go and do. It takes concern and purpose.” This openness seems to be paying off: “I reckon the stigma is definitely going away. Especially in my community, it’s not something that’s really taken seriously. People are going to therapy more now, but when I was growing up that was a weird thing to do.”
Azekel’s most recent releases have been structured into chapters and volumes: ‘Raw Vol. 1’ and ‘Raw Vol. 2’, and EPs ‘Family (Chapter 1)’, ‘Mental Health (Chapter 2)’ and ‘Youth (Chapter 3)’, which make up his new album, ‘Our Father’. This storybook structure was – surprisingly – unintentional. “Wow, it’s a good point… I didn’t plan that. In the grand scheme of my story they were just like different chapters.” Azekel felt the chapters should also be expressed visually – so he created a short film for each one. “Not that it’s the start of my career, but it’s my first album, and to start with some depth, and understanding of who I am as an artist, before moving on. Each of the chapters are important topics. This is part of me at this period of time.”
When asked why this was the time for an album, given his decent-sized discography, Azekel replies: “I’m a musician, but I have a real life. I have kids. This internal pressure of being good. I went away for a while to become a better singer, a better guitar player, a better bass player, because that matters more to me than rushing it.” But when it came to making the album, for better or worse, Azekel’s self-sufficiency led him to complete it solo: “I did it all myself. I went low key mad. I’m never, ever, doing that again. A lot of the great albums I like are a collaborative process. I’m definitely going to take heed of that.”
‘Waiting to Die’ is the only full-length track that doesn’t feature on the three chapters. Given the album’s title and lyrical content, it would be fair to assume it’s about Azekel’s relationship with his father, but that’s not entirely accurate: “That’s part of it. It was more of death to yourself: ‘So if it’s pain that I feel, there’s much left of me to die.’ Not that you should be numb, but it was kind of like dying to my carnality, and dying to my flesh and being more spiritual in terms of my outlook on life, and having more of a macro perspective.” He continues with a theological reflection: “Death is seen as such a negative thing but in lots of religions, especially in the Christian faith, dying is an idea of selflessness, and being enlightened rather than being earthly.”
Another standout track, ‘Black Is Beauty’, focuses on the responsibility of having two daughters, and shows a heightened awareness of the negative way the world can treat black women: “Maybe sometimes as a man you think everything is the same in terms of the opposite gender. Then you have this experience and it’s made me more sensitive to the female experience.” Highlighting another side of parenthood, ‘Don’t Wake the Babies’, is almost an uncomfortably honest confession, with lyrics like: ‘Young and married / Wish the honeymoon lasted an extra day / Before we start a family,’ he describes his job as “a form of therapy”, where he can air complex feelings such as these without having to revisit them.
Despite covering mental health, his kids, and his music in our conversation, Azekel seems at his most vulnerable when talking about what success means to him. “It’s always changing… My music to be heard by millions of people. The next project I’m working on, I think it’s going to change my life. And to win accolades, to win a Grammy, that would be amazing.” Perhaps Azekel isn’t used to being this open outside of his structured creativity, but it all comes down to a simple objective: “The plan is just to get my music heard by as many people as possible, and to experiment in music. To push things forward.”
Azekels’ ‘Our Father’ is released this Friday on Thunderlightning Records.