“There’s not one way to be a man”: Northwest London’s Kwaku Asante wants his music to communicate that we’re all multifaceted


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“There’s not one way to be a man”: Northwest London’s Kwaku Asante wants his music to communicate that we’re all multifaceted

Northwest London-raised singer-songwriter Kwaku Asante’s vivid storytelling and soulful voice stems from his childhood: He grew up in a gospel and jazz filled household, played the piano, and sung in a local choir. Initially studying Geography at university, where he researched the representation of gender and sexuality in Black popular music, it wasn’t until the success of his debut single ‘The Way That You Move’ in 2018 that he decided to pursue music professionally. Since then, he’s become known for developing tracks with strong narratives, exploring themes including masculinity, companionship, and mental health on a range of EPs including ‘honeycomb’, ‘Ode’, ‘Blue Solstice Vol. 1’, and most recently ‘Wanderlust’.

In line with his debut A COLORS SHOW performance, we spoke to Asante about his strong connection to his Ghanaian heritage, defying the gender binary, and presenting positive examples of love in music.

What is your first musical memory? 

I think my first interaction with music was tied to church and gospel music. When my mum cleaned the house, she’d listen to recordings of big congregational choirs. Just running around West African weddings as a child and hearing highlife music was also very impactful.

At primary school, I played piano and violin and sang in the choir. I wouldn’t say it was forced on me, but my grandad was very keen on me being musical. He owned a record label in Ghana.

You grew up in Wembley in Northwest London. How did the area influence your artistic development?

This area is so multicultural, it’s such a melting pot. At school, I’d hear so many different kinds of music. I think that influenced the diverse nature of my style.

More than that, Northwest London introduced me to the importance of collaboration, teamwork, and of everybody having a role to contribute to a cohesive community. The sports I played, and the fact that many of my friends lived in families where they each had their own chores, made me aware of the beauty of people working together towards a common goal, maximizing each other’s potential and creating an environment where everyone can be enriched, loved, and comfortable. This is something I try to apply to my life and music.

Your Ghanaian heritage is also very important to you. Tell us more about that, and your record label-owning grandad…

I’ve been connected to my Ghanaian heritage since I was born. That was the first food I ate as a child, and the first music that I heard. All the jewelry I wear is from our family jeweler back home. My ring is an Adinkra symbol called Gye Nyame, which means only God. I also have a Ghana chain around my neck, which I sadly forgot for my COLORS show. In the last track of my EP ‘Ode’, I included some Twi lyrics, which is the native language of my tribe. As my career progresses, it’s really important to me that I don’t forget where I come from.

The most recent time I went to Ghana was in my last year of university. While I was there, I played my track ‘The Way That You Move’ for my uncle. He asked: “Do you know who your grandad was?” I said: “Aah yeah some music guy.” He replied: “Your grandad was the main man!” I did some research and discovered that he founded the first record label in Ghana. He worked with Fela Kuti and Quincy Jones.

Asante's jewelry made by his family jeweler in Ghana

“As my career progresses, it’s really important to me not to forget where and who I come from.”

When did you realize you wanted to follow in his footsteps and pursue a career in music?

I played professional rugby while I was at university, but then I fell out of love with sport, so I gave it up. I had a lot of free time, so I returned to music, which I’d always loved. I started to sing songs on a really bad microphone I got off Amazon to beats I downloaded from YouTube and Soundcloud, which was really buzzing at the time. At first, when I shared my recordings on the internet, only my friends were listening. Then, other people that I didn’t know started commenting and saying they were really good. Quickly after that opportunities started to come.

I made ‘The Way That You Move’ with Tom Misch, who I was a massive fan of. I thought that if I put it out straight away, I probably wouldn’t finish my degree. I held off for a year and a half until I’d finished my exams. I released it, and decided that the response would determine whether I’d take music seriously or not—I was also going through the recruitment process for Pepsi to work in marketing. At first, I didn’t get any emails off the back of the song. I was really sad and thought that maybe music wasn’t for me. Then I was DM’d by someone who said they’d been trying to get in contact with me via email. I looked at my inbox, confused, and saw I wasn’t logged in! When I logged in, I had loads of messages about the song, and I realized I needed to get a manager. I found one, and they told me: “Yeah, don’t get a proper job.”

Speaking of university, you studied Geography and wrote your thesis on the representation of gender and sexuality in Black popular music. Has this research fed into your music? 

100%. In Black culture especially, everyone has to have this bravado and “masculine” nature. “You can’t mess with me, I’m a man, I’m strong.” In my dissertation, my hypothesis was that Black people deter from anything that doesn’t conform to heteronormativity because we’ve fought so hard for the right to be seen as human. We don’t want to get behind anything that might threaten that. It’s like: “we fought for the right to be seen as men, we’re going to be men through and through.”

People find refuge in these made up social constructs, but just because a man likes to dance, or dress in a colorful manner, or wear flares, tight tops, and hoop earrings… it actually means nothing. I’m a heterosexual man, but that doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to like stereotypically feminine things. If I need some self care, like a mani or a pedi, you better believe that I’m going to get one!

A lot of the topics I sing about are very sincere. I hope that they show people that we’re all multifaceted. There’s not one way to be a man. I am masculine—I have an ego, I play rugby, and go to the gym—but I can also be tactile and affectionate. I’m a son, an uncle, and a nephew. I can be nurturing. I need people to understand that there are so many different versions of being a man that may not necessarily fit the historically imposed gender binary.

Your music is described as R&B and soul-inspired. Do you identify with those genres?

Someone described it to me as “soulternative R&B pop”, which I think is a good term. It’s hard to define it, because I have so many different influences, from David Bowie to Prince, Radiohead, D’Angelo, Taylor Swift, Joni Mitchell, Justin Timberlake, Drake, and Frank Ocean. People aren’t wrong to put me in that category, I think it being there makes my work more digestable. But if my music was a venn diagram, there are definitely other circles that overlap with it.

“People find refuge in these made up social constructs. Just because a man likes to dance, or dress in a colorful manner, or wear flares, tight tops, and hoop earrings… it actually means nothing.”

We’ve talked already about masculinity, but other strong themes in your music include companionship and mental health. 

In terms of companionship, I just think it’s important not to do things alone. It’s easy to get caught up in your own world, but you should always try to support others in both a platonic and a romantic sense. I’ve had the best example of companionship from my parents and my friends, so that naturally comes out in my music. I haven’t got all the answers, but maybe through singing I can help show people what they should and shouldn’t be looking for. Someone tweeted one of my songs and said: “I want a love that feels like this.”

It’s great to provide audiences—younger listeners in particular—with examples of positive, healthy relationships, contrasting some musical genres that perpetuate harmful tropes of communication between men and women.

I read this book by Bell Hooks that’s all about how your perception of what love is can be skewed. If you were smacked as a child, and your parents said “I’m doing it because I love you”, then you’ve probably become used to the idea that love can co-exist with violence. The examples you’re shown are the only examples that you know. If you listen to music that says love only exists when there’s pain, that’s what you’re going to try and replicate. My perception of love couldn’t be any further from that. If there’s stress involved, I’m gone. I’m not doing it, no way. I know things can’t always be like the movies, but someone burning my clothes? Na.

Let’s talk about your EPs ‘Ode’ and ‘Wanderlust’, which were released in 2021 and 2022 respectively.  What were some of the ideas you wanted to express on these projects?

My mental health during lockdown wasn’t great. ‘Ode’ and ‘Wanderlust’ allowed me to work through a lot of that. At the time, I was listening to a lot of Moses Sumney, Sampha, and Frank Ocean. Their music allowed me to connect with a side of myself that I wanted to sing about. I feel so light, happy, and free now, because I got a lot of things off my chest. The projects allowed me to show a deeper and more introspective side of myself.

The reason why I made 11 tracks for Wanderlust was because I can’t do anything unless I’ve done something similar beforehand. To make a 14 song album having only previously done ‘honeycomb’—my 6 track EP from 2019—made no sense to me. There needed to be a middle ground. I needed to know I could carry a listener’s attention span for a longer amount of time. That’s why I decided to make this bigger body of work. I also wanted to challenge myself and improve as a songwriter.

A handwritten lyric from 'XXX', which Asante performed for his debut A COLORS SHOW

“If you’re listening to music that says love only exists when there’s pain, that’s what you’re going to try and replicate.”

An article on Clash describes you as “as much a storyteller as a singer and songwriter.” Do you agree with this statement?

100%. I tell stories about myself, stories about my friends and the things we’ve gone through… That is a very accurate depiction. I agree with that. Well done Clash.

Tell us about the song you performed for your A COLORS SHOW.

It’s quite tongue in cheek. It’s about trying to come to terms with how my professional life affects my love life. A lot of women don’t take me seriously because of my occupation and the way I present myself. They think I’m involved with lots of other girls, and don’t believe that I’m sincere. The first verse of the song is me saying: “No, I’m not like that,” which is a conversation that I have often. The second verse is the other side of the coin. It explores the fact that, as a musician, you get to go to a lot of cool places and parties. Sometimes people just want to be with you because of who you are, which then puts you in the position of being distrustful just like the girl in the first verse.

Is there one lyric in the song which is particularly meaningful or important to you?

“What you want, I know it may be something I can provide. Always busy, but for you I know I’ll make the time.” I was dating someone, but because of this COLORS production coming up, I haven’t been able to see them for a month. That’s the story of my life. I think I have what the other person needs, I want to give it to them, but I have to take care of my music right now. I have a problem where I downplay to people how busy I am, and then I’ll look at my calendar and realize I can’t fit them into my schedule. That’s my fault.

What do you like to do when you do have some free time?

I love going out to eat. Not including West African food, my favorite cuisines are Caribbean and Pan Asian—Vietnamese, Japanese, and Thai in particular. I also love sports, fitness, and film. I just watched the new Spiderman movie. I do very normal stuff. I don’t row or skydive or anything.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years? 

You know what, I’d like to be living in L.A. There’s a lot of things I could benefit from career wise there. So yeah, in 5 years, I’ll be in America living the high life in Hollywood. Who knows, maybe I’ll do a second COLORS?

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians?

Just keep going. Align yourself with genuine people who actually care about you. People are better than you think. Have faith in humanity.

Kwaku Asante is a Northwest London-born artist whose debut A COLORS SHOW dropped on 29th June 2023. You can watch the full performance on our YouTube channel.

Text: Emily May
Photography: Megan Courtis, as well as family photos supplied by the artist
Videography: Lucas Sanou
Video Editing: Katia Fisenko


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