GAIKA: AT WHAT POINT DO I ENCOUNTER GOD?
Seguridad, the new album from multi-hyphenate recording artist Gaika is a lush mirage of a dawning future, replete with gods and royalty; angels and the Damned. The Jamaican-Grenadian Brixton native has made a career of mutable style, threading a border-defying network of Diasporic music traditions through his oeuvre – despite the media’s tendency to “put you in relation to all of the other Black people whose work [they] understand and enjoy in order to be comfortable with it.” Björk’s influence is just as audible as T-Pain’s in Gaika’s discography, and rather than shrink to an unfit mold, he prefers the term “ghetto-futurism” for his gothic cocktail of dancehall, grime, garage, trap, northern soul, and beyond. “‘Ghetto’ isn’t just to do with Black people,” he explains. “It’s all the people who live under the boot, the 99%, and how we end up reveling in what other people deem the shadow.”
It is no surprise, then, that Gaika has never shied away from political candor. Contemplating questions of Black identity, authoritarianism, technological abuse, and borders, Seguridad could not have been released at a more pertinent time. The album, which is published through Mexico City club label N.A.A.F.I., was recorded and produced entirely on-location and features members of the N.A.A.F.I. family as collaborators throughout. When I ask him over the phone to speak to his relationship to place, Gaika replies, “I’m trying to get past my own placelessness by creating a world to be in.”
Octavia Bürgel: The word “creating,” strikes me, in the context of your body of work, as carrying a divine subtext. What was your process making this album?
Gaika: The process is different for different things. In this case, I went to Mexico, went to the studio with N.A.A.F.I., and recorded a bunch of songs intensively. We went back and forth, listening to things, editing things, changing things, but it was all very organic and very quick. I was friends with them before, so it was the opposite of a belabored, major label process where there’s millions of people involved. This was just friends making music, so it happened really naturally.
Creativity is however it wants to manifest itself. For me, I felt like I had to go there and be in that studio with those people. I had to be in that environment to make a true reflection of what I think the record is about. The producers that I worked with each brought a lot of their surroundings to the table. They are all representative of things that may not be very well known outside of Latin America. The studio isn’t some big expensive studio, so even vocally the environment added a quality to it. The way I attacked it, creatively, felt like some raw, underground shit. The record was made in the middle of the night in Mexico City, and I think that’s what it sounds like. I am very into authenticity, I don’t think you can make music over the internet like that. I didn’t do any rerecords or retakes, it was like, let’s go actually live this.
Your sound is often classified as “industrial,” building from elements that sonically hark to manufacturing and construction – in other words, sounds that are associated with the creation of the physical things that propagate this world. But religious references are just as prevalent throughout your discography. It becomes this twofold reference both to imagining new worlds, and understanding the one we now inhabit; as well as a clever merger of traditional iconography with a critique of deified capitalism.
Growing up around the material men – that’s what I call the scientists, the engineers, the industrialists, the technocrats, the people who believe they can control the world with more things – I haven’t been convinced that they’re right, and I also don’t see much difference between them and the theologians. They’re all enthralled in systems or ways of being that they don’t often explore beyond its utility to them. It’s a juxtaposition that I see all the time. A question that I’m always asking is: how do we make connections with what we don’t understand? By creating more things to feel more balanced and less unpowered? I make electronic music. It comes from computer processes and electronic instruments. Nothingness, almost. Why do I do that? And is it not an act of creation in the same way as the others? At what point do I encounter God? Will it be on the internet, or if I close my eyes? It’s this push and pull, this myriad of mental exercises to engage in, and they’re actually all about the same thing: what is my place in the world when I have such a limited understanding of it?
The first time I heard your music I felt invincible – I had this vivid feeling, like playing a first-person video game set inside of an industrial mill. You achieve an incredibly rich architectural quality in your music, what influences that sound?
When I was younger, I wanted to be an architect for a time. It’s a big part of where I come from. My grandfather and my great uncle are architects. My brother studied architecture – he’s a filmmaker now. I ended up studying to be an engineer. A lot of my work is about people’s relation to the space they’re in – whether it’s physical, metaphysical, mental or in an imagined setting. It’s all about context and how we relate to the world. I often reimagine power as related to a city. I can’t imagine music in the abstract, I can only imagine it playing from somewhere, in somewhere, being in a place and hearing it. Who knows if that’s a result of me having been involved with clubs, or because of sound systems, but there’s always a context or a physicality to the music that isn’t just the music itself.
You published a piece that I’ll describe as a work of speculative non-fiction, titled “The Spectacular Empire,” in 2017. It is a searing critique of capitalism and technology that is quite surreal to revisit amid the present revolution.
I wrote that piece initially as an appendix for an installation I wanted to do, but it developed into its own world. Dazed decided to print the appendix as a whole work. It’s kind of wicked because it came true, you know? I’m walking through the protests in London, and it feels like what I was writing about then. I can’t separate myself from the context I’m in, I can’t separate my art from politics, it’s just life. These are the relations that I have with my environment and the people around me, and I try to describe them unflinchingly. I like to think about what’s going to happen, I like to imagine things, as everybody does. But rather than imagine a fantasy relationship, or a car that I don’t have, I would rather think about the whole reality. I believe that if we can imagine a better world, we can make it. But we can’t imagine that world at the ends of our noses.
“Afro-futurism is saying that in order to survive, I have to leave. And my work is precisely about the opposite. It’s about staying right here.”
“The Spectacular Empire” is often labeled dystopian, but your response is that it’s nothing more than a record of your vision of the future. Would you describe your view as optimistic or pessimistic?
That’s easy, I’m an optimist. I’m also a realist. I’m quite good at balancing different points of view. So I’m an optimist, but I feel it all. The Spectacular Empire is a piece that people view as dystopian, but there are so many things in that writing that actually just happened. I don’t even get where people live when people think that The Spectacular Empire is far from possibility.
I think that the lived experience of oppression changes how one understands “utopia” or “dystopia.” People who are presently oppressed have a better sense of the extent of their oppressor’s evils than the oppressors do themselves. The dystopia that the oppressor imagines is probably much closer to the lived experience of those they oppress than they realize. You use the term “ghetto-futurism,” to describe your music. What, if any, is your relationship to Afro-futurism?
Afro-futurism starts with this strange supposition that we don’t have futures. This idea that one day on the moon we’re going to be free takes away from the very real probability of being free on earth, by abstracting it. Afro-futurism, to me, is the work of Sun Ra and this particular cocktail of science fiction and jazz music and political thought. I think that people relate that to me because it makes what I’m talking about a little safer for them. I don’t have anything in common with Janelle Monáe, except that we’re both Black. I like her music, but my work has nothing in common with it! This is a generalization that I shouldn’t make, but white people are constantly engaged in this power struggle for the right to define things. This idea that is like, “I can only understand this the way I understand it, you can’t explain it to me and I can’t be comfortable with it not being explained.” I’ve had to deal with it my whole career. I’m not making music in a mainstream, commercial space. Most of the people that I encounter – whether they be journalists, or at the labels – are not Black. Their way of understanding my work is completely related to other Black people, and nothing to do with the sound or the message of the music. I find it a bit pointless. How I feel about Afro-futurism in general, is that I think we do have a future, and it shouldn’t have to be a separate genre. That future isn’t up in space. Afro-futurism is saying that in order to survive, I have to leave. And my work is precisely about the opposite. It’s about staying right here.
You were working on your 2018 album, Basic Volume, in late 2016 and early 2017 in Los Angeles – right around Trump’s election, and the initial Brexit referendum. How did those events impact your relationship to your environment?
I try to tell the truth of my life as I see it. I tell my version of the world, and commit to printing or taping it, so that there is no getting away from it. I made Seguridad about two years after those events as well. In the work that I’ve been making, you can’t escape the political reality of populism, late-stage capitalism, or the undying nature of racism. How many billions of African people are in the diaspora? We’re all just supposed to pretend that our ethnocide hasn’t been a thing? In my work, I don’t shy away from that, because I just cannot accept that my life’s value is somehow less than the next person’s. I don’t agree. I get asked a lot about displacement – because, of course, we are displaced. I’d rather embrace it and try to talk about it, or try to imagine a world where it becomes a source of power, rather than pretending everything is okay when it’s not.
By not existing under a single category, your music is allowed to expand and contract, encompassing all or none. Does blending musical traditions from across the diaspora respond to a feeling of dispersion or lack of place in your experience?
The words “spectacular empire” resulted from the question: What does it mean to be Black? Particularly if you’re British – you’re not really British. I don’t feel British, and I don’t call myself that. I thought of that name because all of the racism was jumping out of the newspaper headlines after Brexit. I was like, “This place doesn’t represent me, I don’t want to be from here.” So where am I from then? I’m from wherever I want to make. I am engaged in trying to create an identity that transcends place and has everything to do with Black people finding our way in a hostile environment.
In 2018, you launched SYSTEM, a series of performances and an installation at Somerset House Studios to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Windrush. Centering Notting Hill Carnival, the show celebrates the resilience of immigrant communities who founded the summertime event as a means to hold space for their cultures, despite the efforts of a racist society. How important is holding space for dance, music, and communion within the revolution?
Congregation is a powerful thing. I don’t think it’s the only thing, and I think you have to be wary that those sorts of rituals don’t wind up co-opted. The more direct forms of resistance can’t be pushed to the side because everybody’s dancing, but I do think there’s a place for it. We can’t exist without joy. Black people’s special survival power is defiance in the face of the grimmest things. I call it the Ghost. It’s the reason people let off shots in the air at a party. It’s a funeral procession in New Orleans. The feeling that I get if I’ve gone to Wedi Wedi in Kingston is the same feeling that I’ll get in a club in Johannesburg. It is defiance in the face of oppression. It’s a collective understanding that we’re not going to die. You will not kill us. And I think that is closely related to joy, emotively. It’s not the same thing in the sense of pure relaxation, it’s not bliss, it’s a different thing. We don’t really talk about it, we just know it.
That same defiant impulse is also at the genesis of electronic music, it almost becomes this ouroboros of culture and historical circumstance.
It should be the basis of electronic music. But that’s the thing, particularly with electronic music, it is losing its context because the people who are making it now don’t understand that. What I don’t want to happen is that the sentiment, which is part of any revolution, has the power taken out of it. There are so many different layers to what we are experiencing now, and I don’t think that the communion or joy aspect should override anything else.
In addition to your musical practice, you stage performance and installation work, hold the position of Political Editor-At-Large at Dazed, and you have a fashion label called Armour In Heaven with designer (MA) Menikmati. Each of these projects leads back to the idea of constructing environments, and the limitless potentials in each one. What binds these pursuits together for you?
I try to build stuff for other people to engage in, so it’s definitely in line with building worlds. A big part of it is that I get bored easily, so I like to do a lot of things. Writing is something that is important to me. Donald Trump is the President of the United States, Boris Johnson is the Prime Minister of the UK; we’ve got Putin [in Russia], Bolsonaro [in Brazil]. If I have a certain amount of political education and I can hold a pen, why would I not? It’s either that, or I hold a brick.
I don’t feel like what you lose from expressing your political opinions is worth not expressing them when there are openly racist or bigoted people in massive amounts of power. That’s why I write for Dazed. And when it comes to the other artistic practices, whether it be sculptural or designing clothes, it’s really about populating the world that’s in my head with things – be they music, physical things, or philosophical forms of expression. When I don’t, I don’t feel complete.
I love it when people are together. I love putting on events. I’m kind of a collectivist, I like the feeling of people being together, sharing things. The more you build worlds, the more you can do that. I like how my work joins people in their appreciation, but it’s not about me or my ego. Often I’ll put on big events, but I’ll be standing in the back with my hood on and no one even knows. I enjoy that a lot, because I think that not everything has to be McDonald's, Donald Trump, guns and Martin Shkreli. It doesn’t have to be like this. If I can do something to make the world not so evil – even though maybe people think I’m the evil one – then I will do it. I don’t think it should be limited to music or the music industry, because that doesn’t make sense.
“I’m from wherever I want to make. I am engaged in trying to create an identity that transcends place.”
A lot of the narration of the global fury at the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Elijah McClain, and all of the others murdered at the hands of the American state, has been labeled as solidarity with Black Americans. This is certainly true, but I’ve been wondering if framing it only as such risks minimizing the fact that racially targeted, state-approved violence is a global issue, just maybe not to the same degree of frequency, publicity, or cultural hypocrisy as in the United States?
Around the world, we’re all living under the same thing: white supremacy. Culturally, of course, there are differences, but there are also many similarities because of the history of slavery and displacement. For me, Black solidarity just is what it is. Part of the ethnocide that we’ve experienced in recent history has had the effect of conjoining us. My heart sinks when I see people saying that there’s no such thing as Black solidarity, or there’s no such thing as Black people – I see that coming from other Black people, and that’s really just not my experience.
I was raised as a Pan-Africanist, so I think that collectively we’ll be better off tackling this than alone. I don’t think about what solidarity should look like, I rather think about how I experience it. Whether it’s offering my place in London to people to come stay, or traveling between America and the Caribbean, or connecting with other musicians in my community. We have a tacit understanding of the experiences that we face. That’s how I experience solidarity, and I don’t think it needs to look like any prescribed power structure.
Black twitter is this form of humor which is incredible to me. Someone will post something and then everyone nods at it through memes. It doesn’t even have to be in words, it might just be the way somebody looks, but you come to anticipate the same elements over and over. It’s collectively laughing through one’s pain. That is our collective experience, and now we can feel it in a way that we couldn’t before. I think that there isn’t as much of a prescribed organizational structure as there may have been at other points in the march to equality. But I welcome any that do exist, whether it looks like the Black Lives Matter organization getting behind my music back in the day, or the various record labels like NON or GHE20G0TH1K who supported me early on, and that I continue to support. The first step is to be at peace with the fact that Black solidarity just exists.
How does imaging, or the representation of Blackness relate to your output?
I just want to be in control of what I present to the world. I want to self-identify. There’s constantly this desire in the media to present versions of Blackness that have nothing to do with Black people. It’s this idea of Blackness that is controlled from the outside – like that Robert Townsend movie, Hollywood Shuffle, where they’ve got the white directors telling the Black actors how to walk more “street.” It’s all to do with an unequal power differential. I’m constantly trying to fight against that, because nobody gets to tell me how or what to be. Whether it’s the “model immigrant” narrative that gets pushed in Britain a lot, or the opposite: the media saying things that we’re not, it bothers me.
On a more direct level, we’re always being photographed. By CCTV, by each other. I feel that as Black people, we are constantly monitored because of the original sin that nobody has apologized for or made any effort to solve. Everybody walks on eggshells like, “One day they’re going to lose it,” and as a result we are constantly watched. A lot of my work is toying with that feeling. What happens when we do lose it? What happens when capitalism is inverted? In this record, it takes the form of a conversation around borders, and what an urban environment actually means. I guess that does kind of smack of a situationist art practice, upending the very symbols of capitalism. Because I’m not really a capitalist, it doesn’t make that much sense to me.
Prior to this conversation I was thinking about other artists with whom you share an aesthetic relationship in my mind. I wrote these names down: Kelela, Dean Blunt, Yves Tumor, Mowalola – by no means an exhaustive list. I realized that you all belong to a generation of Black artists who don’t shy away from incorporating the violence that’s been inflicted onto Black existence into your work. You each channel it differently – it may be reflected as a design principle, a conceptual discourse, a lyrical or sonic motif – but it’s extremely powerful in each iteration. For instance, I’m thinking about the Mowalola collection ‘Coming for Blood,’ where she placed two bloody bullet holes on the breast of a pristine white suit jacket. Naomi Campbell wore a dress from the same collection, a white halter with a single bullet hole at the waist, and the internet was appalled. Social media was outraged at what they considered to be a “glorification of gun violence,” but there’s a Black political vernacular embedded in that design that – I won’t say all, but many – Black people understood instinctively.
One hundred percent. I was just talking about Mowalola last night – her work is so amazing. We’re all Black people who, because we’ve chosen to do experimental things, are often at the point of the sword when it comes to dealing with white art establishments, or we’ve gone to school in places where there have been a lot of white people. So of course we’re going to express those things. You’re on the front line, and there’s no Puff Daddy behind you to get your back. Naturally, I think sometimes the work can be so unflinching because one: we’re not afraid, and, two: what we’re talking about is very, very real.
I can’t speak for any of the others, but I make work to communicate with other Black people like me. Whether I’m successful in that is a different story, but that’s why I’m doing it. Dean Blunt is my good friend, and I know he feels the same. When he had that bodyguard on stage, it was for real. He was like, “All these reddit fans are crazy, I don’t know what happened but I don’t want to talk to them so I’m going to get a bodyguard.” It comes back to that thing of people trying to understand the work, which becomes a power maneuver between him and the audience. There are things about being signed to a label that make things certainly very difficult, and that’s why I’m not in that situation anymore. I’m glad to be out of it. I can only imagine what Kelela goes through. So I agree with what you’re saying, and I’m trying to inspire others to not feel so afraid of saying how they really feel in their art. Not every young guy making trap records in Atlanta only cares about bussdowns and chargers and shit – they’ve got other things to say, but maybe they feel they won’t be successful if they do. Maybe part of my way of doing a lot of different things is to try and maintain that sense of autonomy, because I’m not reliant on having a hit song. I really like that you got that about all of us, because people often will often ask me “why is your work so gothic?” It’s like, “Because my existence is gothic.”
“If I have a certain amount of political education and I can hold a pen, why would I not? It’s either that, or I hold a brick.”
Part of the reason I was so taken with SECURITY when I heard it in 2016, was because I had never heard anything like it at that point. It exposed me to this Black gothic emotionality – for lack of a better word – that was really important for my self-development, and that impacted a lot of the way I relate to electronic music now.
That’s exactly what it is. I’ve had a very emotional life, it’s been a roller coaster. Lots of people died, some people got rich, some people disappeared and were never seen again. Everything that I’ve ever written is based in truth, as incredible as that sounds. When you listen it might be like, “this doesn’t make sense.” Well, it makes sense to me because that’s how it actually is.
Dean Blunt is someone I’ve worked with a lot, and it’s the same for him. It’s probably the same for Actress, and I’d imagine it’s the same for Yves Tumor, and Kelela, and so on. SoundCloud and the internet have given space to artists like us, who may have been sided or couldn’t really exist at all. You’re doubly on the fringes – it’s too difficult for white people to listen to, and Black people are like, “you know, life is hard enough. I don’t really want to hear about that.” I was talking to Dean Blunt about it, and he’s like “Why do I have to constantly justify my music being art until A$AP Rocky says ‘this guy’s a genius.’” Dean’s been a genius, but I think it’s because he wouldn’t have been heard by whoever the hot rapper was ten years ago. There was no way for those people to know. Particularly in Britain, we’re out on this limb that no one really understands. Most of my family lives in America, and I remember going to New York as a teenager in the late 90’s – playing So Solid Crew records and people being like, “What the hell is this techno with people rapping on it?” And years later, going back to New York, looking at a room full of people jumping up and down to Giggs records and asking, “What’s changed?” Technology. The power to communicate and the power of the internet. People watch Top Boy now and realize that what they imagined Black Britain might have been like is really not, and much closer to the experience in New York than they had imagined.
Coming from America, the first handful of times I visited London and saw interracial couples represented on TV, or noticed that the homeless population didn’t seem as disproportionately Black as in the States, I assumed, totally naïvely, that social life was more equitable in the UK. I’ve since realized how reductive my view was, but I’d agree that there is a commonly held misconception of Black Britain shared by many Americans.
Definitely. It’s taken Drake as the middleman to give validity to us in the eyes of American hip-hop. As much as I laugh at Drake, without him doing that I don’t know if I would have had a career. Without that, can we say that Pop Smoke, Rest In Peace, would have had a career? It goes back to the idea of Black solidarity – it is being enacted all the time. We have to embrace it, and not get sided by outside sources like the UK press, who tried to say that the murder of George Floyd happened 4,000 miles away, so why should we care?
I want to see a world where Black artists are able to express what we want to express without having it be for the benefit of anyone else but ourselves. Financially, morally, and philosophically, so much of how our art is monetized and consumed is not for our benefit. And yet, we’ve managed to create a position of cultural power. All of my work is about harnessing that power towards collective good, as opposed to individual wealth. And doing so in a real way, not in a J. Cole, weirdly toxic way. I want that for us as artists and human beings, and that’s why I’m always trying to push the envelope and ask, “can this work? Can I show it working?” I never set out to do any of this, I just fell into it. So it’s not about my personal aggrandizement, I’m quite detached from that. I’ve got other ideas.