“My Music is a Happy Accident”: An Interview with Kesswa

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Electronic dance music is to Detroit what tango is to Buenos Aires, or cumbia to Cartagena— in other words, it’s hard to go more than a few blocks on a Friday night without walking through a low bass rumble and the muffled thump of a kick drum. You could spend years working through the catalogues of the legendary artists that grew up or got their start in Detroit, and by the time you got through the golden age of Motown there’d be a dozen new acts listed under “The 2010’s.”

Of course, the music industry long ago caught on to the greatness of dance music made in Detroit. Labels based in New York or L.A. regularly skim some of the most marketable acts off the top of the city’s stew of clubs, concert halls, music collectives, and studios — more often than not, the musicians that make the cut have a markedly cleaner, more pop-oriented sound than you might hear club hopping on any given weekend. But some of the richer flavors are still cooking in the pot, and the longer they stew the more complex the flavors get.

Kesswa, an emerging singer, songwriter, and producer born and raised in Detroit, is one of the strongest recent cases for leaving the pot on the boil. The first generation daughter of Nigerian immigrants, she has had her eye on a career in music for nearly her entire life, but didn’t start releasing original material until this year. There isn’t much to hear online — just one song on her Bandcamp page — and, most recently, an entrancing, gorgeous music video directed by Detroit videographer Kai Dowridge.

Simply put, “To Find” is beautiful. The track — produced by Ben Hill, an Oklahoma transplant working in Detroit — has all the good stuff: cascading harps, synth keyboard stabs ping-ponging lusciously in the background, and a warm, chest-pounding bass thrum, all over a highly-wrought lattice of skittering snares and hi hats. This music warrants listening through a pair of $400 headphones, and you can dance to it, too.

Kesswa’s vocal delivery is similarly majestic. On rising melody lines, she glides effortlessly from a sultry lower register to a comfortable vibrato spinning magnificently around the high notes. Bafflingly, her voice sounds equally lovely filtered through a smattering of pitch modulators, and even more so when an individual vocal line is panned from left to right across a pair of headphones — having her voice funneled through your skull is a deeply satisfying experience.

This is good music, and the quality is frankly astonishing for an artist with a catalogue as short as Kesswa’s. Needless to say, a start like this is auspicious.

In the following interview conducted over the phone, Kesswa expands on her background and path into music, the creative process of “To Find,” and her experiences and thoughts on living and working in arts communities in Detroit.

You posted on your Instagram the other day saying that you only started working on music recently. I honestly find that hard to believe …

Yes, I started doing music maybe two-and-a-half years ago.

Can you speak a bit to your background and what path you’ve taken to get into music and to do it so professionally so quickly?

Well, I’ve always wanted to be a singer. I remember being really young and, you know, when you’re a certain age people start to ask you what you want to do with your life — I remember struggling to answer that all the time. I was always told that I was really smart because I liked to read a lot and had an expansive vocabulary in comparison with my peers, and so my parents really pushed the medical field onto me. But that never really appealed to me. I remember being young and watching a lot of television and seeing pop stars on TV, and I don’t remember exactly, but I’m pretty sure I saw a Beyoncé music video and she was singing and just having so much fun when she was with her bandmates, and in that moment I knew that I wanted to sing. But I was always told that I wasn’t a good singer, so I never really sang for anybody or thought that I could truly do it. I also didn’t believe that I fit the aesthetic of a singer — you don’t often see a lot of women who look like me and have mainstream success in the music industry, particularly in pop culture.

That didn’t stop me from pursuing it on my own — whenever I had an opportunity to sing I always wanted to sing, and my family would encourage it as a hobby, or whatever. I think I eventually got to the point where I didn’t even really see it as a possibility myself, but I still wanted to have music in my life somehow, so I decided to try to start out as a DJ, because I knew that was something that didn’t necessarily require me to be skilled technically as a musician in the same way as being a singer or instrumentalist would. So I went to various people in my community and tried to get their help with starting out and teaching me.

Then I started to see DJs who were also producers, like Kaytranada, and I decided that producing was something that I wanted to try. I was pretty satisfied with the beats I was making, but I still felt like they were missing soulful vocals, and I needed someone to sing on them. I don’t know what clicked, but I think I got to the point in my relationship with music where I wanted to be able to enjoy singing publicly, to be able to do it without people telling me to shut up, or that I sounded terrible.

So I started taking lessons with a vocalist in my community for two, maybe three months, and then I got into a roll-over car accident on the Lodge freeway. It was really crazy, I could have died. The doctor told me that if I had stiffened my body I would have been paralyzed. Of course they didn’t take my insurance, and I was doing Americorps at the time doing city year, so I wasn’t making a lot of money and I was working a lot of hours. I had to stop taking vocal lessons to focus on paying medical bills — it was a really depressing time.

I eventually graduated from college, Wayne State, and I made the decision after graduating and working in my field — my degree was in sociology and I worked as a research assistant for a few months before being let go because they said that I wasn’t a good fit. I decided that I was tired of being thrown around with jobs and unsatisfied with my life and the way that I was working, the amount of time and energy I was giving to working a job instead of being creatively fulfilled, so I decided I was going to take music seriously.

I would say it was the end of 2016 I decided to take music seriously, and 2017 was when I decided to start looking for producers to work with. Although I had a background in production, I believed that I wasn’t going to be able to work at the level of skill that I would like to on my own. So I kind of leaned on my community to connect me with various musicians. I met a producer from Oklahoma named Ben Hill and we worked on this project that I’m calling Soften. Everything has really just fallen into place as I continue to pursue music and take it seriously, being really earnest and just building genuine connection with people.

You mentioned in a recent interview that you are a former practicing Buddhist, and that it still plays an important role in your lyric writing. Certainly, the lyrics of “To Find” feel almost like a chant or mantra in a certain way. Can you elaborate on that idea? What else influences your songwriting?

Musically the people that have inspired the most are Alice and John Coltrane, their relationship to music. Underground Resistance — their song “Timeline” was my exposure to electronic music, and in particularly electronic jazz, or high-tech jazz as they called it. I just love jazz music and jazz vocals. Sarah Vaughan is like my vocal idol, vocal mother. She’s amazingly talented and has an amazing amount of control with pitch.

I don’t have a formal music background, but I do listen to a lot of music because I just love the experience, being able to emotionally connect to a musician or being able to experience to a certain degree the emotion the musician is trying to convey. Growing up as a first-generation Nigerian-American, I can say that it’s kind of commonplace for first-gen immigrant children to have a weird relationship with family at home, where you want to express yourself fully, but you don’t necessarily fully identify with your parent’s culture. If you live with them, it can be especially difficult to let loose because you want to live life, you want to express yourself in ways they might not understand. For me, listening to music during my teens and tween years when my parents were at their height of misunderstanding me and projecting things onto me was a safe space for me. I have this deeply emotional relationship and safety I find in listening to music that makes me feel good about myself.

With my music and my practice with Buddhism, I started practicing Nichiren Buddhism in 2013. In that particular sect, we study the Lotus Sutra, which talks about how every person can achieve enlightenment, every person is a Buddha, and you can call that into your life through mantra. The mantra we chanted was “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo,” which of course has become fairly well known thanks to various celebrities like Tina Turner, but it was really helpful for me at that period of time. It basically says, “I devote my life to the mystic law of cause and effect,” which reinforces the idea that whatever you give out, you get back. If you express your intentions and act in alignment with those intentions, then you can see the fruit. So I write songs with the intention of creating a life for myself that allows me to create at the level I want to. I’ve already had so many experiences and opportunities that I would have never even imagined for myself.

The song, “To Find,” in particular, is a reflection on my literal dreams and figurative dreams of being a singer, that if I can hold that dream in my mind that I can also hold it in my hand and experience it. The chorus part — I guess you can call it a chorus — just feels so good to sing, and I wanted to make sure it had lyrics that I felt anybody could relate to. Everybody is chasing something, whatever dream you want to manifest, you’re actively seeking for it. So when you sing that song you can think fully about achieving your dreams, what you want to accomplish. Or even when you’re not actively thinking about it, you can still have it in the back of your mind. I think we all call things into our lives, both good and bad, without even really fully realizing that we’re speaking things over ourselves. And that isn’t to say that we don’t have to navigate systemic oppression or capitalism, that just as long as you say good things about yourself things are going to be fine, but I think just coming from a place where I’ve navigated a lot of anxiety, depression, low self-worth; a lot of our discomfort can be self-imposed and can make it more difficult to work through these systems we’re subjected to. I wanted to make sure that my music provided something that was actually useful to me and to the people that listen to it.

How do you go about making introspective, meditative lyrics like that work over a dance track?

When I was conceptualizing the sound — I had an idea of what I wanted my music to do, but when I met Ben I had a very specific list of genres that inspired me: jazz, traditional African music, techno or dance music. He was on the same page with me about making music that sounded like that, but once we got into the process I really had to just feel my way through it. I couldn’t really think about it. Coming from a place of struggles with anxiety and overthinking, second-guessing myself all the time, the experience of making music and then suddenly performing, traveling somewhere, just having things constantly happening, I couldn’t really think about things all the time. I couldn’t really think about the music either, I had to just feel it.

Having a strong drum and bass track over ambient-sounding Rhodes keyboard chords, technical robotic samples in the background, harp samples — which Ahya Simone played — then just singing over everything — all of those things make me feel good, make it easy for me to connect to an instrumental and write to it, to weave my experience into the song. They’re like elements of music that inspired a sound I couldn’t have necessarily predicted, because it’s just a reflection of myself, and you never really have a clear picture of yourself. My music is a happy accident, but it’s just a mix of all of the things I like.

Ben makes music all the time, he has so many different loops and pieces of equipment, but when I heard the Rhodes sample, I immediately knew it was the song I wanted to write to. I knew I wanted to sit with it, feel my way through it — I wanted it to be a song that would make me feel open-hearted. I’m pretty sure we wrote it in a day — we might have added a few things like vocal arrangement or mixing later, but I’m pretty sure we basically wrote the song in a day, maybe in a few hours.

I’ve seen you perform a couple of times in the past, and every time I’ve been struck by just how different your music sounds from just about everything else I hear coming out of Detroit these days. Can you tell me a bit about your experience of bringing your music into live venues in Detroit?

I’ve been around — I went to Wayne State for seven years on-and-off, and I’ve been in the Midtown area for a while. The art and music communities, from what I’ve been able to experience, have changed drastically during those seven years. They’ve gone from being predominantly Black, DIY, hip-hop oriented, to being electronic music-based. I think that came with a lot of people coming from other places and creating their own spaces, or taking up a lot of space in Detroit. So, you know, you have people who come from Ann Arbor, people who are coming from New York and buying up properties, people coming from L.A.. It’s kind of weird because I remember there being so many more artists of color, Black artists in particular, and going to the concerts they would put on. I was also a lot younger then, and it’s possible that things are different now because I’m not really in those same social circles anymore. Everybody kind of has more responsibility and, you know, you might find some people who have been consistently producing work from that period of time, that are still doing things and chipping away, but things have become really grant and residency-based.

For me, going from being a consumer of all of this stuff, being an observer, to actively participating in it, it’s also a little strange for me because I’m not really used to having to think about where I’m going to perform, if I’m going to be performing anything at all, if people are going to like my music, any of that stuff. Also, the people who have been making music for so long sometimes recognize me from being around for so long, but will be like, “Oh, I didn’t know that you were an artist.” The only way I can respond to that is, “I didn’t know either.” But here we are. Not a lot of times, but recently I’ve found myself being the only Black person at certain events, which is uncomfortable. I’m not really used to that experience. Or I might be one of three Black people in the space. Maybe that speaks to just a lack of exposure — I guess it’s made me realize I was coming from a really small community, and that community doesn’t gather quite as much anymore in those spaces. We don’t really have the same access.

In another of your recent Instagram posts, I saw that you aren’t just a musician — you were doing hair for a fashion show in New York. That’s something I consistently find in artists from Detroit — there seems to be an unusually high density of musicians who also paint, or write, or do cinematography. I’m wondering if that is also your experience, having been a member of arts communities in the city for as long as you have.

I definitely is. We kind of have to be that way. If you want to do anything, create anything, you have to pretty much do it yourself, due to the lack of resources, funding. As much as I’ve heard people say Detroit is becoming an art city, we don’t really make that a possibility for up-and-coming artists or emerging artists. There isn’t really a distribution of wealth, there isn’t really a diversity of art jobs. You kind of need to learn on your own and share with your community, exchange and support to be successful.

Honestly, that’s how things work in larger cities as well, among creative communities. I remember being in Chicago and I met somebody from Savemoney, Vic Mensa’s music collective, and I asked him a question about the art community in Chicago, and he said that everyone in the creative scene in Chicago understands that there’s a really narrow bridge, but if they all hold hands everyone will be able to get across.

I think that’s a great point for Detroit, too — as weird of a history as Motown has, the community, the actual relationships within Motown, it was based on that. People lived around the corner and would show up and get a job, start singing and become a musician. Being able to connect with people in your community and create opportunities is essential. A lot of us are artists but don’t necessarily believe that we can be artists for a living, that we can create and share our art, or that anybody cares. A lot of us also just do it anyway because we feel the need to do it, even if it’s difficult or it’s not bringing in a lot of money.

I was really excited to be able to pull in my friends to work on this video. Actually, I wasn’t even really planning on doing a video for this song — Kai Dowridge, who directed the video, had seen me perform a few times and expressed interest in working with me. I was just honored that they even asked to work with me on doing something like this. I’m blessed to know so many talented people that are interested in what I’m doing and want to help build something together.

Kesswa’s next live performance will be at the Loving Touch in Ferndale, Michigan, on Friday, Mar. 22.