GAIKA’s U.S. Debut
Born and raised the belly of South London, experimental R&B musician and visual artist GAIKA has been steadily making a name for himself in the city’s underground music scene. He first hit the radar in November 2015 with the release of a solo mixtape, Machine, and quickly gained traction afterward with an assist on Bristol producer Kahn’s remix of Kelela’s “All the Way Down” and his collaboration with Mykki Blanco, “Push More Weight.” Then, in April, GAIKA released his second full-length, Security, which is first and foremost a club record made to make you sweat, however, a deeper allegory of a faded and forgotten night lies underneath.
Sharing DNA with attention-grabbing contemporaries like the aforementioned Kelela, GAIKA refocuses popular urban genres through a singular lens. He fuses R&B, hip-hop, grime, and garage with reggae and dancehall (tastes of his Jamaican roots), and the artist’s lurid visual components only further this musical experimentation. The video for “BUTA,” for example, is a particularly striking highlight as he turns a nightclub into a backlight-drenched, psychedelic state of mind from which viewers won’t want to wake. Whether you see the video as a dream or entrancing nightmare, either way GAIKA will have you dancing—and hard.
Earlier this month, GAIKA made his U.S. debut during the Red Bull Music Academy Festival in New York, performing for a crowd that included none other than Björk sitting front row. Last week, we met him in Chinatown to speak about his brief time in the States, Security, and using music as therapy.
BENJAMIN LINDSAY: You’ve released two mixtapes within the last year. Has the response caught you by surprise at all?
GAIKA: Yeah, I didn’t expect any of this. It feels deep, you know what I mean? It’s good, though. I can’t complain.
LINDSAY: What’s a day in the studio like for you? Are you doing your own production? Writing your own music?
GAIKA: Yeah, I write everything. I produce. Maybe there’ll be three other guys that are all friends working on each other’s stuff while I kind of exec everything and do some of the work myself. We have spaces in multiple cities, so we just hook up, talk a bit of shit, and then dive in. We do our work, man. I make music at a pretty fast rate, I think, and the reason is because it’s like therapy to me. For me, I have to record something at least once a week—a track a week at least, even while I’m traveling. Otherwise I’ll go crazy. I was in the Red Bull Studio yesterday.
LINDSAY: So where’s your home base?
GAIKA: It’s in London. What I do in the dark, that’s a different life. The studio is my base of operations. I think it works in seclusion. It exists in studios in the dark in Manchester or in London or wherever. Regardless of what the rest of everyone else is doing, we’re going to do our work, and that’s how it works creatively. I’ve deliberately made this bubble; I don’t want to get caught up in the reference, in the gossip, in the metrics of whatever industry. I don’t care about any of that. I just care about the work and the art.
LINDSAY: And it’s important to surround yourself with people who are also on that wavelength.
GAIKA: Yeah, or they just take their cues from me. But my friends from before any of this—we’ve been tight from the jump. That’s why with Security I wanted to collaborate with people who I thought were interesting, who knew me from before. Real people, real life, real stories.
LINDSAY: How long have you been making music?
GAIKA: I’ve been making music for about five years. I’ve been making music solo for about a year.
LINDSAY: How did the solo work come about?
GAIKA: I did music kind of secondarily, but then I went through a breakup, I moved back to London, and I decided to do some recording in Manchester really to get myself together. Something just snapped open and I was like, “I’m going to throw myself headfirst into the studio and do my best and try and make the best thing I can possible make at this point.” There’s been times in the past where I’ve been around projects where it was like, “I’m doing this to get money.” Making something like this is nothing about that. It’s a reflection of exactly how I feel. That’s why it’s the modulated voices and the mix of things because that’s what sounds normal in my head.
LINDSAY: I think that’s why people are responding. It’s different from anything else out there. It’s not going to replicate anything or fit what people might expect.
GAIKA: I don’t categorize my music as close to anything other than what I think. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not against critics or criticism, but it’s just not something that I really do. I try to live in the moment, not second-guess anything. Wherever that takes you, especially creatively, for me, is where I find the best stuff happens. If I decide that I want to make a disco record, then I will. You’ve got one life, so why the hell not? Who am I doing this for? That’s not to say I’m going to make a disco record. [laughs] It’s just like, I don’t think about anything other than how that sound makes me feel in the moment. After the fact, I’ll go back, but in the moment that I’m making it, there’s no concept of anything but emotion. My entrance into music hasn’t been from a training perspective. It’s from a technical aspect of how to use a piece of software and how to understand frequency. I have a technical upbringing. And also, the aesthetic of a visual artist.
LINDSAY: How would you describe to the layman what Security is all about? Was there a kind of thesis statement?
GAIKA: It’s the idea of doing something safe. I think people have this pervasive, indiscriminate fear. I think it’s about dying, but we have this sense of dread that if “I do this, or if I don’t do this, then this might happen, or won’t happen.” I was really thinking about that. I think about a lot of things at one time—all of my stuff has multiple meanings stacked up on each other. So it was like I wanted to confront some of this fear, and at the same time, I wanted to make a record that was true stories of my life. I wanted to make something that was playing with the emotions of a what a club record is supposed to be, what a “safe” club record today is supposed to be. I wanted to make a record that fulfilled that purpose in some speculative, imagined space. The club is somewhere that’s not real; it’s our reflection. I like the idea of things falling away so you can see it a different way.
LINDSAY: And that’s also seen in the visual components and the aesthetic behind this release.
GAIKA: I make concept things. I string a strand of ideas, but the process is really improvised. That’s why the record is what it is. I also wanted to have it have full of collaborations, because with these records, that’s the point. It’s about lots of voices in the club. It’s about lots of perspectives and stories, not about my own personal grief. As you listen to the record, that story becomes unfolded. By the end of it, you have a very direct statement about what the point is: When you concentrate on these points of security and don’t confront that fear, you can just be used. I don’t want to be used. You have club spaces, you have these spontaneous expressions of feeling, and yet, what do we do? Turn them into centers of profit with no purpose. When, in fact, that stuff has the power to make our society better.
LINDSAY: Do you think it’s an inherently political record?
GAIKA: Maybe, because I am, but it’s not inherently political any more than anything else. Taylor Swift’s records are inherently political. That’s what the world decided is the pinnacle of femininity, so therefore, she has the biggest records. If that’s not a political statement, I don’t know what is.
LINDSAY: You were also a visual artist prior to pursuing music. Is the GAIKA imagery in line with your previous work?
GAIKA: Yeah, an evolution and development, but if you look back to my [older] work, you’ll see it.
LINDSAY: You were saying before how important the collaborations on this record were for you. Do you have any dream collaborations?
GAIKA: No. Somebody asked me that question and I said Prince.
LINDSAY: Is he an inspiration of yours?
GAIKA: I think his main influence for me is to be whoever you want to be and to do whatever you want, wear whatever you want. My masculinity, it isn’t connected to machismo. I don’t feel the need to [do] a lot of that bullshit posturing. So many people think I’m gay, but I’m not. What, because I don’t stand around beating my chest? It’s not a problem to me; it’s just funny. Come to my shows, they’re full of women. Go to a rap show, and it’s a bunch of guys standing around. I think Prince definitely influenced me in this idea that you don’t have to be a certain way, or be a tough guy, or be masculine.
LINDSAY: Before we wrap up the conversation, is there anything else you want to discuss?
GAIKA: Yeah, I’m really interested in making [music] around America. I feel like this year is a big point in our history. A lot of artists surprised me by being so engaged. Beyoncé or Kendrick Lamar or Kanye or whoever—people are willing to say something. It’s returning back to a time where pop music matters, it’s about something, and it’s also being driven by black American music.
LINDSAY: You’re not seeing something like “We Are the World.” It’s Beyoncé and it’s Kendrick actually standing up and making a statement with their music.
GAIKA: Exactly. As a result, I’m really interested in working in America. It’s a really interesting time in art and music, and it hasn’t been that way in awhile.