How does your African background influence your life when you are right on the verge of becoming a huge international music sensation? That is something Michael Kiwanuka, born to Ugandan parents, contemplates as he takes on the mania following his win of BBC’s Sound of 2012 (other famous alumni include Adele, Corrine Bailey Rae and Ellie Goulding)
Born to Ugandan parents, Michael talks to Paula Rogo on being Ugandan and its effect on who he is today: From his terrible grasp of Luganda, “boda boda” bikes, messing up the pronunciation of his own name.
AfriPOP!: What has the feedback been like since the “BBC Sound of 2012″ list came out?
Kiwanuka: Yeah, well that’s been great! It really helps my music for the next year. It brings a bit more awareness for the music and gets more people listening. But generally, I’m ok because I’m kind of busy playing guitar or listening to music or trying to write music and stuff. And I just still feel the same as I did five years ago when no one was listening to the music. Because I just love playing stuff, the pressure goes because that’s what I really want to do. But if I start getting too involved in the list or winning a list or how many hits you’re gonna get from this, then yeah I’d start to feel that pressure
I’m really interested in your background; both your parents are Ugandan?
That’s right, yeah.
So how has your Ugandan background influenced where you are today?
My parents met in London. They left when Idi Amin was in charge. My dad studied in England, and my mum came and found work in England. They met and they had us – myself and my brother. So that’s why we are here, because of Idi Amin really.
And because they knew how tough it was without a stable education and stable home, they were quite specific about where we lived in England. We didn’t have masses of money, but my mum was pretty clever and found a nice place in Muswell Hill which is a North London town which is quite a middle class, white area really. There are not many Africans there, in fact there are hardly any. They obviously picked that because they knew how important the environment is for growing up.
How does your family feel about you doing music?
My parents were very supportive of me despite them never having played any instruments. So it was brand new, they had no idea what the hell one could do as a musician. And when they could tell that’s what I wanted to do my mum was quite worried about and suggested maybe I should go get an English degree first, because she thought I was good at English and then go and play music. But I became more obsessed with music. I did music at university and that made my mum happy. But I didn’t finish my course and there have been some displeased, rocky moments up until now.
But once this started to take off, it was fine because now I had a stable job and there was a way for me to avoid bumming around. So my parents are really happy and excited.
Can you speak more about you upbringing? What were the rules at home?
It was really cool! My mum and dad were pretty relaxed in terms of the African rules. In the house my parents spoke Luganda even though I didn’t know it very well. It was a very African home though. We ate pretty much all African food all the time. But it wasn’t like an intense home where you feel like you are in Uganda. There was definitely a big Muswell Hill feel in there. But where the African culture came in was like the education and speaking proper English, lots of family gatherings so that was there but it was very mixed in with the western culture too.
And you speak Luganda?
Not very well. I speak like the level of a toddler. I mean I can speak some stuff and get through a basic conversation. And I can basically talk to a toddler and tell them to be quiet if they annoy me. But If I go to the village I can’t because it’s too fast and too deep for me.
So you’ve been to the village?
I’ve been three times but I haven’t been in the last six years, since like I was eighteen. My grandmother is still alive and it’s great she has her own place. Everyone always cooks outside and stays outside until the sun goes down and I love it. There are no real front doors. And my grandmother lives on a rough road that is very bumpy, so they use these motorbikes called “boda bodas”. It’s just a very good vibe. It does get boring though because I don’t know Luganda and I can’t get involved, but if I did I would spend more time there because it is just very natural.
Are you looking to tour in Africa?
Yeah, we were in fact talking about that earlier actually.
So Kiwanuka…it’s easy for me to pronounce but how much do people mess up your name?
Quite a lot in fact. I’m a culprit of it too though because since I was in primary school the name was “Kiwanuka” and that was the pronunciation of it but like in Uganda it is “Chi-wanuka”. The ‘Ki’ is pronounced ‘Chi.’ At the same time, you can’t go into the west and expect people to know how to pronounce the name right. So at school we just pronounced it Ki-wanuka. So that’s how I say it now. It gets written really bad sometimes. Like a while ago we did this interview and it was written as “Kiwananananuka” with so many Ns. I even remember when we did the Adele support, she pronounced my name wrong and she still thinks it’s that pronunciation.
What was that like touring with Adele?
It was great! It was all new experiences. The first time being on the road touring and I have so many fun memories. I loved it. I loved seeing all the cities, I loved hanging out, I loved even the long drives. It was great.
You’ve been called a soul singer and even been compared to Otis Redding. Do you agree?
Yeah I think it is pretty close. But that’s really huge (about Otis Redding) because he was a really big influence on my scene.
How did your background, both Ugandan and Muswell Hill, affect your music?
Kiwanuka: Because I grew up in Muswell Hill, the kind of music that influenced me was like guitar music. So I started listening to Rock & Roll bands before I really discovered soul music. That has seeped into my music today, and that’s why it crosses kind of the folky and more English side music to the more rhythmic, soulful, African side of music. So I guess it’s had a huge effect.
Is there anyone is particular you’d like to collaborate with?
I would love to work with a producer named DangerMau5 because he records music in a way that I love and it reminds me of the music that I am into. There is also an engineer named Russ Elevado who engineered D’angelo’s Voodoo album. He uses purely tape machines and I love that type of thing. It would be pretty cool to work with D’angelo too.
What do you hope people will take away from listening to your music?
I want to make music to make people feel peaceful and calming.
Whilst on tour in the UK, the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach lead singer and Michael made this song together. Auerback spoke to BBC Newsbeat about it.
We blogged Michael Kiwanuka’s latest video I’m Getting Ready here
Follow him on twitter.