Tkay Maidza: “This whole journey has just been about finding myself and owning my power”

Adelaide’s pride and joy, chameleonic artist, ambitious visual auteur, eclectic outsider – Tkay Maidza is all these things and more

Tkay Maidza has embarked on a great adventure: when NME finally catches up with the Adelaide rapper, she’s searching for a pad in her new stomping grounds of Los Angeles. Maidza is enamoured of hilly Los Feliz, effusing about its vibrance, eateries, greenery and how it’s “a bit New Yorky”.

“This is the area where you’d see Jake Gyllenhaal and all the really cool young hot people – not that I’m looking!” she laughs. “But it’s a cute area. I mean, if I see Jake Gyllenhaal, I’m happy – but I haven’t seen him yet.” And Maidza might have just viewed the perfect loft. The oddest part? The owner is Australian, as with her current crib. “I was like, ‘Why do I keep finding Australians when I’m in the right place?’ Maybe it’s a sign. We’ll see.”

NME Cover AU 2021 Tkay Maidza
Tkay Maidza on the cover of NME Australia #18

Maidza, 25, has been based in California since January, making those “big life moves” such as apartment-hunting. She’s expanding her horizons, but also trying to stay focused on self-realisation. “I don’t go out a lot,” she maintains. LA, she says, has been “a good place for me to have the convenience of being able to do anything, but also to have that privacy and quiet… As soon as I got here, I was like, ‘I can be anything I want to be. Nothing exists, everything exists’. It’s just a good buzz, but it’s not overstimulating, either.”

Maidza’s career is advancing, too, as she prepares to release the final instalment of her now too-relatably titled ‘Last Year Was Weird’ autobiographical art-rap EP trilogy, three years after its launch. “This whole journey has just been about finding myself and owning my power,” she proclaims. “I feel like my whole life journey is about empowering myself and empowering other people.”

NME Cover AU 2021 Tkay Maidza
Credit: Jonathan Weiner for NME

The gregarious rapper is chatting to NME via Zoom from a couch covered with throws, the room unlit. Wearing grey leisurewear, she radiates lowkey glamour with flowing hair, fairy-pink nails and delicate jewellery, the ceiling fan resembling a sculptural crown. She speaks easily, but often gazes away from the camera, gathering her thoughts.

In under a decade, Tkay Maidza has emerged as an international phenomenon. Retaining a down-to-earth charm, she commands respect and affection in music industry circles, consistently recognising her peers and warmly interacting with fans on social media. She exudes positivity. “I don’t engage in drama that doesn’t have anything to do with me,” Maidza quips.

Born Takudzwa Maidza in Zimbabwe, Tkay migrated to Australia at five – with her father a metallurgist and mother an industrial chemist, her parents’ qualifications were attractive to the mining sector. They resided in Perth and regional hubs before settling in Adelaide. Throughout, Maidza was surrounded by music: in Zimbabwe, her dad played guitar in bands, and gigs served as family outings (legendary musician Andy Brown is a relative).

NME Cover AU 2021 Tkay Maidza
Credit: Jonathan Weiner for NME

Maidza’s folks encouraged commitment and excellence. “The way my parents have always raised me is: if you do something, make sure it’s the best of what it is.” At school she was on an accelerated academic track, graduating at 16. Her initial passion was tennis and she nearly went pro: “I’m just really competitive,” she explains. “I always wanna be a better me.” But she also latched onto hip-hop, cutting remixes, covers (including one of Kanye West’s ‘Power’) and “random demos” using Dad’s recording gear and uploading them to YouTube.

As a teen, she participated in a young artist development program and, linking with beatmaker Bad Cop, introduced her clever wordplay on 2013’s M.I.A.-ish rap-rave ‘Brontosaurus’ – which she posted on triple j’s Unearthed portal, generating industry buzz. Then studying architecture at uni, Maidza withdrew to pursue music. Her parents were “supportive” – but with caveats. “They just said, ‘If you’re struggling and we have to help you or pay for anything, that’s when you know this isn’t the job for you’,” Maidza relays. “I’ve been fortunate to never really be in a situation that bad where they have to help out.”

“I don’t engage in drama that doesn’t have anything to do with me”

In 2014 Maidza dropped her first EP, ‘Switch Tape’, through Universal Music. It proved to be a game-changer: Adelaide is home to Oz rap pioneers Hilltop Hoods but Maidza helped usher in a fresh – and more varied – wave of hip-hop. She eschewed boom-bap for innovative hybrid genres, switched between rapping and singing, and cultivated a new individualism. Declaring herself “brat rap”, Tkay was spunky, witty and snarky. Inevitably, she was courted for guest spots, collaborating with Troye Sivan.

Bursting out of a male-dominated scene, Maidza was often hailed the “queen” of Australian hip-hop. It may be more accurate to call her one of several women on a new vanguard equipped with new tools – including social media and international networks – to better vault over the sexist parochialism that in the ’90s curbed Australian female rappers like MC Trey, Maya Jupiter and Layla. For her part, Maidza has built herself a global profile, showcasing early at New York’s CMJ Music Marathon and in 2016 earning a BET Awards nomination for Viewers’ Choice: Best New International Act.

NME Cover AU 2021 Tkay Maidza
Credit: Jonathan Weiner for NME

That year, Tkay presented a bold debut album, ‘TKAY’ – siphoning hip-hop, R&B and EDM into her singular brand of savvy, infectious pop. Killer Mike of Run The Jewels featured on the streetwise lead single ‘Carry On’. But, while ‘TKAY’ entered the ARIA Top 20 and earned ARIA Award noms, including one for Breakthrough Artist, she’d subsequently express ambivalence towards the record.

Today Maidza believes she was simply inexperienced and, under pressure, rushed the album. “I knew that I had to work on my craft,” she explains. “I just felt like I had to work harder. I felt like I had to put in more effort.” Listening to ‘TKAY’ now, she says “it’s dope”, but some songs “sound like ideas”. Mind, Tkay acknowledges that the LP “brought really cool opportunities”: She actually synced an outtake, ‘Glorious’, to Lena Dunham’s HBO show Girls, and was even invited to audition for RZA’s movie Love Beats Rhymes (the role eventually went to Azealia Banks).

Also in 2016, The Avalanches canvassed her to join their ‘Wildflower’ live spectacular. “Honestly, the fact that they asked me – that was so exciting,” she gushes. With the plunderphonics duo, Maidza could potentially have toured for ages, possibly playing Glastonbury and hitting a personal goal in the process. But she ultimately declined, reasoning, “If someone else thought I could help them do that, or be a part of their journey, then maybe I could do it for myself.” She cracks, “I’m just meant to be the frontman of my own life, really.”

NME Cover AU 2021 Tkay Maidza
Credit: Jonathan Weiner for NME

Post-‘TKAY’, Maidza took time out, pondering her identity and aspirations. She rematerialised with 2018’s epiphanic ‘Last Year Was Weird, Vol. 1’, led by the heater ‘Flexin’’, featuring LA rapper Duckwrth. Maidza assumed control of her creative direction, shedding EDM for deeper neo-soul, having grooved to Janet Jackson and KAYTRANADA. Significantly, Maidza wanted to convey emotional vulnerability, alluding to growth with lush garden imagery on the cover art.

But last August, Tkay swerved into futuristic chrome-plated territory with ‘Vol. 2’, heralded by the dark trap banger ‘Awake’, with Baltimore’s JPEGMAFIA, and swaggering ’90s throwback ‘Shook’. The latter marked her first single with feted UK indie label 4AD – which, though known for its alternative rock catalogue with the likes of The National and Beirut, has previously picked up the Floridian cloud rapper SpaceGhostPurrp and alt-R&B auteur Diana Gordon.

“My project is very eclectic – it exists in so many different ways,” Maidza says. “A lot of the artists that [4AD have] broken, there is no obvious road for success… I think that’s what 4AD love: to find cool ways to make an artist break and just nurture them and make sure they’re growing in a way that’s authentic to them.”

NME Cover AU 2021 Tkay Maidza
Credit: Jonathan Weiner for NME

In July, she will end the trilogy with ‘Vol. 3’ – despite the protracted pandemic, she won’t delay the final project. “I’ve been pretty sad lately – it feels like finishing a TV show that you decided to watch in one day, except this has been me for three years,” Maidza says wistfully. “I’ve dedicated every day of my waking life [to it] – and also I dream about this. I moodboarded what it was meant to feel like, sound like, look like – and to see it come to life and then come to an end is very bittersweet. I am in a place where I was hoping it would take me – and I think that’s the scary thing. The last one is meant to be a goodbye.”

‘Last Year Was Weird, Vol. 3’ is a culmination of Maidza’s sonic adventures – she even crosses into psych-soul for the tranquil intro ‘Eden’, distinct from the grinding single ‘Syrup’ with its dynamic flow. “You can hear trap and you can hear psychedelic-pop and then there’s mixtures of R&B,” she agrees. “It’s still alternative. Whatever I do, it’ll be left of anything.”

“I’m just meant to be the frontman of my own life”

Maidza has grown in confidence, too. “I feel like, in a lot of these songs, I’m really straightforward and you can understand the emotions that I’m trying to portray. It’s also an evolution of me personally. Right now I’m able to communicate my feelings way better than I ever have.”

In the cruisy ‘So Cold’, she addresses a boo in an off-kilter relationship. On the EP’s pinnacle, ‘High Beams’, “I sound mad, but I’m hopeful and I’m trying to manifest something,” Maidza says. The song evokes the gospel maximalism of Kanye West – an influence on the EP her father picked up on, she notes. And he had other feedback on the project: “My dad was like, ‘You’ve really improved with your voice and it sounds like you’re not trying to find something; you know exactly what you’re doing in the songs’.”

NME Cover AU 2021 Tkay Maidza
Credit: Jonathan Weiner for NME

Maidza is also bringing that clarity of vision to her music videos for ‘Last Year Was Weird’. Within a year, she went from the confident choreography of ‘Shook’ to the grotesque glamour of ‘Syrup’, establishing herself as a visual auteur with a carefree and nostalgic aesthetic.

Locked down in Adelaide as the pandemic raged, Maidza had to be resourceful as she shot two “super-DIY” videos. “I felt like I was in my element, ’cause that’s how I started before triple j had discovered me.” She co-directed the Afrocentric clip for ‘Don’t Call Again’ remotely with Jordan Kirk, purchasing a green screen and filming in her old bedroom over FaceTime so they could combine live action and animation (featured artist Kari Faux was shooting Stateside). Maidza was galvanised by the Black Lives Matter movement and discussions about Black women in pop culture, channelling empowered Blaxploitation characters in the tradition of Pam Grier’s Foxy Brown.

“For me, that was a moment where I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve never really appreciated who I am’ – and maybe also I didn’t feel connected to my roots, because I was trying to blend in all the time,” Maidza reflects. “If I experienced any discomfort from other people, I would stonewall it or kind of just disassociate from it, but it doesn’t mean what I felt wasn’t real. [But] I was like, ‘I can step into my power and it’ll be super-cool to have another really cool Black girl who’s very outspoken and strong and you can tell that she’s very sure of herself.’ So I was really happy to get Kari on that song.”

NME Cover AU 2021 Tkay Maidza
Credit: Jonathan Weiner for NME

Maidza also made her biggest video yet, for ‘Vol. 2’’s blithe bop ‘You Sad’. The avant-garde celebration of Black girl magic, showing the star basking in a “surreal” garden idyll amid obsolete phones, has racked up over 4million views on YouTube. For this one, Maidza liaised online with UK director Jocelyn Anquetil, and located a studio that could accommodate a larger screen. “I had to go to Bunnings,” she laughs. “I actually went by myself to get this two-metre artificial roll of grass.” Maidza and her bestie then ‘dug’ holes for the flowers. “It was a really fun process – because, in that situation, the amount of work I do is what I get out of it.”

And for this year’s ‘Kim’ video with director Adrian Yu, she cosplayed as iconic Kims: Lil’ Kim, Kim Kardashian and beloved Disney Channel crime fighter Kim Possible (featured guest Yung Baby Tate is her foil, Shego). Maidza was rapt when Christy Carlson Romano, who voices Kim Possible, gave the song her co-sign on TikTok.

NME Cover AU 2021 Tkay Maidza
Credit: Jonathan Weiner for NME

Now that Maidza is in LA, she can suss out what’s popping on the streets – the tempos and flows. “I’m able to understand rap so much better than being in my bedroom in Adelaide and being like, ‘I love this!’” She adds, “It feels really liberating, if anything, because I feel more connected to African-Americans here, I feel more connected to my family, I feel more connected to my friends.”

In recent years, the US hip-hop market has opened up to global talent, Sydney’s own The Kid LAROI crashing into the Billboard charts just one notable local example. Yet Maidza is uncertain whether she represents Australia’s scene. “I feel like people just see me as Tkay, ’cause I don’t know if I fully fit in,” she muses. “I’ve always been an outsider, anyway.” Regardless, fans have been outraged by how Australia doesn’t seem to adequately appreciate Maidza’s talents – ‘Shook’ was conspicuously absent from 2020’s Hottest 100 (in 2015’s poll, ‘M.O.B.’ landed at Number 66). Does she care?

“I am in a place where I was hoping it would take me – and I think that’s the scary thing”

“I do care ’cause, if I’m thinking about my early days where I was competing in sport and school and stuff, it matters in a sense – because that’s kind of like a telling of your progress.” Maidza is philosophical about recognition: “If I just keep doing the same thing that I’m doing, it’ll click – if it’s meant to. But I don’t think I should sit in there and be like, ‘Yeah, I am under-appreciated’, because the world doesn’t really owe me anything, you know? All I can do is try my best. What is meant to come to me will.”

This sanguine attitude speaks to how Maidza has come of age in the biz with unusual poise. “I have a very optimistic view of life,” she says. “I’ve definitely gone through things. But I think, when I do go through hard times, I’m offline and it’s somehow coincidentally in a down period where I have to regenerate and find who I am again. Then, by the time that’s over, I’m like, ‘Oh, here’s a new song, here’s a new project…’”

NME Cover AU 2021 Tkay Maidza
Credit: Jonathan Weiner for NME

Tkay does have an artist’s ego, to be sure – one she’s learned to channel into healthy, productive directions. “I have a very grandiose sense of self,” she says, archly. “I have a very specific way that I see myself and I try to curate everything I do towards getting closer to those goals.”

A longtime Aussie festival fave, Tkay has US dates booked for later in 2021, as the country’s live circuit rumbles back to life. “I’m really excited to do that,” she enthuses. “I’ve missed playing shows.” But she’ll also return to Australia to gig, and is already contemplating her second album. She may start work on it in earnest “sometime next year – maybe sooner”.

“I’m thinking of it now. I’ve been writing here and there,” she teases. “I’m feeling really inspired now. I realised the moment where everything clicks is when I’m the most scared and worried about things. So I think my fight-or-flight has jumped in and I’m really excited to write things and express how I feel.”

Tkay Maidza’s ‘Last Year Was Weird, Vol. 3’ is out July via Dew Process/4AD

CREDITS

Styling by Kaitlyn Vitug
Hair by Anthony Martinez
Makeup by Jaime Diaz