For rapper Kwame, there is an undercurrent which runs through his creative pursuits: shift the power dynamics of the Australian music industry. “You have got to put the trust and power into the artists because we are the people that are shaping the culture and shifting the paradigm,” he says over the phone from Sydney. Change, for Kwame, must become more than just a buzzword.
The 23-year-old Ghanaian-Australian artist has made waves in the past few years, going from an on-stage co-sign from A$AP Ferg in 2016 to a a slew of releases and appearances – including his irrepressible cover of Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright’ for triple j’s Like A Version – that have caught the attention of the Australian music industry and beyond. He pairs infectious instrumentals and memorable beats with urgent lyrics which create a sense of buoyancy. His ability to switch from abrasive pop-rap to compelling Afrobeats-esque melodies poignantly captures Kwame’s distinct versatility.
But, life in the Australian music industry hasn’t been the easiest to navigate. “There are a lot of sharks in the industry that push their own agenda,” Kwame says. “They want to make it about them as opposed to what you, yourself, the artist wants to do. I feel like there’s this big disconnect between the industry and the people – by that I mean the actual culture that happens on the ground.”
Standing in contrast to his suspicions of the industry is Kwame’s new EP, ‘Please, Get Home Safe.’, which is a joyous ode to his community: his fans, his parents, his friends. The EP sounds like an extension of Kwame’s self: a showcase of what he’s capable of with tracks with influences that run from gospel to bass-heavy to club music to drill. “I’m always trying to push myself,” he explains. “That was the whole energy and motivation to make this project.”
For some artists, the EP’s eclecticism may be a risk, but for Kwame, it works as a teaser for a bigger, grander project. “The EP was to showcase that I can literally do anything,” he says excitedly. “That’s what I wanted this project to be, you know, every song is so different. Once you listen to it in its entirety from start to finish, it’s all cohesive and it makes sense and you do get an understanding as to what I’m trying to do and why. Kwame is a creative experience: through the music, through the visuals, just through everything that the brand entails.”
Kwame, the person, was born in Auckland, New Zealand and lived there until he was two. Then his family moved to Sydney, floating around the western suburbs, namely the areas surrounding Castle Hill. His parents helped define his musical sensibilities from an early age. “Listening to Afrobeats or soul, jazz, blues, reggae, we just got acquainted with those sonics,” he says. “My influences came from what I was hearing inside the house, but then also seeing what people were doing overseas.”
As he grew older, Kwame increasingly found he wasn’t reflected within a white-dominated Australian music industry. He acknowledges that “there are those who don’t push their own agenda and want to amplify your artistic vision,” but is clear that navigating the industry wasn’t an easy take: “Really, like any [Global North] country, it’s run by privileged white men.”
Kwame’s frustrations were magnified this year when, after global protests worldwide reignited after the death of George Floyd, he saw the music industry turn back towards its old ways all too quickly. “All they did was make their DSPs Black,” he says. “Like, ‘Yup, made a couple of playlists and now that the show is over, back to normality.’ It’s like, you do not understand.”
While releasing music as an independent artist, Kwame did encounter like-minded souls in Sampa the Great, Manu Crooks, Raj Mahal and Tkay Maidza – artists who were finding footholds despite the many obstacles in place. “With so many artists that are from different backgrounds,” he says, “we were looking to what people were doing overseas as opposed to what was being done here… we weren’t necessarily drawn or couldn’t relate to the people [in the industry].”
Despite being part of this diverse pool of artists making headway in Australia, Kwame feels like it isn’t enough. He feels tokenised, as if they’re there to respond to claims for more representation of Australia’s diverse communities while pandering to white audiences and corporations. Their thriving, he says, is still circumscribed by unsaid limitations.
“It’s almost as if a quota is in place with a certain amount of Black artists that can be at the forefront,” he says. “I mean, right now, the only two [major] artists that are women who are Black are Sampa and Tkay. However, if you actually tap into the ground, you would actually see there are so many Indigenous and Black women good enough to be there. Why would you [prevent] them from being able to excel?”
“‘Yup, made a couple of playlists and now that the show is over, back to normality.’ It’s like, you do not understand”
This distrust of the industry drives Kwame towards a future where he can see himself and those like him represented and earning what they deserve. He aims to create a tomorrow for himself where he can not just start his own label, but “create an artist-based digital streaming platform which is created for the people in support of the people”.
“We need to create our own infrastructure, our own businesses, and not worry so much about the industry because the industry is always going to be the industry,” he says. “We need to create our own platforms and our earnings to help not only ourselves but the next generation and the ones after that. It’s a long game to play.”
He’s also hoping for wider changes in a post-COVID Australia where he wants to see “more diversity within the roles of the industry”, specifically at the major labels where a female president could break up the monopoly of white men at the top of the Australian music scene. “That would be so powerful,” he stated, “[if we had] more First Nations and Indigenous people. [We need] fair treatment of women in the industry.”
“Kwame is a creative experience: through the music, through the visuals, just through everything that the brand entails”
Now working on his debut album, Kwame is happy with where his music is going. He wants to grow organically, buoyed by a fanbase who loves him for him in all his multitudes. “I want to take care of the people around me, especially my family,” he said. “I want to build a genuine fanbase that loves me for what I do, not specifically for the one sound. I just want to be able to influence and motivate other people who want to venture into the creative arts and know that they can achieve greatness – that whether their impact is big or small, they can still shape the world and bring positivity.”
Kwame’s star is undoubtedly rising: As he experiments with his music, a sense of belief grows from within himself – and his community – that this road he has embarked on is long and paved with successes. ‘Please, Get Home Safe’ is just a teaser for his capabilities, and he’s sure to deliver on his potential with the as-yet-untitled debut album.
What we can expect is that, amid it all, Kwame will continue to fight for the marginalised, as he lives by a doctrine espoused by Dr. Martin Luther King: “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
Kwame’s ‘Please, Get Home Safe.’ is out now