Stevan grew up in the beachy idyll of Wollongong in New South Wales. But his mind wandered beyond The Gong and towards the wider world, especially when he listened to US hip-hop. “I always used to wonder and be like, ‘There’s gotta be more stuff going on,’ because [Wollongong] was so quiet – or it was so community-based,” he tells NME. “You just wondered, ‘Do all kids do the same thing? It’s gotta be bigger than this.’”
And now with his first major project, ‘Just Kids’, out last Friday, 19-year-old Stevan is more than ready to venture out. Famously, Prince’s records carried the maxim “produced, arranged, composed and performed by Prince”. And Stevan, too, is an autonomous virtuoso – a self-taught vocalist, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and beatmaker, creating in his bedroom. ‘Just Kids’ spans all of Stevan’s official singles, including the summery ‘LNT’ and meta party jam ‘Rock N Roll’. Yet ‘Just Kids’ also represents his coming-of-age.
While gregarious, Stevan radiates mystique. He has seemingly experienced a rapid ascent, premiering with the single ‘Timee’ just over a year ago and charming hipsters with his surf, soul and ska vibes (not to mention whimsical videos). With breezy harmonies, paisley guitar, mellow beats and modish reverb, he sounds like Theophilus London jamming alongside The Drums.
Stevan belongs to the African-Australian diaspora: his family, originally from Burundi, immigrated from Malawi to Australia. His early music education came from his father’s cassette collection of legacy soul and reggae acts such as the late Bill Withers, whose signature ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ he covered for Movember last year. At 12, he became acquainted with hip-hop thanks to his older cousin, downloading mixtapes from the DatPiff platform. He discovered Kendrick Lamar, A$AP Rocky and Chance The Rapper, plus Frank Ocean’s future-R&B classic ‘nostalgia, ULTRA’.
“I was on the cusp of becoming a teenager – you’re about to move into high school and all this other stuff, but it was a really big transitional period for me,” Stevan reflects. “The type of music that I was listening to gave me a sense of identity and it gave me a sense of self and self-worth. A lot of these songs just meant the world to me at the time, ’cause predominantly a lot of the artists I was listening to looked like me. They obviously didn’t come from my same culture, considering I’m African, but I could just see enough similarities for me to be like, ‘Oh, damn – this is something really relatable.’”
Stevan’s initial instrument was the drums, and he’d emulate the rhythms of favourite producers like Pharrell Williams, not knowing that they were using machines. He picked up guitar by watching John Mayer clips on YouTube. In time, Stevan’s sensibilities became increasingly post-genre. “The music that really affected me was just music that made me feel in some type of way,” he says. “I started realising that there’s a common thread with all the music that I listen to and, whether it’s happy or sad, it’s just very emotional music. It makes you feel something.”
Uploading demos to SoundCloud, Stevan established a fanbase and industry connections before even triple j Unearthed championed him. He was contacted by Andrew Hwang from the American label Honeymoon Records, an offshoot of 300 Entertainment. The teen was wary when he received an email about a deal. “I thought it was a scam,” he laughs. “I was just like, ‘Oh, this is fake!’”
“A lot of these songs just meant the world to me at the time, ’cause predominantly a lot of the artists I was listening to looked like me”
He befriended other emerging talents, like Omar Apollo, who DMed him on Instagram and shared music. (“I’m on a lowkey flex,” Stevan jokes.) He took leave from university to focus on his career, and has steadily racked up tour dates. Last summer, he symbolically opened Apollo’s Laneway sideshows. “We’d sit in a corner and he’d give me some notes, in the most appropriate and positive, loving way,” he recalls. “I’ve taken on a lot of that and it’s helped my live performance.”
Stevan was determined that ‘Just Kids’ be a mixtape, instead of an album. “The whole reason why it’s a mixtape was because that’s the way that I used to listen to music; that was my format of choice,” he explains. “I felt I wanted to make a statement that was like, ‘This is my start’, but I also wanted it to be original and to introduce my music to people in a way that I was introduced to my favourite artists.”
For Stevan, ‘Just Kids’ feels like a “natural progression”. He penned the oldest track, ‘Timee’, at 15. But, although the mood of ‘Just Kids’ is blithe, romantic and sentimental, ‘Take It Slow’ reveals a latent anxiety. He mulls: “I think, when I started making music, a lot of these moments were connected to just me trying to figure out who I was. With each song, I was getting closer and closer. As I got better with music, I got better at sort of expressing myself.”
In January, Stevan was named Wollongong’s Young Citizen of the Year, and lauded for using his music to “raise awareness of men’s mental health” and teaching music in church youth groups. Conscious of the environment in which ‘Just Kids’ has materialised, he feels impelled to acknowledge “important” macro topics in our conversation. The global Black Lives Matter protests have been accompanied by discussions about systemic racism, but also the significance of Black art and cultural influence.
Stevan is concerned that, despite Australia’s vaunted multiculturalism, egalitarianism and ‘fair go’ ethos, there’s a collective denial about racism and privilege, especially in relation to First Nations peoples. Which, he says, must change.
“I feel like, even me, I was unaware of some of the atrocities that were happening to our Indigenous community here in Australia,” he says. “As a fellow Black artist, to all my other Black artists, to my Indigenous community, I feel like I have a responsibility to now be a voice – and not necessarily a voice that overpowers other people, but that empowers and that shines light on certain issues. I know I have had to deal with my fair share of discrimination or prejudice in my life, but some of the stuff that I’m seeing now is horrifying. It’s stuff that kinda removes me from my little comfort zone and gets me to think. I’m re-evaluating so many things.
“I don’t have the answers. I can only be a voice and I can only notice and I can only learn and better myself and try and better my community and the people around me – and I feel like that’s our responsibility as people. Hopefully, I wanna learn more. I wanna have more of an impact and I wanna have more to say and more to offer, but I guess all that will come with time.”
“I have a responsibility to now be a voice – and not necessarily a voice that overpowers other people, but that empowers and that shines light on certain issues”
Stevan was primed to appear at Splendour In The Grass this year – the festival recently rescheduled to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic – and during the shutdown, participated in ISOL-AID. “I feel different than I did at the beginning of the year,” he admits. “This year has been a very challenging one, in general. I want to try and do my best to be a positive force, just because this year has been the worst. It’s been a horrible year. I feel like, as it comes to a close, in general, we’re gonna need more positivity. So I am also trying to have a more positive outlook, even though things are very bleak.”
Stevan’s mixtape ‘Just Kids’ is out now.