Thursday is the new Friday these days – certainly in a vibrant Shoreditch beer garden by the name of Strongroom. It’s where NME meets Downtown Kayoto (born Chiko Chinyadza) for an afternoon drink, tucked away under some shade amidst a lively atmosphere. It’s somewhat of a celebratory pint for the singer too. Having released his new EP ‘Learning in Public’ at the start of July, Chinyadza has also just graduated from Swansea University, completing a degree in medical biochemistry alongside his work as Downtown Kayoto.
“There’s only so far you can go serving two masters before you burn out,” he says, expressing some relief at a clean slate to fully focus on his musical passion. Based in Hull, Chinyadza is passing through London to record his next EP, over a short stint with producer Jack Laboz. Refusing to rest on the laurels of ‘Learning In Public’, his iron-clad vision for success is just growing.
The sounds on ‘Learning In Public’ ebb and flow between hip-hop, indie, R&B and house. This blurring of genres is reminiscent of other UK innovators like Finn Foxell and p-rallel, with an alternative edge that can speak to Glaive fans. Characterised by crisp, summery production, Downtown Kayoto is a lens through which to explore Chinyadza’s victories and struggles, a journey of self-discovery and learning that is still ongoing.
He speaks to NME about his story so far, taking inspiration from Tyler, The Creator and his hopes of becoming Hull’s newest pop star.
NME: You’ve recently graduated – congratulations! How did you balance studying medical biochemistry with work as Downtown Kayoto?
“I was caught between two minds for the longest time. Do I just go and pursue this dream, is it a viable option? The doctorship – it’s guaranteed, all I need to do is work hard. But you have to close one off. I didn’t have the maturity to let go at A-Level – being at uni was that time.”
How did it feel to let go of that path?
“For a long time, I realised I used [university] as a crutch. I think I made the right decision. I’m on a path to genuinely curating the life that I want through something that I’m passionate about. If you’re good at something, and you have a passion for it, it doesn’t feel like a job. The by-product of you being naturally invested and hardworking, all that’s just gonna come later. Success, money – you’ll find a way.”
Where did this mindset stem from?
“I was definitely guided by my parents. If there’s something you really love, pursue it. Be smart about it and be tactical. My sister, she’s been the biggest supporter from the get-go. My friends who I used to make music with after school, they’re the ones who implanted that idea in my head that I can actually do this. It definitely feels like Downtown Kayoto is an amalgamation of everyone around me.”
Having taken Downtown Kayoto full-time, how are you now keeping a work-life balance?
“I do have to think, ‘Who am I separate from the music?’. Tyler, The Creator, for me, is the epitome of curating your life and living it. Allowing yourself to operate in your profession and be an expert, but also have that balance of being a fan. Delving into hobbies, just to enjoy them… so I’m not just pondering Downtown Kayoto 24/7.
“It’s a pivotal time. I don’t want to look back at this moment and think I didn’t capitalise on youth, while all my friends are alive and healthy. Success will come. Why am I stressing so much if I know I’m gonna get to my goal?”
‘Learning In Public’ has been out for a few months now… how has it felt to get it out into the world?
“I’m proud of myself. You make music for yourself, but you release it for other people. The EP is moments and snapshots, certain times of my life where I felt I had something to say and get off my chest. The ups, the downs. ‘Learning In Public’ literally imitates its name. It’s a progression, and everyone’s process is different.”
Was it challenging to be so transparent and personal on the EP?
“It is scary, but I genuinely feel that comes with the job description. I want to be a pop star, be on the radio. If I want to operate in that space, I need to be able to reflect and say shit that’s difficult to say in a way that’s digestible. But only ‘cause that aligns with my goals. That’s me being a realist.
“What I have experienced is important for other people to hear. That’s how we navigate certain situations. I know it’s gonna be hard, but I’m genuinely trying to confide in this idea of confident vulnerability.”
Is there anyone you look up to for this idea of “confident vulnerability”?
“When I think of Mac Miller or Frank Ocean, they do it so well. Constantly zooming in and out, finding ways to switch perspective between things that are in your surroundings and your head. With Tyler – ‘Flower Boy’, ‘Igor’ – they’re so visceral, so potent, so emotional. It’s insane to me. He wore his heart on his sleeve so confidently.
“I think of Earl Sweatshirt, Steve Lacy, people who can make those songs and talk about very personal things. I wanna know how they deal with being in the limelight to that degree, and still harness that level of vulnerability.”
Does it help to zone out in a studio space, like you’re doing currently?
“It helps so much, just being here. If we need to replay a certain memory 100 times just to get to the crux of what we want to say, we can do that. The studio is soundproof. If you wanna scream on a song, you’re not gonna wake up the neighbours – just say what you need to say. That room is a safe space. No one is able to infiltrate that.”
How are you balancing life between Hull and London?
“I’m gonna stay in Hull and come here when I need to. I’m not gonna linger too much. When I’m walking on the streets I grew up in, I feel safe, it’s genuinely where I can form the best stuff. But who’s to say that won’t change.”
“Tyler, The Creator, for me, is the epitome of curating your life and living it”
The BBC Introducing cuts mean the Humberside show is set to be merged with York’s. What does the music scene in Hull mean to you?
“There’s an artist by the name of Chiedu Oraka, from Hull. He helped me prepare for the industry at large. He sat me down and said it’s gonna be tough, you’re from Hull. With BBC Introducing, he had very close links to that place.
“My parents don’t have many reference points for success when it comes to this industry. So when they hear their son on the radio, it means a lot. The cuts might take away that same experience for another artist. I have a lot of respect for the BBC Introducing team in Hull, Alan Raw. I’ve pulled a lot of things from Hull. The spirit of not being afraid because you’re from a smaller place.”
What can we expect from the next EP?
“There’s gonna be a difference between ‘Learning in Public’ and this new EP, sonically. I went through a pretty rough break-up in which I learnt a lot about myself [and] my feelings. I’m making the music that would’ve helped me get through that process quicker. With this new shit, the brief is that you can bang it at the club, a wedding or on the radio. The moments I felt the most emotionally lit up through the process were at those three places. It’s my best work.”
Downtown Kayoto’s new EP ‘Learning In Public’ is out now