Michael Kiwanuka talks toxic social media and the radical self-acceptance of third album ‘KIWANUKA’

“I won’t change my name, no matter what they call me,” the singer pronounces defiantly on the new record, an album that’s set to see him kicking back at a lifetime of being told to change.

Michael Kiwanuka self-titling his upcoming third album is more of a statement than most make when releasing an eponymous record. His is a name that was constantly mispronounced at school in North London’s Muswell Hill. Then, when his music career was kicking off, people asked him what name he was going to release the songs under. From the man whose first big hit came in the form of a song called ‘Black Man In A White World’, it’s something that’s coloured his entire career. Stepping out, then, with the follow-up to a chart-topping, Mercury-nominated second album, and naming it after his ‘difficult’ surname, means a lot. He’s even written it in all-caps, too, as if to hammer the point home even further. ‘KIWANUKA’.

This radical self-acceptance is spread all across the upcoming third album, out in October. At the start of the tough ‘Hero’, he proudly proclaims: “I won’t change my name, no matter what they call me”. On new single ‘You Ain’t The Problem’, released in conjunction with the announcement of the album, he begins second guessing things that he – and so many of us – take as read throughout our lives. “I’ve always had thoughts about who I am as a human being, and where I fit in, and my view of myself,” Michael tells us. “Specifically, [the album is] about how I view myself, and why you might feel down about yourself sometimes, and the pressures of comparison that the world has now.” It comes to the fore most strongly on ‘You Ain’t The Problem’.

“You really aren’t the problem,” he lays out simply. “It’s just that when you compare yourself to others all the time, you’re never going to measure up. I’ve always kind of had those sorts of feelings, but they feel really prevalent now.”

These revelations have largely come to the singer – one of the most celebrated, critically-acclaimed British singer-songwriters of the last decade – due to the astonishing reaction to his second album, 2016’s ‘Love & Hate’. “It just blew me away,” he says of the response to the record, which took the No 1 spot on the UK album charts, and kept up his 100% record of being nominated for the Mercury Prize. I went into [‘KIWANUKA’] feeling excited that there will be people wanting to hear the third album. That’s a big step.”

To outsiders, it would seem like this big step should’ve arrived years ago for the celebrated songwriter, but the lack of acceptance he received (and then consequently gave himself) from childhood means it’s a significantly longer road to this kind of revelation. As such, ‘KIWANUKA’ is a record that feels like a vivid, proud exhale, created with the energy of an artist who can finally be himself, with nothing filtered out.

As well as ‘KIWANUKA’ being a deeply personal record, it’s also one that is firmly embedded in what it means to be British in 2019, and the near-constant change that Kiwanuka was experiencing when he headed out on tour with ‘Love & Fear’ in his back pocket towards the end of 2016, the most tumultuous year both Britain and the USA have had in many decades. “You felt a power shift in music,” he says of the time he spent on the road, conversing with all manner of bands and musicians at festivals and travelling from fractured country to fractured country. “Black music, from 2014 up until now, became the most important thing in popular culture. Albums were changing too, and I feel like they’re becoming more important now, and people are making really amazing bodies of work, maybe to go against the throwaway culture we live in.”

In plenty of ways, ‘KIWANUKA’ feels like a kick back against the throwaway culture he speaks of. It’s rich and broad, and makes a clear statement about self-acceptance, and how finding that inner peace can then help you to reach a hand further out, especially when your platform has grown as large as his now is.

“Comparison is really dangerous,” he says, reflecting on the process of learning to celebrate and accentuate his flaws rather than cut them out and head towards a more homogenised version of himself. “I think we’ve underestimated it, and because of the internet and the resources we have, it’s really prevalent. With things like anxiety and depression – things that are becoming epidemics, especially within young people – a lot of it is coming from filters and Instagram posts, and the idea of ‘living your best life’.

“It’s fun, and it’s part of the world, but I think we need to find a way to balance it, and know that what you see on the internet is such a small fraction of the story. We need to learn to take care of ourselves a bit more. That’s not to become narcissistic,” he continues, “but to realise that we’re made how we’re made, and it’s amazing. Humans are really great things, and we’re all different and made in different shapes and sizes, and that’s something to be celebrated, not filtered out and diluted.”

One thing ‘KIWANUKA’ certainly isn’t is watered down. “It’s a statement,” he defiantly concludes, “to say ‘This is who I am. This is definitely me’. It’s making myself count.”