Top: Raf Simons
Words: Tasbeeh Herwees
Photography: Ryan Cardoso
Hair: Tyarra Jones
Theophilus London operates his Instagram, he tells me, like a finsta. There is no cohesion to the grid, no apparent attempt at curation. Many of his posts are unvarnished and unedited iPhone videos of him dancing or singing in the studio; photos of his shoes or shots of him walking runways. His captions, generously garnished with emojis, are his own, often effusive proclamations of gratitude and confidence. His stories are populated with out-of-context videos and photos from his everyday life.
“It's just raw,” he says. “I was about to hire this assistant, and he gave me this 20-page letter on how to get my Instagram to 20,000 likes. But it was so boring what I had to do. That's not me.”
It wasn’t always like this. In 2017, the Brooklyn-raised Trinidadian musician wiped his Instagram clean and disappeared from the internet. It was a shocking move for someone whose hype preceded him as an It Boy of fashion and music. His last album, Vibes, co-produced with Kanye West, was released in 2014. He was close friends with Virgil Abloh. He sat front row at Paris Fashion Week and shot campaigns for Karl Lagerfeld, Virgil Abloh and Cole Haan.
Trousers: Saint Laurent
But the experience left him creatively burnt out. “I love patterns, but I hate when shit gets old. I started to feel like my brand was too accessible. I let too many people in,” he admits. “People were dragging my brand here and there.” The return on investment was minimal, and diminishing with each passing moment: even with a Kanye co-sign, Vibes' first week sales didn’t reach 3,000 units. By 2017, the young singer felt disconnected from his own music. “I hated the fact that when I played, as soon as I got out my neighbourhood, and I started playing shows and festivals,” he says, “I started playing for [fewer] people of colour and people of different ethnicities. I played for fucking college kids. They don't give a fuck.”
So London deleted his Instagram. “I didn't want to be me,” he says. “I don't want to be Theophilus London, whatever the fuck that meant. It was so tough.” He ghosted the industry, left his contract with Warner and went indie. Cancelled his Vibes tour. Went to London, hung out with “underground kids”, reacquainted himself with the African diasporic cultures that constitute his hometown of Brooklyn. Started his own label, My Bebey Records. And then he started making music again.
Not to belabour a metaphor, but the post that marked his return to Instagram, on 12 May, 2018, was a black-and-white video of London singing his first single out as an indie artist, Bebey, into a microphone. It was simply captioned ‘Test’. The song, then just a preview, is a fuzzy, feel-good dancehall track that evokes sandy coasts and bawdy beach hedonism. “She want me to smoke her and chief like a loosie,” he sings. “Kissing on her neck I got respect for the coochie.” He also released a remix, with UK rapper Giggs.
Since then, the 31-year-old artist has been teasing his new album, also titled Bebey, by releasing collaborations with Aussie psych titans Tame Impala. Bebey represents, he says, a return to his roots. It’s a tribute to the Brooklyn neighbourhoods that he grew up in, marinating in Dominican, Puerto Rican, Jamaican and Trinidadian traditions. “Every Friday, there was this hall we'd go to to dance. [We’d] learn new dances straight from Jamaica,” he says. “It's that type of energy that I want to bring back.”
The week we speak, he released another single, Seals, a spare, somber solo track. “Eat me alive, I can't say no/ Need me tonight,” he sings in the hook. He wrote this song 10 years ago.
But Bebey is not a project that is beholden to nostalgia. The music London wants to make is timeless, Afrofuturistic. He wants to look back as much as he looks forward; pull the past into the present. “One kid hit me, he was like, ‘yo, I was a freshman in high school when you first announced the album and I'm about to graduate and it's still not out’” he says. “I felt a little bit of guilt but... it's like, fuck it, yo, I'm working on [music] that's going to played on the next spaceship.”
Bebey is coming soon via
My Bebey Records
Jacket: Colmar x Shayne Oliver
Top: Louis Vuitton
Jacket: Colmar x Shayne Oliver
Shirt: Yves Saint Laurent