KEYAH/BLU is the South London artist who defies classification
At the intersection of dreamy R&B, psychedelic hip-hop and punk poetry lies the unique sound of South London’s KEYAH/BLU. Hazy and introspective, yet realised with pin-sharp clarity, her sing-rapping style and off-kilter self-productions have echoes of the eyes-down R&B of THEESatisfaction, the street-savvy sweetness of Tirzah and the bare-all minimalism of Frank Ocean – but with an unmistakably individual twist. With just a handful of tracks to her name, she’s marked herself out as a 21st century artist-to-watch through her arresting take on modern soul and striking visual aesthetic, from her scarlet locks to her stylishly cryptic videos.
Despite appearing on the scene as a remarkably fully-formed artist, KEYAH/BLU only turned her hand to songwriting relatively recently. “I didn’t really grow up wanting to be a musician,” says the 20-year-old. “I started writing songs just to kill time, and then I got a little bit of outside validation from people I really rate.” The crucial step in her artistic self-discovery was finding her voice – a mix of gossamer-light soul whispers and ratatat UK-accented rap, shape-shifting from lyric to lyric as on the chameleonic Choker. “I was too scared to call myself a singer and too scared to call myself a rapper, ‘cos in my head I didn’t do any of those things. The thing that I do is just what it is,” she insists, a “middle space that I know that I’m comfortable with.” On Sweet you hear her carving out this space for herself, with a laidback, sultry style that has notes of US artists like NoName and Erykah Badu, but heard through a distinctly London filter. The result is one of the most striking and immediately recognisable young voices on the scene. “Sometimes I really do feel like it is just me [doing this],” she says. “I can’t really compare myself to anyone. I don’t ever think, ‘I like how that person has done that so I’m gonna use it in my own thing.’ I just do what comes naturally.”
Despite walking a solo path, one frequent collaborator has been a vital source of inspiration. With his breathy voice and unequivocally South London style, rapper Denzel Himself is a maverick foil to KEYAH/BLU’s cool-and-collected persona, as heard on their quiet storm duet Melty. “Denzel was the first person I started working with and really taking things seriously with,” she explains, “so if I’ve picked up anything it’ll be from him – even down to the way his British accent really comes out in the words that he uses.”
While most of KEYAH/BLU’s releases to date are collaborations, one of her most accomplished tracks to date is the self-produced Choker, a daringly skeletal beat that gives her voice acres of open space to explore. “I enjoy writing to other people’s beats, but when I started producing for myself it opened up this whole new vein of creative expression. It’s no longer just about my voice and delivery and words – now it’s about the actual sounds that accompany that. Learning that skill is allowing me to express myself more truthfully and authentically.”
Her latest venture is a collaboration with one of the UK club scene’s most respected producers and DJs, as she takes the mic on Joy Orbison’s new Slipping EP, a collection of smoky, after-hours tracks that are more appropriate for the bedroom than the dancefloor. KEYAH/BLU brings life to Under, singing “fuck you” to an irresistible lover over a busted R&B groove. “We had a really good synergy in the session and that song happened quite organically,” she remembers. “It’s like any creative process if the energies are right and two people click. We were able to meet each other on common ground between his sound and my sound.”
As her fanbase grows, teaming up with a respected elder like Joy O has turned up the heat on KEYAH/BLU’s fledgling career. But having already proved herself a unique talent across vocals, visuals and production, she’s taking a pragmatic approach, determined to keep her head firmly on her shoulders. “All I’ve ever really wanted is for something I’m passionate about to be able to sustain me emotionally and financially,” she says. “If I can live off of what I do – and I feel like I already do to some extent – that’s sick. Everything else that comes from that is a bonus. I know that I’m not going to stop doing this. Since I’ve started I’ve never really had a plan, I’ve just gone with it – and it’s taken me to some incredible places that I couldn’t have even imagined.”