Kwame vs. The World: "This is our moment. This is our platform."
On his new project Please, Get Home Safe, Kwame – a faithful student of the game – graduates at the top of his class.
It’s been a whole decade since Kwame - real name Rich Amevor - first heard the call.
“I've always listened to Kanye, the singles that he put out from College Dropout and Late Registration that were on radio,” he recalls passionately, “but it was that song in particular, I just had to…” His voice trails off as he casts his mind back to 2010, when an impressionable 12-year-old stumbled upon Power, a defiant statement of vision and might that’s never truly left. “I just thought ‘oh, my goodness, like, this is something that I want to be, someone like that’.”
If Yeezy’s right to say that “every superhero needs his theme music,” the second most important part of any hero’s profile must be their origin story. In September 2016, whilst moshing at an A$AP Ferg show in Sydney, Rich stumbled into his own, pulled from the pit by the Harlem trap lord himself and handed a microphone. A baptism by the fiery heat of the Metro Theatre spotlights with Rich thrust centre stage in a room of 2,200 people, things could have easily gone embarrassingly wrong. The fact that it didn’t was no fluke, propped up by creative drive and emceeing excellence, and by the time he stepped from the stage, Kwame was the name on everyone's lips.
It’s been four years since that fateful night, and though it marked the beginning of Kwame’s rise in Australia’s hip-hop scene, it’s little more than a distant memory for the man himself. If the origins of costume-clad heroes are the fires that fuel them, Kwame’s overnight rise only accelerated the inevitable, pushing him to a post beyond his reach and allowing him to prove his mastery. That Kwame could is testament to the honed bars, potent production and confident charisma that defines his art: when he raps “got on stage with A$AP, I could never fake that / opportunity was given, and you know I’m gonna take that” on Trophy, it’s a flex that proves itself.
Where opportunities weren’t given, Kwame made his own. He stepped out on 2017’s Lesson Learned, a glimmering synth-laden record that paired sunny anthems with disarming honesty, and pushed himself further with 2018’s Endless Conversations., an EP centred around a fading relationship. Those projects made for a perfect one-two combo: if that independent debut spoke to work ethic, skill and vision, Endless Conversations. built on both, boasting tighter production, stronger songwriting and a deeper sense of self.
His new EP, Please, Get Home Safe, bursts forth with both clarity and ambition, untempered by the seven-month delay that kept fans on edge. If that’s time he’d rather have spent fronting shows, Kwame’s found other ways to keep busy, envisioning a future beyond COVID and throwing down the gauntlet to all manner of music industry injustices. He might bill himself as a “student of the game,” but that’s just the humility speaking: in the years since his breakout, Kwame has gone from student of the game to a leader of the pack.
“It was meant to come out earlier in the year when I was going to do the tour for this project, but then COVID came through and was like ‘Nah, sorry, not this year’,” Kwame says happily, any disappointment or regret overshadowed by sheer enthusiasm. The delay came down to the live component, something Kwame treats as essential to the experience, and as a seemingly safer summer approaches, he waxes over the chance to provide “that live experience that I really want to give people on tour.” It’s an experience we’re collectively craving now more than ever. “I'm just excited because I love this project so much and I've not stopped loving it, even though I've held onto it for so long,” he admits, palpably proud. “I've been saying that I'm so close to finally getting home, and once October 30 arrives, that's the point at which I’ve opened that door and stepped back inside.”
Indeed, Please, Get Home Safe is a record about a homecoming, albeit a creative one. “It's the journey of self-discovery and wanting to keep that integrity of one's true self, maneuvering in a world that can be quite poisonous,” expounds Kwame, pointing to the “wild wild west” of the music industry. In his telling, the industry is a haphazard mix of possibility and predation, just as likely to furnish fame as it is to dash dreams and exploit creativity. It’s scepticism that’s seen him make waves as an independent artist, but for Please, Get Home Safe – his staunchest statement of integrity yet – Kwame found an unlikely ally in Def Jam Records.
“Being a student of the game can get you so far,” he explains, “and just knowing how I can own my masters and get myself in a position where I can walk out knowing that everything is okay and that I'm literally in the clear… that was amazing.” That’s a power felt from the very first moments, with the assured refrain of “can’t nobody tell me no no more” on NOBODY firmly fixed on Kwame’s creative resolve. “I fought for that, and then I was given the opportunity,” he adds, admitting that the “dream deal” would be the envy of any young artist. “If anything, the way that my deal's structured, I believe that that should be the norm, that should be something that should be presented to all artists!”
If Kwame’s story is one of triumph, he knows it’s only sweetened by that underdog status – but the fact that artists enter negotiations as underdogs is something that still troubles him. “I'm so grateful for the position that I'm in, being able to own my masters, but like yo, are there any other artists in this industry that are in that as well?” It’s a rhetorical question, but if Kwame is unsure, it doesn’t bode well. “People in these positions of power will keep you oblivious to it all because they don't want you to know that,” he adds, crediting his knowledge of industry grifts and boardroom cons as his secret weapon. “I watched too many interviews and read so many articles, I was like, ‘no, I'm gonna get what's mine,’ and I was able to do that!”
In framing his own label success as an exposé on unscrupulous practices, Kwame’s looking to combat ignorance with the very thing that gave him an edge: knowledge. If there’s no changing those sketchy practices, then it’s up to the artists to be their own change, outmaneuvering insidious deals until they’re all but useless. For Kwame, artistic integrity has “always been something that I've felt on my mind, and what I've always wanted to live by,” defiance he extends to critics and others in the industry all the same. “I always thought to myself, there's only one life that we can live in this world, why not just do everything we can in one lifetime, you know?”
It’s an ethos that inspired a recent Instagram discussion where a curious Kame put forward an open-ended question to his peers: “if u could change 1 thing about the Aus Mus Indus, what would that be?” It turns out, the hardest part of the question was choosing just the one. A chorus of musicians, artists and creatives joined in a resounding critique of the industry that’s fuelled by their art. Points were made, grievances raised, shortcomings exposed and trials recalled, but for all the attention his prompt provoked, it didn’t seem to reach the top.
“The thing is, the industry is the industry,” he tells me, unsurprised but disappointed all the same. “It was similar to what DSPs and a lot of people did in May, when there was the death of George Floyd. Everyone did the whole black tile, they went and blacked out their DSPs and their platform and stuff, and it was because the spotlight was on them… but then after that, what actually happened?” The question hangs for a moment, that unsurprising disappointment lingering. “Did we actually see any people of colour, or more women, or First Nations indigenous people pulled into these positions of power? No.”
“If anything, after that – and this is again, no disrespect to Dan Rosen – going from the CEO of the ARIAs to now being the president of Warner Music, I was just like, man... this is a bit confusing,” Kwame continues. “Someone who's coming from an industry or a business in which two of the only people of colour and women that won awards were not televised [is now] going to a big record label, being one of the big three!” It’s less a changing of the guard and more a game of musical industry chairs, but instead of a competition, it’s that variant that Bart played when Homer got the job for Hank Scorpio.
“The fact that we have women in the industry who have signed NDAs after being sexually assaulted... it's not that they even want to keep their artists safe, they don't want to lose out on the money that they're gaining,” he laments, the frustration clear. “It's like argh, come on now!” Reshuffling is not the radical change that the industry needs and Kwame knows that making that case could only help steel resolve. “That's what drove me to posting that question on my profile, because I was like, ‘I need to open the conversation and dialogue to everyone, because surely we're all pushing for diversity within certain roles.’ It's like well, how can you do that? It's also just to start the conversation and really get things moving.”
The conversation started, alright. Kira Puru suggested that “festivals dedicate entire stages to emerging acts… instead of racking them at the start of the day as a gesture” and proposed “a body or hotline to report industry professionals who abuse/harass/bully/assault people,” triple j's Bridget Hustwaite called for “more women and POC/black/indigenous people in power” and “less prejudice toward artists and bands in pop because they have a strong female or queer following,” and a host of other commenters touched time and time again on representation, agency, respect and protection – often from the industry itself.
One note that continually rears its head relates to representation on radio, specifically on nominally progressive channels such as triple j. It’s a commentary that goes beyond socials and soapboxes, folding into the very structure of Kwame’s new record. The jazzy STOP KNOCKING @ MY DOOR closes with an on-air skit that lampoons hopeless radio hosts and mocks a fickle audience who demand familiarity from ever-evolving artists. “I wanted to make fun of bands and radios who call in and speak about a song, and I was like "oh, that'd be a funny moment,” says Kwame, taking a moment to think. “Look, "ridicule" might be a harsh word,” he adds with a laugh.
“This is a song that I believe to be timeless, and it was the first thing that was coming next after CLOUDS, he explains. “I looked at it, and I was like ‘okay, I could not be that artist that falls into the trap of coming out with a breakout single, the next song is similar because it's something that people are used to.” The radio-ready rant is filled with mentions of the “vibe” and the classic “yeah, nah,” pinning Kwame’s identity to his biggest single and demanding a fresh xerox of that old sound. “Just stick to what you’re good at, Kwame,” advises Big Shaz, before Kwame pulls us back into SAY IT AIN’T SO, a horn-laden monument to his well-placed confidence. Kwame keeps pressing forward, but that’s not to say he doesn’t feel the pressure of the past. “I didn't want to be that artist. I've solidified my fan base with that particular song because I knew that I was bigger than that.”
Kwame’s counterpoint comes in the form of ‘thatboyradio,’ the station that divides the two phases of the ambitious TOMMY’S IN TROUBLE. “You’re tuned into thatboyradio,” says host BJTT, “now, it’s to my pleasure that I present to you a brand new track from a favourite of ours on here, Kwame, working with another favourite of ours, Phil Fresh!” As the song slinks into a smoother pace, complete with a distantly searing electric guitar, Kwame and Phil Fresh speak their truths in unencumbered verses. “It's just doing lines, going back to back, and just speaking everything that's on our mind… just calling this out, calling that out, it's like no, we don't care,” he explained excitedly, “this is our time to chat, this is our moment, this is our platform here.”
It’s a fleeting vision of a more supportive Australian broadcaster, one dedicated even more so to the future of local music, avoiding bygone hits from distant artists. It even crops up at the close of sharp single schleep, when some anonymous voice chimes in: “chill Kwame, you’ve got so much good music and I can’t fit it on the radio yet!”
The cover art to Kwame's recent single, TOMMY'S IN TROUBLE
That’s going to be an even bigger problem after October 30th. Please, Get Home Safe might be slim – six tracks, in all – but what it lacks in length it makes up for in scope, launching Kwame into bolder arrangements, cleaner production and tighter rhymes. They’re largely of his own making, too, with production throughout mostly handled by ‘thatboykwame,’ his lowkey production moniker. “I actually started off being the producer before even getting into writing,” he explains, the passion apparent. “I'm always down to make music with whoever, I just love producing so much, I love sitting with people and just going back and forth on ideas.”
If much of his time has been caught up in the art of emceeing, Kwame kept working on production to better realise his musical ideas. “I'm also someone who is very strong about my vision and what I need to do,” he tells me, pointing towards the way that articulation and interpretation makes outsourcing an idea so difficult. “Being a producer really helped because I'm able to create what I hear and what I see in my head… it's something that I would suggest to anyone, regardless of whether you're at the peak of your career, you're in too deep or you're just starting out.”
If you’re looking for inspiration, Kwame has a few ideas on that too. You can hear his forebears across the record, such as on TOMMY’S IN TROUBLE, when “that guitar solo with a pan left ear… [is] just going for gold,” or on the outro to WE CAN BE, which takes on a processed vocal you’ve certainly heard before. “Oh, my goodness, people need to show so much respect to him because he's so influential to Travis Scott, to Kanye, to Don Toliver, to so many artists, even those that have come from the south of Houston,” raves Kwame of Mike Dean, the ever-present producer, engineer and instrumentalist; a favourite of hip-hop fans who still read liner notes. “Man, his musical ability is amazing. I guess it's his ability to create tension and release through chords, which is obviously something that you always do in music, but he's able to do it in such a unique way, I'm just so infatuated by the sound selection.”
Those Dean-infused sounds certainly rear their head on Please, Get Home Safe. WE CAN BE certainly channels the second wind of Runaway, linking Kwame’s on-label arrival to his teenage beginnings, but even with this kind of influence, PLEASE, GET HOME SAFE is a moment of his own making. There’s his ever-improving production, instrumental furnishing that any emcee would be happy to have; his sharp bars, which strike with charisma, energy and occasionally venom; and his versatile flows, which find pockets amongst retro-soul samples, hefty maximalist builds and spacious slow-burners.
If Kwame takes to socials to action a brighter future, his new EP is further proof of that commitment, both a product of sage industry scepticism and an unblinking creative vision. It puts his perspective to music, tethering it to catchy refrains and melodies that push you to move. Who knows: maybe this’ll be the record that finally helps the powers that be recognise their culpability in the oft-injurious industry? I’m not holding my breath, but if one thing’s for sure, it’s that they should be worried.
“I would love the future to bring honest commentary, I'd love for the future to bring more diversified roles,” says Kwame without as much as a pause. “I just want it to be fair for any starry-eyed individual that’s willing to venture into the music scene, and [for them] not be made oblivious to all the poisonous intent that the music industry has to an individual, making them believe that like they are all for them when they continue to push their own agenda.”
“For the power to be back in the artist's hands, and for them to have the right people, but also just the education and resources to know what they're getting into,” he adds, taking a moment to think. “I just want more love, more positive energy in the world, and I believe with the year that we've had thus far, a lot of things have been brought to the forefront that are now changing and, the change is there, and it'll continue to move forward.”
“The change needs to be evident,” he qualifies, pushing back against some easily-won tomorrow. “It needs to move right now.” There’s much work to be done and, luckily for us, Kwame’s only just getting started.
Kwame's new EP Please, Get Home Safe arrives October 30th via Universal Music Australia / Def Jam ANZ. Catch Kwame at Jameson House of Rounds, a three-day event at Marrickville's Vic On The Park from June 11 to June 13 - more information here.
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