Tkay Maidza on bringing a new sound to Australian hip-hop

By: 
theguardian.com

Australian hip-hop has an uncomfortable relationship with the concept of authenticity. With some notable exceptions, many of the most popular local rappers have been young white men, emulating the affect, if not always the accent, of black American artists.

For a few years, “Aussie hip-hop” signified a specific sound: broad accents, basic production and blokey attitudes. So when the Adelaide-based, Zimbabwe-born rapper Tkay Maidza released her first singles – the gleeful, merciless stomper Brontosaurus, and the pixellated dancehall-dubstep of Handle My Ego – she quickly discovered that her cocksure, party-ready material wasn’t necessarily finding favour with the skip-hop faithful.

“I remember when I first started, I used to see things on Aussie hip-hop forums,” Maidza says. “[People] being like, ‘Hey guys, do we like this?’ And then the guys would be like, ‘Um nah, it’s too pop for me,’ or, ‘It’s too weird,’ or, ‘This isn’t real.’ And in the beginning I was just really sad, but then I started to realise that what I was doing was not for them and it didn’t bother me.

“So whenever people were like, ‘I don’t like this,’ I would make a fake account and be like, ‘It’s not for you though’ … I began to understand that I didn’t really want to fit in, and I didn’t mind.”

With machine-gun diction influenced by Nicki Minaj and Santigold, and a preference for bottom-heavy, unfussy production that runs the gamut from glitter bomb to air raid, Maidza has built a solid following the old-fashioned way. She has played exuberant sets at what seems like every single Australian festival in the past few years, releasing a consistent but clearly evolving series of singles and collaborations – including features from certified teen sensation Troye Sivan and the mega-producer Martin Solveig – and making her name (pronounced tee-kay my-dza, with the “ai” as in “chai”) synonymous with unadulterated fun.

She also commands attention from veterans. At the height of Iggy Azalea’s divisive ubiquity last year, the respected Atlanta rapper and activist Killer Mike, from the hip-hop group Run the Jewels, took the opportunity during an event at Massachusetts Institute of Technology to single Maidza out, praising her performances. As he saw it, when they both played Falls festival over the previous new year, Australian fans were more excited about Maidza’s effervescent energy than Azalea’s warmed-over swagger:

“I messaged him just saying thank you after he said that, because I was just like, oh, what the hell,” recalls Maidza. “And he just said, ‘If you ever need anything just let me know because I think what you’re doing is really cool and it’s doing something for a lot of people.’”

Taking him at his word, Maidza later asked if he’d like to guest on a track for her album. Team Tkay sent through the anthemic Carry On “and literally within a week and a half he sent me two verses!” (The one that didn’t make it on to the track, Maidza says, was “more Run the Jewels-y”, “less me”.)

Her idea of a rallying cry, at the moment, is more inspired by Santigold, Major Lazer and Lorde than Run the Jewels: youthful defiance without agenda; rebellion without a cause. “It’s not like political or anything, [those artists are] just like, ‘We’re kids, we’re young, we want to run free,’” she says. “It’s not like a, ‘Don’t shoot us’ … because I don’t feel like I can talk about that.”

She continues: “[Politics are] really dominant in everyone’s lives but for me it’s not what my heart wants to talk about. It’s not what my soul wants to talk about.”

In other words, it’s not that she doesn’t care – just that, as she sings in Carry On, she’s “still kinda young”. “I think eventually I’ll go there but I have to find out a lot about myself first,” she says.

Carry On is a brush-off to haters with a hook that frames her age as a strength. That qualifying “kinda” feels like a wry nod to the three-year wait between debut single and debut album – the latter was due last year but took a while to take shape, as Maidza played shows supporting pop-dance act Years & Years in London and worked through writing phases that she characterises as “sad [and] Lorde-y” and “really angry experimental stuff”.

Writing sessions with the rising singer-songwriter George Maple, among others, produced some more fully realised pop. Tracks including the dreamy, buoyant third single Simulation sit alongside the combative hype of Tennies and the opener Always Been, which borrows a throwaway line from Kanye West’s Black Skinhead.

It’s not angry per se, but there’s a bolshie energy that runs through her work – a pre-emptive warning not to make the mistake of getting in her way.

An endorsement from Killer Mike might have given some artists the confidence to be a little more outspoken and overtly political – particularly at a time when, as Maidza puts it, “really conscious music” by black pop artists, from the Knowles sisters to Kendrick Lamar, is having a moment. But for Maidza, that’s simply not where she’s at. “I have so much to learn. Sometimes I’m just like, I want to be real and talk about politics – but I’m kind of happy that I don’t know much about that.”

Maidza grew up in industrial country areas including Whyalla and Kalgoorlie, before moving with her family to Adelaide in her early teens. Discrimination isn’t something she has experienced or dwelt on much.

“If you asked me, ‘Name one time someone was just really racist to you,’ I wouldn’t be able to remember,” she says, shrugging. She recalls that her younger brother was bullied once at school, and was sent home that day with a letter from the bully apologising for the treatment. Their mother wanted to know if anything similar had happened to her and Tkay couldn’t think of a similar experience.

“I reckon I have experienced [racism] but as soon as someone says something I’m like, ‘Why?’” she says, knitting her brows together in wry bemusement. “I feel like anything I experienced I forgot about it straight away. It wasn’t important to me.”

Negative experiences, she explains, are simply not worth carrying with her.

Tkay Maidza’s album, Tkay, is out on 28 October; her Australian/New Zealand album tour begins in Auckland on 26 October

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