An artist’s work is curated by their perception of the world. What they experience, see, feel, from the wispy, purple hue of a descending sunset to the texture of grainy sand from a memorable day spent by the sea, can inspire their art. The more travelled one is, the more colours and vibrations an artist can add to their life’s tapestry. Leven Kali, a product of varying environments, is one such artist.
Having grown up between the Netherlands and USA, Kali’s expansive world view from flitting between cultures, was only nourished by his father’s influence as a musician, joining him on tours which gave him an early taste of what was to come. “It had a huge impact on me… it made this lifestyle seem normal. Growing up, most people see the music route as being rebellious and not normal to what most families do. For me it was something that felt very familiar, and made it seem like it was the right choice.”
His initial pursuit was conflicted, in that his talent was multifaceted. As a keen golfer, he showed great promise to play professionally, however Kali grew disillusioned with the sport’s culture, and in his freshman year of college, decided to give all of his energy to music. A difficult decision to give up the potential riches that professional golf brings, Kali has never been in it for the money, and even with record deals sitting on the table he patiently declined, waiting for when the time was right. His parents’ direction cannot be understated.
“My parents would tell me what was going on, and would talk about the business side in front of me, so I was hip to the music business to a certain degree as a kid. So when I decided to get into it myself, they were very supportive, and helped make those decisions.” His allusion to the business side, whilst beneficial, plays a much smaller role in his motivations. Kali is truly an artist’s artist, from his flamboyant and colourful appearance, to his musical acuity as a multi-instrumentalist, producer and singer-songwriter. His brand of R&B is eclectic like its influence, jazzy and full of soul, with a futuristic touch that can be heard across various tracks, most notably on breakout song, ‘Smile’.
“I knew that shit was special when we made it. That’s one of the fastest songs I’ve made. I pulled up to the studio, met Pomo and he had the drums started already. As soon as he played the chords, I think I wrote the entire song in ten minutes and we cut it that day… it was crazy. Then we did two or three more songs. Whatever day it was, I need to look back and see where the moon was! Maybe the moon was in Libra or some perfect form but that was a magical session. I knew ‘Smile’ would take off and I was really happy with the response. I was also lucky to get love from Apple [Music]… Zane Lowe played it, before I had a label, so that was a huge blessing.”
Kali speaks fondly of Pomo, a talented producer who has worked with Anderson.Paak, Berhana and other progressive artists. A noticeable trait of Kali is his enthusiasm in giving praise to his collaborators, none more so than Snoh Aalegra and Syd. Both acclaimed as songstresses, they have respectively played key roles in Kali’s ascension. In Snoh, Kali has been equally instrumental, co-writing and co-producing the hauntingly beautiful, ‘Time’ and has since lent backing vocals to Snoh’s ‘I Want You Around’. The former, which was sampled on Drake’s ‘Do Not Disturb’, shot Snoh into the limelight, and additionally gave Kali greater recognition. The intimacy of lyrics, raw and honest, show that Kali is easy to be around, exuding comfort and gaining the confidence to express freely. “We had a really deep conversation in a very early time in our friendship. We were talking about what she’s gone through, the people that she’s lost… that song is an ode for people that have passed, and feelings of memories when time passes.”
His initial collaborative experience with Syd, although more light-hearted, was also predicated on connection. “It happened through a mutual friend… we actually linked up through Zack Sekoff – he’s an OG, that’s my brother… and it was kind of like a blind date. We got in the studio, and it was another situation like Snoh. I’ve been very fortunate to work with amazing women in the music industry. I’ve been blessed to have the ability to connect with them…. I feel it’s almost easier for me to work with women in the studio from a songwriter standpoint. It just kind of clicked man, we were having a lot of fun… I remember we started making a song copying the French Montana flow (laughs). We were rapping the song like French Montana, but the bars were actually tight. We sang it and then the song evolved, to us being faded and fucking around to ‘damn, we actually got a banger on our hands.”
That same song became ‘Do U Wrong’, and would feature as a lead single off his debut album Lowtide. His brand of feel good R&B, is on full display on the project, shifting between upbeat rhythms across ‘Cassandra’, and mellow soothers like ‘1 on 1’. Whilst Kali explores storytelling on the album, he hits new personal depths on his 2020 follow up, High Tide. His bread and butter element of cheery, uplifting music remains across tracks like ‘Fire in Your Eyes’ and ‘12345’, and he maintains his playfulness on female centric dilemmas, such as ‘Homegirl’. However it’s the sumptuous ‘Made 4 U’, his second effort with Syd, where Kali’s profundity of feeling reaches a new level, his yearning croons conveying his desire over a sound bed of stripped back, acoustic melody. The texture of the song is sultry, but lyrically tugs on heartstrings. It is clear that Kali is giving more of himself throughout High Tide – particularly on ‘Forever’ as he muses on that song.
“Forever is one of the first songs I ever wrote… I was still in high school or senior year when I wrote it. I was learning to play guitar, and I was messing around with simple chords, and the song just hit me. I didn’t even have a strong connection to the story, like a literal connection, I just felt the emotion of missing something, and the song hit me out of nowhere. As I grew up and experienced some things, the song became more and more relevant. I had to wait to really perform it the right way, to get the correct emotion out of it, to find the producer that could produce the track the right way! But yeah, I love that song…”
‘Forever’ is a song that radiates emotion from its core, pining for something not there. Sonically it feels hopeful, but the lyrics are plaintive, showing a side to Kali not always seen. His infectious positivity, glass half full approach to music is easy to hear, but it would be remiss of listeners to not hear Kali when he delves that bit deeper. ‘Joy’, one of the first songs Kali released, back in 2016, is a perfect example, with the second stanza alluding to police brutality: “It break my heart, every time I turn the news on, and see the police, shot another young brother, black (BOY)!”. The statement holds great relevance in 2020, yet ‘Joy’ is a reminder that police brutality is a problem that isn’t new, and one that spans decades.
“The thing is, this shit has been going on forever. We made ‘Joy’ in 2016, I think Mike Brown and Ferguson was 2014…. 2016 there were a number of police brutality incidents that got us thinking that way. But the same types of songs that we’re making now, are the same ones that Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke were singing back in the day. Right now it’s highlighted, right now there’s an uprising, but this happens every day.”
I query whether this time is different, if the necessary concrete change within the institutions responsible can occur. “I think it will be if everyone keeps the pressure on. With social media and the powers that people have right now, especially in the way businesses are reacting, and the way politicians are stepping out and saying things that they never would have said. Now it’s important to take advantage of the power that the people have, and we can’t get comfortable, we need to stay focused on what’s going on, you feel me? But I hope shit changes on a deeper level… the system is being broken down, which is necessary.”
Kali’s sentiments on the matter are strong, justifiably so. Black men and women in the world today, face struggles that those belonging to another race cannot relate to. Although it appears more people are waking up to the reality faced by black people on a daily basis, there are those that remain ignorant, consumed with maintaining division rather than opening their minds and hearts to acceptance. This existence must weigh heavy, and yet an artist like Kali, still manages to inject positivity into a world that at the best of times seems to ruefully lack it.
“Positivity and optimism… is a choice. You can look at a situation and see it as half full or half empty, and I see it as half full because… why not? And why not try and make things better? And why not keep going? Even with the shit going on now, it’s been going on forever, and you have people that have been fighting their whole lives. Like Harry Belafonte is ninety years old, and he’s been fighting his whole life for equal rights. He must be feeling like shit right now, because he might be thinking what did he fight his whole life for? But nah, I think it’s amazing… it’s like ten steps forward, nine steps back, but it’s worth that one step! Because as hard as we fight for change, motherfuckers fight to hold on to that power. And we got to keep fighting because if you give up they’re going to win. So you have to think optimistically and stay focused on winning.”