The Rebirth and Renaissance of Tay Iwar

“I carry all my stones, heavy but it’s still gold’’.

Renascentia is the name of Tay Iwar’s second album which was released in 2016. It’s Latin for ‘rebirth’ and it speaks to the ideas of renaissance and renewal. It was on this LP where Tay’s sound began to develop. After exclusively dropping this album on Soundcloud, he caught the ears of collective and label Soulection, including Joe Kay, to bring his self-described style of ‘Afro-fusion’ to the masses with his breakout third album Gemini in 2019. Tay Iwar is part of the new vanguard of Nigerian musicians who are bridging gaps across the diaspora. Though Tay is entwined with this bigger cultural movement, he is also firmly in his own lane. With several projects and guest cameos, including an unmatched chorus on Wizkid’s Made In Lagos, at the age of 25, most artists are only beginning to think about their first rebrand. But Tay Iwar has always had growth at the forefront of his musical mind.

Ahead of our chat on a sunny afternoon in Shoreditch House, I take my time to appreciate my surroundings as I anticipate Tay’s arrival. Looking down at the buzzy streets, people are scuttling around, laughing, going about their day. Through the pandemic, the changing restrictions echoed the feelings of transience that lockdown has made part of our daily lives. As this train of thought begins to develop, the elusive sonic shapeshifter wanders into the room. Draped in mostly black, he cuts a typically low-key figure while his management shadow him. Living in the drip era, most artists these days can be found sporting the GDP of a small nation on their person. Tay eschews this by wearing a handmade necklace of shells on a string. A reminder of Abuja; the home that made him who he is today. Abuja is the official capital of Nigeria, but Lagos is Nigeria’s cultural heartbeat. So, one would assume that Tay was from Lagos like many of his contemporaries. But it’s the sleepy ‘second city’ Abuja that allowed him the space to become the artist he is. “I was born in Lagos, partly raised in Lagos, but then we moved to Abuja when I was very young”.

“In Abuja, there’s less pressure to conform. There’s less of an industry there, you only find people creating cos they love it. So it puts you in this kind of free mindset”.

This mindset Tay speaks of is what defines his approach to music. But maybe it took him a while to embrace this freedom in his sound. “Because I produce as well, when I was starting out, after dropping Passport, I kind of tried to tap into the wider Afro scene coming out of Lagos. And it didn’t really work.” I push him on why exactly his first moves into producing more mainstream Afrobeat music didn’t really connect. “I have a purpose. I feel like what I create is needed. So I decided to go tunnel vision and build my sound on R&B”. Tay has been described as a ‘creative recluse’ – a guy who was directly inspired by, and a product of, the Soundcloud era. His music started making waves in 2014, at a time when being “reclusive” (a moniker he explains his thoughts on later) was how the subgenre of alt-R&B especially began to find its feet. With examples in the likes of The Weeknd, Frank Ocean and our own A2. This probably explains why Tay didn’t really align with the wave of Afrobeats coming out of Lagos then.

The alté scene was still a few years from taking off. With this new legion of creative savants, Tay would find like-minded artists who were unafraid to go against the status quo and create from a similar place of tunnel vision. Tunnel vision in this sense isn’t limited to music though. It’s about a pure, fearless self-expression. The kind of expression which next to Nigerian cultural conservatism, looks a lot like rebellion. Tay has previously described himself as “alté adjacent, like a distant cousin” to the scene. But he is a key part of the movement, maybe (to himself) an unexpected leader in it, whether he stands under the banner or not. “You see, alté is new, but old as well”. As he says this, he lays back a bit, brow furrows. It’s clear what home and his community mean to him. This is an expression I’ve seen before, though. It’s the eternal paradox that Nigeria serves to its people. A mix of fierce national pride, passion and rueful exasperation.

“Nigeria is a very secretive place. Where a lot of things happen behind closed doors. So alté is just expressing what’s always been there. The youth want to be different. The youth want to express themselves in every way. The confidence is rising, and the youth are there, driving it. They’re going to stand out and show themselves in full, you feel me?’’. The rising alté scene doesn’t exist without the internet. When you look at the output from its core artists, the aesthetic is heavily influenced by early 00’s hip-hop and pop culture. Just like Fela Kuti incorporating ‘’free jazz’’ compositions into his music, alté is a display of the youth. Inspired by the likes of John Coltrane and Ornette Parker, to take his sound and his expression to a much wider audience. He too was described as a rebel. History proves kind to creative risk-takers.

Tay describing himself as alté adjacent really stuck in my mind. The more we talk, the more I see how he concluded that. His presence is worldly, with an ease of self that belies his 25 years. As purely expressive as the alté scene is, the idea of being put in any box, is one that doesn’t sit easily with Tay. This desire to expand creatively was why he left Abuja and made London his full-time home, during the pandemic. “Of course, I’m more comfortable creating work back in Abuja. But I found myself doing the same thing and repeating myself. It makes you overconfident in a way. That’s boring for a musician man!”.

On the point of overconfidence, there’s an interesting shift in his demeanour. A kind of knowing smirk. R&B isn’t known as a competitive genre in the way that hip-hop is synonymous with competition. But in that brief instance, I saw a fighter’s spirit. This may be down to Tay’s background as a producer. Where you do have to spar sonically to truly stand out. “Out here in London, it’s the studios and the networking that I love. There are sick studios here. In Nigeria, they are improving. But here, they’re ready. I’m a gearhead and I mix my own music, so these studios are like a playground for me’’. I asked him whether he had a Teenage Engineering OP-1 – one of the most coveted pieces of music kit, and an emblem for experimental musical minds. “Who introduced me to that mad thing?! I think it was Monte Booker’’. Monte Booker is one of the most talented new producers about. He too is also alumni from the Soulection umbrella. I quiz him on whether they have a collaboration in the stash. Tay laughs coyly. “What he does is incredible. At first it was like ‘oh my God, this guy is so fast!’ Like, in five minutes he’s got a full beat done. And its fire too’’.

I ask if he felt the pressure from Monte to deliver, which he pondered on for a second. “Of course! But it’s a good type of pressure. It was like ‘so this is what you’re on?’ Cool. Let’s get it! (laughs). Even on that recluse title, the reason I work alone a lot is because of how I learnt music. From having solo piano lessons to moving schools a lot, you just learn how to rely on yourself more. I love collaborating, I’ve made so much of my music with other people. But I guess my first instincts have been to get things moving by myself, cause that’s how I turned my passion into the life I’m living now’’.

As well as singing, songwriting and producing, Tay is a self-taught engineer. Though he had classical piano lessons as a kid, his older brothers – who are also musicians – and their friends provided the impetus for Tay to keep developing his sound. “When I was starting out, I was looking for a mix engineer. So I went online, and all these people were way too expensive. I was seeing dollars. At that point, I had never seen foreign currency in my life!’’ Here I remember that for all his experience as a musician, whose music has gone global, there’s still an earnest young dreamer from Abuja underneath the black bucket hat. “So instead of paying that money, cause back then I didn’t know how to pay for things online. Luckily, at my new school they gave me a laptop. And that’s really when the games began for me’’.

Through our conversation, I’ve grown used to Tay’s shifts in energy. Sometimes he’s deep in stoic thought, then fired up and ready for battle, before he’s beaming with excitement. This self-driven ethos towards creation is what has pushed Tay to make a sound that is unique to him. He describes his music exclusively as ‘Afro-fusion’ – not alte, or Afrobeats or anything else. It’s straight up Afro-fusion. For a guy who’s keen not to be boxed in, I found it interesting that he’s happy to be in a box – of his own creation. I ask if he considers himself a pioneer to which I receive a brief silence. “I don’t think so,” he says, flatly. “Because what would you say I pioneered?’’ I offer the obvious answer of Afro-fusion but he is not convinced. “I think it’s dicey because there are so many artists I’ve taken inspiration from. The idea of making fundamentally African music that’s inspired by say Usher and Pharrell or Erykah Badu, that’s not a new thing”.

“These ideas have been around from the 70’s, like funk and disco music. I definitely take pride in the title of Afro-fusion. But if I did pioneer anything, it’s a certain kind of stubbornness and quality of music”. 

Being an artist who makes quite insular music, I began to wonder what Tay’s process looked like when producing or featuring for other artists. “This year, I’ve begun learning that songwriting especially has become a bit of a science for me. I’ve reached a place where I can get an artist’s name and be like – okay – I know what they can do on certain beats. So I know how much spice to add for it to be different, yet relatable enough to them’’. Now we meet Tay, the strategist. “Songwriting or producing for artists – you’ve got to like, sit in their shoes, you’ve got to become the artist you’re creating for. It’s like acting’’. From here, it was the ideal segue into something I’d been itching to discuss the moment we started talking: his standout feature on ‘True Love’, taken from WizKid’s Made In Lagos.

Tay begins to smile and laugh as he could tell I had been itching to ask this question. “Juls man. Juls is amazing. I don’t know how he does it’’. Juls is the Ghanaian producer behind the mesmeric beat on ‘True Love’. Choosing a favourite on that album is like trying to solve a Rubik’s cube blindfolded. So rich are the compositions, generous are the features, and plentiful is the energy the project radiates. For something made during a global pandemic, stitched together expertly over Zoom and email, it shines at every turn. But ‘True Love’ connected with me in a way that is hard to match; its timeless sound being why I am so wedded to the song! On an album littered with global megastars, it was that bright, rhythmic delivery from the Soulection upstart which stands out as one of its finest moments. Against the backdrop of Juls’ tropical-infused production, Tay took his moment to shine. The song transports me into the embers of a lively party, evoking images of Janet Jackson’s seminal ‘Got ‘Til It’s Gone’. That legendary, Sophiatown-inspired, black renaissance painting which doubles up as a music video. “When Juls sent me the beat, it was really sudden. Spontaneous. I had the idea maybe five minutes after I got it. And I sent it back on the same day. Juls told me it was for his album! (laughs). Then he got Projexx on it. And I was in my room one day and Juls called me. He said there was somebody who wanted to speak to me. It was Wiz on the phone’’. 

Tay keeps going, with a recollection that makes it seem like the collaboration happened only yesterday. “Wiz was like the songs are amazing! I was blindsided fully because Juls and I had done three songs in December, and I thought this might be part of that pack. But when I heard those chords? I knew it had to be Wiz. But you know in music so many things never get released. So when I found out it was going on the album it was just shocking for me. I was just like… Damn”. The moment when he had WizKid on the phone was still palpable. He was back in his room taking the call that would change his career – and his own self-perception. “It’s changed a lot of things, definitely. It’s just unreal. Wiz is a phenomenon. It’s one of those unexplainable things’’.

It’s clear he’s a fan. But how can you not be? WizKid is one of modern Nigeria’s greatest exports. It is the wistful storytelling in Yoruba on Ojuelegba that made WizKid more than a pop star and turned him into an icon. In the same way 2Pac’s ‘California Love’ or Nas’ ‘NY State of Mind’ speak to hometown glories and gritty pride of place, WizKid put Surulere, Lagos on the map. So being on the album of an artist so important in developing a new, modern national pride, an album which embodies that feeling, I understand the magnitude of the feature. It was more than music for Tay. It was about people feeling proud of him. But most importantly – him feeling proud of himself. “The feature really affected my mind in a positive way. It came at a time when I was starting to care a bit less about my own journey as an artist. I was focusing on mixing, producing and it just showed me a path”.

“It brought me confidence. And some sort of validation. Cause you can always validate yourself but when somebody like Wiz is validating you, it shakes a lot of things. It really does’’.

The sun is still beaming through the windows, while London’s creative hustlers remain scurrying about in the backdrop. Our conversation begins to wind to its conclusion. With an eye on his habit of evolving through life, I ask if the title of his latest EP was inspired by the pandemic. “Oh the pandemic definitely inspired it. I put all the things I was feeling at the time into this work. Some days you want to stay in bed and do nothing. So like, ‘The Lazy Song’ for example. Then I guess ‘Stones’ is the biggest example. It was an inspirational song. About pushing forward regardless. You know I say “I carry all my stones, heavy but it’s still gold’’. Lockdown hasn’t been easy for anybody but remembering that Tay left Nigeria while the End SARS protests were still raging on, the subtext here is one of grace.

This leads me into my final question for the multi-faceted artist. His music has helped contribute to the feeling that different parts of the diaspora are connecting through ancestral roots, through mutual interests but most importantly, through the music. I ask how he feels about being identified as someone who is bridging the gap. “It’s a blessing you know. People don’t understand how difficult it is to be an artist in Nigeria. There are so many hindrances. You are judged all the time, even judged if you want to have a higher standard for your output. People will mock you for dreaming big’’.  

I sit with this point. And again, I’m reminded of that image of disbelief when WizKid was waiting on the phone for Tay. When you only get the final product, you never consider what comes before. What these artists are fighting against to create their work. “Being a musician in Nigeria, trying to bridge the gap, it’s like 90% resistance’’. As Tay says this, he adjusts his shell-string necklace. A reminder of his home. But in London, his new home, he’s able to create however he feels fit. Which is an ideal situation for this ever-evolving renaissance man.

Love & Isolation EP is out now at all good digital vendors.