In Michael Kiwanuka’s mind, everything in America seems heightened. When something is good here, it’s “ridiculously good,” according to the British-Ugandan singer/songwriter. And when it’s bad, it’s really bad, which, he says, “is probably why I’m obsessed with America.” This extends to the Grammys, which have always felt otherworldly to Kiwanuka. This holds particularly true this year as his third album, Kiwanuka, which won the Hyundai Mercury Prize in 2020, is in the running for the Grammy for the Best Rock Album, a first for him.
“When I started, I used to be jealous of artists that were getting bigger because they seemed to fit in,” the 33-year-old Kiwanuka says from his home in the UK where his connection to the Grammys could not be more remote. “I kept trying to fit in and it never worked. I’m not pop or soul or rock. At first, I thought it’s kind of mad that I’m nominated for a rock album. Now, I like it that the category doesn’t really fit because it means that I’m making my own sound, which is the hardest thing to do.”
His debut album, Home Again was released in 2012 and its follow-up, Love & Hate in 2016. Both were nominated for the Mercury Prize. Kiwanuka’s “Cold Little Heart” from Love & Hate became the theme song for the HBO series, Big Little Lies, which premiered in 2017. Yet there isn’t one song on Kiwanuka that has anything in common with “Cold Little Heart.” Instead, the album makes bold stylistic shifts and assertive racial and societal commentary, straddling the classic soul ascribed to Kiwanuka with a modern flair that goes for a grounded aesthetic over a polished sheen.
“A lot of artists of my generation get a big hit and try and repeat it and it just gets worse,” he says. “My music is changing and getting weirder, things I used to terrified of before, but it’s connecting with people. Getting these award recognitions means more because of that. It definitely encourages me to keep evolving. I haven’t yet found ‘my sound.’ When you hear a Neil Young chord, it’s so unapologetically him. I’m looking for that.”
Prior to Home Again’s release, Kiwanuka was wracked with worry. Worry that Home Again wasn’t good enough. Worry that he wouldn’t be able to make a second album. Worry that his producers, Danger Mouse and Inflo, wouldn’t like his songs. Worry about who he was as an artist. When the recording of Kiwanuka started, he made a conscious choice to stop “Worrying about everything I could worry about,” he says. “I decided I’m going to accept what I do rather than get embarrassed by it or be shy and have this inferiority complex, this imposter syndrome.”
His acceptance came long before the racial unrest of 2020, which, for Kiwanuka, brought up many long-buried issues. Growing up in the neighborhood of Muswell Hill in North London, where he saw very few Black people, particularly of African descent, Kiwanuka tried to come across as neutral as possible. He asked his mother to cook pasta and fish fingers rather than traditional Ugandan dishes. He had his middle name, Samuel, stitched on his soccer jersey rather than Kiwanuka. He felt like there was no place for him in the music he related to, such as the Strokes and Nirvana. He even questioned whether his music would become more universally appealing if he looked like Kurt Cobain.
“I thought, ‘How will I be able to get where those bands are looking like me?’” says Kiwanuka. “My suppression of who I was as an artist stemmed from there. Everything I would do, without realizing it, would be pure suppression. When the unrest started and everyone started to speak out, those feelings came back. It took a toll on me. I was angry because I couldn’t believe that’s what I used to do, running as far as I could from being Ugandan and Black and having this amazing heritage. I couldn’t believe how I used to portray myself. Part of me was guilty, part of me was angry, and part of me thought, ‘That’s how society is.’”
One of the observations about Kiwanuka at the start of his career is that while his voice has gravity, his lyrics didn’t carry the same weight. In retrospect, the suppression that is such a large part of his life dictates much of what he has to say. The reverse is also true. Kiwanuka is moving into a position where people like him have someone they can relate to. He’s already noticing his influence around his neighborhood, where he’s seeing, “Well-spoken, geeky Black dudes with unkempt hair.”
He continues, “I finally feel like I can feel free and be proud to be a British Black man playing my music that’s slightly weird, slightly rock, slightly soul. Twenty years from now, someone like me in Muswell Hill will hear my records and think they can do any kind of music they want because I did it.”