Tay Iwar Is Nigeria's Shining Neo-Soul Beacon

Tay Iwar Is Nigeria's Shining Neo-Soul Beacon

"It’s completely mood music, it puts you in a certain space..."

When Nigerian music comes up in conversation, it’s more often in reference to its pop music which has been exported far and wide by the likes of Burna Boy and Wizkid. Amidst the culturally significant moment that was the latter’s 2020 album 'Made In Lagos', stood 'True Love', an Afro-Carribean ballad occupied mostly by Tay Iwar.

For some, it was a fitting first impression of this mellow-toned musician, for many others, he’s represented hope for diversity in Nigerian music ever since he debuted with “Passport” in 2014. The 12 track mixtape released on Soundcloud, blossomed in a landscape that nurtured only its opposites, earned Tay Iwar cult-hero status, and motivated many more alternative musicians.

At this time, young Nigerians saw Tay as a beacon of hope, however, he recalls this time as devoid of hope, searching for a beacon himself; “I remember there being much less hope for diversity in music in Nigeria, much less hope, I remember it being almost impossible to sell R&B to Nigeria, to Nigerians in Nigeria, it was just a difficult thing to want more than the commercial sound”.  

Nigerian listeners had become a bit more receptive by his 2019 album 'Gemini', and with the streaming era in full swing, international audiences had begun finding solace in Tay’s artistry. The Soulection-assisted release presented a refined Tay Iwar, fresh from a year-long immersion in the tastemaker collective, acknowledging his far-reaching followership with an encompassing body of work.

Tay is quite familiar with creative communities, years before, he co-founded the Bantu Collective with his brothers, which remains central to Abuja’s creative scene. Sparse social media activity has seen him termed a ‘recluse’ in the media, but maybe it takes one of that nature to properly capture the solitary zeitgeist of 2020.

'Love & Isolation' “could be the soundtrack to isolation in 2020, and isolation in any year.” The low to mid-tempo EP which was born from involuntary inactivity, contains contemplations of longing, delayed affection, lack of motivation and stretched relationships. Tay has made a refreshing neo-soul selection, however, the artist doesn’t fancy putting labels on his music.

“I think it’s just beautiful music honestly, at this point, I don’t care about genres anymore, I feel like they suddenly don’t make any sense to me because I don’t know what to classify a lot of songs as, so I’ve kind of left that concept in my mind. I just think 'Love & Isolation' is beautiful music, top to bottom, it’s precise in its intentions, and it’ll make you feel something.”

We talked over zoom about this fresh phase of his career he believes is a “blessing” that’s allowed him to tick some dream collaborations off his list. We also discussed overcoming previous challenges, and thoughts about the future.

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Lockdown restrictions are loosening, how’re you feeling about interacting with the outside again?

At first I thought there would be a crazy amount of people there, going out and stuff, but a lot of people are still actually scared. So this ease up, people are just watching it from afar, like hmm, is this really the opening, should we really be out? So a lot of people are cautious, which is interesting because I thought it was just gonna be a free-for-all, but maybe that’ll be in June when the shows start.

Talking about shows, because of the state of the world and everything, I’m sure it’s been so long since you performed for fans, how’re you feeling about the potential, the possibility of that happening soon?

It’s been ages, and it’s just crazy for me because just as my performances were starting to stack up, the pandemic happened, and I was really getting ready to perform, but it kinda just slowed me down so yeah I’m definitely eager to see what’s coming after this pandemic, the opportunities that can arise, especially as the Wizkid thing has happened.

A Wizkid feature is major for anyone, did you notice anything new after the world heard 'True Love'?

The impact I think 'Made In Lagos' has is… I don’t even want to call it a classic album because this feels like something even newer than that, it feels like a first, and besides it being a classic album it’s a first in some very cool steps towards Afrobeats, very wholesome step in Afrobeats and Afropop. So that’s what 'Made In Lagos' signifies to me, the next step in Afropop. To me personally, 'Made In Lagos' was kind of a blessing, that’s really the only thing I could equate that to in my life.

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I feel like you particularly ‘owned’ 'True Love' in a sense, you occupied the space in a great way, what was the mood and process of recording that song?

By the time Juls had sent me that beat, we had already been working on several things, and we sort of had this loop, this working loop. He’d send me beats on WhatsApp, I’d record hooks to them, and maybe a verse, and send back, so that part was very regular, the part where he would send me the beat.

So it was just another day and another beat from Juls, but this time I decided to try and do a hook that I think/thought Wiz would like, that was literally in my head, and I wasn’t given any direction prior, because the song was supposed to be on Juls’ album, so he wasn’t actually supposed to play it to Wiz, and then he sent it to me, I recorded the hook on it, sent it back.

At that point it was still for his album but then about two months after, he was in the studio with Wiz, and he played it and Wiz loved it so much he wanted it on his own album, so Projexx went on it, and Wiz did a verse, and that’s how that happened. It was really effortless you know, it wasn’t a very planned thing, it just happened, it just fit perfectly at the right time, cause I think Wiz was finishing his album, so I think True Love might’ve been one of the last songs to make the album, which is very interesting. It just slid in at the end.

Then there’s the viral video from Julie Adenuga’s show where the guests were singing their hearts out to ‘True Love,’ it shows the deep connection that many people have with the song, how did watching that make you feel?

At first it was funny, cause how they were arguing about it was just hilarious to me, but then I started realizing the gravity of what that situation was you know, and how much… Harry Pinhiero is in that video and he’s defending True Love with so much power and aggression, it made me realize how deeply the song made people feel, just on a deep level, it made people tap in. And I didn’t think it would do that, when I made it I thought it was just a nice hook, I didn’t really see the other sides of it and how personally it would touch people, but that video showed me. So that was very interesting, that was one of my best moments, that’s why if you notice, I started my year with that post on Instagram, that was one of my best moments from last year.

Why did you decide to call this project 'Love & Isolation'?

'Love & Isolation' is a name born from situation, born from what we’ve been living through for the past year, and I feel like it could be the soundtrack to isolation in 2020, and isolation in any year. It’s one of those EPs that’s made for anyone that wants to feel deeper emotions within themselves to tap in to.

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On ‘Yoga’ you and Asa blended quite seamlessly, and at some point it felt like both of you were ever present in every moment in the song, it seemed like something so simple, but I believe that when things look so simple, they take a lot of effort to get there, what did it take for you guys to get to that point?

 A lot of patience, because I had the song since 2016 and I had been keeping the song because I was just stubborn with it, I was like you know what, I’m not gonna release this song until Asa is on it, because that’s who I made the song for, and I knew the synergy would just be seamless and just beautiful. What it really took was patience, cause the song itself didn’t take so much to make, the vision was already clear in my head, I just needed to get to Asa.

So working with Asa has been a long time goal of yours?

Definitely. Asa is one of my main early inspirations, as a kid I remember singing 80 percent of her album without even knowing what the Yoruba there meant, I just learnt it. One of the first shows I ever went to, I think the actual first show I ever went to was an Asa show, which was at the French Conservation Center with my dad, and that was before her first album dropped. I think she was just doing press runs for the album before it dropped. So Asa has been in my life for a very long time.

On that song I heard the sample from Jesse Jagz’s ‘Window’...

Another special artist to me is Jesse Jagz. You know Jesse Jagz, he’s a legend, he’s phenomenal, and I don’t quite remember how the idea came about for me to use those lyrics but I just remember it working so well that nothing else made sense. It was just too perfect. I think it was my little homage in a way to Jesse Jagz.

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My favourite song on the EP is ‘Thinking,’ every time it's about to end I queue it up again. What does that song specifically mean to you?

That’s mad, considering it’s a slow song, cause I was wondering what the reaction would be to the pace of the song cause a lot of them are mid-tempo to slow, so it’s interesting that you said it makes you wanna repeat it, that’s really dope. ‘Thinking’ is one of my favorites as well, the bounce is very unique.

‘Thinking’ is a long distance song, a longing for someone. Whoever the listener associates that type of emotion to really, but it’s a longing, and it comes at a point in the EP where distance is a topic. The distance side of isolation becomes the thing on ‘Thinking’.

You’re undoubtedly one of the voices of your generation, does any pressure come with that?

I don’t wake up thinking I’m a voice of my generation, so I don’t really have that pressure on me, the pressure I have is mostly from myself to ensure the quality of my work is consistent. Because if I’m not satisfied with something I can’t move forward.

'Passport' earned you cult-hero status at a time when the majority of mainstream Nigerian music sounded quite similar - you came with a refreshing body of work, and many people openly embraced it. How do you remember this period?

‘Passport’ period, I remember there being much less hope for diversity in music in Nigeria, much less hope, I remember it being almost impossible to sell R&B to Nigeria, to Nigerians in Nigeria, it was just a difficult thing to want more than the commercial sound, it wasn’t really cool to be yourself.

So that’s mainly what I remember from that time, I remember feeling pressure actually, I feel like I had a different kind of pressure on me then because I felt like I was kind of doing something that wasn’t really going to yield anything in Nigeria but I was in Nigeria still.

The pressure was different, and also just not knowing much about the industry as well, so it was kind of still ‘innocent’ in a way, I don’t have a better word to use but the time just felt more innocent and less strategic with everything in the music, at that point if you asked me about my next release, my reasons for dropping a song would be like, “Oh I just felt like, and maybe this should come out in April” whereas now, there’s fans and schedules and all of that, so it was a very loose time.

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How would you say you’ve continued to advance yourself creatively through all of the challenges you’ve faced?

I think mainly, it was learning more, I stocked up on knowledge of music, its history, how to make it, just learning more, completely and absolutely dipping myself into that world.

You started learning to play the piano at a very young age, how instrumental do you feel that’s been for you 'till now?

I think it was very useful, I wish I paid more attention then, because I really didn’t care much about those classes. I think it definitely put me in the position to know how much respect is involved in the music, that’s the main thing that it put in me, I saw the respect that musicians had for music and I kinda just carried that from a very young age, cause I went to classical music school, and there’s just a way they teach you to treat instruments and music that helps you build respect for the art form. That’s the most important thing I got from that.

What’s on your mind for the near future?

There’s a couple of visuals I’m trying to release, and more content on the EP, more collaborations, more songwriting stuff and writing for other artists, just more music generally. James Blake is one person I would love to work with. It would be epic, I don’t even know what that would sound like yet.

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'Love & Isolation' EP is out now on Platoon - buy it HERE.

Words: Nasir Ahmed Achile

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