INTERVIEW: Kiah Victoria – Politics and art in a post-truth world
Written for The Line of Best Fit [3/5/18]. Photography by Mike Massaro.
LA-based singer-songwriter Kiah Victoria may not regard herself as a political flagbearer, but her offbeat soul-pop tells a different story. Charlotte Krol hears how she found her voice in today’s testing sociopolitical climate.
Trump, Black Lives Matter, terrorism, #metoo, fake news. The last couple of years haven’t exactly provided the world with much solace. Sometimes art comes to imitate life, and musician Kiah Victoria finds that to be the inevitable response.
“In the crystal eve of summer / there's a bullet hole in my brother,” reads the opening line of Victoria’s new song, “Betsy Ross”. It’s startlingly rich with Black Lives Matterimagery, released during a period of seemingly exponential unrest. The song is also released ahead of her forthcoming EP Memo, nearly two years after her sublime debut EP Everything. It arrives at a time when Victoria’s feeling more herself – and more politically fired-up.
“So much has happened in the world since then and in my personal life. I’ve moved from New York to LA and I feel like I’m growing the fuck up, whether I want to or not,” she says, taking shelter from the rain in an East London cafe. “The whole metaphor of the song is: ‘Betsy Ross won't weave a new American flag for us, we’ve got to weave that shit ourselves.’ So it’s a metaphor, of course, but sometimes music calls for being direct.”
As much as Victoria likes to downplay her marriage of art and politics (“I don't want people to be like, ‘Oh God, here goes preachy Kiah with her political jams’”) it’s been undeniably woven into the fabric of her songs even before the dystopian-esque, ‘post-truth era’ reached its apex.
“Hollow”, for instance, taken from Victoria’s 2016 debut, was written in the wake of the 2015 Paris terror attacks. “Everything still felt super surreal and hopeless and I wanted to capture that,” she told us at the time. “I also wanted to make something joy-giving. The amazing thing is that we don’t have to be as terrible as we’re capable of being."
"It’s really good to write about Donald Trump and it just sounds like a really bad breakup song...I’ve been using him as fuel for my writing.”
Empathy is a natural device for Victoria, and it’s easy to see why world events are shaping her voice. The 26-year-old artist speaks passionately about the political climate in the US, often with tears in her eyes.
“Definitely this upcoming project is me talking about some shit, and just feeling affected by it,” she says. “It’s hard because I don’t wanna be like, ‘Listen world, this is how we should live our lives’, she sings, mockingly.
“But also...let’s talk about this. It’s crazy. It’s really good to write about Donald Trump and it just sounds like a really bad breakup song. He’s a really good source of, ‘You wronged me’, but you can make it sound like anyone you want. I’ve been using him as fuel for my writing.”
Victoria was in London on the eve of Trump’s election. “It really was a mindfuck,” she says. “I was on a bike – you know when it’s so cold that your battery dies? So I didn't know where I was, I was in the freezing rain, and I didn't know how to get back to where I needed to get to. And it's election night so I'm already feeling weird and I'm lost I'm praying to God like, ‘How do I get back? Give me a sign, give me a roadmap.
“Eventually I get back to my friend’s place and I start watching the election. The time difference was so late so I ended up going to sleep. I was texting Rahm [friend and co-producer] and he was like, ‘I bet you $20 Trump is going to win.’ I was like, ‘Fuck you, I'm going to bed’. And I wake up from a text from him saying that I owe him 20 bucks. I’m like, ‘No, no, no, no, oh my God.’
She pauses, her eyes fill up.
“I literally could cry right now. Wow. That was a crazy day and it was so weird because I felt so far away. But I was also like, what is home? That's not my home. That’s not where I want to fucking be.”
Kiah Victoria has had something of a nomadic life. She was born in Berlin but moved to New York when she was two. By the age of seven she was living in Kenya with her mother and her sister. The whole family – which includes her father and her two brothers – was meant to relocate there to tie-in with their parents’ AIDS charity work. The family upped sticks a few more times after that, including a brief stint back in New York and a year and a half in Bridgeport, Connecticut (“but things there got a little rough”). Bowie, Maryland is where they settled. It’s the place Victoria says she probably most identifies as home.
“Maryland is where I became a person, my formative years. At first I was like, ‘I love New York, this is a small town like, I'm a city girl, I’m tough!’ But our money went further – we certainly didn't have a lot of it.”
Her father had worked as a professional drummer but needed to explore other careers to support the family. Victoria’s mother, who is from Aberdeen, Scotland, had worked in jobs including teaching. “[Maryland] was so much better for us for children, better schools, I met my best friends there. The theatre department at my school was lit. I felt like, creatively, I could just flex.”
Victoria always wanted to be a singer but her talents weren’t confined to music. Theatre enabled her to hone her performance skills. At the age of 10 she won the part of Malala in The Lion King on Broadway.
It’s time she remembers as “super special”. Her father moved with her to Jersey City and commuted in with her so that she could perform in the shows. After six months Victoria and all of the young cast members had to be replaced for contractual reasons surrounding age-appropriate roles. “It was the biggest heartbreak, I felt like my life was over,” she says.
Was theatre her first love, then, or music? “I had always been performing in my life but I always felt like a singer first. Like, the music was kind of what drew me to a lot of theatre.”
"I would love it if the world was listening to me. I mean, I can't pretend like that wouldn't be the fucking coolest thing ever.”
In her late teens Victoria considered undertaking a theatre program at NYU when she stumbled across the university’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. “It was very much based on being an entrepreneur and understanding the industry, being more autonomous and all that stuff. I thought, ‘I should probably do that.’ I'd never mic’d a kick drum or used Pro Tools and so on. That’s when I wrote one of my first songs, to get into the program.”
Skills on the course included signal flow production, engineering to record, music journalism, and songwriting classes. “It was across the board, and very much out of my wheelhouse,” she says.
Fuse this technical know-how with her dogged determination and passion for music, and Victoria is as real as it gets. “I definitely want to always be performing and always making things. I don't ever want to not be doing it to some capacity but to the utmost capacity. I'd like to be a fucking star.”
Her friends lavish her with praise, too. “Kiah just lives with a depth of feeling that most people don't or can't access,” her co-producer Rahm tells me over email.
“I don't know if she chose to have it, but it's realer than anything. She'll be in the room thinking about something and she'll burst out laughing or she'll be doing a take and there'll be tears in her eyes or she'll get mad or outflow with compassion or be irretrievably tired or want something warm to eat and she'll really really want it. Because when she feels something she feels it. And when she says something she means it. And so everything that she gives you as a musician and friend is real. You really can't go wrong. You're sitting there with your little headphones on while she does a vocal take next to you and you're like, ‘Is this shit really happening right now?’ struggling not to have a vocal emotional reaction and ruin the take.”
Rahm adds: “Hopefully this comes through in the music to some extent, but as serious as Kiah takes herself and the world, she's really one of the goofiest people I know.”
Victoria does indeed joke around, often juxtaposing hyperbole with honesty. “I think we all contemplate world domination don't we, from time to time?” she laughs. But then she adopts a more earnest tone. “I would love it if the world was listening to me. I mean, I can't pretend like that wouldn't be the fucking coolest thing ever.”
"I definitely feel an obligation – almost – to talk about things that are more political or socially conscious or socially aware."
The music business can get “frustrating”, she adds. “You feel like you're checking all the boxes in terms of what you need to present as an artist and, you know, getting millions of streams on Spotify, and you're not getting this look or that look. It can be a little bit daunting at times. But you know what? I’m OK if this takes a little while because it's going to last forever, you know, or at least I want it to last forever.”
When we next speak, Trump’s election returns to conversation. Victoria explains how a friend had been in Manhattan’s Union Square the night previous where a “racist rally” was held. “It was about how black people are not welcome in America”, she sighs. “Like, what the fuck time are we living in? Apparently it was the greyest day in the city that day. I just I wish I could have been with my people.”
“I felt really hopeless that day and the days that followed it,” she says. “It just felt like the shitty person you knew at school became prom queen."
As a musician, does she feel any obligation to address world issues?
“I definitely feel an obligation – almost – to talk about things that are more political or socially conscious or socially aware," she says. "It would feel kind of strange to not talk about these things when they are just so glaring in your face all the time. I definitely appreciate music where I can escape from the troubles of the world but I think it’s important to also talk about them. I guess for me, I want to keep [my music] personal but also keep it....inclusive…” she trails her words in search of better expression.
A balance has been struck between the personal and the collective on Everything EP. Where lyrics, “It doesn't take me long when I walk down the block to realise what’s right with this world and what’s wrong with it” chime over the shuffling, soul-pop hulk of “Hollow”, elsewhere the record presents a dichotomous tug of war between self-doubt (“Cold War”) and self-belief (“I Ain’t Goin Nowhere”). On the latter track a skittering, drum machine beat – one that’s almost identical to the garage lite bounce of Jessie Ware’s “If You’re Never Gonna Move” – suggests Victoria is wont for writing pop that flirts with the alternative, and lays bare its influences.
"It's nice when people say things to me such as, ‘You sound like Alicia Keys'...but I also just want to sound like me. I think that's always the goal.”
“We were kind of referencing Andre 3000 on that song, actually, like, ‘this is a fun vibe,’ she says. The “we” refers to her partnership with the aforementioned, New York-based producer Rahm. She also works with London-based, Danish producer Carassius Gold, who with Rahm co-produced Everything EP.
“I'm all about taking things that I love from other people but then interpreting it in my own way,” Victoria says. “I think everybody does to an extent. I like it when I can hear people's influences but that it’s also distinctly them. And like, it’s nice when people say things to me such as, ‘You sound like Alicia Keys,’ because they're amazing artists. But I also just want to sound like me. I think that's always the goal.”
The link between Ware and Victoria goes deeper than surface similarities. Carassius Gold (real name Bastian Langebæk) and another friend, Jordan Thomas, co-wrote the song “Midnight” with Victoria. “Midnight” became Ware’s comeback single for her third album, Glasshouse.
“Me and my friends Bastian and Jordan wrote it together. I loved it and actually, I had injured my voice maybe a year and half prior and I couldn't really belt certain notes. The chorus is the highest I had belted in a really long time so that felt really...precious to me. The song in that form was sent to Jessie to show what Bastian had been working on recently and she was like, ‘Oh what is this song? I want this song! Can we work on it?’ And her label was really pumped about the idea of it.
“I was initially like, ‘But wait, it’s my baby!’ But then I thought, ‘You know what? That’s amazing. This is a really awesome artist that I respect and have been listening to for years and we’re in similar worlds – it makes sense.’ So yeah I gave her [the song] away.”
Victoria supported Ware on her recent UK tour. “Honestly, the first night in Glasgow when I heard [Ware] sing ‘Midnight’, I had such an emotional reaction. I didn’t know that I would. I just started sobbing. It was a different kind of pride that I hadn’t felt. I mean, I’m used to singing songs that I wrote for me and singing them myself but hearing her and...everybody knew the chorus! I was like, ‘Holy shit!’ It felt like a proud mother moment.”
Rahm and Carassius Gold remain key collaborators, the former having produced Victoria’s Memo EP, slated for release this summer. “Rahm’s opened my mind to production and weird sounds,” Victoria says. “He's great. He’s my best friend from college.” The pair met in 2010 when they joined N-HARMONICS aka “the fiercest a cappella group on NYU campus,” Victoria yells, as if introducing them into a boxing ring.
Rahm has helped steer Victoria clear from the rocks, musically. Perhaps emotionally, too. The anxieties that rattled around in the lyrics of “Cold War” – “Cause in my bones is a Cold War / Heaven only knows it's a Cold War” – started to manifest beyond the music. 2017 track “Treat Me” was supposed to be part of a second EP released that year. But it never materialised.
“I have a collection of songs that were intended for the second project but then it just started to not feel so much like it was me,” Victoria explains. “I liked the songs, and they worked, but I wasn’t pumped about the music. So her team sat down and “just looked through the archives of all the shit I've been writing.” She felt very lost in the sauce.
“Oh my God, what are these songs? This isn't right, my songwriting isn't right,” she says. “I had an identity crisis of sorts. The writing was there but finding the right songs and finding the right way to present them.
“And then I had this realisation like, ‘Rahm should produce it, duh! My band should play on this, duh, like they did the last project. But yeah it was just like, ‘Oh it was already here.’ I just needed to go through a couple different alleyways and get me back to what I felt was right musically, and now I’ve bumped that shit by myself and I love it.
“Anxiety is real. It's so weird because you're working on all this stuff and because nobody knows it you kind of feel like you're not working...because it's in silence. So yeah, it’s about me just trying to get more comfortable with the in-betweens because that’s just as important, if not more important, than when things are actually out in the world. Because then it's not even yours anymore.”
"Instagram can really mess with your head. It's those times when you're not feeling good about your brand or your music or whatever and that's when you go look at everybody who’s popping, everyone who's in your lane, and how well they're doing. And it's just the fucking worst."
Is anxiety a new experience for her? “More so in the last couple of years. I had a conversation with my managers who sat me down saying, ‘What's not working?’ My world came tumbling down. I just felt so outside of my confidence. But ultimately we're on the same side and we have to have these super difficult conversations.”
Victoria also recognises the impact of social media on her mental health. “Honestly, Instagram can really mess with your head. It's those times when you're not feeling good about your brand or your music or whatever and that's when you go look at everybody who’s popping, everyone who's in your lane, and how well they're doing. And it's just the fucking worst.
“I took a three month hiatus from Instagram, actually. Rahm was the one who pushed me to do it. We were recording in the studio everyday and I'd be talking to him and he's literally speaking to me and I'm not even hearing him. He's like, ‘Hello, are you there? What’s inside of there that’s so fucking dire?’ He was like, ‘You really need to get rid of that.’ I said, ‘You're absolutely right. It's causing me stress. I don't like it.’ So yeah, I just unplugged for a few months and then I was like, ‘Oh I can live a lot more, there's a life outside of Instagram.’ It was good for me.”
She’s made other life choices, too, but on a much larger scale. In October, Victoria moved from New York to LA. The Big Apple had been her home for college and the years that followed, as well as those four years as a young girl. If the pursuit for aesthetic perfection troubled her so much on Instagram, LA presented a whole new charade.
“It’s been the ultimate shift,” she says of the move. “It's funny when we try to compare New York and LA because they’re truly incomparable. Like, they're just not the same. I do think that there are fake people everywhere but there is a special brand of fake people in LA. There's just this, like, sheen of pseudo happiness. Or maybe they're happy. I don't know.
“You'll be in rooms like...I go to hip hop gigs and I'm dancing and I'm really enjoying myself, I'd like to move my body, and everyone's very still, and really quiet. You do feel that people are more concerned with the exterior. But it’s not everywhere.”
Moving in with her older sister and one of her older brothers has provided Victoria with an anchor. “I’m not sure I would have moved otherwise,” she admits, “but I'm feeling less crazy now. I'm feeling a little bit less like it's foreign land.
“The sun is a beautiful thing. Vitamin D is really my best friend. But it's weird to navigate. I'm not used to my feet not being like efficient at getting around. But I've also met some really cool, open, beautiful, spirited people. It's definitely full of people who come for opportunity – and I'm one of those people – so it’s flooded with people trying to climb the ladder. You do run into that quite a bit in New York but it's a little more glaring in LA.”
Now relocated, next on the horizon for Victoria is Memo EP. In much the same fashion as her previous material, her latest release, “Remedy”, lashes out with a political tongue. Its opening line, “We don't drink the same water,” is a reference to the 2014 Flint Water Crisis, followed by a sample of a Michelle Obama speech. “You don’t look outside the window of your towers,” Victoria sings over the track’s dubby pulses and relentless rally cries of “l-o-v-e”. “I hope through it all, you can see the song is also a celebration because love is resilient as fuck,” she told us earlier this year.
Have her listening habits stoked some of the political fire in her heart? Victoria counts Frank Ocean, Little Dragon, “old school” Regina Spektor, Lauryn Hill and James Blake among her influences, but she makes repeated references to the famously political Kendrick Lamar. “He does a really good job of talking about necessary things but it isn’t tiresome when he addresses the political agenda,” she says. “He’s always been so politically vocal. Just, like, being a black man in America, poverty...and all the bullshit that happens.”
"I definitely think some people feel that they have to act a certain way because I’m a person of colour...I feel how people talk to me is different.”
The prejudice that Victoria speaks of has sadly been directed at her. “I’ve kind of experienced it in a weird way because I'm mixed race. I mean, being mixed is a whole other thing. One of the weirdest things I experienced was when I was in London and there was this car full of white dudes and one of them just rolled down the window and said, ‘Fuck you!’ He just looked me dead in the eye. I was like, ‘Oh my God. What is this? What does this mean?
“Or maybe….” she ponders, “everyone blames everything on ISIS. I know I kind of looked racially ambiguous like, maybe, I don't know...maybe they thought I was Middle Eastern.”
“I was also once with one of my best friends from high school and we went to a Christmas party in Bowie,” she continues. “I was wearing a T-shirt by a skateboard company called Carpet Co. – these Middle Eastern boys make the brand. There’s Arabic writing on the side of my T-shirt and my friend’s cousin who was with us was just like, ‘Oh, ISIS. I’m going to call you ISIS!’ I was like, ‘Excuse me?’ I guess he thought it was really funny because he saw that writing on my shirt and he was trying to make a joke but I was like, “Nah, it would be really, really cool if you didn’t call me that.
“Later on in the night these two little white boys were talking about something and they kept saying the N word. ‘Yeah n**** this, n**** that.’ But I'm like, I'm not going to be the angry black woman at the party but I was like, ‘Hey guys could you not use that word?’ And then they go all defensive, like, ‘We’re not racists’. I was like, ‘I never said that, just be aware of who you are around and understand that word carries so much weight.’ You know what I mean?
"But it's also subtle stuff like when I'm in a particularly white space and I'm the only person of colour and I feel that...I feel how people talk to me is different. Like, ‘gurl’. I’m thinking, why are you calling me ‘gurl’? You can call me Kiah. I definitely think some people feel that they have to act a certain way because I’m a person of colour.”
Victoria is keenly aware of subtleties within even that. “I know my experience as a mixed girl is so different from a dark-skinned black girl, and I'm never gonna know what that feels like. I'm still a woman and I'm still brown so I guess you still feel like you're ‘other’, but I know that I've dodged so much fuckery because I'm of lighter skin and I’m mixed race, and that's really sad to know. It's just the reality.”
Does she feel like protest music is coming mainly from people of colour? Beyoncé’s “Formation” is brought up in conversation, as is hip hop’s role in the political music landscape. “I think by virtue of the fact that America – at least American music, whether it's pop music or not – has always been political," she answers. "Hip hop has always been political. Like, black people in any field progressing is political, you know?
“I guess it's not so much coming from white people but even in my eyes I've been noticing some, like St. Vincent. She’s always talking about capitalism and the brainwashing of technology and all these things so there are people in more indie places doing that sort of work, I think.
“Also, being a woman of color, often times I feel like there's only a couple [of us] who can cut through the noise and really be celebrated. That can feel kind of tough sometimes because usually,” she imitates, ‘Hey, that one racially ambiguous girl’s doing really well, and that one really dark-skinned girl’s doing really well!’ But I do think that there’s a shift.
"I think there's more room for us now and I think that's only going to continue to become more spacious, hopefully. I think in any sort of creative field there's a lot of people trying to fill your spot. But the goal is just to make a spot that only you can fill. So I guess that's what I'm trying to do, and that’s what I'm doing.”
It seems like nothing but music will satiate this ambitious, astute young artist. So if it wasn’t music, what else would she be doing? “I don't really have another plan. I'm in it for the long haul. I don't know…. I really like to knit. Maybe I could knit some shit!”
Rahm was right. Despite all her worldly-wise concerns, Victoria has an infectious goofiness. She’s the real deal.