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All The Worst Things You Ever Thought About Are Happening: Gaika Interviewed
Fergal Kinney , June 30th, 2020 07:17

One of the most distinctive voices in British music has teamed up with Latin America’s most exciting party collective; Gaika discusses working with NAAFI, ghetto futurism and Black Lives Matter

Gaika portraits by Emmanuel S

“The last three months have been surreal,” explains Gaika down the phone from London. "My work is an expression of my subconscious or my nightmares, and in the past I've thought, ‘Oh, I better write this down and put it in film or music or art and shout about it.' But then it all came true. I felt relieved, on one hand that I wasn't going crazy, but on the other hand all the worst things I ever thought about are now happening.”

Giving voice to the nightmarish has been the dominant theme of Gaika’s art since the release of his debut mixtape Machine in 2015. Be it the tortured, hybrid dancehall records he’s released or the geopolitical dystopian fiction he’s written for Dazed (where he currently has a role as political editor-at-large), the work of Gaika is very often nocturnal and shivering with echo and dread. Growing up in Brixton to Jamaican and Grenadian parents, Gaika Tavares used a grounding in Caribbean and Caribbean-derived sounds – dancehall, reggae, grime – with a focused resolve for experimentation, something he terms "ghetto futurism", to create one of the most singular bodies of work of any British artist in the last decade.

This music is a kind of dancehall gone wrong, where consistently metallic beats are underscored by anxiety attack synth lines and a low, melancholic vocal. On his new release, Seguridad, Gaika has teamed up with what he perceives to be one of the most innovative, forward-thinking labels and collectives in global dance – NAAFI. 

“I don’t do a lot of features and it’s rare that I’ll just jump on someone’s beats, but with NAAFI, I just listen to it and think this is such a fascinating and interesting take on so many things. Everyone that’s on the record, they’re really – I believe – on their A-game.”

NAAFI is a record label, club night and collective that are based in Mexico City but operate across Latin America and include artists like Lao, Wasted Fates and the excellent Argentian DJ and producer Taynaha – all of whom guest on Seguridad. That their moniker stands for No Ambition And Fuck-all Interest should give you a hint about their commercial priorities. It's in their inclusive, all gates open approach to genre – taking in footwork, grime, Latin sounds, deconstructed club sounds – that they most mirror Gaika’s sensibility.

Having frequently spent time in Mexico since childhood, Gaika was aware early of NAAFI artists, and struck up a friendship with Lao after watching him fill in for a show when the Miami DJ Total Freedom – who Gaika had turned up to watch – missed his flight. “Lao started playing garage records, and I just kind of jumped on stage, so I made friends with him there and we met up again in New York, and it came from there.” Gaika was invited to play the collective’s high concept New Year’s Eve party in Puerto Escondido, and shortly after finishing 2018’s Basic Volume for WARP he began recording the tracks that would make up Seguridad.

Working with NAAFI aligns directly with ideas about ghetto futurism: “They do what they say on the tin, you know? I think a lot of big record labels or record companies have got problems with diversity, problems with gender, problems with the progressive agenda that I represent, and NAAFI definitely don’t. They mean it. The world’s changing and I’m not really focused on what’s happening in the so-called developed world, there’s other things, there are other places.” Gaika tells me he remains “very proud” of Basic Volume - a track from that record was used on the recent dystopian BBC One series Naughts And Crosses - but is chilly about the music industry itself. “There’s this need to get streaming figures and all of these things that I just don’t really care about. I came from the underground and it made more sense after that to return to that."

“A lot of what I like about the record is that there’s lots of influences and sounds whether they originate from Colombia or are from dancehall or whatever, and if you draw a line, a country like Colombia is much closer to the Caribbean or Caribbean culture and history than where I’m sat now. It’s not a well understood connection in Britain, and that kind of falls under the remit of ghetto futurism, which is that in every place where people aren’t the 1%, underprivileged people, there is a tomorrow, there is a future, there’s a vision of the world where they’re included.”

Part of the nightmare of the last few months has been the hostility to those fighting for a vision of the world where they’re included – Gaika has repeatedly used his platform in support of Black Lives Matter. “I feel like (Black Lives Matter) movement is overdue and I’m happy for it, but the greater feeling is a sadness when I see the resistance to change. You constantly get told racism doesn’t exist while people are literally being racist towards you, I’m sick of it. Can we not just admit this thing, take steps to make it better, and move on?”

From the very beginning of his career, Gaika has been an eloquent, articulate and provocative voice on these issues. His 2015 breakthrough single Blasphemer features him repeatedly incanting ”I can’t breathe”, the BLM slogan adopted following the 2014 death of Eric Garner. In the video for the single, Gaika wears a horned mask and writhes in contorted anger, torment, dread. For Gaika, there’s no vision of success that involves his politics not being central to his platform. “I’m not afraid or ashamed to let people know that I can process information,” he explains, “that I can write, that I have a political opinion. What that loses you, for me, is not worth very much. Look, let’s be real about it man. I’ve spent the last five years screaming at the top of my lungs about all the things that are happening right now. It’s a fact. Look at my music, look through my writing, look through my artwork – pictures of me four years ago in a mask talking about police brutality. It’s not easy, you don’t get the commercial looks because in doing these things you’re challenging power, and you’re asking people who have everything to share, and they don’t really want to hear that. Not consistently. But when things are happening and I know I can challenge that, why wouldn’t I? What’s my rap career? I couldn’t give a shit about my rap career.”

The way that black music is discussed - how it’s defined, the labels its filed under – has too been on Gaika’s mind, linking with his idea of ghetto futurism. “What I’m trying to say with that is that all of this street music, urban music, black music, music of black people that are not in a privileged position. It has scope, right. It’s not just there for really simplistic or surface level consumption. It is experimental music. It is forward thinking music. It is avant-garde. It is thinking about tomorrow.”

“In Britain, (racism) in many ways is more deeply entrenched, but on a purely population level, it’s more easily solved,” he argues. “America would require this massive shift in the power dynamics of their society, in Britain it doesn’t need to be like that. Yet you still get things like the MP Ben Bradley saying that BLM is divisive, and it’s like, really? Do you really think that? Do you still want to perpetuate this thing that makes all of us sick? The limits of the debate are so warped that a tiny inch towards more equality somehow seems like a massive loss of power or a loss of agency for the powerful, and that bit makes me sad. It makes me sad that I have to go out in the street and trade blows with EDL people, I don’t want to do that, but I did. But at the same time what am I supposed to do if those people come to where I’m at singing racist songs and all of that? To me, I just think it’s another version of this lie that Conservative politicians tell white British people, which is listen as long as you’re better than those guys, that’s OK. And it’s been going on for hundreds of years.”

Gaika interviewed the then Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn last summer – the pair sat on a rug in a North London garden discussing climate change and knife crime. “I was never an out and out Corbynista” explains Gaika, "I felt that in some ways he wasn’t getting the political game. But then when I met him, I realised he was actually just that genuine, and wasn’t interested in the political game and was just saying what he believed and what he felt. Looking back at it, on that day I felt optimistic, that trick – that trick that we spoke about – maybe it’s not going to work? Now it didn’t work in London, but outside of London it really did.”

That election defeat would be the prelude to the Conservative government’s ongoing negligent handling of the coronavirus, about which Gaika is scathing. “How the hell has Boris got away with this?” he asks, “70,000 or more dead people, people that wouldn’t have been dead otherwise. Everyone just feels totally powerless. That’s where we are. I’m a realist, and I live in the real world and I’ve been making art about how the world actually is. And it seems like it’s fantasy, it seems like it’s science fiction. And guess what – it's not.”

Seguridad is released 3 July on NAAFI