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Kamal and Caleb Azumah Nelson
Kamal and Caleb Azumah NelsonPhotography Alistair McVeigh and Stuart Ruel

‘Vulnerability is beautiful’: Kamal and Caleb Azumah Nelson in conversation

In a head-to-head conversation, the singer and author come together to discuss their writing practices, the state of modern masculinity, and how Azumah Nelson’s novel inspired Kamal’s new EP

After putting the finishing touches on his latest project, Kamal was in search of a title. The 20-year-old north London native had already made a name for himself with “homebody” from his first EP, and was in the process of finishing a second. While 2021’s war outside evoked the clandestine days of early lockdown, this new tape found inspiration in all things liquid – from the champagne showers of “free flow” to the suffocating emotion of “drown” – and the new name had to communicate that. This was when, not a moment too soon, Kamal’s father introduced him to Caleb Azumah Nelson’s novel Open Water, and so here we are, drowning was born.

The phrase, lifted from the end of the novel, spoke to Kamal due its complex take on survival, the image of two people trying to stay afloat but inadvertently dragging each other under. When Kamal slid into the author’s DMs for permission to use the title, Azumah Nelson gladly accepted. The link-up made total sense: both write about the turmoil of romantic relationships with masterly precision, and use music as medicine when navigating their everyday lives. Both in Open Water and his new novel Small Worlds, Azumah Nelson communicates with a lyrical flair, something Kamal was enraptured with when picking up the author’s work.

In the conversation below, Kamal and Azumah Nelson chat about linking up over Instagram, rebranding vulnerability and the beauty of others reinterpreting their art.

Hi guys – first of all, when did you first become aware of each other’s work?

Kamal: It was my dad who introduced me to Open Water. As soon as I read it I was obsessed with the style of writing. Seeing love stories with people of colour in London specifically – it was just refreshing to feel so intricately connected to a storyline. The way music was woven in furthered my love for it, so I reached out to Caleb, followed him on Instagram and was honoured that he hit me back.

Caleb Azumah Nelson: It’s mad because I’d heard your voice first on that Dave track [“Mercury”]. Someone sent it to me because I’m such a big fan of Dave, but then I was like, ‘who’s this other guy?’ I did a bit of a deep dive into your stuff, and then when you followed me I was like, ‘ah! Man like Kamal!’

There’s so much in the texture and the tone of your voice. Delving into your music, the intricacy of your songwriting while still being so simple is something that I really value as a writer. I just thought this guy’s work really resonates with me.

“So much of my work stems from my love for music, and the way that music can bridge the gap between emotion and expression – that's what I’m always trying to do” – Caleb Azumah Nelson

Even though you work across different mediums, there’s this similar transcendental quality in both of your styles. Did that attract you to each other’s work?

Kamal: For sure. I loved how the writing didn’t feel too literal. I really love art that can make you feel something specific within yourself even though it’s not describing that emotion. You prompt the reader to associate a universal idea with something specific to them. That’s definitely something I strive for in my music.

Caleb Azumah Nelson: I wanted to ask you about your songwriting process. As you were talking, it reminded me of the things that I do. I think about the emotions I’m trying to hone in on, and then think about a method that will require emotional exploration from my readers, so they’re encouraged towards a sense of feeling themselves, as opposed to ‘here is the thing’. The work that’s being done by you and I is a way to cultivate that space, digging into our own emotions to find a space for people to come towards. So when you’re writing, what’s that process like for you?

Kamal: Honestly, I try not to overthink it too much when I’m writing and let my emotion guide it. It must be different writing something like a novel because it’s more important to have the structure there and…

Caleb Azumah Nelson: Not even you know! My editor is always like ‘I need more story, less vibes!’

Kamal: But that’s where the real pleasure in the art comes for me, just trying to be as honest with the open page as I can.

Caleb Azumah Nelson: Also, it’s so interesting how different emotions hit at different times. So much of my work stems from my love for music, and the way that music can bridge the gap between emotion and expression – that’s what I’m always trying to do in my work. But then there are times when I’m not trying to hear certain songs. Either it’s too much, or it’s not doing it for me!

Kamal: When you’re writing a book, there’s a certain chronology I guess you have to keep up with. Do you ever feel like you have to try and remove yourself from the story a little bit, so that you can stay true to the characters and story you’re trying to carve out?

Caleb Azumah Nelson: In both instances, writing Open Water and my new novel Small Worlds, I’ve had to get out in a big way and allow the characters to come to the fore. But the reality is that the characters are versions of me, and they’re all stemming from feelings that I’ve known – not necessarily events I’ve experienced, but definitely feelings and emotions.

Kamal: That’s exactly how I respond when people ask, ‘are all your songs about your real-life experiences?’ The bulk of them are, but it’s more that my perception of life is going to be in whatever I’m creating. Even in trying to escape that perception, you’ll be imprinting it upon your work somehow.

Caleb Azumah Nelson: My agent, the first time we met, she told me that writing is fictionalising memory. And I’ve just never forgotten it. It speaks to what you were saying, about pulling from a range of emotions and feelings to craft something that... I was going to say that’s not real, but actually it’s as real as it is to someone reading or listening at that moment. Because, really, what’s real in terms of feeling?

Kamal: If the feeling’s real then it’s real enough.

“I’m discovering who I am as a man, but also questioning the things that make me feel more of a man, and whether they should” – Kamal

Kamal, the title of your new project so here you are, drowning is a phrase taken from Caleb’s novel Open Water. Can you talk a bit about this phrase and why you chose it?

Kamal: It comes quite late in the book and summarises the relationship the main characters have had. There’s lots of themes of water on my project – the last track is called “drown” – so I thought it was fitting. I just loved the image of feeling like you’re surrounded by an expanse, and you’re fighting against it, trying to stay afloat with someone else. It’s something that I really relate to. Not just in relation to relationships, but my own struggle with my mental health and how intimidating the world can feel sometimes.

Caleb, how does it feel to have your own work reinterpreted like that?

Caleb Azumah Nelson: I was gassed! When you’re writing – and I’m sure you feel this as well – you put it out into the world and it stops wholly being yours. The process is yours, that’s the thing that you maintain. But you just let it go, and it’s done. Something so beautiful about your work finding its way into someone else’s hands is that it gets a new life. It was just really special to be asked and I’m really grateful that the work resonated with Kamal. I’m excited for people to hear the tape. How are you feeling about the release?

Kamal: I’m gassed for it. One of the beautiful things about doing what we do is that our work can have so many meanings and, like you said, so many lives. It gives it a whole new depth you might not even have intended. One of the scariest but most rewarding things is that feeling of putting your baby out in the world and it being everyone’s now, rather than this little thing that’s selfish for me.

Caleb Azumah Nelson: Bro, I wasn’t even prepared. My first book came out at the tail-end of the last lockdown. We’d been inside for the better part of a year and I thought if five, ten people read this I’m happy. Then I began to realise it was so much more!

Both of your work deals with conceptions of masculinity. Are you interested in challenging preconceived notions or just presenting an honest depiction as is?

Kamal: Masculinity is way more complex than it’s shown to be. In order to be masculine, fully and wholly, you have to embrace the feminine sides to yourself. It’s not something that I’m trying to prove a point with. I’m discovering who I am as a man, but also questioning the things that make me feel more of a man, and whether they should.

Caleb Azumah Nelson: I feel like so much of my work is not only thinking about masculinity, but thinking about how we expand our worlds beyond that binary. Thinking about ways to be candid, to be vulnerable, to be honest.

Kamal: The use of the word vulnerable is interesting here. I hear that a lot about me, and I am vulnerable in my music, but I feel like it should be rebranded as an empowering thing to do. I don’t choose to be vulnerable because I want people to look at me sympathetically. If I wear my vulnerabilities proudly, I can turn them into a positive thing.

Caleb Azumah Nelson: So often vulnerability is seen as a weakness as opposed to a virtue. It can be such a beautiful thing to be vulnerable, even though it can be a risk. That idea of self-confrontation is being able to go towards parts of yourself that might not necessarily feel so beautiful, feel a little bit ugly, a little bit scary. It’s definitely something that I’m trying to do, in my work, but also every day.

“So often vulnerability is seen as a weakness as opposed to a virtue. It can be such a beautiful thing to be vulnerable” – Caleb Azumah Nelson

You’ve both received critical acclaim, and with that come comparisons to other established artists. How do you really feel about these?

Kamal: I feel like the comparisons I’ve had, I can only take as compliments because they‘re people whose music I‘ve listened to and whose success I admire. If you think I have the potential to be as big as Billie Eilish, then I’m calm with it.

Caleb Azumah Nelson: I really don’t mind! Like you said, it’s people whose work I admire. I know what my work is about, and as long as I understand that, it’s cool.

Kamal: It can be hurtful to feel like you’re being derivative with it, if people are repeatedly making the same comparisons. But at the same time, I know myself as an artist, I know how eclectic the range of influences I pull from is, and I know how much further I can go.

Caleb Azumah Nelson: People are only ever getting this version of you that spans ten tracks or a couple hundred pages. They’re not seeing everything that went into it. They’re not seeing the stuff that didn't make it.

Kamal: If people had heard everything I’d ever made, they would think of me as a completely different artist. I’ve got bare folky songs, I’ve got bare songs where I’m on more of a hip-hop bag, I’ve got R&B songs. I’m just being picky about curating what I show and in what order.

Caleb Azumah Nelson: What’s nice about that is you get to see this archive of the person you were at different points. It’s almost like I’m seeing a photograph of myself. I’m reminded of the person I was and how far I’ve come, and where I might be going.

Thanks so much guys. One last question – will you keep in contact after this conversation?

Kamal: Yes! Of course.

Caleb Azumah Nelson: Yes, yes, yes. This is just the beginning.

so here you are, drowning by Kamal is out now on Neighbourhood Recordings

Small Worlds by Caleb Azumah Nelson is published by Viking on 11 May 2023.

Lead image: Kamal is photographed by Alistair McVeigh, and Caleb Azumah Nelson is photographed by Stuart Ruel.

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