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Kelvyn ColtPhotography Vitali Gelwich

Kelvyn Colt: ‘I want to do more than be a rapper’

After a troubled major label deal, Colt returns with new mixtape ‘German Angst’, both a treatise on mental health and love letter to Berlin’s techno scene

The year is 2006 and Kelvyn Ajala is 12 years old, writing haikus in his bedroom. “My dad would give me a bunch of words and I’d just form something out of it”, he remembers of his modest childhood in Wiesbaden, Germany. By 14, Ajala was struck by the talent of US heavyweights Biggie, Tupac, and Nas, and a bolt of inspiration followed. What he was doing in his bedroom was not all that different to what they were doing on stage. Maybe he should give it a try. Maybe he should put his poetry to beats.

As Ajala recounts his story, a murmur of soft jazz hangs in the background, the scraping of cutlery cutting through a hum of Brooklyn drawls. He’s Zooming in from a New York City diner, in town to play a headline show as Kelvyn Colt. Our scheduled face-to-face interview was scuppered last minute due to a standoff at the American consulate. Just one day before a planned flight to London, Colt’s passport was taken by US authorities for a “routine check” ahead of the Stateside concert. Despite this, he’s unaffected by the fiasco, in good spirits and primed to chat.

In the beginning I really sucked,” he recalls with a charming candour, “because I had no idea how to properly flow. The lyricism was there, but there was no cadence to it.” While that may have been the case in ‘06, lots can change in a decade. By 2016, Colt would blow up performing “Hucci” in the COLORS Studio, only the third artist to appear on the channel. What resulted was mutual virality – for the fledgling platform as a buzzy world stage, but also for Colt himself, as an artist on the brink of a deal. It was from then, he says, that “all the labels started talking to me and I ended up signing with a subsidiary of Sony in Germany”.

By the time the deal materialised in late 2016, Colt had since dropped out of law school at home to pursue a music career in the UK. But with the rapper in England and his label back in Germany, relations began to sour. “There were just a lot of things happening where I was like, ‘oh, I do not like this’”, he remembers of the time. The success of 2017 tape LH914 (named after his one-way ticket to the UK), meant Colt could organise fan-focused events with his own community of collaborators. When the label secretly approached these collaborators to work for their other artists, Colt knew it was time to go.

Free from the constraints of an oppressive deal, Colt is able to speak passionately about his new release, the mixtape German Angst. The phrase comes from the Germanic propensity towards fear of the unknown, reflected in the tape’s musings on narcotic abuse, mental health and masculinity. In creating the record, he “really wanted to channel something that feels German, and Berlin is obviously the techno capital of the world”. Styled as ‘techno meets trap’, the record ferociously journeys through Colt’s psyche, with tracks like “Neuroplasticity” and “Eye4Eye” acting as windows into an anxious mind. “Everybody’s scared of the future, scared of what's happening politically and economically”, says Colt, and the sonic blunt force of German Angst is the perfect vehicle for that message.

This willingness to discuss the wider socio-cultural context of his work is a recurring dimension of our conversation. Not content with just putting out music, Colt is constantly searching for his purpose in the world. He’s clearly studious and makes this known in the references he deploys; his mixtape is “what post-Soviet brutalist architecture would sound like”; he’s currently reading a book by the performance artist Anthony Howell who “analyses performance art under the umbrella of psychoanalysis”; a foray into psychedelic rock even got him into the teachings of Black Mountain College, an influential liberal arts school founded in the 1930s. “There’s two sides of me”, he says, “let’s turn up, get fucked up, whatever. But then there’s this other side, one that’s into literature and critical thinking, and I need both parts of my brain stimulated.”

“I want to do more than just play shows and be a rapper. This is bigger than putting songs on Spotify” – Kelvyn Colt

The rapper has been known to use this savvy to his advantage. In early 2020, Colt did what other artists only dream of: buy back the rights to his masters from Sony. “Those deals are structured to keep you in debt,” the rapper declares in a matter-of-fact tone, “so to make sure that my kids don’t have to go through what I went through, I need to retain ownership of my intellectual property”. In a crooked twist of fortune, he ended up paying the label more money than the deal was worth, in exchange for a swift exit. Despite this, it was “the best decision [he’d] ever made”. Weeks after his departure, the first Covid lockdown hit and artists’ budgets were stripped – but all the money from Colt’s streaming was now going straight to his own pocket.

Now, Colt channels this energy towards the TBHG, or Triple Black Heart Gang, as his fans are known. Rather than talk big on social media, the rapper hosts a number of IRL events for his community, like book clubs, a mental health awareness march, and even has his own newsletter. “I want to do more than just play shows and be a rapper”, he says with conviction, “this is bigger than putting songs on Spotify and doing stuff on TikTok and Instagram”. When I ask why, Colt is momentarily transported back to his childhood bedroom, scribbling down poetry he’ll later set to beats. “I always ask myself what 14-year-old Kelvyn would have wanted. When I was there, alone, listening to Pac and Biggie, I would have loved to have a community of like minded people to go and meet”. In healing the wounds of his past, Kelvyn Colt guides the lives of his listeners towards a bigger and brighter future.

German Angst is out now.

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