Kelvyn Colt has never been one to stick to the status quo, nor has he been quiet about his propensity towards social change. His previous album, German Angst, was a sonic vehicle that displayed socio-cultural ills through the voice of Berlin's techno meets rap scene. Given its looming experimental voice, it only makes sense that Colt’s most recent EP “Rebirth” is an ambitious and conceptual step forward; it's in this project that Colt trades social politics for identity politics, showing us his most personal and intimate voice yet. Accompanied by a 10-minute short film, the project is an abstract portrayal of his emotional renaissance, tackling storytelling and technique through visceral illustrations of his rebirth. We sat down to discuss his childhood inspirations, what he hopes his legacy will leave behind, and the way he uses music to process experiences of adversity.
What was it like to grow up in Germany and watch the American rap scene unfold in front of you and what was your perspective on the American music/rap scene when you were growing up, did it have a strong influence on you or were you more influenced by German rappers?
I always feel like I grew up not only in Germany but in different cities in Europe, but beyond that, I was on Datpiff and MySpace and all these different blogs. So, through the internet, a part of me always felt a part of it because I was always listening to what nobody else in my school or family was listening to just because I was always downloading all these really iconic hip-hop tapes from the internet mixtape era. Then I discovered Kid Cudi, which really changed my life for me at the time because he was somebody from the newer generation, at the time, that made it cool to be vulnerable. The city that I grew up in in Germany has a huge military base, J.Cole is from there, so I went to a Baptist church and just grew up around a lot of American culture. At the same time being Nigerian and growing up in Nigerian culture while also living in a Turkish neighborhood growing up with eastern Turkish culture so I've always just been around a lot of different influences and cultures.
What were the first artists you remember listening to growing up?
No, 'cause I grew up listening to American music; my earliest memory of listening to music was probably Luther Vandross or Tracy Chapman. However, as I started developing my own taste in music, I was listening to a lot of East Coast music like EPMD, Eric Sherman, Nas, and Biggie, so I would say that East Coast rappers really taught me how to rap and then when I was about 16 I started listening to more of Pac, and 2pac's music became really big for me.
In previous interviews you’ve spoken about poetry being your introduction to songwriting, do you feel like you still imitate that poetic form when you write songs and how do you feel like poetry is still present in your records?
It depends on what kind of record I'm making, so when I was a kid I was always writing poetry, and that’s what brought me to rap and that’s really how I got into rapping. When I started playing live shows I started approaching music differently because there’s this aspect of music, which is the art of storytelling and the art of evoking emotion through words, but then also the rhythmic aspect became more and more important, especially once I discovered Young Thug and Future. At this point, it was more about focusing on melody and energy and that’s when I started freestyling and that ended up changing everything for me. So nowadays for me when I approach music it's kind of like do I want to create a record that’s telling a story where I want to focus on the word and the wordplay or do I create a record that’s just really high energy and I just want people to turn up and it’s more about a feeling.
“Rebirth” took a very different approach to your story and sound than your previous EP “German Angst” was that intentional, and what about your evolution as an artist initiated that kind of change of direction?
Yeah, absolutely; German Angst, I would say, was my hiatus. It was like a statement piece that was sort of daring and experimental and genre-bending but I wanted to continue elements that I had created and experienced in German Angst into Rebirth, which is like the heavy use of synthesizers. So across rebirth, obviously there’s a lot of electronic guitar-based stuff, but in the grand scheme of things, I’m still using a lot of heavy and dark synths so you saw industrial synthesizers and sounds. Sonically, it kind of stems from the same world as German Angst with the difference that now I'm using trap drums rather than techno drums.
The title “Rebirth” is quite ominous and could point to many different types of rebirth, who’s rebirth is it?
I always liked to leave space for interpretation, but beyond that, it was more so I wanted to relay, with the short film and the EP, a sonic piece that helps the listener and viewer to understand what motions, situations, and relationships I was going through that sort of symbolized me being stuck in this loop of not setting boundaries and being frustrated of being betrayed or feeling unheard and misunderstood, and giving love and giving pure attention, and then giving space for what their opposites would feel. This pain ended up causing anger, so records like Rage, which are turn-up tracks that really symbolize me just venting instead of internalizing the pain and then finally being vulnerable again towards the end of the record. On the visual side of the short film, we have this element of the chains and the cutscene of me being tied up with these chains, which sort of symbolize these situations of if you can’t really let go of relationships, then you remain stuck in the past, and you end up trapping yourself. It ends with me following this light and focusing on tuning in and being in touch with your inner light and your intuition and gut rather than being head heavy in order to set yourself free from some of that shit. You can be reborn at any point, it’s only your life as long as you hold onto it. And that is what Rebirth is about.
Was there a specific experience or emotion that made you want to center your EP around these concepts and themes that take such a storytelling and socially forward-thinking position to your project?
I’ve always been vulnerable with my music because that is ultimately what music did for me, like Pac and Cudi and Enimem their vulnerability did a lot for me where I really felt like their pouring their heart out and saying things that not everyone would necessarily say out loud or express in such an honest and unapologetic way and that is what made them relate and connect to them. That is the same thing that I want to do because their music did that for me.
Your short film takes viewers through various periods of emotional catharsis and in the midst of tonal changes, there are symbols everywhere of really thoughtful themes such as race, masculinity, love, religion, and anger. On the other hand, you implement almost Western imagery with the American flag, farmland, rifles, and historic plays of race relations. Can you take us through the creation of the film and your intention with how it portrays all these intertwining messages?
I think with the Western theme I wasn’t necessarily setting myself up in the Midwest cowboy context, but more so, I'm putting myself in a situation and environment that is almost seemingly alien to me and I manage to assimilate and blend in really well. I’ve always been someone who's between cultures and I’ve never really felt like I’ve fitted into one particular culture before and a lot of the scenes in the Problem video you see me sitting in the trailer and the good is walking out but you see her stealing something and putting it into her pocket and people are all of the sudden handing me the baby and all these different things going which show that I am able to try to make it work and see myself happy in an environment that I don’t necessarily fit in. There’s all this shit going on to me, there’s the girl that I'm in a relationship with and I see what is going on but I choose to ignore it because I want to stay in this world of make-believe and happy life even though nothing really makes sense. Towards the end of the video, I’m still in the same place, trapped in that dark place and that is a means to show how I've been convincing myself of all things.
So much of what you produce as an artist demonstrates your dual ability to be a performance artist, how much creative control did you have when filming the EP and who were the people you were working within the process?
This whole film was put together by Chris Chucky, a film director from the UK, who is amazing. Usually, I direct everything myself, so that was the first I let someone else take the creative lead while working with me in tandem in post-production. But still most of the ideas of where we should set certain scenes and skits came from him, he sent me the pitches on what environments he would see the songs in, and I was blown away by some of the references he was seeing in my songs. What I love is in the last part of the video, the whole rage part of it, was that it’s very loaded, very personal for me you know i’m a black, mixed-race man who grew up in Germany. The idea I wanted to provoke was the idea of how much blackness and black masculinity is tolerated until it becomes too much and intimidating. Towards the end, there’s this element of rebirth which is a theme around my performative space, which I call “Church of Rage” which I do during my concerts and we say you are being reborn, and you are raging. During a period of rebirth there’s a lot of pain, frustration, and shifting boundaries. The wonderful part about coming together at a concert and engaging in this moshpit culture is that people are angry, and frustrated, they want to vent, they want the feeling of community, they want to rage together. Obviously, it has to be safe but now taking into context all this internalized anger and putting it in a place where you can vent together to set yourself free from everything. It’s using that destructive energy for something for yourself.
Have you always centered your art around politically conscious topics that are so socially forward-thinking, in terms of thinking about liberation and revolution, or is this something that you came into through your music over the years?
It’s always been a thing. Before I wanted to pursue music, I wanted to work in international relations and I wanted to revisit how we trade with Africa as the Western hemisphere and change the contract to be more transparent to rid of corruption, which I think is the key in terms of the problems and poverty that we face in Africa. I’ve always taken a keen interest in politics and international affairs and my brain is always just analyzing things and connecting them and so it’s only natural that is reflected in my art and music.
I’m interested in the last song of the EP, “Skit” where you're singing in English but there’s an echo of yourself speaking German that’s essentially harmonizing with yourself. What is the message behind that track?
Yeah, it’s literally a skit, for me it was just to show, again touching on my brain being super active and analyzing all the time, I tend to overthink and when I overthink this is what it sounds like in my brain. Learning how to deal with that is also part of rebirth. You are not your thoughts, so let them flow through as guests and visitors. Me growing up bilingual a lot of my mental activity happens in English so sometimes shit also pops up in German.
In one interview you say “There’s two sides of me. 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.” How do you maintain that equilibrium in terms of appealing to both kinds of listeners that want to hear both sides of you?
We as people are so multifaceted, and the music industry and society want to always put us in boxes and label us as conscious rappers versus hype rappers, black men vs. white men. I’ve never felt like I've fit into any type of box, so for me, if I want to do a trap song I’ll sprinkle some conscious lyrics into it and if I want to do a more mellow song about some heavy shit on a dark beat I'll add some dark stuff. The sweet spot in what makes things stick and what makes them exciting and intriguing is that fine space between ‘I know and I understand it’ and ‘this doesn’t make sense.’ It’s like a statue that moves or a person that doesn’t move. Tying together extremes is the core of what I aim to do.
You’ve also spoken a lot about making music as a tool for implementing change, in a perfect world what does a Kelvyn Colt legacy look like?
What helped me when I was in a dark place and feeling really lost was artists like Pac and Cudi, and I became obsessive over these artists. I watched every Pac interview and documentary because every time this man spoke and used his platform he added value. I’ve always thought that, like a microphone, MIC stood for ‘Make it Count’ so every time I'm given a platform or a stage and step in front of the mic I want to leave a legacy behind. I want every time people encounter my name, I want them to feel something and take value from it. Life is so short and once we are gone our music stays forever.