Meet the teenage virtuoso concocting a signature blend of contemporary RnB and spiritual Afrobeat, all while penning tracks for some of the biggest names in the game.
What were you doing as a teenager? It’s likely the majority of us were still taking our time to figure everything out. Maybe piece together the very first building blocks of what we might look to achieve in the future. For NAK? Well, he’s leading his hometown into the epicentre of RnB and contemporary Ghanaian and Nigerian infused pop music. On top of that, this kid is doing it all off his own back; musician, producer, singer, writer, composer, director. It seems there’s nothing Nak hasn’t got the talent for. Did I mention he’s only 18? Yeh, not bad.
The multi-talented artist is sitting on a humble collection of releases to date. Flying Away, Fix Me and, most recently, Freaky all feature the real ability to move a crowd. The collective palette is made up of constant chattering, clicking drums and layers of stuttering, heavy auto-tune vocal ad libs. Soft synthetic melodies lay the foundations, a signature of his production, all before a wave of pulsing rhythm crashes forward with throbbing bass which Nak entwines with shivering liquid guitar riffs.
His vocals are a unique blend too. They contain both essences of millennium Liverpudlian and African culture. Lyrics about love, sex and money keep up the high energy and quick pace of the tracks. Everything this kid does is a slick addition to his overall package. He’s got both eyes on the top of the music industry.
When we meet, [Ed: this interview was carried out pre-social distancing measures], conversation doesn’t have to travel back too far to reach the early phases of Nak’s story. Firstly, because he’s still so young; secondly, his transition to urban music prodigy has been mercurial.
Growing up Nak was an old soul, or a “Grandma’s boy” as he admits to me, as we sit down for today’s interview. Reflecting on his childhood, he recalls how he would listen to her music like The Beatles and The Kinks. Not the type of artists you’d link to the contemporary urban sound, he admits. But behind the cosmetics, it’s music that all share their roots in the rhythms of pioneering black music.
However, the unsuspecting influences don’t stop there in this artist’s short yet busy journey. Nak started at school with a ukulele obsession. Then moved on to guitar, which he self-taught, leading him to be involved in rock bands in his early school years. But it all started to align when being introduced to GarageBand.
The remote app sparked a new interest; the absence of a laptop at home meant he was quickly mastering the app via his mobile phone. “I got moved from the bottom music group to the top just by practising on my phone,” he recalls before of his days in school, “I was a bit shook from that.”
With guidance from development programme centres such as Firefit in L8, Nak became noticed by cultural programme developers such as the multi-talented producer and artist KOF, who at the time worked for 20 Stories High – a theatre company that works with working class and culturally diverse young people, emerging artists and world class professionals.
“I remember first meeting KOF and he asked me my age,” he says, remembering where much of his talents started to realise a new direction. “I was 14 at the time. I told him and his reply was ‘What, your music is sick, are you sure you’re 14?’” It was evident that Nak was a natural. Even when mastering a phone app there were serious signs of promise.
At 14 Nak was still playing in a rock band, practising his beat making alongside trying to remake his favourite songs, which included Jungle’s Busy Earnin and the theme tune to Marvel’s first Avengers movie. “GarageBand really helped widen my music taste as it had a lot of instruments – even some I’d never heard of before. I started rapping also when I was 14. My liking for black original music started with old school hip hop, being obsessed with KRS One and Public Enemy. As I got older I started to like RnB more and more.”
Leaving school and starting college things became more serious. Nak became involved in the teenage international rap group Toast Gang, of which one member originated from Los Angeles. With the help of their transatlantic connections the group drew considerable attention leading to a collaboration with Lil Pump. “We’d do shows here in Liverpool during December then go and do shows here then go there in summer,” he says of his time in the group. But it was around the time that he finished working with Toast Gang that he began working properly with KOF and focusing on his own music.
While Nak was well versed in RnB and rap, he also spent lots of his time around African music. However, there wasn’t a great fondness for the latter. It wasn’t until Nak confronted a personal loss that he’d begin to fuse RnB with Afrobeats – the combination which peppers his string of releases so far.
“When my dad died, I felt like I didn’t really know myself,” he says, thinking back to the foundations of the sound he is now beginning to hone. “Then I started going to church, because the church where he had his funeral was a Nigerian church, there was lots of singing, dancing percussion and drums – people going mad, really. I feel like if my dad didn’t die, and I hadn’t experienced going to church and feeling the spiritual connection of the Afrobeat music, then I wouldn’t be making Afrobeat music today.”
“It’s the way that I was grieving. It was just a connection. I feel as though because Afrobeats are growing in contemporary music, it’s definitely the right thing to bring more Afrobeat into my own production.”
The concept of spirituality in relation to divine higher power is often described as an experience that brings someone closer to God. It seems that for Nak the creation of Afrobeat music serves as a way to experience the here and now, and this consciousness is part of the movement that is creating rising popularity in Afrobeat worldwide. What his music possesses is the healing, uplifting and energising qualities similar to spiritual inspiration. The music creates experiences that feel familiar to people, in the same way you feel familiar with your favourite song. Therefore, Nak seems to have found a consistent connection to his music that has helped him to discover and express his identity through creativity and movement.
It was only in the last year, having started working with Kof professionally, NAK began to consider releasing his own material. “It wasn’t until I got this mad plan to do video covers and start posting them to get people engaged,” he says. “Before then I was just a ghost, I was that person where I know everyone, but nobody knows who I am.”
Nak planned to release Flying Away – his first solo track and video made in just two takes, a song infectious in its funk and groove percussions with echoing chanted ad-libs and soothing a sweet toned vocal. With the track catching attention, there were plans to harness his creative energy and release one song a month. However, like most things, the current lockdown has got in the way for the moment.
The bigger picture sees the release of three projects with himself behind the beat and behind the lyrics. There’s a maturity and humbleness as we talk about his approach to releasing music and those who he’s surrounded himself with. “A big thing that I’ve learnt from Kof is that, in the music industry, people will play with you in ways that are dangerous. At times I’ve felt like working with Kof has been too good to be true. Not only is he a top mentor and manager to me, but he’s also a great friend. He’s definitely made an influence in my life not only as an artist. He was a way of thinking that has allowed me to be more open minded and that good or bad, the choices is ours as artists, influencers, businessmen and even as people.”
Nak has a local base, but an international outlook in his ambitions as an artist. He explains how there is a lack of connections in Liverpool and expresses his frustration at the feeling London dominates UK music. “It’s all about finding that London connection” he says, noting how Liverpool will only be able to support his brand of music to a certain level. This has given rise to aims of attending university in London and expanding his connections in the heart of the RnB and Afrobeat scenes.
Speaking with Nak for a short while, you can sense the desire to be recognised for his musicianship; the craft which got him recognised at the age of 14. “I feel like right now people know me as an artist, but they don’t really know that I’m a producer as well” he says. With high hopes to develop his track record in production for artists, build the relationships to become a successful artist, in five year’s time he hopes to see himself on a whole new level at the studio controls. One that would seem on the route to building an “empire” with the eventual prospect of owning his own record label.
Right now though, Nak is collaborating on beats and production here and there with other producers from the Reps Up label in Canada. He’s also currently working on a few ‘references’ which he describes as music terminology for demos or writing songs for other artists. These references are being sent on to the artists for potential placements on albums of some of the biggest stars in RnB. “This involves sending placements made up of beats packs, designed and titled for the likes of Cardi B, Chris Brown, Swae Lee and Rhianna for example” he explains. More recently, Nak has also begun working as a producer and songwriter with producers in London working with big names such as Little Mix. Not bad for an artist who was only learning the trade a few years ago at school.
Nak’s talent and persistence in music makes him feel blessed, but he is modestly aware of the age. He knows he is at an early point in his journey. “I feel like a lot of the time I take advice but I don’t take inspiration. I take techniques but that’s still different from taking inspiration.” However, the themes that Nak is currently writing about isn’t where his true interests lie. He takes solace from the fact that he’s young: “Young people just love enjoying themselves” he says, with an old head on young shoulders. “My music is basically that: just enjoy yourself – music about love, sex, drugs. Just a nice time. But eventually I wanna get into deeper music, but that will just come with age, won’t it?”