Glass talks to Bakar

In full flow – Glass talks to Bakar about the evolution of his textured sound, his forthcoming LP and why he hates musical categorisation

Bakar. Photograph: James Anastasi

TALK/Singing is one of music’s most enduring traditions. At its best, it’s revered in country, rap, punk and pretty much everything in between (which is pretty much everything). It’s undefined in English but, as ever, you can rely on our German cousins for inimitably summing up the indescribable: sprechgesang they call it. At its very best, it’s a key tool for genre benders who prioritise character over virtuosity: think Ian Dury, David Byrne, Grace Jones, Lou Reed. Sprechgesang is a staple.

What I’m less familiar with is Sing/Talking (not even the Germans have a word for that). However, sitting across from Bakar, I’m struggling to find another way to describe his speaking voice. This is worth mentioning because Bakar belongs to that ever-diminishing club of singers who have just one voice – on records, in interviews and, I imagine, on the phone with his nan. With this in mind, I’ll do my best to describe this single voice for the benefit of those unfamiliar with his debut album BadKid (2018) and latest EP Will You Be My Yellow (2019).

Needless to say, it’s musical. Everything flows, but with unpredictable speed and direction. In French, enchaînement is when the last letter of one word becomes the first letter of the next – not a slur or a drawl, more cultured. This features prominently. His accent is unmistakably north London. Perhaps most notable is the timbre – meandering, to say the least. “It’s a progression,” Bakar says as he describes his shifting sound, pronouncing it as if it were a scale, a different note for each syllable, climbing up then down from the peak in the middle. It’s a bit like how Italian sounds to the untrained ear – expressive beyond reason, but pleasing, nonetheless.


“Most of the time when my sound changes, it’s not a conscious decision. It’s normally just something that’s guided by the time I’m in, you know what I mean? The toys I have to play with, stuff like that. I started Will You Be My Yellow in LA, so I guess that was a subconscious influence – the vibe, the energy … but I think it’s just a natural progression. BadKid came out in 2018 and was a bit rougher. So, it’s a progression I think.”

Bakar. Photograph: James Anastasi

Trying to make sense of Bakar’s voice (he’s not French or Italian, but British with pan-African heritage) is a bit like trying to narrow down his musical style: it’s better to enjoy the confusion rather than to try and make sense of it. Of course, this hasn’t stopped people from trying. The “rough” of BadKid drew comparisons to Bloc Party and The Streets – different sides of the same mid-noughties UK coin, and inherently evocative of a period of music that UK critics cling to with a vice-like, rose-tinted grip; like some NME diaspora.

Rather than celebrating his disregard for genre-red-tape (clanging guitars and post-punk barking on One Way, followed garage track WTF), Bakar was involuntarily positioned as an indie revivalist. He gets it; he grew up in that era. Yet it’s immediately clear that he’d rather be defined by his appetite for progression, than any ill-conceived label.

“I was obsessed with Bloc Party. The sound was so mad to me, I was just like ‘woah’. And seeing a black man fronting [the group] was a game-changer for me, for sure. Same with Dev [Hynes] doing Lightspeed Champion – he was dressing crazy.” But that was then, and this is now. More importantly Bakar isn’t a Kele Okereke/Dev Hynes hybrid, he’s just Bakar. “I actually tell my PR, I don’t like the media trying to, in a way, take me away from myself … trying to make it this black kid in a white world thing. For me it wasn’t even about that. I never wanted it to be like that. I kept on seeing myself getting pushed by the media into like, ‘he’s bringing indie back’. It was like they were pulling me further away from my own people.”

For someone as textured as Bakar, defining yourself on your own terms can be a tightrope, and it’s something he’s still learning how to navigate. “Here comes Catch 22 – boom: I get nominated for Best Hip-Hop Act at the Urban Music Awards. In a sense that’s me being more accepted by my own people, which is amazing. But then part of me is like, I don’t like that type of urban.”

He spells it out like a foreign word. “UR-BAN. And I’m not a hip-hop act. So it’s a balance that I’m still trying to figure out.” In the wake of Tyler the Creator’s post-Grammy comments, when he took umbrage with the very same terminology, there’s a distinct feeling that this type of reductive categorisation must finally be on the way out.

Bakar. Photograph: James Anastasi

“It sucks that whenever we – and I mean guys that look like me – do anything that’s genre-bending … they always put it in a rap or urban category. I don’t like that ‘urban’ word — it’s just a politically correct way to say the N-word to me … I’m just like, why can’t we be in pop?

“I think that’s facts. I think he’s [Tyler the Creator] absolutely right. Some people took it as him looking down on hip-hop or whatever, but I think he was right. I think it’s still very much a systematic racist radio thing, being ‘urban’. So being nominated for an Urban Music Award for hip-hop was kind of a difficult thing for me.”

He’s right, Will You Be My Yellow is absolutely not hip-hop, or urban, whatever urban even means. It’s also drastically different from his debut, BadKid, considering they were released a mere year apart; less militant, more soulful. The most notable link is WYBMY’s cover art: just as BadKid features a family portrait with Bakar’s dad’s face obscured by a red doodle, the follow-up shows Bakar alone, his face obscured behind a yellow fuzz. Enchaînement.

“How do I explain it … I don’t want to explain it too much but [the continuity] definitely wasn’t by accident. [On] BadKid I just didn’t want to give my dad that shine. I’m not really a big fan of him … also, [the drawing covering his face] is my logo. The funny thing is, I named my logo Bash and a month later I realised that that’s my dad’s name, Bashir … Around that time all of these things were coming together and I was like, ‘yo, I’m just getting all these signs’. In the end I was like, ‘yeah he is Bash’. And so am I. I could hate him all I want, I could do whatever, but I am him.”

Bakar. Photograph: James Anastasi

Bakar’s lyrics and their delivery are often so flippant that you can be lulled into assuming they’re off the cuff. They’re not, clearly. “I always knew I was going to do something called Will You Be My Yellow one day. I’d had the title for ages. I’ll often hear someone say a phrase or come up with something that really sticks with me, and I’ll just write it down and keep it with me until I find a place for it. I’m like that. Really [the title] meant ‘will you be my light’.

That’s what it was really about: putting light into darkness. The melody [on lead single Hell and Back] is really bright, with the chorus and the trumpets and all that. But what I’m saying is: everything isn’t actually that bright, it’s the complete opposite – the song’s dark.

“The first bar is: ‘I mixed a lot of love with a lot of drugs … then I found you’. The chorus is: ‘Can you tell where my head was at when you found me, you and me went to hell and back just to find peace’. It’s a really dark song masked behind this bright backdrop, and I love doing things like that. I had fun [on Hell and Back], and I really needed to have fun at that moment.”

Bakar’s tried a greater variation of sounds over the course of two releases than most artists muster in a decade, but with Hell and Back there’s a feeling that he may have stumbled across a band worth sticking with. For a little while at least. It’s helped etch a blueprint and “kind of helped us know what the next album is going to be about”. Following sessions in London and New York, he’ll return to Rick Rubin’s fabled Shangri-La Studio in Malibu to work on his forthcoming LP.

“I want to say I’m like, 30 per cent done. But I’m in that zone where I can go from 40 to 80 in like a month. I’ve had a conversation with Rick [Rubin], but I haven’t met him … yet. His team said he was big into BadKid. Hopefully [we’ll meet] next time I go [to Malibu]. I definitely caught his vibe. I definitely felt his blessing … that’s why Hell and Back came out the way it did.”

Having your record blessed by Rubin is a bit like having your rosaries blessed by the Pope, so whether Bakar decides to stick, or twist, the omens couldn’t be better.

by Charlie Navin-Holder





Styling assistant GAL KLEIN

Photography assistants NINA PARSONS and ELLE HOLMES

Special thanks to Elephant West

All clothing and accessories LOUIS VUITTON Spring-Summer 2020