Currently on a tour of the U.S. to promote his latest album Atlantis: Hymns for the Disco, K-Os took some time to speak with The Concordian about his experience as a black musician in Canada and internationally.
Was moving back to Ontario from Trinidad difficult? What kind of changes did you experience going from one place to another?
When I moved to Trinidad I was a Canadian kid with a Canadian accent. And once I assimilated and got used to the Trinidadian accent, we moved back to Canada. So kids in Whitby were like “you talk weird”. It goes to show that no matter your culture, what’s important is that you’re different. Also when we moved back, my father stayed in Trinidad so we had to get used to living as a single-parent household. Not having my Dad around was a big difference.
You’ve admitted being insecure in high school. Did skin color play a role in those insecurities?
Yeah. Sometimes I would come home, look in the mirror and wonder why I looked the way I looked. Why my hair was a certain way or why my complexion was so dark. It wasn’t because I was embarrassed of it but because I just wanted to fit in. The culture in my house was very much West Indian too so when I would go to other people’s houses and they would drink wine and be eating different food it made me feel real different. Now I understand how great and important it was to come from that culture but at the time I had to deal with those feelings. Being one of the few black kids in my school, I always felt like I was on the defensive.
You said you use to listen to New Order and Depeche Mode as a teenager. Was that unusual for a black kid your age at the time?
I used to hang out with my neighbor who was a skater and his older sister was a punk rock chic. I would come over with my pop, soul, or hip-hop records and they’d be like “Take that shit off!”
They were more hardcore about their musical taste than I was and I found that interesting. It’s not like one day I turned on MTV and liked the stuff I saw. I had to like some of this music because that’s what they played at high school dances or in the car on a Friday night or at parties and stuff.
What kind of figures did you look up to growing up?
The first figures I had were hip-hop guys like A Tribe Called Quest. I also really like The Police but it was harder because I didn’t look like them.
I was very much influenced by Sting and what he did with his voice. The first big influence that I can remember hearing was the song “Roxanne”. But at the end I still felt a void because I could only be influenced so much. So when Eric B. and Rakim and Tribe and others came out, I could really see myself in those people.
What factors help shape your self-esteem as a black man?
My father being around. And the fact that he was a very religious person being a minister. He carried around a Bible, he was friends with everyone and he preached very peaceful ideas. That’s what shaped my black consciousness and it happens to be at the root of most black consciousness. Religion, respect, tradition. That’s what made me feel confident about my black culture.
You’ve described your album Joyful Rebellion as a rant on “the state of hip-hop”. Does that have to do with the way black men and women are portrayed in the music?
Yeah for sure. It was hard to find positive images and role models. It was always someone who’s been to jail or someone who got shot. And then I would turn on the TV and it was also hard to find images of black people that were positive. You know like Denzel Washington ended winning an Oscar for playing a thug in Training Day instead of winning an Oscar for Malcom X. It seems like people relate to that more. I just don’t put myself in that role and there are a few artists who don’t portray themselves in that role either, fortunately.
What artists out there are promoting a positive message for black people?
Bill Cosby would be the number one guy for me. The Cosby Show in the 80s was the most progressive ideal of a black family, a middle class family in America. It wasn’t always about being positive black people. Sometimes it was more subtle like the art they had on the wall or they would play a jazz song in the background. Bill Cosby did the most to break stereotypes in my generation.
In your song “Electric Heat-the Seekwill”, you mention Coretta Scott King. Was she an inspiration to you?
No doubt. She actually died that year and that’s why I wanted to mention her. She’s a person I look up to as a positive role model.
How do you feel about the role of blacks in Rock and Roll today?
I like to use this metaphor. When I lived in Trinidad my grandmother had a dog. When the dog had puppies I use to go play with them and my grand-mother would tell me not to because the puppies would have my human scent and then the mother would neglect them. I think that’s the way black people are with music. We invent a genre and love it but then others start to manipulate it and it loses its appeal. Whether it’s hip-hop, rock, jazz, it’s like the music gets taken by others. When the whole world start messing with it it seems like we don’t want it anymore.
In your song “Equalizer” you say “unknowns were heroes to most.” Are you referring to anybody in particular?
It has a double meaning because it’s first a big up to Mos Def. He had a song called Rock & Roll where he says Elvis Presley was a hero to most but Bo Didley invented Rock & Roll. It’s one thing to say black people started something but what about within the black community. Chuck Berry got famous but maybe he was listening to somebody else unknown that inspired him. There could have been a guy that Jimi Hendrix was listening to in England that we don’t know about. All those people you don’t know about played a big role in hip-hop, rock, soul, R&B.
Your album was just released in South Africa this month. Have you ever been to Africa?
I’ve been to Ghana on the West Coast and it’s basically where slaves were held before coming to the New World. I went into the slave fortresses and I couldn’t sleep for a couple days. The underground prisons. Dark, hellish places. When I came back to Canada at first I had a lot of anger. But then it made me appreciate the fact that today I can live a life with more freedom. It made me feel sad but also triumphant. It makes me want to keep doing the right thing.
In the song “Black Ice” you give great metaphors such as “black is the color of the universe from which we came.” What comes to mind when you think of the word “black.”
Limitlessness. And fear which is something people have to deal with. I read these ancient stories that said the first Neanderthal men use to sleep together because they were afraid of the dark. I’m not sure if Thomas Edison fixed that fear for people. It is the fear of the unknown that is associated with black. Maybe that’s why people enslaved blacks because it reminded them of their deepest fears.