EDo you feel like a higher power is supporting you? Tend to do it. Born and raised in Canning Town, the ambitious 22-year-old has quietly made a name for themselves as one of atmospheric R&B’s most promising new bands, carving out a style that’s both nostalgic and forward-looking. Despite only having four singles deep, his new take on the genre saw him sign to the UK imprint of legendary label Def Jam. [Stormzy, Potter Payper]taking his name ‘0207’ of the London area code.
“You have to surrender to God and the story he is trying to write for you,” Tendai says, recalling the story from his signature to NME. “With the limitation of the roster, you can tell 0207 has a very specific vision and focus for artists…there’s so much they’ve done for me that I wouldn’t even mention, because that’s just crazy.”
Raised in a musical Seventh-day Adventist family, Tendai’s path to music involved some pretty decisive action on her part. After completing two years of music school, he had a spiritual feeling in December 2019 that something was wrong. “I just decided that I wanted to isolate myself and work. So what [lockdown] happened, and I was like, ‘Oh, okay. This is the confirmation I needed!
Somehow anticipating the pandemic, his period of isolation gave him the confidence to experiment, evolving in real time both musically and visually. On ‘Infinite Straight’ (with a spoken introduction by NME 100 old students Jar of Dora), he treads a rocky road, while the video for new single “Time In Our Lives” puts his Ugandan culture front and center, introducing us to collaborators as he sings a slow ballad about love and heartbreak. “The red dress I’m wearing in the video is something my mom wore when she was pregnant with me,” he explains. “This song represents rebirth; there is also a traditional barkcloth that people use to pray over children if they are away. It’s like an air of protection, as I come into myself as an artist.
As his star rises, chances are Tendai will indeed find himself farther from home. Alongside his own debut project, he’s been busy working on his label mate Stormzy’s highly anticipated third album, “This Is What I Mean” (due November 25). In just a few short years, Tendai moves in circles most could only dream of, but remains adamant that he does everything on his own clear terms.
“The songs I did before were kind of to please people, to do that quote-unquote banger,” he says. “But what pop music is really about is clarity. What’s the most honest thing I can say? Going forward, it’s about taking steps in that direction. Dawn of a “whole new era”, Tendai is catching up NME to discuss romance, rebellion and the nuances of black-British expression.
“I think we got there in a really nice pocket of time; everything was fresh, so there was a real buzz of excitement. It’s so funny, because at that time I was mostly playing in bands; people wanted me to sing, but I didn’t really feel the need. I wanted to build all these other gifts, like piano or producing or mixing or collaborating. The first time I dug deep and found my voice was probably on ‘Not Enough’ – there’s courage and passion, but there’s also sensitivity and vulnerability, which sums up What am I.
Who do you look to for inspiration?
“Certainly my mother. He’s someone who has always coached me through performance, but I would also say that people love Brian Adams, Joni Mitchell, michael jackson, Imogen Heap, Damon Alban. I look at them and their careers and I’m like, ‘OK, there’s real artistry here.’ When I was trying to change what I was doing musically, I was thinking about these people and thinking, ‘If I walked into a room with these people, would I play this?’, and the answer was no. So that gives me something to work towards; making music that I not only like, but that the people I like might like.
How does your relationship with your church show up in your work?
“A lot of people in my group, we met at church. The Seventh-day Adventist community has a very special ear; when you play in church, you have to learn to almost put spirituality to music, to invite congregational solace some chord will ring out and it’s so spiritual all humans have this collective subconscious where it’s like, we don’t know why we felt that chord right there, but we did I think being in that church environment has definitely influenced my quest for a voice that loves, connects, and pushes.
Your music is often romantic, but also quite melancholy, evoking a feeling of loneliness or nostalgia. Where do you get this lyrical vibe from?
“All the songs were written about my partner, so there’s definitely romance in there! But when you stand out musically — or try to — there can be a sense of loneliness. For me, it’s like a specific sound of calm; when I listen to ‘Time In Our Lives’, it’s just peaceful. The videos for ‘Not Around’ and ‘Infinite Straight’ are just me, no one else is filming. We’re slowly expanding the world but I think there’s confidence in saying it’s me, I don’t need all my homies or girls or the money in a video that gets me pumped up pressure… “
“There are a lot of things Stormzy said to me during that time that really confirmed my own sense of identity.”
Do you think UK R&B is holding up against the US?
Many people think UK R&B started in 2016 [laughs]. Brother, you have Elton John, Phil Collins, Craig David, jamelia, Adele…so many artists who have been doing British R&B for years, if not decades. When you start putting a pin on where he is and why it makes him a certain way, that doesn’t make sense to me.
“It’s like calling someone a black rock star – no, I’m just a rock star, bro! It doesn’t matter if they’re black, white or whatever; it’s music, and it has always been there. I feel passionate about acknowledging that. But I also think that as the scene grows and we look to our elders, people who look like us and thrive as Skeptawe can be a bit more vocal and not necessarily rely so much on our American cousins.
Your work largely falls into the R&B genre, but you certainly pull into other styles. Why is this kind of versatility important to you?
“I think the black British experience, in particular, is very nuanced. Even when I come home, I hear Luganda, my mother tongue, but my mother also comes home from work with her “work accent” and it takes her an hour to speak more normally. Or being second generation, you know; I’m in east London so I’ll speak like Cockney but then speak classy in a different setting. I think it’s such a superpower.
“There’s no way I need to be the kid who just does afro or rock or drill, and it’s not even something that I’m incredibly aware of doing. I speak of the black British experience because I am black, but it would be similar for an Asian child or a white child.Our experiences in this country are so diverse that it is impossible for us to stand still.
One of our biggest black British ambassadors is Stormzy. You are credited as an executive producer on his next album; What did you learn from this experience?
“I was there for about a year and really learned the power of black Britishness. To be able to see it in this close proximity, in Damon Alban‘s studio, all of us there being black and making this album, seeing this success coupled with the humility of Stormzy… it definitely gave me something to strive for. There are a lot of things he said to me during that time that really confirmed my own sense of identity.
“I think what I’ve potentially brought to the project is the confidence to break the rules. I don’t know what I can say, but for Stormzy, I think it’s going to be a pretty defining album on the artistically. Coming in there as someone who had only released one song at the time, I was just like, ‘Do whatever you want.’ Stormzy already has that guts in the leagues, but I think I just brought an extra burst of energy in. Knowing that a record is going to be different, but feeling excited anyway, is a really special thing.
Tendai’s new single “Time In Our Lives” released