We now live in a world where Afrobeats is played in mainstream clubs and a lot of Americans are likely to know at least one popular Nigerian artist – whether it’s Ayo Jay of “Your Number” (though many people still think he’s Caribbean) and/or Wizkid through the highly coveted Drake cosign. And then you have the next level, where people like J Hus in the UK and MHD in France have been wildly successful taking the African influences of their heritage and the Western sounds they grew up on to create their own hybrid mix. The U.S has been a little slow to the uptake but the wave is coming and I’ve always been curious about what our hybrid sound would be. Then I discovered Yonkwi.
Listening to Yonkwi’s music is like a scavenger hunt. The samples and references are meant to take you by surprise in their difference and their placement. Some even slip by you in plain sight, until you realize that the part you’ve been dancing to extra hard is actually familiar. But somehow it all works. Whether it’s an actual sample, instrument, or a subtle nod in his intonation and lyrics, I somehow find a way to feel like I’m at home in Africa or at home in the U.S in just one song. His ability to repurpose and take these different elements from his identities as an African and American create a wildly infectious and eccentric layering of synths, horns, and hard hitting percussion over lyrics that easily switch between cypher-level bravado and playful flirt.
Yonkwi is a 25 year-old Cameroonian/American producer, rapper, and singer. Born to a Francophone mother and an Anglophone father, he lived in Tokyo till the age of five and then moved to New York where he still lives now. During the day he has a comfortable job in analytics, but at night he’s giving everything to his music. Candid, practical and quick to laugh at himself, he’s a man not only devoted to his craft but also to understanding the context of it and how he fits in as an artist. I met up with Yonkwi recently for tea and dumplings to learn more about growing up in Japan, the current state of music production, and why we can’t label artists anymore.
So how did you first get into music?
Basically in 8th grade I had a crush on this girl and the way I thought I could impress her was by making music, so I started using this DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) called Mixcraft. I used to be a mixer mostly and I would go on Limewire and download instrumentals and mix them with different acapellas and play it around people so I could seem cool at school….but then the idea of creating something out of nothing just becomes so cool on its own. It’s interesting because I can’t read music at all, but I think we’re in this new age where we’re not producers, we’re like programmers, music programmers – it’s like coding, taking these patterns and playing this code through.
How did your experience having Cameroonian parents but growing up in Japan and New York influence your interest in music?
It was a hybrid. Saturday mornings my dad would be playing African music and at night my aunt would be playing R&B and hip-hop, stuff like “Angel in Disguise” by Brandy, Aaliyah, Monica, some Biggie, a little Tupac, and a lot of Bad Boy records. So she was definitely the one who really got me into hip-hop but she’d also play stuff like “I Am Every Woman” a lot – that’s the first song I remember dancing to cause the beat was so fire. I still wanna sample that.
It’s this whole idea of the melting pot of life. I have these beats where I sample Utada Hikaru from my time in Japan and Planet Paradise (a Japanese kids show). I used taiko drums in “Your Room.” I remember my mom and my sister took taiko drum classes and even in “Coldest Winter” by Kanye, he used taiko drums. So all these things come back to my own experience somehow.
Different is something that you should love. You should try to make your stuff sound like you.
So my first introduction to you was “Ripe Plantain,” a certified banger, tell me how that came about.
I bought a new synth, it was dope and I was teaching myself how to glide 808s. I played the beat for my little cousins, who at that time loved that Justin Timberlake song “Can’t Stop the Feeling.” They were really pop-oriented, so when I played them “Ripe Plantain,” and they started jumping around, I realized this is really something.
I noticed too what happened when I played it for a bunch of African people, especially the ending, because it was really Coupé-Décalé inspired and I specifically wanted to have all these elements of Central and West Africa. So it was really cool to see people in Cameroon really showing love – even my dad told me he loved the ending.
Your earlier music is sonically quite different. It seems like you were rapping more and the beats were definitely not as Afro-centric in terms of the instrumentation and sampling. How did you make that transition?
I wouldn’t say it is [a transition]. There were levels. In my earlier music such as “Besame,” I was making what I thought I wanted to make, but the later African influences is also me doing what I want. I felt like people either don’t know how to mix Afrocentric vibes with the American stuff or they don’t do it that well.
But at the same time, I was an economics major, I understand the social constructs. I understand what people want and the best thing you could do with that ability is to make something that you like that other people will like as well. It’s easy to make what you want and adhere to a certain audience if you just think about it a little bit. As a producer I can construct what I want to construct. In my later music like “Sucre,” it was like, I like this beat, but I also know that if I keep it at this tempo, a DJ can transition to my song easier than a lot of other records.
Production-wise, who are your biggest influences?
The holy trinity of production is Q-tip as the father, the son is Pharrell and the holy spirit is Kanye. Pharrell in terms of the bridges, the dark key elements, Kanye in terms of sampling and Q-Tip in terms of arranging a record.
How would you classify yourself as an artist, would you even classify yourself?
I would say that I’m hip-hop. We’re in this era of people not wanting to be classified – you have artists like Kid Cudi, Trippie Redd, XXXTentation, all these artists who do a million different things so they don’t’ like classification. But at the heart of it all, it’s all hip-hop to me because hip-hop is this idea of freedom, wherever you come from. If you have a story you can tell it, so I’m just trying to tell my story. I like making Afrobeats, I listen to Coupé-Décalé, but I also listen to Rick Ross and Master P. It’s all these things I grew up around, and these stories I have in my head. I’m an Afrocentric hybrid – everyone’s a little bit hybrid now.
Ok, rapid fire.
Favorite artist of all time?
Favorite NY artist?
Sheck Wes, he’s from Harlem but originally Senegal and signed to Travis Scott.
Hip hop: Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
R&b: Hiatus Kayote, Choose Your Weapon.
Favorite African artists?
Awilo Longomba, Tekno, Petit Pays.
Song or artist on repeat this week?
“God’s Plan,” I kind of hate that I like it, but sometimes you just gotta join the party.
When can we expect the longer project?
When I get a fanbase that wants a longer project (laughs). You’re definitely going to get a volume two of .WAV Palm Wine but for now I definitely want to work on producing more singles.