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Tkay Maidza woke up and chose violence

PAM caught up with the Zimbabwe born rap innovator to talk about the SoundCloud rap era, embracing the dark side, her matrilineal clairvoyance and new album, Sweet Justice, ahead of her Pitchfork Paris festival performance.

Tkay Maidza, born Takudzwa Victoria Rosa, was destined for music. Or at least that’s what her mother’s psychic predicted. After some continent hopping and a defected tennis career Tkay chose to “lean into rage” as a schoolkid trying to escape. Inspired by the SoundCloud and Limewire era where GOOD music and sketchy downloads were crashing oldschool Macs, Tkay went from freestyling in her bedroom to MIKE DEAN instrumentals to dropping her own mixtape aptly named the Switch Tape Mixtape around 2014. The action packed project complete with a free download link is a milestone in hardcore SoundCloud rap. It starts with a punch and never relents. Which is how you could describe Tkay’s continuously mounting music career. Her 2016 official debut scored a feature from Killer Mike and tuned into a careless teenage energy that shamelessly combines elements of cheesy pop, forward thinking EDM and hardcore rap. Next came the Last Year Was Weird trilogy that leaned into the experimental aspects of r&b, but the standouts remained the heavy, terrifying tracks like “Flexin” feat. Duckxrth, “Syrup” or “Awake” feat. fellow rap innovator JPEG Mafia. Now, with Sweet Justice, which marks another turning point for Tkay both psychologically and musically, we’re invited into the hypnotic productions of deep house, r&b alchemist Kaytranada. But Tkay can’t run too far from her essence. “WUACV” (woke up and chose violence), “Silent Assassin” (produced by Flume) and “Ring-a-Ling” all call back to the rage that had Tkay “imagining [herself] as a superhero” in her childhood bedroom. There’s no playback when Tkay takes the mic to rap, which is where we found her, getting ready to hit the stage in Paris for the Pitchfork Avant-Garde festival. Energized and full of smiles, Tkay broke down her Zimbabwean roots, frenetic rise through the internet era of music, the meaning behind some of her songs and the mystic aura that hovers around her family, Tarot Card reading and music. 

Starting at the beginning. I read that your father and uncle were musicians in South Africa. What can you tell me about their music?

My dad was in reggae bands or reggae cover bands and my uncle was in a reggae band called the Rudimentals. And then I had another uncle who was basically like the Bob Marley of Zimbabwe. His name was Andy Brown. Literally a social justice warrior for the country. He has an urban legend song about the police. So it’s in the family.

And then you came out with your Switch Tape Mixtape. Do you have memories from that SoundCloud or MySpace era of music?

I remember I had Santigold on my MySpace page because I thought it was the coolest thing.  I was in the first year of high school and no one else had Santigold. I was discovering Tinashe around that time. That was when she started dropping her mixtapes before signing her record deal. Then it was LimeWire where I was downloading Soulja Boy. You’d have Lil B songs that you didn’t even know were on your computer because he would mask them as other artists. I went on to Facebook and YouTube and that was the Young Money, GOOD Music era. It was cool you could download the instrumentals and that’s how I started music. There would be an instrumental of “Mercy” or “Clique” and I would write my own verses to that.

Kind of the same era, the blogging days. I read in an interview that there was a point where you got a lot of negative comments from Australian bloggers. How’d you take that negative feedback?

I think when I had that first wave of hate, especially in Australia, I knew it just happens to everyone. It’s tall poppy syndrome. You reach a ceiling and that’s why I ended up moving to L.A. because there comes a point when the general public’s like, “Who is she? Why do you keep playing her? She’s not popular…” That’s when I started focusing on Last Year Was Weird which was a total rebrand, not just musically, but just as a person. 

You’ve said there’s a before and after Tkay

Exactly. That’s kind of the moment that happened. And I think now with Sweet Justice, it’s basically like Switch Tape, but much more realized. I’ve found a way to harness the energy and how I want to portray it. There’s definitely been some finessing and growing, but I think there’s a power to intentionally; doing something and it working out. Then I can actually brag about it because it was on purpose. *laughs*

You also seem to embrace the dark side in a lot of your music. “WUACV” for example. 

Honestly, I feel as a kid, I was always slightly sad and I find it fun to lean into rage. I think that’s why I became obsessed with Kanye West and GOOD music. That was a completely new world for me. The productions at that time, Yeezus, Hudson Mohawke… like peak trap. And as music moved along, you had Lil Pump, Rico Nasty, JPEG and that just really spoke to me. I was like, wait, I want to do stuff like that… this is my calling and I can do it in a way that’s sarcastic, and it can be chill, but you can still mosh to it. I really love having energy when I play songs live. Also, if I’m just at home, I mosh to songs by myself. 

But then, there are other songs that take the opposite approach like “You Sad”. So there’s a little bit of everything. 

I think that comes from my heritage. Zimbabwe music is bright and happy, and I think I function best when I’m happy. When I first started making music it had to have some brightness to it to stand out in some way. So I always want to keep that element because I love singing. I love ballads.  But I think that specific song there’s an element of anger to it. It’s coming from that sarcastic place. I’m always writing from a cheeky point of view, like this song sounds sweet, but it’s not really a nice song. *laughs*

You’ve mentioned elsewhere that you were also a pretty dedicated tennis player. Do you see a parallel between your music and tennis career? 

Oh, definitely. I played for 10 years. I’ve learned so many lessons like, the work you put in, you get out. Because to be a better athlete, you have to put in the hours. The other thing my coach would tell me was to try and return every ball, because then, the ball’s in their court. Then whatever happens is up to them. Take a swing. Just try and do as many demos as you can. Don’t burn yourself out, but always try to return the emails, etc etc. That’s how you get new opportunities. Get it back to them. Even if they don’t hit it back, at least you tried. And you’ll feel better for actually giving it a go.

On “24K” you say, “get accustomed to my climate, finest Tarot card I’m the highest.” Are you into the mystic?

So apparently my grandma is a clairvoyant. And my mom has been heavy into psychic readings and tarot readings since she was six. When I stopped playing tennis and I was doing music for like three years she eventually told me, “I knew you were going to do this.” I was like, “How!? What!?” She said the psychic reader told her that I was not going to play tennis for the rest of my life.

So, it sparked an interest for me. When I moved to LA, whenever I was bored, I would go around to random psychic shops. Some were really horrible, but there’s one reader that I still speak to. I’ve known her for 8 years. And she’s helped me. Then I became slightly too obsessed where I spent way too much money on it. It was really bad *laughs* That turned into me buying my own tarot cards. Plus I find it more fun reading for friends. And I started basing a lot of my covers on the High Priestess (second Major Arcana card in cartomantic Tarot decks).

There are elements of Tarot Cards everywhere in my album covers. Like Easter eggs. You can get different meanings from them. And if you look at the whole picture, you can tell there’s some sort of story, an energy to it. Sweet Justice is based on the Justice card, and that’s also why it’s called Sweet Justice.

To finish off… What motivates you? What inspires you? Why do you do it?

I am always following my bliss. I want to be happy.  I have always been told by my mom that you should live your life every day. Enjoy it. Excel. Whatever you do, do it at your best. But I also think the reason why I really jumped into music was because it was an escape from me being a schoolkid. I was imagining myself as a superhero. I love it because I have to have fun. When I have fun, that’s when it all translates and makes sense. Yeah um… What’s the word? Novelty. And enjoyment. I’m just looking for excitement. *smiles*