NATIVE Exclusive: R&B-rooted singer Kaien Cruz embraces sonic and emotive diversity
Ahead of their debut album, 'KAIEN', the South African artist discusses creating music as a form of therapy.
Ahead of their debut album, 'KAIEN', the South African artist discusses creating music as a form of therapy.
A spellbinding feature of the South African Music scene is its diversity. It’s a reflection of its societal make-up. “They call South Africa the rainbow nation because there’s so many different cultures, languages and people,” LA-based, South African artist, Kaien Cruz tells the NATIVE. “A lot of the world that isn’t aware of the diversity that Africa holds, is kind of surprised by the fact that there’s African artists that make pop songs or country songs for example. It’s always done in a way that still holds the essence of Africa as a whole, and all the different cultures.”
For Kaien, their music is rooted in R&B, a genre with a gamut of exciting talent in South Africa. In conversation with the singer, their ethos of diversity and providing a new perspective shines even clearer and if any artist understands the sheer power of staying true to oneself, it’s them. But it hadn’t always been this effortless. Growing up as a non-binary person in South Africa and relocating to Los Angeles so early on in their career and adulthood, amidst its challenges, the journey to self-discovery was understandably a tumultuous one.
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This left Kaien Cruz only one choice: Music. Amidst life’s many obstacles, coupled with navigating the industry as an independent artist in a foreign country, they found solace in creating. Singles like “Fa111ing Angels” and their lead extended play, ‘Buffering…’, showcased Kaien on new levels of self-acceptance with music serving as a chosen vessel for expression. “The industry is getting more diverse and open to different types of people and people who aren’t fitting into standards or norms,” Kaien shares, relaying their gratitude for being able to hold that space.
We get a well-rounded story-telling approach and heightened levels of vocal maturity on their recently released single, “I Lay,” along with a remix that features Kenyan songbird Xenia Manasseh. The pair stays true to their R&B roots, seamlessly gliding across the track’s smooth Pop-leaning soundscape while telling a story of timeless connection and love with their blue-eyed perspective on romance. For their debut album, over three years in the making, Kaien is set to unveil another layer of their artistry, delivering a summative report of their journey so far with a vivid collection of stories, memories and experiences all tied together by their buttery vocals and pristine production.
“The album is my outlet and therapy for going through life’s challenges at the time. You can find themes of love, self, relationships, life, heartbreak, joy, betrayal, connection, and just the full spectrum of emotions,” they explain. Ahead of the release of ‘KAIEN’, slated for October 26, we caught up with Kaien Cruz to detail their creative processes for the debut album, the moments leading up to the momentous release and their early music journey leading up to this moment.
Our conversation, which follows below, has been lightly edited for clarity.
NATIVE: You’re from Pietermaritzburg, have lived in Durban and have also moved to Los Angeles. How has this interaction with different places and people contributed to the art you make?
Kaien Cruz: I grew up in a small town on the south side of Durban called Pietermaritzburg but I ended up going to uni in Durban for a while. There I met some really cool local producers and artists and that’s when I kind of began my music career. I never really thought that music could be something that I actually did full-time. Music was always in the background for me. I played the guitar in my room, just for myself and I would write songs with therapy. I graduated high school and right at the end, I started posting little 15-second clips on Instagram covers. Someone had reached out who was a rapper at the time inviting me for my first session in 2016. I recorded a couple of songs which ended up on the radio. One of them, [Sketchy Bongo’s] “Love Me in the Dark,” I’d written on guitar and later produced as a Dance track.
That’s how I ended up being a top five in the country which led to us opening for Justin Bieber as part of this tour in Cape Town and Johannesburg. That opened so many doors by performing a lot and working with really cool artists like Nasty C. Which then led me to meeting these two producers who were from Zimbabwe but lived in LA. They were the ones that introduced me to the concept of moving to LA and going down that path. I then worked on a visa for a while and at the end of 2019, I got a visa. I came to LA for a couple of months just to check it out and make music. I went back to South Africa and in 2020, I came again for just a couple of months. COVID hit and I was stuck in LA. I had to make the decision of either staying or going back home so I chose to stay.
When did you realise you wanted to pursue a music career and what sort of support did you receive on a familial level if any?
I think my family has always been mostly supportive. My parents just had the concern of, you know, me being taken care of and having everything that I need. With me dropping off uni, they did have concerns at first but I think once they saw that I was having success in music and I was really doing what I love, they became fully supportive.
Who were your early music influences and how would you say they affected the sort of music you make?
It’s kind of a mixed bag for me since I grew up in South Africa. It’s so diverse and there’s a lot of genres and cultures. Growing up, my family was super religious so we didn’t really get to watch TV a lot or get exposed to different types of music other than what my dad would play. My dad loves jazz music, the old school stuff like Earth, Wind and Fire and so that’s what I would listen to mostly. I think I was 13, or 14 when I started high school and that broadened my perspective because all of my friends at high school were listening to different types of music. That opened my world. Also, listening to music on the radio because radio is really big in South Africa and music discovery. That’s how I got exposed to more hip hop and R&B etc. That is what bleeds into my music now and allows me to bounce between genres and do things that are not really in a box. That is my favourite way to create now so it definitely had a big impact.
How would you say your taste has evolved? Do you still listen and gravitate towards the same type of music and if not, what’s new?
Getting older and developing myself as my own person outside of my family, discovering who I am has evolved my taste naturally. When you’re younger, you’re more selective and kind of picky. And then things just grow on you so I feel the same way about music.
NATIVE: So far, you are an independent artist. What has been the most enjoyable thing about single-handedly taking charge of your career and what has been most challenging about that too?
Kaien Cruz: It’s been a challenge, to say the least. But it’s definitely worth the things that you go through as an independent artist. When you come up with whatever idea sparks the most joy and be able to see that idea through and not have to sacrifice any parts because someone else is in control, it’s rewarding. That’s definitely the biggest benefit. And also obviously, like financially as well, I’m seeing most of the profits from my music. Mostly, it’s the creative freedom.
You featured on “Love Me In The Dark” which was nominated for the South African Music Awards (SAMA). That must’ve been a phenomenal moment. How did that feel and how would you say that moment has impacted you in the long run?
I think that definitely gave me a foot in the door, locally, especially. Then also opening for Justin Bieber as well. But mostly, personally, it just gave me a lot of lessons. I had no knowledge prior because no one in my family makes music. The question of What am I supposed to do? Is this the right decision? What are industry standards? Were largely unanswered. I was so young, with no management and the support of my family was great but they also didn’t understand how the industry worked. So being thrown in the deep end like that was a big experience that allowed me to take away a lot of lessons that I carry with me now.
South Africa is incredibly rich in music, how would you say being from this part of the world has influenced your style?
They call South Africa the rainbow nation because there are so many different cultures, languages and people. Naturally, just growing up in that type of environment has given me a pretty broad perspective. I understand a broad spectrum of people and cultures and I think that does carry over to the music side because that environment was rich with different sounds and languages. Naturally, that has poured into my music influences and what I gravitate towards.
How do you see your music contributing to or standing out within the broader South African music landscape?
My music shows that South Africa is diverse. A lot of the world that isn’t aware of the diversity that Africa holds, is kind of surprised by the fact that there are African artists that make pop songs or country songs for example. It’s always done in a way that still holds the essence of Africa as a whole and all the different cultures. For people listening to my music, they get a taste of all the nuances and the differences of the culture.
NATIVE: You have spoken about how applying for and being granted an artist visa to the United States was one of the most challenging obstacles you had to tackle to be able to pursue a career as an artist on a global scale. Why was the move necessary for you?
Kaien Cruz: It worked in multiple ways. I was 20 years old when I moved. Moving away from home at that age is always a big step of growth, no matter what you’re doing. So moving to a whole new country especially comes with a lot of new challenges that you have to navigate on your own and that alone. LA is such a cool place where you can make up anything and people would be on board with it. You find people who are on the same journey as you and can provide support. The move for me in multiple ways was definitely something that allowed me to grow in the full sense of the word. Doing that away from family, in a new country and as an independent artist as well, I was very independent in all the ways. That has just given me all the tools that I need to take my music to the next level and I’m grateful for that experience.
What’s the story behind the remix of your latest single with Xenia Manasseh? How did that come about?
I worked with a producer Aus Young who actually produced a lot of the project that I’m releasing in October. I had done a trip to Costa Rica for a couple of months to shoot the “I Lay” original music video. One day I called Aus and mentioned working with Xenia. I checked her stuff out and I had heard one of her songs before and she’s just so incredible. So I didn’t really think much of it at the time, I was just thinking maybe when I come back to LA, we could get into a session. Some months went by and I got back to LA. We were brainstorming ideas for the single I just dropped seeing as it was doing really well. We decided to get a feature on “I Lay” and for some reason, Xenia’s face just popped into my head. So I sent it to her and she loved it. I was patiently waiting and something like the next day, she sent it back with her verse. I played it for the first time on my speakers and by the first line she sang, I thought it was a done deal.
You have worked with African artists like Tellaman, Nasty C, Lucasraps and now Xenia. Why is it important for you to keep your connection to the artists on the African continent alive?
I think naturally, those are the artists that I started with when I first got into music and so they will always hold a special place for me and my journey. They give me a sense of home and that nostalgic feeling is a grounding presence. That’s what it will always be for me. I always enjoy working with them.
With your debut album on the way, can you walk us through the inspiration behind the album and theme?
This project is my first full body of work which is really exciting. It’s been three years in the making. This project covers the journey of my moving to LA, navigating the pandemic away from family, trying to seek out life and music, personal growth and so much more. The album is my outlet and therapy for going through life’s challenges at the time. You can find themes of love, self, relationships, life, heartbreak, joy, betrayal, connection, and just the full spectrum of emotions. It sums up my experiences over the past couple of years. Genre-wise, I flow between R&B, Pop, and Afropop, which are my favourite genres right now. I’m excited for everyone to finally get a full body of work that really showcases the different styles that I love to work with and just my perspective of life so far. I collaborated with some really cool people on this project like Aus Young and Dan Faber, who’s worked with Kendrick and Lizzo. I also have one feature on the project and it’s unbelievable. I think people would be really shocked hearing that. Just a super cool project with something for everyone that encompasses my journey.
What did your creative process entail?
It’s different every time. It depends on what first sparks the inspiration. If I go into a session and a producer plays me something that I like, then it starts with an instrumental first. Usually, I do lyrics before melodies but sometimes I do melodies and lyrics start coming out and I start freestyling and it evolves. Sometimes, I have a story in my head already that I want to write about or an experience that I want to get out. Music for me is like therapy. So sometimes things happen in life that weigh me in a way that I have to relieve myself of those emotions through music. It depends on the origin of inspiration but it’s different every time.
NATIVE: As we’re anticipating the album release, is there a particular message or feeling you hope listeners take away from the project?
Kaien Cruz: With my music, I always want people to take away whatever it is that they need from it. If I have a lyric that has to do with heartbreak, whichever individual is listening is going to think about their own experiences and that’s what I hope with the things I create—that people can take something for themselves or just feel less alone in the experiences. We all go through heartbreak, happy times, sad times and confusion but whatever it is, the truth is that we are not alone in our experiences. We can all relate to these things in different ways no matter the level you’re on. That’s what I hope my music does.
Representation and inclusivity are crucial points today. As a black queer person, how do you envision your music contributing to a more inclusive and diverse entertainment industry?
Being outside of the box comes with some sorts of difficulties, and challenging a lot of concepts that have been in place for ages. There needs to be a shift if we are going to have an environment that is more inclusive. I’m really proud to be able to hold space for that and be someone people can look up to and relate to. The industry is getting more diverse and open to different types of people and people who don’t fit into standards or norms. It’s really important to have that representation for kids growing up to see that it’s possible to achieve whatever it is you want no matter what you look like or where you come from. I am proud to hold that space.
Reflecting on your musical journey, is there a piece of advice you’d give to your younger self when you were just starting?
I think it’s just remaining pure in my intentions. In any industry, if you get really into it, it can get really overwhelming and can cloud your judgment. People can be really influential in your decision making and I think the advice I’d give to anyone is to hold your ‘why’ really close. Why are you doing what you’re doing? Hold that really close and be really clear on that. It has helped me to know if I’m on the right track and get back on the right track when I’m falling out of it. I remember that I’m doing this for the little kid who grew up with a huge dream in a very small town and had no opportunities. So I remind myself and whoever needs it that anything is possible.
[Featured Image Credits/The NATIVE]