NATIVE Exclusive: Suté Iwar Is On A Journey Of Exploration

"The core of the album is me sharing my journey so far."

Suté Iwar is a master of all trades. At seven, he began playing the piano and saxophone, sharpening his musical skills at Muson Centre, Onikan where his father had enrolled him. Years later, he and his brothers [Tay and Terna] would form BANTU Collective, a creative space with the agenda “to push high-quality art across the board.” Under the collective, Suté released albums and EPs that formed his hybrid style of music, fusing multiple genres that range from Hip-Hop to R&B to Afropop to Soul to Jazz to Funk.

A rapper, producer, singer and songwriter, Suté’s music is greatly influenced by experiences gleaned from his life and those of the people that make up his environment. In 2022, he began his journey with music label Outer South, releasing alright, ok” and the WurlD-assisted “JUDAH LION.” He is primed for the release of his debut album ‘ULTRALIGHT,’ which comes after the Tim Lyre-featuring “SPACE COWBOY” and the kadiata-assisted “STAR PLAYER.”

“The core of the album is me sharing my journey so far,” Suté shares with the NATIVE. “And I think just like anyone’s journey, it’s up, it’s down, it’s joyous, it’s triumphant. It’s all those things.” At the time of this interview, Suté is in the UK and provides insight into his musical background and influences, the making of ‘ULTRALIGHT’ and the passion for community that fuels his music and personality.


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NATIVE: You started playing the piano and saxophone at seven after your father enrolled you in music lessons. What made you fall in love with music in the first place?

SUTÉ IWAR: I think I fell in love with music without even knowing because it was just such a big part of the house. So it was just one of those things that were always around. I’ve never really had to think about music at all or even think about why I like it because it was always there. So when my dad is in the house, he’s playing jazz music at loud volumes all the time, and even like driving us to school or something, he’d probably be playing some Soul music from those guys he likes. And you know, when you’re a kid, whatever you’re being played, you’re trying to find what’s interesting about it and that’s what it was.

And that was even before I started music school [Muson Center in Onikan]. And at the time, there were classes every Tuesday and Thursday after school because I went to Home Science in Ikoyi. Yeah, and that was just like an extension of all of that. I’ve always been happy being around music, being with music and Muson Centre especially always felt like I was travelling out of Nigeria. The place has a very different vibe when you’re in there, so I was happy to be there.

Who are the artists on the African continent that have had a similar influence on your music?

When I was a kid, I wasn’t really paying attention to [the Nigerian music scene] but heard Plantashun Boiz, just like the music that was being played and that was popular. So that’s just a part of my DNA. A guy like 2Face for instance; 2Face is huge for me because of all the Nigerian pop artists he is the most complete; he was also writing really good songs and he was talking about a range of things. 2Face is one of those guys [that] if he wanted to, he could come out with another hit song and the writing in the song would also be cool. And he’s from Benue State, which was big for me because there are not a lot of big artists that are from Benue State. That’s still a growing number. So the fact that he was from Benue and you’re like, “Oh wow,”  and he’s doing it. 2Face was really big for us.

And the other pop guys, too. I remember clearly when Naeto C started doing his thing. That was big because my thing is [about] fusing hip-hop, R&B and all that stuff. Before Naeto C, there were all these other rappers and they were fun but Naeto C made it cool [to rap]. I was in secondary school at the time and I was just like, “Wow. With the music he’s making, he could exist anywhere making this music,” and I still think his first album ‘U Know My “P”’is the best Nigerian Hip-Hop project ever. So, yeah, Naeto C, M.I. and all that whole scene. I can’t say I was influenced directly by D’banj, Wiz[kid], Davido or any of these guys but just having people from where I’m from doing it big is very inspiring.

And Aṣa, too, because that’s a big deal. I went to an Aṣa concert – this is before even her first album. My dad took me to some show at Alliance Française and it wasn’t even [Aṣa’s] show, she was just performing there and I remember seeing her and up until when she released her first album, I was like, “Wow, I swear this is the same girl I saw performing at that thing.” So yeah, I love Soul music and R&B, so for that side of myself, there’s definitely Aṣa there, and also Styl-Plus and all those great Nigerian songwriters.

What’s the connection between Lagos and Abuja as regards your music career?

I grew up in Lagos. Funny enough, I don’t think a lot of people know that. So I was born in Benue but we moved to Lagos when I was like four years old. I did nursery, primary and secondary schools in Lagos. [I then] moved to Abuja just after I finished secondary school—I went to Dowen[College]—and I was in Abuja for a year and immediately loved the place. But then I went to uni a year after I moved to Abuja and then when I finished uni, I came back to Abuja. I’m very much influenced by Lagos because most of my friends are there and I really understand the place. But I have a love for Abuja that’s different because while Lagos moulded me, I feel more comfortable in Abuja because I never felt like I fit into Lagos [and its] way of doing things. I understand it but it wasn’t my speed, which Abuja is.

You and your brothers formed BANTU Collective where the three of you recorded, produced and engineered your music. Why did you choose to join forces?

Suté Iwar: Well, so I got back from uni to Abuja and they [Suté’s brothers] were already making music. It wasn’t very serious at the time but even when I was in Uni, Tay was already sending stuff like, “Oh, look at what I’m working on” because I’ve been working on music since secondary school from Dowen. The first project I released, I was like 15 in Dowen. And the way the secondary school scene was, there were already music groups. I went to Dowen but there were guys in Whitesands [School] who were doing music and it was semi-serious.

But [after] coming back to Abuja, it was like, “Wow, we can really do this thing” because there’s just so much talent to do it. And I didn’t want to do the music thing alone. The whole idea was about community. We wanted to produce Nigerian music of a higher quality, the quality that we heard in our ears because, at the time, the mixing of music wasn’t really what it is now. So we were like, “We want to be able to introduce new things,” but if you are doing something like that, you can’t do it alone. So, the idea was, you know, let’s build this community: BANTU Collective. Let’s make it even more than music. Our agenda is to push high-quality art across the board and we had like-minded friends that were down for that. And so we just did it.

It was a cool melting pot for everyone that was working in Abuja at the time. I can’t think of an Abuja artist that didn’t come through. What I’m happy about BANTU was just how it gave safety to a lot of Abuja artists to just come around, make music, and feel like what they were doing was important because we’re still just getting past that era where it felt like music was disposable, like you have to explain to your parents that what you’re doing is a real professional career. So BANTU allowed people to justify what they were doing with music, like where we’re doing something serious here. And if you’re trying to do that on your own, it is very easy to just give up at some point. But because it was a community, it emboldened a lot of people.

You were rapping mostly in your early records but on your sophomore album ‘199X,’ you pivoted to singing. What prompted you to add singing to your repertoire?

Singing is something I was always kind of doing but just wasn’t confident enough to do on my music. [This is] because since uni I was always working as a songwriter.  I schooled in Dublin and I was working as a songwriter for artists in Dublin and just in studios all the time. So I’m a real studio rat like that. I’m ready to work on any part of the song. For me, the song is the master and we’re just doing everything to serve the song and make it the best song. So yeah, I think my first impression to a lot of people was ‘Jelí,’ which was rap-heavy but with ‘Jelí’ I was trying to make a great Nigerian Hip-Hop project. Which wasn’t even necessarily the kind of music I was making before ‘Jelí.’ ‘Jelí’ was a different thing for me, and [it] was kind of experimental for me, but we [Suté and his brothers] had this intention like, “We want to make a great Nigerian Hip-Hop project.”

But right after ‘Jelí,’ I was singing on ‘Visions,’ [which] was way more melodic and felt a lot more like myself. So [singing has] always been a part of me but I feel like I had to build the confidence to explore that part fully; also I didn’t want to give all my talents on the first project all at once. I’ve had to slowly introduce the production side of me, the songwriting side, and all of that. But a lot of that just has to do with how I see music. People always ask me the question, “Are you a rapper?” And I’m like, “Sure, I’m a rapper but the first thing I was doing was playing the piano [and the saxophone], so should I be called a pianist or a saxophonist or a rapper or all these labels?” Now, I’m just a musician serving the song, so it’s whatever the song needs. The singing is just a natural progression to make the songs how I hear [them] in my head.

I understand not wanting to give away all your talents in your first projects, and in your case, I believe it worked.

I appreciate that because also a lot of the artists that I love were always exploring every side of their musicality, even if it’s Lauryn Hill, Anderson .Paak or Prince. Prince was rapping in the 90s, you know; it’s about enjoying yourself and having fun with the music you’re making. And really, it’s whatever that looks like. In the future, I might do a project where I’m not even rapping or singing; it’s just like the instrumental or with a band. It has to make sense too because you have fans, right? I respect all the fans who enjoy my raps and I will never deprive them of that, but I also want to enjoy myself. So it’s always finding that balance between not getting bored and making sure that the people who appreciate my music are satisfied.

You have amassed an envious discography since you began making music and those projects have fused multiple genres from Hip-Hop to R&B to Soul to Jazz. And you could have chosen to stick to one genre if you wanted to. What has been the motivation behind these stylistic choices?

I don’t think I’ve thought about it like that. I’ve always just made the music that I would like to hear at that particular time. But the music that really speaks to me is Hip-hop, R&B, Soul, Funk, and Reggae. So those are always gonna find their way into my projects. And I think maybe because I started with instruments – I’m always able to see the connection between them. But because I’m Nigerian, there’s also that connection to Afro-drums, so for me, it’s like trying to bring those worlds together, all my interests and what I enjoy listening to and trying to fuse that with Afro-drums because, in Africa, that’s the one thing we have that can’t be taken from us. Our drums are really what makes us different from everywhere else in the world and our drums are very unique and specific, so that’s really the Afro in anything and I think that’s why [our music] is so big now because we’ve tightened it up to a level where the rest of the world can’t resist that rhythm and it’s just such a new rhythm and does such a specific thing. 

For me, it’s honouring my heritage with those drums and trying to balance out all my other interests musically. But the soul of the music is always around Hip-Hop and R&B. It’s hard to talk about genres because Hip-Hop is also kind of funky. There’s a lot of funk in there because it is based on funk drums and R&B is actually soul music but I’ll say the heart of the music is Hip-Hop, R&B, and fusing that with Afro-drums.

‘ULTRALIGHT’ is your first project under London & Johannesburg-based Outer South. How did that deal come about?

Adam [Tiran] from Outer South has a great ear for music and he’s been around the music [scene]. [After the release] of my project ‘Colors’ was the first time he sent me a message, like, “Love what you’re doing. This is really cool music.” And we just kept talking now and then from that time, and I put out ‘199X’ and he sent me messages too and we were chatting and I could tell he was interested. And I think I was in London at the time when he reached out—I think that they just put out a couple of Tim Lyre songs at the time he reached out to me. That’s how that conversation started. It was cool because I know it’s someone who has appreciated the music for a while and just getting the chance to have him work on the project was cool because I trust his ear. It was very organic the way it happened.

Your new album is inspired by astronomy and finds parallels with love and sound. Why did you choose that route?

The core of the album is me sharing my journey so far. And I think just like anyone’s journey, it’s up, it’s down, it’s joyous, it’s triumphant. It’s all those things. But I guess if I’m saying something on the album, it’s basically that you can do it too if you tap into your light, And that’s why it’s called ‘ULTRALIGHT’ because we all do have the best parts of ourselves and because of how the world is, there’s always these blocks, these things are stopping you from tapping into it. And it’s just like, you want to tap into all that light and maximize it to the fullest extent. A lot of that has to do with me just being a very dreamy person. You know, maybe slightly delusional at some points, but that’s my story and that has always served me well, just believing in the best outcome for myself. I think if I didn’t have that, I wouldn’t even be doing music because music is such a risky thing to do in that you’re just living in flux [and] there are no guarantees for anything.

That’s the message of the project and that message is for everyone. There are people who are living different kinds of lives but still feel a heaviness sometimes or feel like they can’t do this or do that. So, even for me that is doing a risky thing like music, if I can keep my sanity to an extent doing this and keep my light, the message is that you can do it too. And so all the allusions on the album—it’s not even particularly astrological—it just has to do with feeling like the star player in your life, and that’s not diminishing any other person’s light. But if you look up at the stars, they all shine and there is space for everyone. So it’s okay to think of yourself in that way because you’re not diminishing anyone’s light. 

[The track] “SIGNS” is from the perspective of a pessimist, like look at all this stuff that’s happening. But we still have to move forward and shine our light even with all the [bad] signs in the world. For the past year in Abuja, I’ll say I went to the filling station maybe two or three times because there was no fuel, and if you’re in Naij, you know that that’s happening and that’s real and that’s a sign that things are bad but we’re still gonna shine our light regardless. So I think that’s the core of the album.

What was the process of writing and recording the album?

[We started in 2021]. I think the first song that I worked on was “SIGNS.” I recorded “SIGNS” in August or July 2021 and I was in London at the time, and [the weather] was so hot, it felt like I was in Naij and I’m like, “Wait, this is very strange.” That’s why the album starts the way it does. After “SIGNS” [that I produced], I was like, “Okay, I like this sonic direction for the album. Let me make a couple more songs that are in this sonic world where it’s a slow, Afro bounce, but has funky chords or guitars on it.” And I think I must have done “MEDITATE” after “SIGNS” and maybe started “SHUGA PEACH” and “JUDAH LION” around that time.

Most of the songs in the earlier parts of the project were made around the same time in London. And after that, I went back to Naij and [I said to myself], “With this sonic direction I have, what other songs can exist with this sonic language?” So I linked up with SuperSmashBroz—they are a production duo—and they sent over a bunch of beats, and from those I picked “SPACE COWBOY” and “BIG WORLD BABY.” I think I might have recorded “BIG WORLD BABY” and “STAR PLAYER” in London, and when I came back to Naij, it was just to put the finishing touches on those. “THE LIGHT,” which is the outro on the album, is a song I’ve had since 2019 but it was just me on the song. So I chopped it up with Twelve XII and we finished that song up. I think the last songs that were finished were “THE LIGHT,” “ICE DUB” and “EARTH ANGEL” with Ogranya.

And every song was kind of different. I started working on the album myself but there’s so much collaboration in it – I was sending the songs out to people to add stuff; on “SHUGA PEACH,” Bad Entity [who is a producer on the album] added sax and guitars. For “MEDITATE,” I got to play the song to Lex [Amor] in her studio but Tay [Iwar] was the first person that heard that song. And “THE PLEASURE PRINCIPLE,” which is one of my favourite songs on the album, was made with Ray[TheBoffin]. He’s a producer that I’m excited about. He’s on Outer South too and we linked up and I was like, “Yeah, that’s a song we should definitely finish up.” 

Every song [on the album] was made differently and at different times. But “SIGNS” is where the album started.

You produced most of the songs on the project. For the songs that were produced by other producers, how did you decide on whose production to move forward with?

I just played it by ear. I gave myself the intention with “SIGNS” that I want this Afro-bounce but I don’t want pop chords on it. I want soul chords or soul guitar because pop chords weren’t just weren’t interesting for me at the time, they just sounded like every other beat. So that’s what’s different about the album. I just wanted soul chords and Afro-drums. That’s what “SIGNS” sounds like, that’s what “JUDAH LION” sounds like, that’s what “MEDITATE” sounds like, that’s what “THE PLEASURE PRINCIPLE” sounds like.

For the rest of the album, I wanted to maintain the Soul chords but just introduce other kinds of ideas. SuperSmashBroz gave me Trap-sounding songs; it’s the same Soul chords and it fits in but they [have] a Trap bounce to them and that’s on “SPACE COWBOY” and “BIG WORLD BABY,” although “SPACE COWBOY” feels like a Trap-African infusion thing and “STAR PLAYER” is just like a UK summer song. 

The defining thing musically on the album are the soul chords with Afro-drums and some Trap and other stuff. “ICE DUB” was initially an interlude because it’s Reggae and has live drums, and I was like, “This is a nice way to break the album up in the middle.” “ICE DUB” and “THE LIGHT” have live drums on them and they give something different, but it’s all just soul chords.

There are phone conversations from family and friends spread around the project. Why were those conversations important to insert into the album?

It’s easier for me to be vulnerable in music, weirdly enough. Everyone who’s speaking on the album is my friends from way back, and they’re just people who are a big part of my story. I didn’t even give any instructions, I was just like, “Yo, I need you to speak on this album I’m making” because they’re all a part of my story and I wanted the album to also have their voices. I wanted to pull people closer to me because I’m not a social media guy. Sometimes I just forget about it, to be honest. The only way I can pull people closer is by doing it on a song, and I feel because it’s so personal, it lives with people longer. You can spin it back, maybe you weren’t paying attention to the story that was told before, so you go listen back like “Okay, that’s interesting. That’s where he’s coming from.” 

What song of ‘ULTRALIGHT’ is most personal to you and why?

[I think it’s “EARTH ANGEL.”] I said some stuff that I never even imagined I’d say on a song before. But there are some other parts that are very revealing and vulnerable. But I’ll pick “EARTH ANGEL” for now.

There’s “JUDAH LION,” “Bethesda” and 2017’s ‘Jericho Rose’these are some titles with biblical references in your discography. How influential is religion to you and your music?

I’ll be honest, I’m not a very religious person, and I know it’s a cliche now but I’m more spiritual than religious, even though I did grow up in church. That is a really interesting question. I do have a lot of respect for Jesus. What I am is a knowledge seeker and so a lot of the time when I’m not working on music, I’m really just appreciating the world, appreciating world history and all this kind of stuff, and those things kind of find their way back into my music. It’s part of the spiritual side of me; sometimes if I feel the song hits me in a certain way, I just attach a name to it that gives it the same feeling I have inside, if that makes sense.

For ‘Jericho Rose,’ Jericho Rose is actually a plant, it’s a resurrection plant. The nature of my music is that every project feels brand new. I feel like a new artist when I’m making a new project. That’s where that name comes from because I feel like I’m resurrecting every time I’m making a new project. Maybe there’s a biblical connotation to that. But I just find all that stuff interesting, and all the things I find interesting find their way into my music.

In your experience, what has been the difference between releasing music as an indie act and releasing music under a label?

I mean, it’s back to that thing I was saying about community. In my situation, it feels like there’s just a community of people who are there to help bring this project to life and we’re all doing it together. That’s when it works the best: when you have like-minded people working together for this one thing, so that’s what it feels like. I know a label situation can be many different things but in my situation, that’s what it feels like.

Now, we have witnessed a rise of artists from the Abuja music scene in the likes of Bloody Civilian, Tay and yourself. What are the potentials for the music in Abuja to blossom and expand?

I think it’s only going to get bigger. The talent is in surplus to be honest, and with Abuja artists, they’re also versatile, almost all of them do multiple things. They have an interesting perspective because there is space for you to think and be yourself. Sometimes, Lagos does not afford you that space to really know who you are as a person because it’s easier to just fit into what’s happening. So yeah, it’s only gonna get bigger. Ray is gonna have a big future with what I’ve heard him working on. Efe [Oraka] is a really interesting artist too. Even Twelve XII is also brilliant. I think it’s only a matter of time. There’s also Preye who’s doing really well now. And [Lady] Donli obviously. But also the Hip-Hop guys, like Zilla [Oaks] and PsychoYP who have been doing it for a while. So [the Abuja music scene] is only going to get bigger. 

There are UK artists featured on your album and you are headlining your first show in the UK in May. What do you find interesting about the UK music scene?

I guess what’s interesting about the UK scene is that it’s a small place with a large presence of Black people who aren’t disconnected from where they’re from. I think that’s very different from America. So when you’re navigating the UK, you just find that there’s a better understanding immediately, they have a stronger culture around music. It’s just a very welcoming community of musicians and an audience. That’s why you’re seeing so many [Nigerian] guys selling out shows here before they can sell out in America and that’s because they really understand us here. So I think that’s a big part of it. 

What are you most looking forward to with this album and what should fans expect at the show?

The show is going to be sick. Anyone who comes to my live shows knows that I always leave myself on the stage. And I think I’ve been on the stage longer than I’ve been recording music even because I’m a music school guy. So, it’s gonna be a mixture of songs from the new album and songs from before that people already know and are requesting. I’m looking forward to the show and I think it’s gonna be brilliant. 

But with what I’m expecting from the album, I try not to put those kinds of expectations on the album or music in general. For me, when the song is done, that’s my satisfaction. Right? Like we’ve done the song well, we’ve done this album well and it sounds solid because I have no control over what it does in the world. But what I know it’s going to do, just because I made it, it’s definitely gonna live with people for a while. I think it’s going to be an album that people share with other people. I think it’s an album that’s gonna introduce me to a lot of people who haven’t heard my music before. And they’re gonna get a front-seat view of all the stories that are on the project. They’re gonna get to see all the sides of me. And who knows, from there they could go as far as the songs want to go, but I know for sure it’s an album that’s gonna be shared a lot and people are going to enjoy it.

Stream ‘ULTRALIGHT’ below.

Featured Image Credits/The NATIVE