NATIVE Exclusive: The ingenious creativity of Tay Iwar

The Nigerian artist continues to strengthen his case as a generational R&B talent

Tay Iwar felt he was already old when he released his cult classic debut mixtape, ‘Passport’, in 2014. Just a few months shy of his 17th birthday, the Lagos-born artist had delivered a magnificent exhibition of his precocious abilities. Armed with an incredibly smooth tenor, he sang of the hedonistic thrills that often accompanies young romance and declared himself as a boundless creator, over self-produced R&B-fusion arrangements. It’s the type of creative feat any teenage artist would proud of but, in addition to pride, Tay believed he was overdue.

“I should’ve started releasing music four years before then,” he tells the NATIVE one Tuesday afternoon in April. Those teen years were about audacity and executing what felt like visionary ideas to Tay and his brothers. They formed Bantu Collective as a mini-community to nudge each other’s creativity, on the path to possibly greater goals. “For me and for all of us, it was about moving steps ahead as a whole. It’s actually a ridiculous thing to want to attempt because we didn’t know anyone but we felt like we could change the whole music industry through songs. That’s what we tried to do and we actually reached somewhere, which is crazy.”

Bantu was an integral part of the alternative music renaissance of the mid-2010s. Tay’s ‘Passport’ and Suté’s afrocentric rap mixtape, ‘Jelí’, are acclaimed touchstones of the period when SoundCloud served as the primary exhibition ground for young artists creating music away from the confines of Nigeria’s mainstream. Based in Abuja at the time of these releases, the Iwar brothers are foundational to the vibrant and increasingly diverse music scene in Nigeria’s capital city. Hindsight puts a gloss on their influence but some of those steps were spontaneous, DIY bursts from young adults expressing themselves freely.

“It was a complete experiment,” Tay Iwar says. “I wasn’t meant to sing on ‘Passport’, it was initially a beat tape. My plan was to put it out there and find artists that liked the beat, then make beats for them and record them, but my brothers convinced me to sing on it. That’s what I did.” Seven years later, Tay’s voice and entire artistry is synonymous with R&B excellence, and it goes beyond the Nigerian context.

‘Summer Breeze’, his new EP, is the latest testament to the fact that Tay Iwar is one of the most exciting artists working in global R&B. The soundscape is incredibly gorgeous and warm, the honeyed texture of his voice is utterly captivating in its sheer beauty, while his portraiture of and musings on human connection remain as poignant as ever. It feels like spiritual follow-up to the 2016 EP, ‘Renascentia’, but this time he trades the overly sensual atmosphere for something a little more grown and sexy. From start to finish, you can hear him relish being ingeniously talented. There’s no taking himself too serious, the jams here unfold effortlessly.

“I think it’s a representation of how I’m feeling right now,” he tells me. “I wanted to make some pretty sounding music.” Mission accomplished. On the opener, “Undercover Lover,” glistening keys and a gurgling bass riff melt under the cool intensity of groovy mid-tempo drums, with guitar accents and moaned background vocals adding to the song’s fullness. The gently buzzing bass, rubbery percussion and saxophone accents of the Juls-produced title track is the perfect vision of a breezy day with a favourite person, while the Spanish Guitar of “Don’t Lie” dolefully slinks along as the singer rues regret and seeks redemption.

When Tay Iwar released his 2019 debut album, ‘Gemini’, it showed his masterful ability at grappling with the complexities of romance. Whether it’s passionately revelling in the euphoria of physical intimacy or singing blunt lyrics like, “I fell in love with you and I almost died,” his technical abilities as a velvet-voiced singer, ear-holding writer and rangy producer emboldened the plain fact that Tay was singing the romantic blues of a generation where relational morass is more pronounced than ever.

“I feel like love has always been difficult to find,” he candidly offers. “That’s just the fact of life. Maybe now it’s just more apparent to people that it’s difficult, because the world has been through a lot of phases where people felt like they were in love or acted like they were in love for the longest time, just to keep their ego intact. Right now, a lot of people have lost their ego or it’s changed, ego is in other things now. Love is hard to get.”

Even as Summer Breeze’ plays at a leisurely pace, with a colourful sound palette to match, the complicatedness of finding and keeping love plays a key thematic role. Even though its title is plain-stated, “Undercover Lover” feels like a blue-eyed love song, which it is, except the subject of affection is in situation that can be referred to as a sneaky link. “You’re beautiful as the sunrise/You’re beautiful as your own eyes,” Tay sings in adoration. Maybe it could be translated as an ode to being a relationship that’s fulfilling because it’s private. That it isn’t definitive and could be interpreted in more than one way is just another masterful representation of the many complex romantic situations there are.

On the Knucks-assisted “Juice,” their lustful desire is unabashed, and there’s an undercurrent of past relationship failings that plays a part. “I gave her my heart in school/she was harsh and cruel but I learn from my lesson,” Knucks raps in an impressive couplet. The balmy-lead single, “Healing,” is a Trojan Horse-like attempt in getting over being hurt, the glum in the lyrics is balanced out by the summery electro-R&B production.

“I always try to make songs to keep people in different states of emotion,” he tells the NATIVE. That’s the hallmark of a Tay Iwar song, or even a feature, and it’s part of the reason he’ll gladly wear the R&B tag even with the afro-fusion bounce to his songs. “I completely agree with it, because my main influences in music have always been from an R&B space. I was raised with Jazz and Soul, knowing that I was listening to people like Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, D’Angelo and everything related in that circle. The R&B in me is natural, that’s just what I listened to growing up.”

R&B’s influence on Nigerian pop music is ever-present, although conversations about the genre centre often centre on its fringe attention amongst Nigerian listeners. A lot of it stems from an idea of what R&B should sound like, rather than what it is when it’s been filtered through a Nigerian and afrocentric filter, much like how Tay Iwar does. The narratives in his music are globally relatable, while the music reflects the mix of his influences and his origins, and it continues to captivate listeners across the world. The sauce is so undeniable that he’s become an in-demand collaborator, working with Wizkid, Tiwa Savage, Omah Lay and more in recent years.

At a time when international labels are snapping up African talent, it’s curious that Tay is still working as an independent artist. “I don’t know what a good deal is, because a good deal might be impossible,” he tells me. It’s not like he’s not open to the idea of being signed but the creative control that comes with his current position is important to him. ‘Gemini’ was released through the Los Angeles-based Soulection imprint, pushing Tay into the U.S. market even before he’d ever been there. The ideal situation would mean he’s making the music how he wants to and the reception keeps widening.

“The truth is, I think every artist makes art to be loved by someone. If not, why would you put it out to the world? That’s what this whole thing is about, looking to be heard, looking to be connected with, looking to be understood.”