On an otherwise darkened stretch of downtown Manhattan, the PUBLIC Hotel gleams. A boutique property branded by former Studio 54 doyen and present day hotelier Ian Schrager, its tree-lined and artificially lit frontage hosts an informal gaggle of comers and goers, smoking and mingling all the way to the curb. Young women with perfect hair and clipboards stand with towering security guards collectively gatekeeping at one end of a mildly forbidding queue near one of its entrances, specifically the doorway leading to one of the venue’s nightclub spaces.
Tonight, it is host to GAIKA, a Warp Records artist whose music can most reductively be described as a mix of dancehall and bass, two scenes well connected to his United Kingdom base. Deeply political and unapologetic in his art, which draws heavily on themes of diasporic blackness, he seems on one hand an unlikely performer for the PUBLIC, one of the many new buildings that’s transformed the face of the Bowery. The systematic urban redevelopment of the once-colorful neighborhood, particularly over the last decade or so, has pushed out punks and the poor in equal measure, with luxury high-rises, trendy clubstaurants, and a sprawling Whole Foods supplanting affordable housing and legendary haunts like CBGBs, the latter long since gutted and turned into a John Varvatos boutique.
As the night goes on, in celebration of his recently released album, Basic Volume, his presence there begins to make a great deal of sense. Hitting the stage mere hours before sunup, GAIKA emerges exuding an unusual and discomfiting energy. Dressed for the struggle in a black military-style vest, he paces while delivering a stream of songs with his powergliding patois. Bumping and grinding in revolt, his impatience is palpable, chiding his laptop DJ. “Next one, next one, next one,” he says. “We need more energy.”
The songs flit about, showcasing the depth and range of GAIKA’s sound, at times as turnt as Travis Scott and then moments later as meditative as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. As is the case with his recordings, his markedly grim take on soundsystem culture and outre electronics live shatters the stereotypically shiny and tropical expectations of reggae music by outsiders. Previously released Basic Volume single “Crown & Key” propels the assembled audience--one notably far more diverse than those who had lingered fashionably out front earlier--into ecstatic motion. GAIKA matches aggression with intimacy, never letting up on the intensity. Still, he appears unsatisfied, though presumably not with the crowd. At one point, the show’s fever pitch, he bellows into the mic.
“People want to tell you where you can and cannot be! Hold your space!”
The following afternoon, over brick-oven pizza and negronis sans orange peels in South Williamsburg, GAIKA takes the opportunity to explain himself—not that he needs to. As it turns out, he felt he had reason to feel territorial the night before.
“There was this security guy that came backstage, started talking shit to us in the dressing room,” he says. “He’s talking to a room full of black and brown people, saying basically you’re guests in my house.” This didn’t go over well with GAIKA, whose first inclination was to laugh at such scolding, which he says made the guard madder. Rather than escalate further, he chose to use the experience in the performance.
Interestingly, this wasn’t the first such incident that GAIKA says he had to contend with at the PUBLIC Hotel that day. “I was an hour late to soundcheck, maybe like two hours,” he says, due to laptop failure and the need for an emergency repair appointment. Upon arrival, he spoke with a hotel employee to see about accessing the venue. “The guy says ‘Oh wait, they’re setting up for another event, let me just check.’ They were ringing me from the soundcheck,” he says. After what he claims were 20 minutes of delay, he was personally escorted into the performance space and proceeded to set up.
“I actually want to do something that is, in a way, combative,” GAIKA says.
“I realized I’d left a plug adapter with my computer in the shop,” he says. Fortunately, he thought, being in a modern hotel would work to his advantage, as it assuredly had ones available for loan or purchase. Returning to the same concierge employee who’d delayed him before, GAIKA inquired about acquiring one. The response: they had adapters available for sale but only for hotel guests. Frustrated, he tried negotiating any way to circumvent this policy. “With 30 minutes left in the soundcheck, I was like, ‘give me one and I’ll give it back to you, I’ll give you the money, whatever you want to do.’” Still, he still couldn’t get through to the guy, who insisted he go buy one at a store instead.
(The PUBLIC declined to comment on any of the situations GAIKA outlined.)
“I don’t understand,” he says. “Are we not here together?” That latter question turned into a broad statement later that night, as GAIKA shouted pleas at the audience for unity. Not coincidentally, he admits that the choice of venue that night fits into his resistance mindset.
“I actually want to do something that is, in a way, combative,” he says. “I want to go there, my money’s good, and if they don’t like it, I’ll tell them about it.”
This is precisely the sort of direct action GAIKA has always stood for. A son of Grenadian and Jamaican parents, the Brixton-raised artist born Gaika Tavares came up in the grime scene, one regularly combating censorship efforts from the British establishment and government. Having had his own work as part of the Murkage Cartel stifled, his subsequent emboldenment extends into his solo work such as the Mixpak released Security. That 2016 release and its Warp Records follow-up Spaghetto a few months later not only broke him to a wider listenership but truly let his voice and views emerge.
Not surprisingly, he favors the abolition of borders, on both an individual and an international scale. Having witnessed immigration crimes in both the U.K. and the U.S. both on the news and in his travels like so many of us have, these experiences spill into material like “Seven Churches For St Jude,” which opens with a genuine apprehension about the no-longer-simple act of getting on an airplane. As a result, he’s adopted a high level of empathy that forms an ethic present in his life and music. Songs such as “Close To The Root” and “Hackers & Jackers” serve as lived-in calls to action, bolstered by infectious danceable beats and modern synths.
“There’s no place in this world that’s not for you,” he declares during our chat. That righteous sentiment echoes loudly across Basic Volume, particularly “Immigrant Sons.” In it, he calls for youth to rebel, a message served over synths and beats reminiscent of DJ Mustard and TNGHT. The corresponding music video showcases militant imagery to coincide, masked figures in guerilla training camps preparing for… something.
“There’s nothing telling me that the older generation are even willing,” he says of his vision of a millennial-centric revolt against the status quo. “Look at where we’re at: they’re locking up children in cages in America!”
While overt sociopolitical lyrics in contemporary music can prickle audiences in these hedonistic and nihilistic times, GAIKA’s delivery resonates more often than not. Arguably, that resonance comes courtesy of reggae music’s hefty history of such content, but tradition doesn’t fully represent the genuine revolutionary spirit evident in his work.
“I’m like the Incredible Hulk,” he says. “The more you squeeze me, the more I expand.”
The same applies to those who attempt to narrowly categorize GAIKA’s music. Loosely if grudgingly accepting the avant garde marker, he bristles at the pretension and exclusionism evident in the art community. The ease with which critics have affixed labels like grime or industrial to his discography, often with a dystopian tag lazily slapped on the front, demonstrates yet another way the world consciously and subconsciously seeks to contain and restrict.
“Some of the music I make does have that brutalist edge,” he admits. Still, he refuses to compromise in his approach. “You don’t have to modify your message or your behavior to get people to listen. You don’t owe none of these people nothing.”
While it would have been easy to solely focus on the prior night’s righteous anger, what really stood out was the vulnerability evident in his performance, an emotionality so seemingly foreign to the genre touchpoints through which GAIKA so deftly maneuvers. On trembling closer “Spectacular Anthem,” he pleads that it's okay to love, okay to trust. “I want to actually connect to people, really,” he says, “I want them to go away like, ‘I feel like I was part of that.’”
"There's no place in this world that's not for you"—GAIKA
He acknowledges that a great deal of commercial music, particularly what the music industry often refers to as “urban music,” doesn’t allow for a full range of emotions. To do so, in his view, would diminish their value to an inherently racist mainstream marketplace. Whether or not that suburban strategy proves financially enriching for say, white middle America’s favorite braggadocious and menacing rappers, GAIKA frets over the cultural implications.
“It dehumanizes the person: the angry, dangerous black man that doesn’t feel like you, doesn’t cry like you, doesn’t love like you,” he says. He recalls a snippet of speech by Pastor Calvin O. Butts sampled on Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s “Thuggish Ruggish Bone,” which reduced rappers to thugs. He then attacks the double standard that celebrates when white action heroes slaughter on screen but brutalizes when black artists tell tales of street violence in hip-hop. “ Basic Volume is sort of a gangsta rap record,” he states.
That demeaning use of language seeps deep into daily life, affecting and afflicting us, particularly now in the days of Trump. Perceptions and the limitations they invite leave GAIKA unsettled, even when seemingly well meaning. A constant concern among people of color and allies in the creative community, appropriation charges deserve scrutiny. Emboldened by his roots, he raises an eyebrow at the narrative that Drake stole from island cultures by employing accented patois and certain musical elements, preferring to recognize the power that popularity gave to urban artists who wanted to express a swath of emotions. “When they questioned his blackness, that left a sour taste in my mouth,” he says.
Whether talking about Toronto’s biggest musical export or prompting a youth-driven regime change, his sincerity and honesty remain at the fore. An insurgent in a sea of dilettantes, GAIKA stands ready to stand for what’s right against those who don’t, no matter what size the stage.
“We can’t let these fuckers win.”
Brian Vu is a photographer based in New York. Find more of his work on Instagram.
Gary Suarez is a writer and reporter based in New York. He's on Twitter.