Tendai: Mesmerizing R&B Vocalist and Producer – Stormzy’s Secret Weapon

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Every week at Breakout, we talk to rising stars who are exploding right now — whether it’s a huge viral moment, a killer new track, or an eye—popping video – these are rising artists who are sure to dominate in the near future.

Have you ever felt that a higher power has your back? Tendai does. Born and raised in Canning Town, the ambitious 22-year-old musician is gradually earning himself a reputation as one of the most promising new bands in atmospheric R&B, creating a style that simultaneously evokes nostalgia and looks to the future. Despite the fact that he has only four singles, his fresh look at the genre led to the fact that he signed a contract with the British publishing house of the legendary label Def Jam [Stormzy, Potter Payper], getting his name “0207” from the London area code.

“You have to surrender to God and the story he is trying to write for you,” Tendai says, recalling the story of his signing with NME. “Considering how limited the list is, you can say that 0207 has a very specific vision and care for artists… they have done so many things for me that I wouldn’t even mention because it’s just crazy.”

Having grown up in a Seventh-day Adventist musical family, Tendai’s path to music involved quite decisive actions. After completing two courses of music college, in December 2019, he had a spiritual feeling that something was wrong. “I just decided that I wanted to isolate myself and work. And then [isolation] happened, and I thought, “Oh, good. Here’s the confirmation I needed!”

Somehow anticipating the pandemic, his period of isolation gave him the confidence to experiment, developing in real time both musically and visually. In “Infinite Straight” (with an introductory speech by NME 100 graduate Dora Jar), he walks along a rocky open road, and the video for the new single “Time In Our Lives” brings his Ugandan culture to the fore, introducing us to the co-authors as he sings a slow ballad about love and sadness. “The red robe I’m wearing in the video is what my mom wore when she was pregnant with me,” he explains. “This song represents rebirth; there is also a traditional bark cloth that people use to pray for children if they are far away. It’s like an air of protection when I come into myself as an artist.”

As his star rises, there is every chance that Tendai will indeed be further from home. Along with his own debut project, he was busy working on the long-awaited third album of his label colleague Stormzy “This Is What I Mean” (released on November 25). In just a few short years, Tendai has been moving in circles that most can only dream of, but remains adamant that he is doing it all on his own clear terms.

“The songs I’ve done before were kind of catering to people to make that quote-without the quotes-a firework,” he says. “But what pop music really is is clarity. What is the most honest thing I can say? Moving forward, it’s all about taking steps towards that.” On the threshold of a “brand new era,” Tendai catches up with NME to talk about romance, rebellion and the nuances of black British self-expression.

When you graduated from high school, you studied at the ELAM [FLO, Girli] Music College. How did you come to find your own voice as an artist there?

“I think we got there at a very good time; everything was fresh, so there was a real buzz from excitement. It’s so funny because at that time I was mostly playing in bands; people would have wanted me to sing, but I just didn’t feel the need. I wanted to create all these other gifts, like playing the piano, producing, mixing or collaborating. For the first time I dug deeper and found my vocals, probably in “Not Enough” — there is hardness and passion in it, but there is also sensitivity and vulnerability that sum up what I do.”

Who are you looking for for inspiration?

“Definitely my mom. She has always coached me through performances, but I would also name people like Bryan Adams, Joni Mitchell, Michael Jackson, Imogen Heap, Damon Albarn. I look at them and their careers and I think: “Okay, there’s real skill here.” into a room with these people, would I play it?” and the answer was no. So it gives me the opportunity to work; to make music that not only I love, but also the people I love.”

How does your relationship with the church manifest itself in your work?

“We met many people from my group in church. The Seventh-day Adventist community listens very carefully; when you play in church, you have to learn to almost voice spirituality in order to comfort the parishioners. A certain chord will be touched, and it’s so spiritual; all people have this collective subconscious where we don’t know why we felt this chord right here, but we did. I think being in this church environment definitely influenced my desire for vocals, which I just like, unites and pushes out.”

Your music often seems romantic, but also quite melancholic, causing a feeling of loneliness or nostalgia. Where do you get this lyrical mood from?

“All the songs are written about my partner, so there’s definitely romance in them! But when you stand out musically—or try to— there can be a feeling of loneliness. For me, it’s like a special sound of silence; when I listen to “Time In Our Lives“, it’s just peace. The video clips “Not Around” and “Infinite Straight” are just me, there is no one else in the frame. We are slowly expanding the world, but I think there is confidence that I am saying that this is me, I don’t need all my friends, girls or money in a video that spins me…”

“There are a lot of things Stormzy has said to me during this time that have really confirmed my own sense of identity.”

Do you think that British R&B is not inferior to American?

Many people think that British R&B originated in 2016 [laughs]. Bro, you have Elton John, Phil Collins, Craig David, Jamelia, Adele… so many artists who have been creating British R&B for years, decades. When you start noticing where it is and why it makes it certain, it doesn’t make sense to me.

“It’s like calling someone a black rock star-no, I’m just a rock star, bro! It doesn’t matter if they are black, white or someone else; this is music, and it has always been here. I admit it very passionately. But I also think that as the scene grows and we reach out to our elders, people who look like us and thrive like Skepta, we can be a little more noisy and not necessarily rely so much on our American cousins.”

Your work generally corresponds to the R&B genre, but you definitely pull other styles as well. Why is such versatility important to you?

“I think the experience of black Britons is particularly multifaceted. Even just coming home, I hear people speaking Luganda, my native language, but my mom also comes home from work with her “working accent”, and it takes her an hour to speak more normally. Or being second generation, you know; I’m in East London, so I’ll speak Cockney, but then I’ll speak posh in a different setting. I think it’s such a superpower.

“I don’t need to be a kid who only does afro, rock or drill, and it’s not even something I’m incredibly aware of. I’m talking about the experience of black Brits because I’m black, but it would be similar for an Asian kid or a white kid. Our experience in this country is so diverse that we cannot stand still.”

Stormzy is one of our biggest representatives of black Britons. You are listed as the executive producer of his new album; what have you learned from this experience?

“I stayed there for about a year and really got to know the power of black Britishness. To be able to see it so close, in Damon Albarn’s studio, all of us there, black and recording this album, to see this success combined with Stormzy’s modesty… it definitely gave me something to strive for. A lot of what he said to me during that time really confirmed my own sense of identity.

“I think I could potentially bring confidence in breaking the rules to the project. I don’t know what I can say, but for Stormzy, I think it’s going to be a pretty defining album artistically. When I went there as a person who had only one song at that time, I just said, “Do whatever you want.” Stormzy already has this courage in the leagues, but I think I just brought an extra boost of energy. To know that the record will be different, but to feel the excitement anyway is a really special thing.”

Tendai’s new single “Time In Our Lives” has already been released

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