It has been three years since singer Michael Kiwanuka released “Cold Little Heart,” the haunting and instantly beloved theme song for the HBO series Big Little Lies, and he has yet to wrap his mind around the ode’s tremendous success and enduring popularity.
“It’s like winning the golden ticket from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” he says, during an afternoon break from his multi-city European tour. The song, which first appeared as a 10-minute ballad on Kiwanuka’s 2016 album, Love & Hate, has garnered universal praise (“It’s goddamn beautiful,” Esquire exclaimed), more than 75 million views on YouTube, and propelled him to sold-out shows across the United States. “Maybe it’s the vulnerability, the honesty, the melody. I don’t know. I did not see this coming. I don’t think any of us saw it coming.”
The artist was equally stunned by the overwhelmingly positive reaction to his latest effort, Kiwanuka. The New York Times, The Guardian, and BBC Radio 6 all named the album one of the best of 2019. With this project, he “fully secures his place as an heir to socially conscious dreamers like Stevie Wonder and Bill Withers,” read one glowing NPR review. His voice, Pitchfork declared, “mixes Solomon Burke’s slow-burn urgency with John Hiatt’s gulp.”
“It’s all so mind-blowing,” Kiwanuka says, when asked about the flood of raves. “The last few albums did well, but I’ve never had a response like this. I thought maybe something like this would come along 20 years from now.”
The New York Times, The Guardian, and BBC Radio 6 all named the album one of the best of 2019.
On Kiwanuka, the Stratocaster-strumming crooner effortlessly glides from classic soul and psychedelic rock to 70s funk, blues, and Motown-era R&B. The warm reception for his genre-defying third album has been both “encouraging and liberating,” he says. “This whole album is about coming to terms with acceptance. Accepting myself as a human being first and foremost, but it’s also about accepting myself as a creative.”
For years, Kiwanuka wrestled with profound self-doubt, wondering where his anachronistic sound fitted in contemporary music, questioning his right to exist as a “black man in a white world.” These days, he appears closer to finally making peace with the demons that once plagued him. On his album’s rousing opening track, “You Ain’t the Problem,” he sings, “I used to hate myself / You got the key / Break out the prison.” “Hero” pays homage to the remarkably bright but brief lives of the civil-rights icons that inspire him. Kiwanuka asks, over a driving guitar, “Am I your hero now?” The song’s video is loosely based on the story of Fred Hampton, a charismatic Black Panther Party leader who was under F.B.I. surveillance when he was killed in a controversial police raid 50 years ago in Chicago. Kiwanuka credits his recent marriage, his growing maturity, and the writings of Hampton for a newfound self-assuredness. “I wanted to make an album that had a defiant sound,” he says. “I wanted it to be quite bold.”
“An heir to socially conscious dreamers like Stevie Wonder and Bill Withers,” read one glowing NPR review.
In a world that seems to have forsaken sophisticated albums for disposable, made-for-TikTok singles, Kiwanuka’s nearly hour-long body of work is indeed bold. It encourages listeners to linger and not sprint, to savor and not devour. “Hard to Say Goodbye,” a beautiful ballad about the redemptive power of love, clocks in at more than seven minutes. “Everyone is going at 3,000 miles per hour, but music can really slow you down, especially if it has the right intention,” says Kiwanuka, who worked closely with popular producers Danger Mouse and Inflo. “I hope this album forces people to find some stillness, because we need that as human beings. We’re not robots.” I ask him about his process. What comes first? Lyrics? Melody? A theme? “I always try and chase a feeling,” he explains. “When the music starts sounding like what I’m feeling, then I know I’ve got something.”
Growing up in Muswell Hill, London, Kiwanuka—the son of Ugandan immigrants—was acutely aware that he was different. “We had a nice upbringing and people weren’t abusive,” he says, “but everywhere we went, we stuck out. For years I just wanted to blend in.” Never feeling fully comfortable in the U.K., in Uganda, or in his own skin took its toll, but it also fueled his passion for music. He found solace and a kindred spirit in Jimi Hendrix and started playing in bands as a teen. After reading Patti Smith’s best-selling memoir, Just Kids, he dropped out of the Royal Academy of Music and pursued life as an artist in earnest.
Throughout the years, music-industry executives have suggested he abbreviate his surname (Michael K, perhaps) or embrace an alter ego such as Ziggy Stardust. Kiwanuka has remained steadfast in his refusal to do either, which he imagines would make his hero Hampton quite proud. “Fred would probably say, ‘Keep your name.’ A lot of black people couldn’t have the name of their ancestors; they had to take the name of their slave owners,” he says. “He’d school me and tell me, ‘You’re lucky to know where you come from. You’re lucky to have that name.’”
Lola Ogunnaike is a writer based in New York