Keziah Mallam is a genre-agnostic self-described “creator” who relishes above all, the experience of building something new without falling prey to pressure, negativity or the industry’s norms. In following her creative instincts, she has crafted a unique sound which defies categorization; she puts it best when she says that her music is the amalgamation of all the sounds she loves. It’s this diversity that sets her apart as an artist.
Over the course of our conversation, she opened up about a few experiences that contributed to her versatility and adaptability, the traits that have since become her musical calling card. From moving across cities and continents, to exploring different creative mediums and spaces, Keziah says she never questions whether she can overcome new challenges, but instead sees them as opportunities to learn and grow.
As an artist with a talent for making things work for her, the idea behind her 2022 project Audio Therapy comes as no surprise. With the endeavor she self therapised, while simultaneously cementing her distinct sound in the Lagos music landscape by releasing a new song every single month of the year (with exception to January), singing thoughtful reflections on the feelings that each month had triggered.
To make a name for yourself in the creative industry today, you have to carve your own path and this artist isn’t one to shy away from stepping up and doing what she needs to achieve her ambitions. In this interview with John Eni-ibukun, Keziah Mallam gives a background to her existence, art and shares her ambitions.
How would you describe yourself and your craft?
I would describe myself as someone who just creates, I don’t like to box myself in terms of genre. I love RnB and Soul, Jazz, Afrobeat and even some Rock but I wouldn’t limit myself to any one of these genres because I feel like they all come together to form who I am as an artist and a producer. Fundamentally, I like to build, I like to see things go from nothing to something and that is what making music allows me to do.
You currently live in Lagos but in your music, you talk about Abuja being your home. What prompted you to move here?
I was born and raised in London. My father died in 2003, and after my mother died in 2010, my sisters and I relocated to Abuja. The five years I spent in Abuja were what exposed me to the creative space. I started off working as a secretary for the Nigerian Teens Choice Awards and eventually made my way into music, after transitioning to managing the music category.
In 2015, I moved back to London and then to Derby to go to university, then back to London to get my Master’s degree. In 2021, after lots of thinking and praying, I moved here [to Lagos]. I moved here for my music specifically because I just felt like this was where I needed to be. I still love Abuja though, that’s my city. I’m an Abj girl, that’s me, and that’s where all my guys are.
Aside from making music, I understand that you also take care of the administrative side of things. What’s it like balancing multiple roles as an artist?
To be honest, I don’t really think about it. I try to do as much as I can to reach my goals, if that requires me to function in numerous capacities then I approach it with the mindset of “it has to be done and I’m going to do it”. Approaching challenges with this mindset has kept me from getting too overwhelmed, especially as I also see them as opportunities to develop my skills.
I think that it is important as a person [and as a Nigerian] to not box yourself into one space, we can do so much more than we think. So why limit yourself and what you have? People look at their talents and think that they can only be applied in one space or industry but you will find your gifts can be spread across different spaces. So that is pretty much how I view things, it’s that mentality of ‘This needs to be done and I can do it. I don’t see why I shouldn’t do it.’
This same approach is what has helped me adapt when moving to different cities. I don’t see it as a question of ‘Can I do it?’ – it just has to be done. Sometimes things just happen to you. So, you don’t have the opportunity to think “Oh! Can I prepare myself for it?”. That level of adaptability is what has really helped me not only function in different spaces, but flourish.
Most people know you as a singer/songwriter but you also produce. How do you approach production?
As much as possible, I try to approach production with a blank mind. I started producing properly last September and I’m still figuring things out. So, I just like to start with blank canvases and just go with the flow. Production pushes me to do the weirdest and craziest things and try different sounds because I finally have the capacity to do that. So, it’s never some set structure of “Oh, I’m going to do this first”, “I’m going to do the bass first” or “I’m going to do the kick first”. Sometimes, I do start with that stuff but most of the time I ask myself “What am I hearing in my head right now?”. Or “What am I hearing in my heart?” because these are sounds that have always been there and now that I can actually produce myself, I get to express them.
What sort of artists do you like to work with?
For me, it’s not really about their sound, I think it’s more about how they think. Are they willing to be flexible? Are they willing to try different things? Are they willing to try my sound too? You know. Those are the kind of things I take into consideration. And also are they kind? Because I don’t like crazy situations. I think those are the key things for me.
Right now, it’s not even specific artists I want to work with. I would like to work with more producers. I love the idea of learning from other producers and just seeing how they do things. So, I guess that’s where I am right now. I haven’t really done a lot of production for other people recently because I’ve been super busy. But I definitely want to work with other producers in this period because it’s what I feel I can do.
Let’s talk about Audio Therapy. You have been putting out great music every month this year. Tell us about that. Why did you decide to work on it? And what is the creative reason behind it?
So, this started when I moved back to Nigeria last September. I only had three songs out. In Your Dreams – the first song I dropped ever, Over x Over and Zo Nan Yanzu. I had worked with amazing people on the three of them and I had a lot of love and everything. But even with all of that, I still did not feel like they were a hundred percent my sound.
So, when I moved back here, I said to myself “I need to really get people to know who I am, what I really sound like, the direction I’m going in and the vision that I have for my sound and myself” and I knew that I could do that by putting out more music. When I met my manager Khorage, I told him the idea as well and we kind of decided together to go for it.
That’s where it all started. Obviously, we didn’t do January but we’ve done every month after. It’s literally just been about shaping people’s ears towards my sound and kind of shaping my sound as well in the process.
So, it’s like I was kind of cleansing people’s ears of all the songs I had created before and showing them that everything 2022 and up is me. Like, really me.
It’s really me because I’m producing it. I’m doing everything from the ground up. Except for its engineering. I’m writing my own stuff, I’m singing and choosing my own harmonies. So, what that means is that everything you’re hearing is really me. It’s also made me more confident in my stuff because, when people actually like it, I know they really like me.
How has meeting and collaborating with Nigerian artists shaped how you perceive Nigerian music?
I think, firstly, it emphasised the fact that Nigerian music is not just Afrobeats, and for me, it also fostered the freedom to create more. When I first moved here, I wanted to create songs that had a bit of Hausa in them, you know, to incorporate a bit of an Afro feel because I just wanted to make sure I was ticking that box. People will say to you, “Oh! Make sure you include a little bit of pidgin in your music to relate with the people and all that.” But the longer I’ve been here, the more I’ve seen that we really do live in a global village. Nigeria is not the same Nigeria that we knew it to be in 2010. Nigerian music has evolved, there’s no longer the rule that you need to incorporate pidgin or that you need to incorporate afrobeats because Nigerians do not just make afrobeats, and the world is catching on to that, and we’re catching on to that too.
And collaborating and just working with other people has been emphasizing that there are some amazing alternative artists in this country. This country has one of the most outstanding people in the world. It has the most talented people in the world. We can do anything and everything.
I’m happy that the collaborations emphasized that for me because it made me more comfortable. It allowed me to make a song like Let It Be – actually, let me rephrase that – it allowed me to make a song like Let It Be and release it in a country like Nigeria.
Now, to my last question which is a question I ask everyone I talk to. What matters to you the most? And why?
God. God matters to me the most. And the truth is, I didn’t even have to think about it before I answered. I just paused because I was realising that truly, God matters to me the most. And why? Because I wouldn’t even be here if not for God. And I mean, I’ve told you a fraction of my story so far, about losing my parents. If there’s one thing that is so clear, it’s that God is with me and anyone that interacts with me knows that, because no one would ever guess that my sisters and I are orphans. That’s because God has been with us a hundred percent. And that’s why I’m going to succeed.