Interview: Citizen Kay faces up to and accepts his vulnerabilities on Belly of the Beast

Last week, Citizen Kay released his new album in Belly of the Beast. The first studio album since 2015’s With the People, this has been a record that not even the Canberran was fully aware of during its conception. Created out of a mining of emotions that came spilling out during writing and recording sessions held largely out of the spotlight and away from the attention of his management team, Belly of the Beast has become an album that – though it’s only been out a week – stands to be one of this year’s best for Australian hip hop.

“This is the first time I’ve spent so much time on something like this.” Citizen Kay – Kojo Ansah – enthuses during our recent catch up. “I made it without any kind of thought of, ‘Will anyone else want this album?’ – it was pretty selfish, in that I made it as I would want to hear it. My team didn’t know I was working on it until I had it 70% or 80% done.”

As a record, Ansah delved more into personal themes and wore his stories on his sleeve when it came to channeling them into lyrical content. A natural story teller, Ansah shines particularly strongly on Belly of the Beast – a natural development from where we saw him creatively on With the People and even 2014’s Demokracy EP.

“I actually didn’t know specifically that I was making an album until I got about six tracks in.” he says. “I thought, ‘Man – you’ve actually got something going here’. Everything was very personal in the sense that I didn’t filter anything at all with this, I just wrote exactly what I felt like I needed to write. When I was recording it, it was very organic. It was never like, ‘I have to go in and record today,’ – I was in the headspace of, ‘I feel that emotion and I need to record this today.’ It was very organic with the writing and the recording, there were no timelines.”

Having long maintained a strong bond with his audience since those early days, Ansah recalls the initial pull and hold music had over him and how it has continued to influence him today.

“I’m sure you’ve experienced this, but when you listen to songs that you feel have been written specifically to you and about you; obviously they haven’t, but there’s a connection you have with certain songs and music, the ones that connect with you the most are the ones that connect the most to the writer as well. That’s something that didn’t intentionally happen with this, but it wasn’t until I was halfway through the writing of this that I was like, ‘You could put this together as a complete body of work.'”

With Belly of the Beast already reaping in acclaim, Ansah is candid about the challenges and self-realisation that came with the making of the record. Having people connect is one thing, but connecting with something so inward-looking and revealing yourself, is another obstacle altogether.

“While the writing process was going on, I was on a never ending journey of self-discovery.” he says. “Through writing this album, I realised that the confidence I had in myself was almost put on for most of the early stuff that I’d put out. I’d always put on this confidence when I’d perform, but when I wrote this album I realised how vulnerable I actually was and how insecure I actually was about my creativity and my music. I address things like that; most of the album is about that.”

“Coming out of it, I actually feel legitimately more confident in my music and in my creativity now, but I also understand and accept the fact that I still have a long way to go. That realisation that I still a baby in it all but at the same time, for who I am right now, I actually do feel confident. Even times when I don’t, being able to reach out to people who I feel like can go that extra mile for the music, rather than feeling like I have to do it all myself and do it half-assed? I was facing my vulnerabilities a bit more with this and just being real with myself.”

As the conversation surrounding the ‘new wave’ of Australian hip hop continues to swell in amongst the strengthening topic of diversity within the genre, Ansah is open about where he feels he fits within the fabric of it all. The scene is widening and becoming more open-minded, and it’s with albums like Belly of the Beast that fans of the genre are seeing some of the best at their best.

“The constraints have been taken off a bit more,” he says. “People are feeling comfortable and free to do what they are now able to do. It’s so amazing. It helps you be more creative; you don’t have that thought in mind that you can’t release a song because of these reasons. You just do it because you can.”

“The thing I’ve noticed is that people just seem to be not afraid of just expressing.” Ansah furthers, commenting on the way artists are beginning to make moves into different markets and genres, while retaining their hip hop roots. I”t’s not about making a point to get a hit. It’s about expressing what you feel like you need to put out to the world; I feel like people are doing that more and more in Australian music in general, particularly in Australian hip hop. People are just unafraid to be vulnerable and in that vulnerability, actually gaining confidence and excelling themselves both through their music and, I’m sure, in their personal lives as well.”

“For me, I’m connecting a lot more with Australian music in the last year or two, rather than when I first started listening to Australian hip hop. I was someone who didn’t like Australian hip hop at all when I first encountered it whereas now, I feel like I have a connection to a lot of it more.”

Belly of the Beast is out now.

CITIZEN KAY TOUR DATES

September 30th | Sweaty Palms @ Proud Mary’s, CENTRAL COAST
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October 6th | Rolling Stone Live Lodge @ Lansdowne Hotel, SYDNEY
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October 7th | Northcote Social Club, MELBOURNE
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October 13th | Rocket Bar, ADELAIDE
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October 14th | Transit Bar, CANBERRA
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October 19th | The Foundry, BRISBANE
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October 20th | Amplifier Bar, PERTH
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Photo by Michelle Grace Hunder.