GAIKA isn’t the type to be boxed in. Since Machine — his self-released debut mixtape — appeared online in November 2015, critics have struggled to stick a tidy name onto his music and art. His darkly magnetic sound evolved on follow–up mixtape Security, released via Mixpak Records in March 2016, then switched tack on SPAGHETTO, the emotive EP that saw him sign to Warp Records in October 2016.
On a first listen to any of his three releases so far, you pick up on the thuds of techno, the sheen of slicing glacial synths, a political awareness and the resonant clangs of industrial music. But there’s no simple descriptor for his brand of electronic music.
“After a while, the novelty of compound sentences used to describe it became kind of boring,” he says, laughing softly. “It was really funny when people would describe the music in this abstract way — ‘this sounds like whining up a girl in an industrial club, and there’s a riot going on outside’.” That may have been amusing, he explains, but it wasn’t quite right.
Rather than slot neatly into one classification, GAIKA shape shifts across not only musical markers but disciplines.
He settles on the term ‘ghetto-futurism’ to encompass what he does. It’s easier than waiting for the latest “dancehall–meets–rave” label and allows him to build on afro–futurism — which he says feels elitist and middle-class — to make art steeped in blackness that “harks back. It’s like the ghost in the machine. If you listen to grime, trap, dancehall, hip-hop, reggae, there’s this glory in the face of death, a celebration of the impermanence of life.” That kernel of emotion, played out by artists using the latest technology to self–produce, underpins ghetto–futurism. “‘Ghetto’ isn’t just to do with black people,” he says, “but it’s all the people who live under the boot, the 99%, and how we end up reveling in what other people deem the shadow.”
Whether related to production, vocals, digital design, video direction or a visual aesthetic, he’s a proponent of what he calls a ‘total artwork’. “People ask: am I a filmmaker, am I a visual artist, someone into fashion, am I a musician? And I say I’m all of those things.” The uniting characteristic of the work he produces now rose from a visual branding he perfected as creative director of Manchester’s Murkage Cartel crew in his early twenties — and it’s a mixture of gothic, metallic and introspective art that slips away from the hold of a single genre.
His multidisciplinary approach to art started almost accidentally, when he and a friend decided they wanted to be a DJ and MC duo. There was one problem: GAIKA, aged 14, couldn’t rap in time. Instead, he climbed through the ranks of underground club land as a promoter, making a name for himself behind–the–scenes by the time he hit his late teens and left Brixton in south London for Manchester.
Between dropping out of an engineering course to attend art school in Salford and working as a promoter, GAIKA’s time in Manchester recalled the different identities he’d embodied as a child — raised in Brixton, schooled in Sutton, of Jamaican and Grenadian descent — and the worlds he would go onto straddle as an artist. “My thing has always been: be yourself — whatever you are, be that — and people will walk towards it. And that’s exactly what I did.”
Fast forward a few years later, after a stint abroad, he returned somewhat deflated to a stack of half–finished tracks gathering dust in London. By early 2015, he’d pieced some of them together, with new beats, and surfaced with the makings of a solo record. “I guess I was getting over the horror of it all,” he recalls. “My band falling apart, my relationship with my girlfriend no longer being a thing. And I just poured it all into this. I just wanted to do something that was my best, that wasn’t tainted by any agenda.”
Those demos became Machine. Not long after, his plans to record its follow–up derailed when his father’s health deteriorated drastically, but he made Security confront a fear of death rather than recoil from it. On SPAGHETTO, one of three acts in a wider piece, his dancehall influences nuzzle next to elements of R&B slow jams and a focus on love. The album takes its name from the 1975 Spaghetti House Siege, a restaurant hostage standoff GAIKA uses as inspiration for forthcoming visuals for Act II: Another Hole in Babylon. Act III: Glad We Found It will be due out in late November 2016.
“I am whatever I say I am,” he says. “And I want that to apply to all people of colour, all black people. This idea of what we like, make, do and how our art can be defined from outside of us is something I’ll actively try to disrupt.” This is just the beginning.