Tendai: spellbinding R&B vocalist and producer is Stormzy’s secret weapon
Ever feel like a higher power has got your back? Tendai does. Born and raised in Canning Town, the ambitious 22-year-old has been quietly making his name as one of the most promising new acts in atmospheric R&B, carving out a style that feels simultaneously nostalgic and future-facing. Despite only being four singles deep, his fresh take on the genre has seen him sign to the UK imprint of legendary label Def Jam [Stormzy, Potter Payper], taking its ‘0207’ name from the London area code.
“You have to surrender to God and the story that he’s trying to write for you,” Tendai says, recalling the story of his signing to NME. “With how limited the roster is, you can tell that 0207 has a very specific vision and care for artists… there’s so many things that they’ve done for me that I wouldn’t even mention, because it’s just mad.”
Raised in a musical, Seventh-Day Adventist family, Tendai’s path to music involved some pretty decisive action of his own. Having completed two years of music college, he had a spiritual feeling in December 2019 that something was off. “I just decided that I wanted to isolate myself and work. And then [lockdown] happened, and I was like, ‘Oh, OK. There’s the confirmation that I needed!”
Somehow pre-empting the pandemic, his isolation period gave him the confidence to experiment, evolving in real-time both musically and visually. On ‘Infinite Straight’ (with a spoken-word intro from NME 100 alumni Dora Jar), he stalks a rocky open road, while the video for new single ‘Time In Our Lives’ brings his Ugandan culture to the fore, introducing us to collaborators as he sings a slow ballad about love and sorrow. “The red robe that I’m wearing in the video is something that my mum wore when she was pregnant with me,” he explains. “This song represents rebirth; there is a traditional bark cloth in there too which people use to pray over the children if they are far away. It’s like an air of protection, as I come into myself as an artist.”
As his star rises, there is every chance that Tendai will indeed find himself further away from home. Alongside his own debut project, he has been busy working on the much-anticipated third album by labelmate Stormzy, ‘This Is What I Mean’ (due November 25). In just a few short years, Tendai is moving in circles that most could only dream about, but remains adamant that he is doing it all on his own clear-cut terms.
“The songs that I’ve done before, they were somewhat to people please, to make this quote-unquote banger,” he says. “But what pop music really is is clarity. What is the most honest thing I can say? Going forward, it’s all about taking steps towards that.” On the cusp of a “whole new era”, Tendai catches up with NME to chat romance, rebellion, and the nuances of Black-British expression.
When you left school, you studied at ELAM music college [FLO, Girli]. How did you go about finding your own voice as an artist there?
“I think we got there in a very beautiful pocket of time; everything was fresh, so there was a real buzz of excitement. It’s so funny, because at that time, I was mostly playing in bands; people would want me to sing, but I just didn’t really feel the need to. I wanted to build all these other gifts, like piano or producing or mixing or collaborating. The first time I dug deep and found my vocal was probably on ‘Not Enough’ — there’s grit to it and there’s passion, but there’s also sensitivity and vulnerability, which sums up what I’m about.”
Who do you look to for inspiration?
“Definitely my mum. She is someone who’s always coached me through performance, but I’d also say people like Bryan Adams, Joni Mitchell, Michael Jackson, Imogen Heap, Damon Albarn. I look at them and their careers and I’m like, ‘OK, there’s a real artistry here.’ When I was trying to shift what I was doing musically, I was thinking about these people and I was like, ‘If I got into a room with these people, would I play this?’, and the answer was no. So that gives me something to work towards; making music that not only I love, but that the people who I love could love.”
How does your relationship with your church come through in your work?
“A lot of people in my band, we met in church. The Seventh Day Adventist community have a very particular ear; when you’re playing in church, you have to learn how to almost soundtrack spirituality, to invite comfort from the congregation. A certain chord will hit and it’s just so spiritual; all humans have this collective subconscious where it’s like, we don’t know why we felt that chord right there, but we did. I think being in that church environment has definitely influenced my pursuit of a vocal that just like, connects, and pushes out.”
Your music often feels romantic, but also quite melancholy, conjuring up a sense of loneliness or nostalgia. Where do you draw this lyrical mood from?
“All the songs have been written about my partner, so there’s definitely romance in there! But when you set yourself apart musically — or try to — there can be a feeling of loneliness. For me, it’s like a specific sonic of quiet; when I listen to ‘Time In Our Lives’, it’s just peaceful. The videos for ‘Not Around’ and ‘Infinite Straight’ are just me, no one else is in shot. We’re slowly expanding the world, but I think there’s confidence in saying this is me, I don’t need all of my mates or girls or money in a video hyping me up…”
“There’s many things that Stormzy has said to me over that time that really confirmed my own sense of identity.”
Do you think British R&B holds its own against the US?
A lot of people think British R&B began in 2016 [laughs]. Bro, you’ve got Elton John, Phil Collins, Craig David, Jamelia, Adele… so many artists who’ve made British R&B for years, decades, even. When you start to put a pin on where it is and why that makes it a certain way, 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’re Black, white or whatever; this is music, and it’s always been here. I do feel quite passionate about acknowledging that. But then I do also think that as the scene grows up and we look to our elders, people who look like us and are flourishing like Skepta, we can be a bit more boisterous and not necessarily rely on our American cousins as much.”
Your work broadly fits the genre of R&B, but you definitely pull in other styles. Why is this kind of versatility important to you?
“I think the Black British experience, specifically, is very nuanced. Even just moving back home, I’m hearing Luganda being spoken, my native tongue, but my mum is also coming home from work with her ‘work accent’ on, and it takes her an hour to speak more normal. Or being second gen, you know; I’m in east London so I’ll speak so Cockney, but then speak posh in a different setting. I think it’s such a superpower.
“There’s no way that I need to be the kid who only makes afro or rock or drill, and it’s not even anything that I’m incredibly conscious of doing. I talk about the Black British experience because I’m Black, but it would be similar for an Asian kid or a white kid. Our experiences in this country are so diverse, there’s no way we could stand still.”
One of our biggest Black British ambassadors is Stormzy. You’re credited as an executive producer on his upcoming album; what did you learn from that experience?
“I was there for about a year, and I truly learnt the power of Black Britishness. Being able to see it in that proximity, in Damon Albarn‘s studio, all of us in there being black and making this album, seeing that success paired with Stormzy’s humility… it definitely gave me something to strive towards. There’s many things that he’s said to me over that time that really confirmed my own sense of identity.
“I think what I potentially may have brought to the project was the confidence to break the rules. I don’t know how much I can say, but for Stormzy, I think it will be a quite defining album artistically. Me coming in there as someone who only had one song out at the time, I was just like, ‘Do what you want’. Stormzy already has that boldness in leagues, but I think I just brought an extra jolt of energy. Knowing that a record is going to be different, but feeling excited either way, is a really special thing.”
Tendai’s new single ‘Time In Our Lives’ is out now