Michael Kiwanuka as himself. Live at the REBEL nightclub

MK guitar shot

This past November Michael Kiwanuka, London singer-songwriter, released his third studio album, boldly titled KIWANUAKA. Unlike his previous two albums (both well received by critics and fans alike) this new release is the Kiwanuka’s journey towards self-acceptance and coming to terms with himself as an artist. With the first few teaser tracks like “You Ain’t The Problem,” the album demanded attention. In the short few months that KIWANUKA has been out it has been marked as not just possibly the best album of 2019 by multiple publications but as the best album of Kiwanuka’s career. The Guardian called it “one of the greatest albums of the decade.” Having listened to it multiple times on repeat myself it is hard to fight that statement.

The harmonies on KIWANUKA lean into the classics of the 60s/70s American rock, tap into a little bit of Marvin Gaye and even some Gil Scott-Heron. It is four sides of vinyl packed with a mix of subtle gentle songs and anthem tracks like “Hero.” The album is one you can return to every few months for a feel-good, positive pick me up vibe. In the artist’s words, the album is “about self-acceptance in a more triumphant rather than a melancholy way. It’s an album that explores what it means to be a human being today.”

Needless to say, the audience caught up, his 18-date North American tour was completely sold-out regardless of the size of the venues, which were some of the biggest he’s ever played. In Toronto, Kiwanuka took the stage at 9 o’clock sharp at the city’s biggest club venue, REBEL. It’s a spot that has been a concert venue for many years, passed through various hands of owners and promoters. Today it is well lit, with a great sound system and wealth of space for thousands of people to pack into. All this space, however, can be a disadvantage for quieter performances and subtle melodic tracks…

Michael took center stage with his guitar, surrounded by a full band and a pair of back up singers dressed in all black. The set started with “Rule The World” from Love & Hate, which was released in 2016, back during Kiwanuka’s more humble and slightly less self-assured days, setting up a type of a journey for the night. Naturally, the next tracks were “You Ain’t The Problem” and “I’ve Been Dazed.” Perhaps we as the audience could grow confident and comfortable together with Kiwanuka tonight. But the vast space towards the back, swallowed by the voices of the crowd, was drowning out Kiwanuka’s voice with chatter.

The set continued with a mix of songs from the three albums: from “Rule the World” to “Hero” to “Tell Me A Tale” from Home Again (2012). The “Hero – Intro” was performed solo with a single spotlight on the artist. Intro transitioning into the song was a sonic ballad, seamlessly flowing into the full band with a supporting guitar. It was a powerful anthemic performance half of which to my disappointment was washed out by the noise of the room.

At one point the band left the stage, leaving Michael alone with the piano to play a track people may be less familiar with, “On My Knees,” which was released in collaboration with UNKLE, UK’s electronic duo known for producing heavy, dark tracks. What came next is an evoking instrumental rendition of the song, a good half of which was just him and the piano but the song grew bigger and heavier as the band joined in halfway through.

For “Black Man In A White World” the artist and the band clapped the opening of the song, trying to engage the audience but not gaining much participation from this primarily porcelain crowd. It was hard not to wonder where Michael’s people were, as I was blending into the light-skinned mass. Kiwanuka is “accustomed to being an outsider” and during an interview with The Guardian last year he admitted he was hoping to reach more people like himself, “Some artists are singing to their people and I don’t know who mine are. […] I’m not representing anyone. I wrestle with that because there’s nothing like being part of a community,” he shared. The size of the crowd felt like a community of a sort, but the lack of participation made us all strangers in the room, listening to music alone while together. I can’t speak to why there were so few of Michael’s people in the room but this lack of participation, however, is behavior typical of a Toronto crowd so it’s hard to pin the reserved atmosphere on the artist (for those of you Torontonians reading, don’t fight me, you know it’s true). Michael, while very calm and collected, is a great performer, playing engaging soul music, the kind of music you can’t help but move to so it was odd to see a standing room.

The show progressively ended on a strong and confident note with “Cold Little Heart” and “Love & Hate” during which the fans were most alive, singing along, moving to the beat, and clapping. It took over an hour for the room to wake up, and when they did it was a little too late.

Photo credit: Olivia Rose