INTERVIEW: Kalpee talks Island Wave, SXSW & the future of Caribbean music


Hailing from Trinidad and Tobago but now calling LA his home, Kalpee has a deep-rooted ambition and desire to bring the music of the Caribbean to the forefront of the international music scene. That desire saw his platform/label Island Wave have its own stage at the acclaimed SXSW festival last year, with many attendees praising and championing the acts who performed, and IW will return to the event in 2023.

XS Noize caught up with him to learn about his artistic journey, how he feels about the impact of social media and his plans to take IW further and more global.

As an artist, you're now based in LA but hail from Trinidad and Tobago. How might you say those two music cultures mix - or clash - to help create your music?

I feel like it allows me to open my ears to blend genres and create something that's never been heard before. I think it's important because it helps culture evolve beyond what the Caribbean is typically known for sonically, like reggae and soca.

Caribbean music, some might say, is a very 'indie' sort of music - one perhaps many aren't aware of in terms of its history, background and influence on artists such as yourself. How important to you is it that you can highlight your background and heritage through your music and perhaps introduce listeners to a sound and a style they might have been unfamiliar with until that point?

Extremely important because now, more so than ever, we have the chance to make music as individuals, allowing us to step outside of the box in terms of what's expected of us to create as Caribbean artists. I think once we get the opportunity to perform in larger territories like the US and Europe, which is typically challenging due to the difficulty in getting work visas, people will feel and resonate with the music. There's an entirely new wave of artists doing their thing, making positive, fresh sounds while still finding ways to blend our root genres like calypso, soca and reggae with other international influences. Once we get the exposure, trust me - the genre won't be niche for long!

Your most recent single, "Island Gyal", reached #5 on the UK Music Black Music Top 20. How do you see such chart positions in the grand scheme of things - in terms of representing success etc.?

"Island Gyal" just climbed to #5 on the chart, and it's pretty exciting for me because it wasn't something I had expected at all. I think being on the charts helps to gain more support from publications and radio, which is extremely necessary to expand your audience. It's definitely not the epitome of success for me, but it's a step in the right direction for sure, and I'm definitely beyond grateful.

Tell me what inspired you to create your label/platform, Island Wave. Where'd the name come from, and what would you say its ultimate goal/purpose is regarding its impact on the industry and what it represents?

The name Island Wave was inspired by the new sounds and artists emerging from the Caribbean, pushing the barriers of creativity to be whatever and whoever we choose to be. Our ultimate goal is to assist in areas that are lacking to help elevate the industry. An example of this is getting visas to perform in the US, which is one of the most difficult and extremely expensive things to obtain, especially for creatives outside of carnival who do not have spaces to make a living from music and are forced to stay within the Caribbean as a result. Additionally, IW provides opportunities touring-wise to industry festivals like SXSW in Texas and Music Matters in Singapore, all of which would be very difficult to attend or fund as individuals.

Another major goal for us is providing access by collaborating with bigger companies like Gibson guitars, Marshall amps, and Natal drums to help provide the tools that artists need to compete on an international level and raise the quality of our work from a technical aspect. Access is difficult back home as the gear available on the islands is not the best and often outdated and far overpriced. It's not our ideas that need the help; it's the tools to express them that we need access to.

Island Wave held the very first Caribbean stage at SXSW last year - just how big of a deal was that to you, and how did it help highlight artists such as yourself in a music world heavily occupied by more 'mainstream' acts?

This is a huge deal and the start of many new opportunities to come for Caribbean artists. This year Island Wave took 30 people from the islands to SXSW to perform on one stage as a movement. It showed us the importance of collaboration, and it showed the international audience and diaspora all the new fusions of genres emerging from the different islands. SXSW is all about connecting the industry, so this event brought so much new visibility for us and opened up doors to other territories for the stage to potentially tour.

IW is also the home to a new genre of music, 'New Calypso.' What is that, and how would you sum it up? 

New Calypso is a genre being pushed by Trinbagonian musicians as a way to identify their musical heritage. The sound varies from artist to artist based on the genres they decide to blend, but my rendition of this is a fusion of calypso, dancehall, rock, pop, r&b, and whatever else I choose to add based on the vibe of the song.

You've been championed and supported by BBC 1Xtra and Ladygunn, among others. How much has that coverage and support helped your career and the message of your music and label/platform that you're trying to share with the world? 

I'm so grateful for all the support over the years and from all of the radio stations and publications because it's vital for visibility, especially since there are so many new songs being released daily all over the world. It's helped us penetrate the conversation in a massive way on what the music stands for to me and the importance of positive music on our mental health.

What's the best thing someone has said or written about you that made you think: 'Yeah, my music is getting through. People understand it - and me - exactly how I hoped they would.

When people say things like the music inspired them to follow their passion or helped give them perspective in a challenging moment, that's success to me. It reiterates how powerful and positive music can be. It encourages me to keep on working on the craft and to continue channelling the right energy into the creative process.

In a world seemingly obsessed with connectivity, with people forever wanting to know what others are up to 24/7, how do you feel about social media and the impact and pull it can and does have on the career of artists? Do you think the music industry, and society in general, is perhaps too reliant on sites like Twitter and Facebook?

There are definitely pros and cons to social media and music. It's made the world a lot smaller, so our reach is huge, but it also feels as though people's attention spans are quite short today, and the rate at which we have to release music to keep up with the algorithms is a lot quicker than before, sometimes affecting the quality of work. Additionally, it's changed how we perceive quality since numbers are such a big part of music today. More views or streams equates to more success in some people's eyes.

With more and more people starting to discover you and your music and support the Island Wave label/platform, what does the rest of 2022 have in store for you? Have you started thinking about where IW might play a stage next - I know it will have one at SXSW next year - and where do you want your music to take you as you continue to grow and develop your sound and talent? 

We're just getting ready to head to Music Matters in Singapore to introduce Island Wave over there. With so many discussions open at the moment, we'll have some really exciting news that's going to be announced soon, like our very "Iza Island Wave" festival in Barbados, so stay tuned!

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