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ZIKAI: The Swedish Singer/Songwriter Making Waves in the R&B World

Flashback just three months and 23-year-old Swedish singer/songwriter Zikai was awarded with her first Grammy. ‘Trust me when I say that I celebrated with champagne and a whole lot of dancing on tables that night!’ she remembers. The award was for her debut EP, Make You Mine, one of the first of many bodies of work to come from the rising star. 

Grounded in roots of R&B and soul, Zikai’s music is multi-layered. While her days of watching MTV with her siblings at home have helped to form her sound, it’s her dad’s musical influences that injected an edge into her music, inspiring Zikai to lace her melodies with hints of Afropop. ‘My dad’s house was a different story. Since he’s from West Africa (Ivory Coast), the only thing we listened to at his place were bands like Magic System or DJ Arafat,’ she explains. 

Pulling from her own experiences, Zikai’s music details some of the most poignant events of her early twenties. Her single Twenty Something explores a night of mistakes through an up-tempo beat, mixing her bright auto tuned voice with her natural, conversational tone which tells a genuine story. In Stay This Way, we see those Afropop elements really shine. In a tune that reminisces over more carefree times through airy vocals and a breezy beat, Zikai delves into the memories of her co-writer, entwining them with her own exploration of youth. 

Zikai’s latest single, Hero, sees her putting her own spin on Bonnie Tyler’s 1984 classic, Holding Out for a Hero, along with producers Hitimpulse. ‘Me, Hitimpulse and Maria Hazell were having fun in the studio and trying out chords. Hitimpulse started singing Holding Out for a Hero and we thought it’d be a fun idea to mash it up with some new verse melodies and lyric changes,’ she explains. This laid-back R&B-pop interpolation of the classic ballad features verses sung to the steady, slow strums of an acoustic guitar, creating moments of subtle contrast from the Hero chorus. 

Here, we chat to Zikai about her journey so far, the stories behind some of her most successful hits and what’s coming up next in her already successful career.

Thank you so much for taking the time to chat to us! Let’s start at the beginning. Where in Sweden did you grow up and what was it like for an aspiring musician growing up there? 

I grew up in Stockholm and I would say it’s a great place to grow up for an aspiring musician! Since it’s the capital city it’s where almost all international artists come to perform if they’re on tour so I’ve seen a lot of concerts (and on top of that my childhood home is right by our most famous arena called Globen). There’s generally a bigger variation of cultures in Stockholm compared to other Swedish cities, which helped me to explore of all kinds of different music genres – Afrobeat, Latin music, Swedish pop, Arabic tunes – and I’m really grateful for that!

Where is your favourite place in Sweden? 

The area around my childhood home in Stockholm. That’s where I had my first kiss, went to my first parties, spent time with family and basically just became the person I am today.

Your music explores many different genres. There’s R&B, Soul, Afropop… can you tell us more about what sparked these influences? 

If my brother didn’t have MTV on then that would be because my sister played Omarion, Jojo or Ne-Yo through the speakers. R&B was constantly playing at my mum’s house, but my dad’s house was a different story. Since he’s from West Africa (Ivory Coast), the only thing we listened to at his place were bands like Magic System or DJ Arafat. In school it was all about the current pop and urban vibes. I guess all of that made me create music the way I do today.

How would you describe the sound of your music in five words? 

Soft, storytelling, experimental, guitar, vibey.

Who inspires you musically? 

I would probably say that specific songs or albums inspire me more than the artists themselves. Albums that inspired (and that still inspire me) are Stoney by Post Malone, Take Care / Nothing Was The Same by Drake, You Should Be Here by Kehlani and Souled Out by Jhene Aiko. Also songs by Nirvana, Wizkid and Riri have inspired me. I clearly get inspired by a lot!

I just wanted to touch on Twenty Something and Stay This Way because they’re such great, carefree tracks which will resonate with so many people right now. Can you talk us through the story behind each of these songs? 

Thank you! I wrote Twenty Something after I night out where I did things I shouldn’t have done, texted people I shouldn’t had texted and said things I wanted to take back in the morning. I knew deep in my heart I’d probably have a similar kind of night sooner or later and that it would take time to learn from my mistakes. But I guess that’s a part of being in your twenties, or at least that what I want to believe. 

Stay This Way is a song I released together with Jim Ouma and I wrote it with them and Kee Ingrosso. Two years ago we had a writing session and during that session we wrote a completely different song. Right when we were about to wrap up Kee told us a story about a trip she made when she was young. It made me feel all kinds of ways so before we left we wrote Stay This Way based on her story. It was very spontaneous and fun.

Champagne for Breakfast is a really fun track that I think everyone can relate to at some stage in their life! Was this song based on a personal experience? 

I was in London back in 2019 and I was having a kind of a writer’s block where I didn’t really feel inspired. I met my friend Josh the night before my session and we had a couple of drinks and some deep conversations. He told me about a girl he was dating and explained how well they hit it off when they were having proper romantic date nights with champagne and chocolate but never during the day time. I decided to write about that and thankfully he was cool with me releasing it a few months later!

Let’s jump into your new single Hero. Can you talk us through how Hero came to be? 

Me, Hitimpulse and Maria Hazell were having fun in the studio and trying out chords. Hitimpulse started singing Holding Out for a Hero and we thought it’d be a fun idea to mash it up with some new verse melodies and lyric changes.

Zikai

Who would be your dream artist to collaborate with? 

Drizzy Drake, always!

I love how you’ve really made Hero your own. Can you take us through your inspiration for this track both musically and lyrically? 

I’m a sucker for a soft acoustic guitar and a pretty slow, sexy beat. It also felt like a contrast to go with that slow guitar vibe together with the Hero chorus. We wrote it from the perspective of being in lockdown not being able to do anything really and just wanting something bigger, wanting a hero.

What’s your process when sitting down to write a song and where does your inspiration come from? 

I usually just start with some chords and let melodies come out of me. With those melodies comes words (more like jibberish words) that don’t really mean anything. After a while I get a sense of what the song will become and if I like it I go with it.

Can you describe the feeling of winning the Swedish Grammy for your EP Make You Mine? Were you shocked? How did you celebrate your win? 

I remember thinking “what…. the…. f…..” It was euphoric. I’ve never felt that feeling before. I felt so proud of myself, the people I create with, my team. I was shocked but I mostly just felt super happy and trust me when I say that I celebrated with champagne and a whole lot of dancing on tables that night!

Looking back, how has your music changed and developed from when you first started your career to now? 

I think I’m a lot more honest in my writing now and I trust my own instincts of what I think is good. It has changed but I think that’s just a part of the process, I wouldn’t want it to stay the same. The older I get the more experiences of life I gain and I definitely hear that in my songs. 

What’s been your favourite live performance so far? 

A show I did the other week at a spot called Trädgården in Stockholm. It was my first live show after quarantine with a live audience so that was real special.

What’s been your career highlight? 

Dropping my EP Make you Mine, and getting a Grammy for it. Man that felt cool.

Has the pandemic affected your music at all and if so how?

I feel like I’ve kind of forgotten how to make an up-tempo song. Everything I do right now feels emotional and I feel like I’m a sad girl who listens to Billie Eilish 20 times day, WHICH doesn’t have to be a bad thing but I know it’s because I haven’t been out feeling the pulse of the city or getting those endorphins in a while.

Now that the world is (hopefully) getting back to some sort of normality, what are your plans for the rest of the year? 

I’m currently working on an album and that will be my main focus for the rest of the year! I look forward to hopefully be playing a lot next year.

Can we expect to see another EP or an album soon?

Soon, very soon.

Zikai’s new single Hero is out now.

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