Seven Questions w/ Rising South African Songstress Kaien Cruz
A 2019 headline in The Atlantic blared of The Unfulfilled Promise of LGBTQ Rights in South Africa – explicating the difference between the country’s impressively liberal laws on paper, and the bitter, sometimes violent reality.
23-year-old songstress Kaien Cruz grew up queer in a small town on the eastern coast of SA, and instead turned to online platforms like Tumblr, and eventually Web3 to connect with like-minded people. Having acquired her first guitar at just eight years of age, eventually she started (mostly covertly) channeling her creative energies into music; and amazingly, her very first single, ‘Love Me In The Dark,’ shot up into the South African charts, ultimately being nominated for the country’s “Song of the Year.” She soon after found herself opening a pair of massive Justin Bieber shows on his 2017 Purpose tour, playing in front of 90,000 people each night before she even turned twenty.
Now living and working in Los Angeles, she’s defied the hardships of the COVID crisis by keeping extremely busy, releasing the EP Demos For Ransom (featuring ‘Blue Mercedes’) this past July, and following with the three track EP Buffering, out this Friday, December 3. The first single ‘Fa111en Angels’ is surely her most mature track to date, with its complex rhythmic structure, lush atmospherics, and Kaien’s sultry, irresistibly alluring vocal performance.
Pursued by multiple major labels, she continues to reject their advances, insisting that young artists need to, “stop fighting for a seat at a table that was never built for them.” We caught up with her to discuss how she got here, and just where she’ll be going next.
Did your family really not know you had musical talent?
At the age of eight I got a very basic nylon string guitar, and that was the beginning of my love for songwriting. I never shared my music with anyone other than my sister, who would rave to my parents; but I’d never actually showed my parents my musical talent until the end of high school. I was really shy growing up and played a lot of soccer, which is what everyone knew me for – so when I released my first song a lot of my friends and family were shocked to find out I could sing and write.
How quickly did ‘Love Me in The Dark’ make a name for you in South Africa?
The release of ‘Love Me In The Dark’ was a sudden boost into the industry for me, for sure. The song had its debut on the radio and soon after started topping the South African charts. I was definitely surprised by the traction it picked up so quickly, but I learnt so much from the push into the deep end that it gave me.
The songs on the new EP have a kind of sultry vibe – what were you influenced by when you were writing and recording, musically and otherwise?
Everything that I write comes from a deep place within me, so I think naturally my music comes across emotionally and sultry. In everything I make I pour my feelings into it like a form of therapy. With the production of this EP I also wanted to fuse the different genres that I love with AfroPop and R&B vibes.
With the Justin Bieber shows, was it a little overwhelming suddenly playing in front of tens of thousands of people as a teenager?
It was such a rush, and before going on I knew that this would be the point in my career that tested my performance and stage presence. It was an incredible experience, after the first show it solidified that I was doing exactly what I loved most, and it was extremely validating. From a young age I’ve always suffered from imposter syndrome, because of the lack of representation of queer people high up in the entertainment industry. But this moment of validation on a stage so big definitely helped me believe in myself a lot more.
As a queer artist, did you find acceptance in South Africa? And have you found it in Los Angeles, now that you’re there?
I have my family that includes all different types of people from different places with different passions and we love and support each other. Of course the pandemic has made it harder to connect with people in person, which is why I’ve started leaning towards the Web3/crypto community online. LA has given me a lot of opportunities, support and acceptance, but so has South Africa in different ways. Back home is where it all began, so I will always have a special love and place for South Africa in my heart!
You’re being courted by major labels – but you believe they mostly don’t understand you?
As an artist all I aim to be is myself, and hope that in doing so it gives kids and other people out there a sense of comfort. I hope to inspire people to believe that they can do anything they set their minds to with hard work, no matter what you might identify as. I also want to continue paving the way for creatives to get the value they deserve out of their work, which is why I have stayed away from labels up until this point. Don’t get me wrong, labels [can] have a big role in getting your music out around the world; but it’s only of use if the deal is a fair one, because now with the power of the internet you can reach places you never have to even physically step in, and can retain your creative rights. Web3 is a huge example of how creatives are taking their power back, and I’m all for that movement.
How would you describe the Kaien Cruz vision?
The Kaien Cruz vision is striving towards a world that each of us as individuals can thrive in according to our passions, interests and identities. A world that doesn’t favor one group of people over another and is a space of true unconditional freedom of expression, without the consequence of being an outcast or being punished for having differences. A world free of boxes and stereotypes.