Easy Now, Kid! Interview with 12 Year Old Kairo McLean
04/19/2021 by Gardy Stein
How do you prepare for an interview with a 12-year-old? While established and even upcoming artists can be asked about their childhood, upbringing, education and their first recordings, that's not so straightforward with such a young kid. Should I prepare questions about school, friends, hobbies?
Well, it turned out that I needn't have worried at all. Kairo McLean, my youngest interview-partner ever (a record so far held by Koffee at age 17), is an outspoken, eloquent and extremely engaging interlocutor who knows what he's talking about - and where he's headed.
Reggaeville had a Saturday afternoon Zoom-chat with the prodigy who started singing as soon as he could talk and picked up his first instrument little after. His just released debut EP Easy Now [read our review here] was the focus of our conversation, of course, but you'll find that he has equally thoughtful reasonings to share about serious subjects like racism, bullying and Corona. Just you read ahead...
Kairo, how are you feeling?
I'm feeling all right!
Kairo is a very special name, how come your parents chose that for you?
They say they named me that because it means 'victory'.
I think everybody wants to know who you are and where you're coming from, so maybe you can share your background with us for a start, and tell us how music came into your life.
Ok. I'm from Toronto. My dad is Jamaican, my mum is Canadian of Jamaican decent, so in the house we always had music playing, and I guess it just had an effect on me that I decided to go for music, you know. It's really my favourite past-time. I love music!
Did your parents push you to learn an instrument or did it all come from yourself?
It was mostly myself. My parents never pushed me to any one instrument, but they did play music in the house and it had an influence on me. My dad plays the bass, my mum plays the piano, so there's a lot of instruments in the house. My dad used to play for a band and the band members came around our house a lot, so I was introduced to guitar and piano from an early age. I guess I kind of took to it!
What was the first instrument you learned?
The bongo drums, at age 4 or 5. Then, after, it was the guitar.
What's the name of your dad's band?
He was in a band called Osiris B, they used to play in Montreal and all these places, it's really cool!
Do you have elder brothers and sisters who play music as well?
I have three brothers and two sisters, all of them are much older than me. I was mainly the one who took to music. Some of them are rappers, some play music as like a hobby that they enjoy, but I was really the only one who wanted to pursue a career in music and singing. I'm also the only one who took to Reggae.
What was the key experience in Reggae music, which song or album or artist really touched you so much that you decided that this is your genre?
When I was younger, my dad used to ride me on a bike to a daycare, and while we were riding we used to listen to Bob Marley, to Stir It Up and Buffalo Soldier. That music really impacted me, it stuck with me. And I enjoy it to this day, those are some of my favourite songs.
It seems that you not only like this music, but that you really dig into it, that you study and know the classics. Not only Bob Marley but the earlier stuff as well, the Mento, the Rocksteady... is this something that you listen to a lot?
Yes! I find that, with myself, when I enjoy something, I wanna know more about it, I pursue it and I study it, so when I was introduced to Reggae and I realized that I really enjoy this music, I decided to do my research about it. I listen to Mento and to Calypso, which is where it all came from, and I listen to Ska and to Rocksteady and then it became Reggae, and I also listen to Dancehall, it's really all the music, all the genres that fall under Reggae. I really did my research. Some of the albums I used to listen to were Exodus by Bob Marley, Blackheart Man by Bunny Wailer, stuff like that.
When did you discover your voice, when did you start to sing?
Well, I've been singing for ever since (laughs). Like I said earlier, my dad used to have a lot of musician friends in the house, so when they were playing I just used to sing along, I was just singing to myself because I enjoyed the music, and from there it flourished.
From singing along to songs you knew to writing your own lyrics, when did that happen?
Around age 9 or 10 maybe. Some of them were more poems that weren't really to a beat, so I would write my poems and recite them and enjoy them. After a while, when I got the opportunity to record the EP, I realised that I enjoy writing songs. I've always enjoyed writing, poems first, but now since 11, 12, this is when I really start to write songs that go on beats and everything.
Are English and Literature subjects you enjoy in school as well?
Yes! I enjoy reading, some of the books that I read are the autobiography of Malcolm X, and Roots, and I like Animal Farm and stuff like that.
Wow, deep stuff!
Turning to your music, when did the idea to produce an EP come up?
Esentially, what happened was, last year the studio owner, Willow, he introduced me to Tim [Dubs] and he liked me, so we decided that we will do this project together. It's been a long road to produce the EP, we worked on it from November 2020 until now.
How was the process, did Tim present you with riddims that he had already recorded or did you come with an idea and he built the riddim according to that?
Were you present when they recorded the tracks and did you have an influence on things like tempo, melodies or instrumentation?
Yes I did! Easy Now for instance, the day we got there it was already recorded, the riddim and everything. So we were clashing around ideas, and some of the things in the music they decided to change, so I think I had an influence on that. And all the other ones, we created together, like my dad and I, we wrote them.
How did you go about writing Fear and Rebel?
I waited for the inspiration to hit me. One day I was just sitting around, watching TV, and then (snaps fingers), just like that, I found myself with the full song, two pages long (laughs). Sometimes the vibe to write something meaningful and positive hits you, so you have to follow that vibe.
What are the next steps, do you plan on an album maybe?
Yes, we are hoping to create an album in the near future, we are hoping to finish off the last couple of songs that we haven't done on the EP, and hopefully make something bigger. I'm continuing to write more songs as we go along, so hopefully by the end of the year we'll have an album!
That's so impressive... what are the subjects you think about, write about, that occupy your mind at the moment?
Well, racism is one of them, because first-hand everyone sees it on the news and social media, everyone knows about George Floyd and how he was brutalized by police. Racism has been a big part of society, and the way we show outrage and the way we protest for a great 60 years now, I have to write about that, it would be unjust to not write about racism. Bullying, I read about it because I see it in school all the time, bullying is one of those things that we would like to avoid. And also the Corona virus, nobody really likes wearing the masks, being restricted, not being able to hang out with their friends and family, and I have to write about that too, because that's the subject everyone is talking about nowadays, that's an issue we are trying to figure out. The more you write about it, the more awareness it brings.
Are racism and bullying something that you personally experience in your school, in your surroundings?
Racism yes, bullying no. Racism is a thing that happens to all black people at least once, but I am not the person who gets... if I feel like I'm being bullied, I talk about it, I speak out so it stops right there. Racism on the other hand, it's different. For black people, we know that we are going to encounter racism at least once in our lives, and it's really nothing we can do about it except speak out. Until there is change, all we can do is speak out, protest, speak out, protest, you know.
You also mentioned the Corona situation, how is it in Canada, in Toronto, what are the restrictions?
Currently we are on lockdown, so we are not allowed to leave our houses, to see friends and family. You don't really get to enjoy nothing, so I guess it's quite strict.
Would you say that this situation helped you focus on your EP, on your music?
Yeah, I feel like quarantine and lockdown has given me an opportunity to really sit at home and write my music. On normal months and days I would have to be going to school and doing all that normal stuff, but during quarantine I'm allowed to sit at home and really just think about what's going on on earth.
Do your friends share your passion in music?
Most of them have other interests. I don't really see anyone my age who is this invested in music. For me it's really a special case, because I was born into music and I was influenced by music from an early age, but for most of my friends they just listen to music for fun.
Which other hobbies besides music do you have?
I play soccer, I play basketball and video games, and I love to draw. And I read!
Where do you see yourself five or six years from now?
I see myself in a nice house (laughs) with lots of friends and family to keep me company. I hope I have a top-of-the-charts album coming out by that time. I see myself successful, I see myself famous and I also want to improve in my music, I see myself improving.
So music is your chosen path?
What music do you listen to at the moment?
Bob Marley, James Brown, Ray Charles, Muddy Waters, I like Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, I listen to Steve Vai, Chuck Berry, CCR... I don't just listen to Reggae, I listen to a wide variety of music.
All the classics! Have you ever been to Jamaica?
Yes, I really enjoyed my time down there. I saw my uncles and aunties and extended family in Jamaica. It's very hot, very sunny, very enjoyable.
Can you imagine to live in Jamaica?
Yes, I would love to live there! It's a beautiful place.
You should perform there one day! I'm curious how people would react to your original style, since most younger kids are into Dancehall, not into Roots Reggae.
Really, my goal is to do a showcase all over the place. I'd love to visit everywhere on earth. I'd love to go to Europe!
We'll make that happen one day! Is there anything you want to share with the readers?
I just wanna say this: Thank you everyone, for all your support, it really means the world to me. Stick around because big things are coming! (laughs) You can follow me on Instagram @kairo_mclean, there you can go check out the latest news.