"My ethnicity makes me unique," - Leo Kalyan, the South Asian pop singer you need to listen to right now

Britain’s Leo Kalyan is an R&B and pop singer whose diverse range of sounds is a deep reflection of his eastern roots mixed with his western upbringing. His ethereal and dreamy music gives us a glimpse into his journey and struggles as a person of color and a member of the LGBT+ community in the music industry.

Recently, we got an opportunity to discuss everything from how he managed to carve out a spot for himself in the music industry to revealing his true identity and everything in between.

Photo Credit: Simrah Farrukh

From uploading covers of artists like Arctic Monkeys and Ellie Goulding to releasing your own singles and EPs, what has the journey been like?

It’s been exciting. I always had a vague idea about the kind of sound I wanted to create, and finding this sound through experimentation has been most fun part of my journey. Those early covers and remixes helped me gain so much online traction, and I honed my production skills by creating those tracks. But now, sonically, I’m trying to walk the line between east and west.

Growing up, I subconsciously thought that western music was “cooler” than the Ghazals and Bollywood music that played endlessly at home. But somehow, all my musical experiments have led me back to the sounds that I grew up with and I’ve found ways to express myself through them, in my own way. I found ways to blend things together, I found a sweet spot. The lessons I learned from all the music of my childhood have been invaluable, they taught me things about melody, rhythm, and lyricism – things that were totally unexpected, but when I listen back to my music now, I think, “Wow, all that RD Burman and AR Rahman influence, it’s all in there, it’s all still in my head!”

The western music scene is relatively uncharted territory for South Asians artists. Did you find it difficult breaking into the industry because of your lineage?

Definitely. First of all, desi parents aren’t at all encouraging about their kids pursuing creative careers, especially in a field as unpredictable and volatile as the music industry. So there was that battle to fight, but then I also realized there were so few South Asians artists who had managed to cut through in the west. Probably because there’s no template for western record labels to follow – so few us have succeeded at convincing labels to take a chance on us. The industry doesn’t see us as a valid market but there are so, so, so many of us spread across the western world and I think we’re all ready to see other brown faces like ours within popular culture, globally. And social media has become a way for us all to find each other. We can create and find our own tribes, in ways that we never could before. So instead of seeing my ethnicity as a burden, I realized that this is what makes me unique. It’s my difference, and I think it’s worth its weight in gold. 

You’ve mentioned in the past that you initially preferred keeping your identity hidden as you did not want your music to be affected by the different labels people put on you. Do you think hiding parts of your identity impacted your music in any way?

That’s true, and yes it did impact my music. I always wrote lyrics using metaphors, which can be stifling and if you can’t say the things that you need to say – you end up feeling creatively withheld. I was also very anxious about dressing how I wanted to, and acting in ways that I thought people might interpret negatively. But then you end up not “being yourself.” It’s tantamount, finding your voice and being able to express yourself freely. That’s where the most exciting songs come from. So, yes, not being my full self was compromising my music. I had to unblock all the barriers that I had created for myself by viewing myself through other people’s eyes. I had to learn to find strength in vulnerability.

Photo Credit: Simrah Farrukh

After finally revealing your ethnicity and your sexuality, did your approach to songwriting change?

Yes, 100%. I felt brave enough to write and release songs like “F*cked Up” and “The Edge”. I became more relaxed and ready to write about personal, intimate or scary things that I had felt or experienced. Things that a younger version of me didn’t have the guts to confront, let alone write about. Songwriting is an intense process, you need to dig around in your feelings to root out whatever is bugging you, whatever is on your mind and then you need to set that feeling to music. This process takes guts, you can’t find the courage necessary for this process if you surround yourself with fear. 

What was it like growing up in London in a Muslim family? What influence did your South Asian roots have on your music?

To be honest, as a kid I never really saw the “difference” between my family and other families apart from the fact that my parents didn’t want us to eat pork at school! I don’t believe that children are born with prejudices. We develop them through our social or family environments. Luckily, growing up in London, my parents took a lot of care to send me to a school that was ethnically and religiously diverse. Every time there was a religious festival – Hannukah, Diwali, Easter or Eid, the mums of children who were of that faith would come into the assembly and talk about what the festival meant and how it was celebrated. It was really progressive. My mum was good friends with all of the other mothers, so I grew up with friends of all different ethnic and faith backgrounds. I think that has really shaped my life outlook. Faith is a personal thing, it’s no one else’s business. We should focus on making ourselves the best that we can be and not worry about what other people are doing.

And musically, being South Asian had an immense influence on my music. I grew up listening to Asha Bhosle, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Lata, Rafi, Farida Khanum. the Roja soundtrack. the Rangeela soundtrack. Loads of Bally Sagoo too, it was the nineties! All of that was alongside Destiny’s Child, Sade, George Michael, Portishead, Massive Attack and lots of noughties R&B too. I think the jumble and mesh of all these varying sounds has made my music sound the way that it does. One of my fans recently tweeted “I love how Leo Kalyan has created his own genre of music,” it really warmed my heart to read that. I guess as a music-maker that’s what you’re always trying to do: something different. Something that sets you apart.

Source: Twitter

LGBT+ rights in Asia are limited when compared to the rest of the world. Countries like Nepal, India, and Taiwan are gradually working towards improving the climate for people on the LGBT+ spectrum. What is the next big thing you hope the LGBT+ community achieves, outside of decriminalization and changes in the law.

I hope that in years to come, we as LGBT+ people can be not just tolerated but respected. Laws may have changed but attitudes and prejudices have not. There’s still a long way to go, but I think that by being visible and showing people that love is love, we can eventually overcome outdated attitudes and rules that decide who, and how, we should love and live our lives. Some people are gay. Get over it. As the saying goes, “If your mind isn’t open, keep your mouth shut too.”

You’re performing at the London Pride next month, one of the biggest Pride events in the world. How do you think this platform will help you raise awareness and champion for LGBT+ rights?

I think this will be the first time ever that a South Asian artist performs at London Pride. It’s a big deal I guess, but I suppose someone has to take the first step. I think that it’ll help me raise awareness and champion human rights by just being visible – showing other young LGBT+ people that life gets better. Most LGBT+ kids grow up spending their childhoods feeling utterly miserable. Out of place, outcast, usually bullied at school. Many of us commit suicide or develop unhealthy dependencies as adult and others end up estranged from our families or trapped in marriages of convenience, it’s unfair. I think I’m making a positive difference simply by existing. Out loud. No more hiding. 

Artwork – The Edge by Leo Kalyan

What projects are you working on currently, what plans for the future?

I am working on my next project, experimenting with different sounds and collaborating with some of my favorite artists. I’ve also started work on some pretty exciting visuals, there are so many stories I want to tell. For a long time, I wished that people would pay attention to what I was doing. So now that they are, it’s my job to give them something to think about. 

While we wait for Leo Kalyan to drop some heat, stream his single, “focus” on JioSaavn’s playlist, Making Us Proud.