Premiere: Leo Kalyan Drops "Focus"

Premiere: Leo Kalyan Drops "Focus"

Check out this Muslim queer artist's dreamy new music video, premiering exclusively on V.

Check out this Muslim queer artist's dreamy new music video, premiering exclusively on V.

Text: Zoe Elefterin

Today, V is premiering Leo Kalyan’s newest video, "Focus". Kalyan is not only releasing music as an independent artist, but he’s also South Asian, queer, and he’s determined to represent people like him in the music industry. Not only is he making waves with his unique sound, but he was recently dubbed by Billboard as one of "10 LGBTQ Artists To Watch This Fall" We chatted with him about his background, inspiration, and his newest video.

As both a South Asian and gay man, how have you navigated the music industry?

Being a person from not just one, but two minority backgrounds - I’ve had to navigate the music industry very carefully. There are so few South-Asian artists out there - with the exception of M.I.A and Zayn - very few other artists have actually presented their heritage as part of their musical or visual identity… and I think that this has led to a perception that Brown people aren’t commercially viable - “brown people” being the blanket term I use for people from across South Asia. In the aftermath of 9/11, we felt the push-back against us. Suddenly, a burgeoning brown entertainment scene in the UK was shoved back into the margins. It’s strange. In the UK at least, there are more South-Asian people than there are any other racial group - and yet, there are so few brown artists. The problem isn’t that there is no market for brown artists - the problem is that the music industry hasn’t yet figured out how to market us.

As far as being gay? Well I’ve only come out in my career relatively recently. Prior to Sam Smith, British pop stars were not really allowed to be gay - at least not at the start of their careers. He opened a door, and some great acts have come through as a result. But for artists who are gay AND of color? The door is still closed.

Do you find a lot of inspiration in the music of your heritage?

Absolutely. Indian classical music has an incredibly rich history spanning back 4,000 years! It’s complex and detailed and has lots in common with Jazz and the Blues, especially in terms of it’s improvisational aspects - like scatting, for example. I’d say that everything I know about music has been derived in equal parts from Indian Classical music, Bollywood music and Western Pop, R&B and Hip Hop. It’s really fascinating when you start seeing the unexpected overlaps between these three, seemingly different musical traditions…. especially in R&B. Which explains why producers like Timbaland, Pharrell and Will.i.am have sampled so many Indian sounds in their work - think of Missy Elliot’s “Get Your Freak On”, Britney’s “Toxic”, Beyonce’s “Baby Boy” or Black Eyed Peas “Don’t Phunk With My Heart”.

What does your song “Focus” represent for you?

“Focus” is a song about pushing forward even when it feels like the tide is flowing against you. The song feels very relevant right now - minorities are being attacked left right and centre, whether they be brown, black, trans, whatever. “Focus” is about fighting against that. Despite whatever obstacles life throws our way, we have to stick to our paths.

There are some paintings of white men in the “Focus” video, does that have any particular significance to the song or your experience as a Pakistani gay man?

The video is filmed in the home of a 17th century artist called Frederic Leighton. It’s now a little museum, and I’ve been visiting it for years because it has an interesting mix of Middle-Eastern and Indian artifacts with Victorian paintings - all featuring white men. It wasn’t planned for any particular reason, but on reflection it’s a really great metaphor for the South-Asian diaspora experience. We’re products of colonialism, and no matter how deeply we burrow into our Eastern-ness, whiteness is present; either because it put itself in our spaces, or - as is the case with Leighton House - draped itself in our artistic expression. I hope in the video that the whiteness feels tense and out of place, because that unsettling feeling is exactly how it feels to be a person of color in a white world today.

You’ve posted on your instagram stories about young, queer, brown kids who tell you their story or that you’re they only person that they’ve seen who they can relate to. How much does this motivate you as an artist?

The messages I receive from queer, brown kids from all over the world are such a big part of what keeps me motivated as an artist. I never realized the impact my music was having on people before that, I kind of just made music for myself, but now, more and more, I ask myself what a younger me would have wanted to see and hear from an artist. That acts as my guide.

How did you decide to not use gender specific pronouns in your song? Did you find that there was a disconnect in trying to relate to certain songs because of specific pronouns?

When I first started writing songs, I wasn’t confident about being open about my sexuality - so I decided that instead of singing about girls - I’d not use any pronouns at all. However, I decided to keep writing that way after I realized that it was a way of making my songs more inclusive. As someone who spends most of their life feeling like I’m on the outside of the outside of the outside, it’s important to me that within my music I can create a space that no-one feels “othered.”

Watch "Focus" below!

Credits: Cover Image: Poppy Tame

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