Fly Away With The ‘80s Pop-Tinged R&B Of Miles From Kinshasa

Words: Tara Joshi
Photography: Paysh

All plush synths and swoony vocals, Vivien Kongolo—aka Miles From Kinshasa—is making poppy, left-field R&B that sounds like immersing yourself in glossy, dreamy clouds. Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Miles has lived in South London for most of his life, though he often visits France where he has family. The result is a kind of lowkey fusion of sounds as per his 2017 EP, LIMBO, which garnered comparisons to Dev Hynes of Blood Orange. It’s often a hazy kind of ‘80s style, which is often met with self-directed visuals.

Kongolo’s background is in accounting—a typically safe bet to calm concerned, immigrant parents—but he wishes now he had formally studied film. Ahead of his new EP, Beloved—which, overall, is less propulsively ‘80s-sounding than before, instead more serene and floaty—we meet for tea on Brick Lane in Shoreditch to try and beat the biting cold. Kongolo pours himself a strawberry tea, and we get talking about identity, directness, and Kanye’s troubling ways.

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This is very embarrassing to admit, but having been aware of you and your music for the past year or so, I only recently realised that ‘Miles’ was not the name of an alter-ego, but the measurement.

When I made that name, I didn’t really think about how ambiguous it would be until I started meeting people and they were calling me ‘Miles’ [laughs]. But it’s cool, I like that it’s an interesting play on words.

Could you take me back a bit to when you started making music?

I had always been making music by myself, and I went through different incarnations of myself—like, when people were doing grime, I was doing grime ‘cos I was like 17 at that point. I progressed more towards rapping, and then I think it was in 2013 I discovered 808s & Heartbreak, late, because when it came out I wasn’t really interested in that kind of music. But it made me want to sing. I had all these melodies I wanted to get out, which I couldn’t do in rap or grime, so I started doing that. Then a friend of mine wanted to help me write, so I did that as well—we started a duo called Men Among Boys. That was cool, but when you’re with someone else, you always have to compromise. That was like my training for Miles From Kinshasa; I came out of that and knew exactly what I wanted to do—how I wanted to sound, how I wanted to present myself.

I feel like I have to ask how you’re feeling about Kanye…

[Laughs] Ahhh, the wording here is so important! He needs help, that’s quite clear. But at the end of the day, if you’re a person of that magnitude, you have to realise how big your voice is. I wouldn’t quite say ‘cancelled’ but postponed, innit!

Yeah, maybe put him on the shelf. But back to you: a lot of the reviews I’ve read of your music compare you to Blood Orange, which I can definitely hearbut I think there’s something that reminds me Jai Paul a lot too? I don’t know if that’s because you both deal in a kind of fusion sound.

I definitely hear that. During that in-between period after Men Among Boys and before Miles From Kinshasa, I listened to the leaked album literally daily—not necessarily for how it sounds, but just the ideas. The fact that he was doing everything and making it sound good—so I was like, okay, I guess you can have a fusion where it sounds good, and not recycled.

National identity is such a weird concept, particularly now “Britishness” as a thing is so confusing and unwelcoming. But do you feel any, especially strong, affinity to the Congo or France or here?

Until about three years ago, I hadn’t been back to Congo but even before I went there, I was having this struggle about identity: here feels like home, but not really. I don’t feel like I’m embraced as though this is home, but when I went home-home, I didn’t really feel like a stranger—although I thought I was going to. But all those places make up a part of me so, as much as I might want to align with one more than another, all of them are very much part of me.

“I feel like we’re in a time where we’re more aware if we’re anxious, or going through depression.”

Were you consciously thinking about representing all those places in your sound, or did that just naturally happen?

At first, I would have purposefully tried to do that, because you kind of overthink it a little bit. But I think the only part of what I do where I’ve purposefully brought in my culture has been in my name—Kinshasa is the capital of Congo, and I wanted to reflect my culture a little bit. But I don’t make my stuff trying to sound Congolese or trying to sound French, it has to happen naturally—if it was forced, it would suck bad.

Can you tell me about your forthcoming EP? Why is it called Beloved?

Each song is a letter. Whether or not it’s me speaking, or if it’s written as someone saying stuff to me, they’re like six or seven letters to myself. Even if you get a certain feeling from the songs, where maybe I’m feeling a bit angry or the energy is towards someone, it’s always with the right intentions behind it—which is why I wanted to say ‘Beloved’.

Is the letters concept unique to this, or is that how you write songs in general?

I think it’s more unique to this project. I made Limbo last year, and it was good, but you always listen back to your stuff critically and hear where you want to take it—and I just felt like my actual songwriting needed to get much better, and I needed to direct it somewhere. Whereas before I was quite abstract, which is cool, but it’s good to be direct and letters are quite personal and direct.

Is it at all scary to put stuff out there in that way, when it’s quite direct and intimate?

To some degree, but you can’t take this stuff too seriously! Stuff is personal, but after I release a song, it’s not mine anymore—it’ll become whatever it’s going to become for the listener. I just want it to sound good, more than anything. I don’t worry about being open.

I was on your Twitter and saw you wrote about how everyone needs a release, even if it’s not a creative one. Could you elaborate on that a bit?

I feel like we’re in a time where we’re more aware if we’re anxious, or going through depression. It’s very easy to close yourself off and be like, ‘Yeah, I’m depressed’, or ‘Yeah, I’m really anxious’, but I feel like everyone needs a release. It’s why people go to the gym or go for a walk, but a lot of us still haven’t figured out what that release is. Even if it’s just speaking to someone—it just needs to be something that reflects exactly how you’re feeling. Or even like writing a diary.

Are you a perfectionist with what you put out?

At the moment I am, just because I enjoy going into detail. But it depends; sometimes I like my songs to sound a bit demo-y.

Yeah, some of it sounds quite mixtape-y.

Yeah, I kind of appreciate that—like, when you were younger, you would try and tape a song on the radio but because the station’s not that good, it sounds a certain way. So that’s the kind of effect I’m trying to get.

Is there a specific space you’re trying to get to with your sound?

Not really. I kind of want to trailblaze, take it to where it hasn’t gone before. But I feel like that time will come. I just have to keep tracing my own wave. It’s very easy to latch onto current trends—which makes sense, because our scene is fiery at the moment—but I think it’s important to remember you don’t just want to be around right now. You’ve gotta have a message, and have your niche.

You mentioned the scenewhat does it mean to you to be, broadly, under the British R&B umbrella?

For me, it’s cool, just because for as long as I’ve been over here, I don’t think we’ve had a real British Black R&B scene. Not a really strong one, where there’s like ten or more artists. But now we’ve got NAO, Ray BLK, and I feel like next year is going to be big for that kind of music. I don’t really mind being put in that bracket, to be honest, because everyone can still exist and branch out.

Posted on November 26, 2018