I had the pleasure of speaking with up-coming pop singer Amir Kelly and found that he has a calm and warm voice, similar to the tropical winds of the island about which he sings. He is an artist who presents a clear desire to not only perform but to create. Every word he spoke was purposeful and carefully selected – not like he’s lying, but as though he understands the weight of his words. Amir Kelly is a bright, young, driven star on the rise. While he may still be learning and moving along from his job cleaning at Starbucks, soon enough he will be experiencing the luxury of which he sings.
What does it mean to you, being a college student who’s also working, to be attending the University of Southern California (USC) right now?
USC was always my dream school ever since I was literally in the sixth grade. It’s a really special place for me because it’s the only school in the nation, at least at the time, that had a pop music program, so it was my dream which allows me to go through the regular experiences of what a full-time performer would, and although I do work, and it’s something that I have to pay for, and I pay for it all on my own, it’s just a really rewarding experience knowing that I am able to learn from such an amazing faculty, and my peers are all just phenomenal. This music space is just really unique in the fact that we have a bunch of artists who are all working as hard as each other in this community, and I think it makes it all worth the while.
How did you first getting into music, and pop music specifically?
I started singing when I was three. My mom always says that I started singing before I could actually talk, but my favourite toy growing up was this little portable karaoke machine. I just always knew that I loved singing and dancing. I would just stay in front of the mirror and sing and dance, and there was never a day I [specifically] decided, it just always was. I remember in kindergarten or the first grade, for career day they would ask us what we wanted to be and I would always say that I wanted to be a superstar or that I wanted to be a pop-star and a singer. And I was never shy. My parents thought it was a phase, but I just have been performing since I was three and the dream never really shifted. After I was diagnosed with cancer at eighteen, and after I beat that, it really just made me realize that this is what I wanted to do for sure and there was a little less time. So that just gave me a new perspective that life was shorter than I anticipated and that I needed to make my dreams happen and I really needed to pursue what I wanted to do on this Earth.
If you don’t mind me asking, what form of cancer did you have?
I had stage three Burkitt lymphoma.
Do you have a specific band or musician who has inspired you?
I feel inspired by a lot of different artists. Growing up, I really only leaned into female artists, so that definitely impacted my sound. Ever since I was little I only listened to primarily female artists, such as Beyoncé, Aaliyah, and I’m really inspired by early 2000s and late 90s R&B music. So those artists, also just following their careers, I think that as performers, and as songwriters, and artists, they’re really captured that sense of sassiness that I really, really want to get across efficiently.
So judging by your lyric, “I’ll put you on that ocean you can call me Frank”, you definitely know who Tyler The Creator is. Did you know that he also worked at a Starbucks? What do you think the experience of having to actually work has done for your craft?
I actually did not know that Tyler The Creator worked at Starbucks! Working at Starbucks was some of the best, and some of the worst, times of my life I will say. But it just reminded me of what I wanted to do. I actually wrote “Maui” in the bathroom at Starbucks when I was working there. I used to always sneak away into the bathroom, and whenever they would have me clean the bathroom I would always volunteer because it had really good acoustics and I could write. So I actually came up with that song while I was mopping the floor and cleaning toilets. I feel like “Maui” was created because when I was sitting in Starbucks I knew I wasn’t living the lifestyle that I wanted, so I was able to actually kind of daydream, and my daydreams at work kind of turned into this song that actually lead me into the start of my music career. So it’s really, really, really cool to see how a daydream can kind of manifest itself.
In your videos, your clothes seem to be part of the art – is this aspect of clothing important to you or will you just wear what they put you in?
Growing up, I definitely had little to no fashion sense, I will definitely admit that… I’m uncovering more of my artistry, and all forms of art are equally intersectional in my art. So I really want to incorporate a lot of fashion, I love photography, I love dance, I love spoken word – I just really want to create an experience that encompasses as many forms of art as possible. So, with fashion, I definitely had a lot of help on the video. But I was actually able to style myself for the “Maui” acoustic video, so that was my first time ever styling myself. So I was very, very, proud of that. In the “Maui” acoustic video I wanted to give it a tropical feel, and just kind of mimic the overall relaxed feel of the video itself and of the song itself into this almost rainforest intimate performance.
The visuals in your videos are stunning, where do you get your inspiration for them?
That’s a lot of my team as well… We get a lot of inspiration from the song itself, and we love music videos that take a risk and are a little more avant-garde. Solange, for sure, has been a huge inspiration for me. The idea of black excellence, and of this kind of surrealism, blurring lines between fantasy and reality, that Solange plays with so often, had really inspired us and our art, along with the music itself. Something that a lot of people don’t know is that both videos — the real Maui video, and the acoustic video — were shot in my home town, which was fascinating for me because growing up, I hated my home town. I never thought there was anything for me there, and I moved away to LA, but now that I live in LA, I find myself going back to my home town and actually shooting there and finding these little hidden pockets. Which to me, illustrates this line between fantasy and reality, and the juxtaposition that I once thought wasn’t anything, to now when I am portraying it as this fantastical place… My team and I, since we are college students, and we’re working on such a low budget and with limited resources, we wanted to take ordinary places that usually wouldn’t look high quality in luxury, and turn them into these more upscale, or to make them look more upscale.
So UMI opened for you at your release party, she has kind of worked out a niche as a singer by blending the teen experience and lo-fi. How would define your goal niche as an artist?
So I really want to delve into a few different demographics. I’m half black, half Indian, which is really important to my identity. My mom was born in India and moved here when she was a teenager, and my dad grew up in Texas but has lived in LA County for most of his life. So for my niche experience and my fans, I really want to dive into those communities, as well as the popular community. So basically into black youth, and Indian youth — especially Indian Americans… I feel like a lot of students at my school who are from India feel a little disconnected from the traditional music from India, and they don’t feel a lot of representation in pop culture… Also, as a gay man myself, I want to work towards the LGBT communities as well. Within the black and Indian communities, there’s a lot of marginalization of LGBTQ folk, who I think could get inspired by the sassiness, and the fierceness, and the tenacity nature that I want to portray in my music could help to bridge those gaps between all of those communities.
So you’re super young, you have all of these different things ahead of you, and Maui is your first major song – what’s next for you?
So I actually have another single coming out — hopefully, we’re looking at the beginning of May, and that single is called ‘Eden’, and that details my experience not only as a gay man but as a person who was raised in the church. Then I have another single coming out after that, and I’m working on my first project after that. So I’m working to eventually hone my sound, and I want to keep delivering full-length music videos for both of those, as well. And then I release my EP at the end of summer. Yeah, I just want to keep working on my sound and making music that makes people happy and makes me feel like myself. I feel like as a person who has so many identities, as Christian, as gay, black, Indian, young, cancer survivor — the only way for me to express each of these cohesively is through my music. As I kind of piece my identities together into this one passion, I hope I can help empower other people’s identities as well.
If you had to leave people with one final idea about who you are, what would that be?
I would want them to know that I was a person who regardless of what circumstances I’ve been through, was a person who didn’t wait for life to crown me…They [too] can be royalty, and that they can crown themselves, be the kings of their own life, and ultimately inspire others as well.