It’s not that Aklesso is particularly concerned with being a genre bender. His music is a convergence of his adversities, wins, spirituality, and culture — the themes he explores on his debut album, My Life Is a Beautiful Mess — and those nuances can’t be caged.
Late on a Wednesday evening, 26-year-old Aklesso (real name Aklesso Agama) appears in a Zoom interview profusely apologizing for his tardiness.
“I thought it was a Google Hangout link,” he says, laughing.
Leading with a kind smile, he exudes a calm demeanor. When he shifts slightly to the right, a large Haitian flag on his wall becomes his backdrop. The way he reverses a mishap is reflective of his own journey. On the verge of the release of his debut album, he’s ready to share the story that culminated in this moment.
Raised in a strict Haitian-Togolese household, he wasn’t allowed to listen to rap, and his mother, like most Caribbean parents, pointed him toward more lucrative careers in law and medicine. But after his father left, he turned to freestyling to channel his emotions.
“I had my aunt who was a producer and my uncle who was a DJ, and he would just let me rap over any beat," Aklesso explains. "They helped me to cultivate it, but growing up in a Haitian community, my mother wasn’t for all of that. It was just something I did for fun and to get by.”
He earned a track scholarship to Liberty University in Virginia, where his roommate, Darius, took notice of his talent and encouraged him to pursue rap more seriously. After Darius died suddenly in 2014, Aklesso kept a pact the two made and began performing at shows around campus and at local churches.
“We did like 30-plus shows in a semester, all free, just hustling. Then one day, a promoter was like, ‘Hey, I’m bringing B.o.B into town, and I’m bringing Gawvi. Would you want to open up for them?’ I was like, ‘Oh bet!’ I had been listening to Gawvi’s production since I was in elementary,” Aklesso recalls.
That chance meeting with Gawvi led the South Florida natives into a working relationship and eventually a friendship. Their styles intertwine on My Life Is a Beautiful Mess, layering instrumentals and melodies to convey a singular message. Their harmony is amplified on the single "Ayy 3X," a dance track influenced by the fast-paced stickin’ and jookin’ music endemic to South Florida.
“I would listen to a lot of kompa and a lot of zouk, and my dad would play a lot of Yondo Sister. She’s an amazing Congolese artist. And growing up in Miami, they would play a lot of stick music,” he says. “It influenced the melodic and rhythmic sound.”
On “Florida State of Mind” and “Blackkklansman,” the Miami Gardens native taps into the gritty underworld of Florida rap. The menacing beat flows from one track into the other, connecting the narratives of both songs.
“I thought about “Empire State of Mind” with Alicia Keys and Jay-Z,” Aklesso says. “A lot of the young kids in my community are always on go. It’s about avoiding those types of roadblocks, and then as I’m talking about avoiding the roadblocks, you hear the sirens, and it goes into 'Blackkklansman,' which talks about society as a whole.”
His intensity simmers on “Foolies Prayer,” which floats his fears and faith on a tranquil reggae rhythm. He takes a sharp sonic turn on “Wilderness” and sings alongside an acoustic guitar about redemption from a somber season in his life. And while praising the tenacity of his mother on “Mama’s Man,” he reconciles the day his father walked out on his family as fate instead of fault.
“Growing up, I wasn’t a vulnerable person. I was very closed off. The only time I could be vulnerable is when I was writing music or poetry,” he admits.
For all of the shortcomings Aklesso opens up about on the project, he manages to conceptualize hope in the album’s latest single, “Worst Year,” featuring Gawvi. In an unconventional rollout, the release was followed with a short documentary about people in the community affected by the pandemic, rather than a music video.
“Artists can share they’re going through stuff, and obviously their fans are going to relate, but when they see everyday people share their stuff, it’s a different feeling,” Aklesso explains. “A song can only do so much, but film is the gateway to the heart.”
Aklesso's consideration of his community’s pitfalls adds another dimension to his artistry. He doesn’t hide behind a conflated ego. He’s an open book of ebbs and flows, highs and lows, and the kind of relatability that makes him more of a friend than an intangible public figure.
The album’s closing track, “Heaven Only Knows,” combines a motley mix of tones, tempo changes, and harmonies to represent the unprecedented events we’ve faced in 2020. Aklesso isn't trying to rationalize the devastation; he invites you into his sanctuary as an alternative to the noise.
“Life may not be easy, but you’re going to make it through," he says. "I wanted to make an album where people felt like someone was there for them."