“I feel like I’ve learnt so much over the past few months,” says South Africa-born UK-raised singer, songwriter and producer Kenya Grace, whose enchantingly soft viral d’n’b hit Strangers reached number one in the UK Singles Chart in October. As if this achievement wasn’t enough, the track’s breakthrough also resulted in a record-breaking milestone: alongside the legendary Kate Bush, Grace is one of only two female artists to hit the top spot as a sole writer, producer and performer. Strangers also ended Doja Cat’s five-week reign at number one, and sat above all of Drake’s latest releases…. no biggie.
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Since then, Grace’s rise has been suitably stratospheric. She’s played shows across Europe and the UK; this month, she’ll head on a US tour, too. “It’s been pretty mental, especially the tour, because these are my first ever shows of this size and playing in different countries,” Grace tells MusicTech during a break from rehearsals ahead of her gig at Village Underground in London. “It’s been a very intense process.”
Her ever-growing social and streaming numbers justify such emotions. While Grace’s social media following has grown massively (on Instagram, for example, from under 100k in January to 640k now), her videos have racked up 13.7 million likes on TikTok and, with over 30 million monthly listeners, she’s currently the 126th biggest artist in the world on Spotify. It’s easy to see why Grace says her life has been “a whirlwind”, then.
However, success has been far from overnight. In fact, she’s been putting in the work for over a year, particularly on TikTok and Instagram. “It’s blown my mind how insane it’s gotten,” she says of her popularity on the video-sharing platforms. “It’s definitely changed my entire life.”
Grace grew up with music. The London-based artist – whose conversational vocal style shares similarities with Lily Allen – first got into singing thanks to the choirs she was in while at nursery. At home in Hampshire, her mum would play a lot of neo-soul music – artists like Corinne Bailey Rae and Erykah Badu – which she still loves now (“the vocals are always so on-point”). When she was in junior school, Grace got into musical theatre: “It was then that I started falling in love with singing especially”. After being given a keyboard, she began to write her own songs at home.
Pure and innocent this journey may seem, it’s only half of Kenya Grace’s musical experiences. Going to illegal raves, house parties, and festivals as a teenager led to Grace discovering her favourite genre: drum ‘n’ bass. “It’s always been d’n’b,” she says, citing Camo & Krooked and Chase and Status among her favourites.
“Basically every person I knew was a DJ or an MC at that time,” Grace recalls. She also feels that being from Southampton – by the bass-heavy Boomtown festival – had an impact. “I fell in love with the sound; when you go to a club or illegal rave and you hear the bass and drums that loud… it changed something in my brain. I was like ‘this is fucking it! I love it.’”
It was around this time that, while studying music at college, Grace taught herself music production. Inspired by what Kaytranada and Disclosure were releasing – “it was that era when they were topping the charts everywhere; I was obsessed” – she was keen to follow in their footsteps. Despite her course not having much of a focus on music tech or production, Grace’s self-imposed dedication resulted in her staying behind after college to teach herself how to use Apple’s DAW, Logic Pro.
“It’s such an empowering time – back in the day, it would have cost thousands of pounds to get a studio and now it’s relatively affordable and you can have it in your house”
But it wasn’t an easy start. It took her a lot of time to learn the ins and outs of the software. Some time later, Grace dived into YouTube tutorials, which “changed everything,” teaching her the fundamentals of Logic Pro and music production.
This confidence-boosting development came at the right time as, post-college, Grace’s fellow producer friends were asking her to record vocals for their projects. “Once I had a little more knowledge of what was going on, and watching other people on Logic, I felt more confident about going into [recording] sessions.”
Studying what her peers were doing led to an epiphany. “I clocked in my head that if I wanted to release music, I was going to have to be able to make it – and make it on a computer – so I could eventually release it.” Despite this, Grace says she “could never voice what I wanted to say and how I wanted it to sound. I then realised, ‘I have to make myself good at this so I can actually do it’.”
After she mastered the production side of things, Grace began sharing snippets of her songs with the world via TikTok and Instagram Reels. Mostly recorded in her bedroom, Grace’s simplistic videos – on which she was either perched on her bed with her Native Instruments Maschine and Aston microphone or sat with the same equipment but in her garden – conveyed a very DIY ethos.
Filming herself singing and building the songs from scratch arose from her love of watching videos of beatmaking and finger drumming (“I just think it’s really cool”). Grace thinks this setup, in particular, is engaging to see. “The Maschine and the singing; I see so many cool musicians doing different things on TikTok like that, and I think it fits in there.” This performance style has since crept into the eye of the mainstream, thanks to artists like Grace and the viral videos of Fred Again..’s explosive Maschine performances.
Switching between backdrops helped to keep her content intriguing, she considers, although points out that “it wasn’t a calculated decision”. It was purely because she would get bored of doing something one way, and then decide to try something else. “I always want to keep it interesting and try new things,” she says of her approach to social media.
After lots of “random posting”, she started to find an audience: her 2022 single Oranges reeled in over one million Spotify streams, the 2023 follow-up Afterparty Lover surpassed three million, and Meteor blasted off to the tune of four million. But it was Strangers which sent Grace’s career stratospheric: as well as climbing to the top of the UK Top 40, it currently sits at 337 million streams on Spotify alone and has soundtracked over 1.4 million different Instagram reels.
Not bad for a track that Grace and her team initially had “low expectations” of.
“The best thing I ever did was teach myself how to produce – even just in a basic way. If you can use Logic Pro, you have so much power. You can literally do anything, at any time, anywhere you want”
“We were going to release a different song originally, but, after we left it on TikTok and Instagram for a few weeks, something happened and it exceeded everything,” she recalls. “I knew something was slightly different with that video, just because so many more people were using the sound [on their own TikTok videos], so I noticed a difference there… but I did not expect it to be like this. I don’t even think I tried that many things, that’s the craziest thing,” Grace recalls, having uploaded the video only three separate times. In an age where constantly feeding the algorithm and persistently changing up content is often key to viral success, her clips for Strangers connected relatively quickly – much to Grace’s surprise.
“It’s been absolutely mental,” she says.
The track has led to Grace infiltrating myriad online niches – ranging from the gamer community to anime fans and petrol heads. The latter was particularly surprising. “It’s so cool,” she says. “I didn’t realise the car community was such a big thing. I had no idea about it until this,” she adds. “I feel like I’ve learned about so many different groups of people.”
The success of Strangers, and that of its ethereal trance-meets-breakbeats follow-up, Only In My Mind (which has clocked up nearly 12 million streams on Spotify), has resulted in Grace playing a string of headline live shows.
Recently, she trialled her works in progress, including freshly-released single Paris, for fans during an in-the-round gig at Corsica Studios in London. “It was so scary,” she says, after performing to just over 300 hardcore fans while streaming live to her TikTok and Instagram. “It was the first time I had ever performed all these songs and the crowd were so supportive of me.” Despite a few technical mishaps, Grace is happy to report that “the vibe was absolutely amazing. I’ve never had people sing my lyrics back to me before, but they were singing along.”
This month, she’ll head out on her first live tour across America. Having been in rehearsals the week that MusicTech speaks to her, she details her show as a live/DJ hybrid. “At the moment, the set is me, the Maschine and singing,” she says. “Everything is connected; I made loads of transitions to go in between songs… Hopefully people like it.”
While Grace says she tries not to plan too far into the future “because it makes me so stressed”, she hopes to release an EP or a similar small project. “I have so many songs that I’ve put online but never released”, she teases; “and I feel like some of them need to live on Spotify now.” Although she doesn’t have an exact release date, she’s excited to get more music out into the world and, one day, release an album – “That’s my dream.”
Though Grace’s output will remain a solo project, she’s also open to more artists joining her on her journey. “I really would love to do collabs but I feel that with this project I’ve been making, I have done everything myself, so I want to get that out and then move on afterwards.”
Alongside multi-talented artists like herself, PinkPantheress, Nia Archives, Venbee and Charlotte Plank, Grace has undoubtedly helped to birth a new generation of DIY bedroom producer. “I love it,” Grace says of the increased accessibility; “I feel like it’s such an empowering time. Back in the day, it would have cost thousands of pounds to get a studio and now it’s relatively affordable and you can have it in your house.”
She’s eager to spread this message and encourage others to follow suit. At the end of a recent show, a fan approached Grace and asked what her tips would be for aspiring musicians. “For me, the best thing I ever did was teach myself how to produce – even just in a basic way,” she recalls. “If you can use Logic Pro, you have so much power. You can literally do anything, at any time, anywhere you want.”
Beyond that, her advice is: “get on TikTok and Instagram; it’s a huge marketing tool in your pocket. It’s insane. You see it so much with so many people – how many people you can reach, how many people have had their lives so greatly affected just by making videos.”
She recognises that it doesn’t happen for everyone, or straight away, however: “It’s tough – it’s really hard sometimes. You get bad comments, or your videos don’t reach anyone, and there are a lot of things that stand in the way. But, once you do have a moment where you can cut through a little bit, it’s really amazing.”
With artists like Kenya Grace at the forefront of an ever-expanding and endlessly exciting online scene, the future of bedroom beatmaking comfortably remains in inspiring hands.
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