Syd: the most brilliant of accidental popstars

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Some people are born popstars. Destined for greatness, they dance themselves right out the womb, each step of life another foothold on the long climb to superstardom; an indefinable summit upon which they stand, road weary and battle-scarred, only to survey their surroundings and think, “Well, now what?” For others, like 25-year-old Syd Bennett, it appears to have happened almost by accident. “Oh, no,” she laughs, when asked whether becoming one of the most recognisable voices in R&B was ever in the plan. “Not really.”

Syd – formally known as Syd Tha Kyd – is speaking six months after the release of her critically acclaimed solo record Fin and a month before her first ever solo tour. Fin, a cooly confident debut that sees the singer on sabbatical from her day job as frontwoman of Grammy nominated soulites The Internet, is the latest benchmark in a journey that has taken the LA native from one-time DJ for hip-hop provocateurs Odd Future, to independent artist in her own right. “It’s just harder to get bored when when you have a band and you have a solo career,” she suggests, modestly. “It’s ok to have both, you know what I mean?”

Syd’s musical education began young. She grew up with an aspirant DJ mother and a Jamaican father whose brother – record producer Mikey Bennett – co-wrote Shabba Ranks’ classic Mr. Loverman and owned a large studio compound in Kingston. “The couple of times I went to Jamaica as a kid, I spent most of the time in the studio,” she describes. “Back then, it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I wanna make music.’ It was, ‘I want to open a studio and be like my uncle.’ Just walk into the room, nod my head a couple of times and leave.”

14 years old when she got her first laptop, Syd began her initial tentative steps into production from her parent’s guesthouse, recording younger brother Travis – more recently known as rapper Taco – and advertising her nascent beat-making skills to local musicians on MySpace. Falling into the orbit of a teenage Tyler, the Creator, her parent’s South Central home quickly became the base for his fledgling Odd Future collective, and Syd, who allowed the group to record for free, an integral figure in their early success.

The rest is of course hip-hop history with Odd Future, whose ranks expanded to include artists such as Frank Ocean and Earl Sweatshirt, signing to Sony following a major label scramble and quickly becoming the dominant force in West Coast rap in the early 2010s. Like Eminem or the Pistols before them, the band were brilliant; as juvenile as they were sharp, contradictory as they were clever. But they were equally problematic too; Tyler’s lyrics attracting condemnation for apparently homophobic slurs, which Syd, who came out as gay in the video for The Internet’s Cocaine in 2011, was subsequently left to answer for. “It was a strange thing to be thrown into,” she says today. “Being expected to have an opinion on stuff or, I dunno, having to represent homosexuality in rap music or whatever. It felt like that was kind of a lot of pressure.”

Was she ready to deal with it? “I wasn’t,” she replies quickly. “I wasn’t in a position to speak on it because I was so young and, to be honest, ignorant in a lot of ways. I hadn’t given myself a foundation to be able to speak on stuff like that, I didn’t have the foundation as a human being and as a creative to start talking about it.”

Syd announced her departure from Odd Future in 2015, citing the stress of touring and an inability to discuss her feelings within the group. Today, she’ll say only that, “A lot of what we stood behind we still stand behind,” and giggles at the suggestion that a group so denounced for its anti-gay rhetoric has produced, in Syd, Frank Ocean and more latterly Tyler, three of the most high profile queer figures in R&B. “It’s funny,” she laughs, then adding dryly: “Ironic.”

With her work as part of The Internet – the Odd Future offshoot she formed with Matt Martians in 2011 – now her main focus, Syd is happy to have reached a stage in her career in which she is able to talk about her sexuality on her own terms. “I made it a point to not speak about it in the beginning, because that’s all people wanted to write about,” she explains. “I kind of insisted on avoiding that topic for a long time. And I think that was good. I feel like I’m seen as an artist, not just a ‘gay artist’. But I think in the future, now I’m in a safe, comfortable place in terms of that, I would like to do more work within the community.”

The work began with debut album Fin. A sensual, charismatic record of soulful R&B, it sees Syd sing about sex and the body from the point of view of one woman to another. It’s intimate, it’s female, and the most striking thing about it? How completely normal that feels in an otherwise heteronormative hip-hop environment. “I’ve changed a lot for sure,” says Syd, on a growth that extends to the recently released, short and sexy EP Always Never Home, a trio of songs she did not produce herself but wanted to release before getting started on her next solo project. “But then at the same time, I’m still the same person deep down. I still have insecurities and I still get vulnerable and I’m still unsure about a lot of things.”

“I’ve learnt a lot in this career and sometimes I think I know everything but then I have to remember that I don’t,” she continues. “You know, maybe there’s another way to look at this, or maybe I’m playing it too by the book. Maybe I need to change the rules a little bit, try something new. I’m at a stage right now where it’s like, ‘Okay, that was dope, I put an album out on my own. Now what?’” It’s been a long climb, but then, some people are born to do it.

i-D, NOVEMBER 2017.

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